Sunday

17th Feb 2019

Opinion

Why is Orban embracing a criminal from Western Balkans?

  • Hungary's Viktor Orban. The country's Western alliances might be called into question, after he gave asylum to Macedonia's convicted ex-prime minister (Photo: Consilium)

Former Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski, who received a two-year prison sentence in his country for corruption issues, has been given asylum by the Hungarian authorities.

Gruevski was able to escape to Budapest with the help of Hungarian authorities despite the fact that his passport was seized in Macedonia.

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This is another issue that seriously undermines Budapest's credibility in the eyes of EU and Nato partners.

Why did Hungary give asylum to a convicted politician who worked against the EU and Nato accession of Macedonia, risking a further deteriorating international reputation? And what does this case tell us about Hungarian foreign policy?

The Hungarian Immigration and Asylum Office (BAH) granted refugee status to Gruevski on 20 November, according to pro-government press.

While the official version is that the decision is based solely on legal grounds, and had nothing to do with political considerations, a quick reality check easily refutes this claim.

First of all, in the centralised Hungarian system, such a decision has to be approved on the highest levels of the Hungarian administration.

Gruevski asked for asylum in the Hungarian embassy in Tirana on 10th November, where he received an entry permit to Hungary. He travelled through Montenegro and Serbia in Hungarian cars with diplomatic licence plates, accompanied by staff from Hungarian embassies.

Furthermore, the decision on his asylum request was made in an unusually quick pace, indicating clear political interference.

While the head of BAH was briefing members of the National Security Committee and telling that the decision would take several more weeks, in the meantime, Gruevksi actually got asylum status.

The irony is: while the official version of the government is that Gruevski received an asylum solely on a legal basis, without any consideration, prime minister Viktor Orban provided a coherent and elaborated political explanation for the decision.

"We have to treat our allies with respect," he said in a recent interview. But he did not refer to EU and Nato allies, but to Gruevski, claiming that he was one of the few politicians who supported him in the migration issue, by raising fences to stop the flow of people.

He also said that the same forces which support migration are against Gruevski's asylum request – by claiming that these institutions and politicians have been financed by George Soros, given that Gruevski was an enemy.

Orban expressed happiness that an ex-leader of another country thought that he could get fair treatment in Hungary.

And finally, Orban hinted at the political motivations behind the decision of the Macedonian judiciary - although the special prosecution chamber whose investigation resulted in a two-year prison sentence for Gruevski for corruption was created with the strong support from the EU.

For Orban to all of a sudden accuse the Macedonian justice system of political bias is particularly ironic, as in the last five years Hungary has never criticised Macedonia's judiciary, and never declined any Macedonian extradition requests - some 15 in the past few years.

Orban's decision alone

So, no doubt: this decision is Orban's decision.

And it can have negative diplomatic consequences. The EU and the US offered criticism, and it could further undermine the credibility of Hungary's foreign policy.

This decision could escalate tensions between Washington and Budapest while the relationship is far from being rosy.

Also, the potential international scandal might weaken Hungarian positions in the Article 7 sanctions procedure in the council, and in the EU budget negotiations.

This leads to the question: why did Orban take this risk? The possible reasons are threefold (not counting with unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that predictably popped up).

Three reasons

First, for Orban, Gruevski was indeed an important ideological ally, who inspired him for example to run the 'Stop Soros' campaign, and a symbol of anti-migration politics. And this move can be a message to his Eastern friends that he is a reliable partner: not for Nato, but for them.

Second, Orban can send the message to the Western partners as well. And the message is: 'I don't care what you say'. After the third two-thirds majority election victory in a row, Orban would like to extend his diplomatic room for manoeuvring and send messages to Western partners that he follows his own rules instead of accepting others.

The Hungarian decision is a clear indication that Budapest sees no need to conform to the interests of either Washington or Brussels.

Instead, Orban wants to gain extra leverage with making atypical moves that infuriates allies, and thus elevate Hungary as a more important country when negotiating crucial issues.

Third, Orban can please important players in the East with this move. The Hungarian government and Orban personally and consistently supported Gruevski with political statements and media, while Gruevski's party objected to Macedonia's name change necessary for the country to accede to Nato.

It is impossible to explain on the basis of Hungarian foreign policy interests.

The past two decades of Hungarian Balkans policy was about supporting the Euro-Atlantic integration of countries on the Western Balkans.

But giving a convicted Macedonian politician asylum is a clear sign of Hungary's changing strategy continuing to drift eastwards.

This move only serves the interests of Russia, a country strongly objecting to any Nato expansion.

While the former Macedonian PM might not be useful to Russia on the political level, his views are in line with Russian interests and can be promoted by Russian disinformation in Macedonia and Europe.

And this not the only issue that raises questions.

Hungary is blocking Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic integration because of a dispute around Ukraine's controversial education law.

Hungary also provided residency bonds to people with shady backgrounds, such as Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) chief Sergey Naryshkin's son and Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad's moneyman.

Hungary also seems to have extradited weapon smugglers to Russia instead of the US after they were captured with the help of American drug crime officers, according to some media reports.

The mainstream opinion about Orban's Hungary has been that despite the democratic backsliding of the country, Hungary still remains a reliable ally within EU and Nato and always supports the alliance in the most critical last moments.

While it was true in the first years after Orban returned to power in 2010, there are more and more indications that the situation is changing.

While Hungary still keeps the EU/Nato mainstream policies in some issues (e.g. supporting the sanctions against Russia), Hungary's loyalty is increasingly expressed towards new 'allies' in the East, instead of fellowing members within Western institutions.

Orban feels confident that whatever he does, it remains without serious consequences from EU, Nato, the European People's Party (EPP), and from Washington.

So far he was right. If this situation remains, he will take further and further steps towards the East, while enjoying the security of institutions of the West such as the EU and Nato, and capitalising on their inaction.

Peter Kreko is director of the Political Capital Institute in Budapest

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