Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is sympathetic to Turkey in their row with Europe

by omouggos

Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban.

Turkey has been in an ongoing diplomatic row with various European countries over their politicians campaigning in favor of the upcoming April 16 referendum, which will decide whether Erdoğan’s desired Presidential system will be adopted. Most of the action involves the Netherlands and Germany, but a variety of other European nations are also involved to a lesser extent and have also been lending their support to their Dutch and German cohorts. Even the EU has been taken a strong stance against Turkey. However, this is not the case with all European leaders.

Take for instance George Katrougalos, Greece’s Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs, who seemed remarkably sympathetic towards Turkey.1 He stated “There is no reason to ban communication with them [Turkey], and there is also no reason to fuel tensions that are on the rise in Europe now and risk creating problems in our relations.

It is hard to top a Greek politician coming to the aid of Turkey, especially with the way the latter has been treating Greece as of late, but there is another example that is not too far behind. The much maligned nationalist Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán has also criticized Europe’s treatment of Turkey. On March 18 while speaking on Kossuth Rádió Orbán said:2

“It is necessary to get along with Turkey. We hand over our security to the Turks and criticize, attack and condemn them in unnecessary topics. This is not a smart policy.”

At one level many people may be surprised that Orbán would adopt such a position. After all he is made out to be a bogeyman by the mainstream in Europe–a far-right nationalist, an anti-migrant xenophobe and most likely a fascist of sorts. One would expect such a person to be vehemently against Turkey, but apparently he is not.

It should be noted that the European establishment’s characterization of Orbán is a tad inaccurate. While he is a nationalist that is very proud of his nation’s heritage and culture, nothing about him strikes me as a true fascist. I must admit that Orbán is one of my favorite politicians, so maybe I am bias towards him, but in every interview of his that I have read he comes across merely as a common sense nationalist. The European establishment despises him because he does not accept their dogma and because he is trying to promote his own more nationalistic European order.

Furthermore his statement with respect to Turkey is similar in sentiment to those expressed by other Hungarian officials. Over two weeks ago Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto said that Europe’s security is dependent on Turkey’s stability.3 In August 2016 the leader of the nationalist and “radically patriotic Christian” Jobbik party4 Gábor Vona came to the defense of Erdoğan. He said:5

“The West is uncomfortable with the idea that Turkey will remain strong as long as Erdoğan is its leader. Turkey has a strong and stable government. He [Erdoğan] is a very strong leader and the Western world does not like it. [The] West exploits another country’s weakness to protect its own interests.”

For whatever reason, Orbán is not the only one in Hungary sympathetic towards Turkey. So what are we to make of his statements?

One issue is that it is not clear what exactly he is referring to. When he speaks of Europe criticizing, attacking and condemning Turkey over “unnecessary topics” are these topics limited to what is occurring within Turkey (i.e. Turkey’s domestic policies) or also what they are up to in Europe (i.e. Turkey’s campaigning with Europe)?

Should Europe be concerned with Turkey’s domestic situation?

If Orbán is referring to the former, then he does have a valid point. The EU is highly sanctimonious towards other countries, seeking to impose their brand of liberal democracy and human rights. Yet it seems to me, and others, that they are highly disingenuous, as they promote and support ‘European values’ when it suits them, while they ignore them when it does not.*

While there is much to criticize domestically in Turkey, from Erdoğan’s post-coup purge to his curtailment of freedoms and liberties among other things, do the European technocrats like Junckers, Schulz, Merkel and others have any moral authority to criticize Turkey? They themselves may not yet be hard tyrants like Erdoğan is desiring to be, but they are soft tyrants. In other words Erdoğan may be up to no good but they themselves are no saints.

Furthermore such criticism whether justified or not is usually not well received. Take for example individuals. How many people engaged in self-destructive behaviors, only intensify their depravity when confronted by those meaning to help them. People do not like to be told what to do, even when what they are told is helpful advice. In many ways nations are similar, they do not appreciate being lectured to by other nations.

Putin’s treatment of Turkey

With this in mind, it is interesting to compare Europe’s behavior towards Turkey with that of Russia’s. Just as Europe is going through a period of rocky relations with Turkey, so to did Russia starting in November 2015, when a Russian bomber was shot down by Turkish fighter planes. The ensuing situation was tense, with outright hostilities between the two nations a real possibility. The Russians responded forcefully, demanding an apology, enacting sanctions, and placing their formidable S-400 system on alert in Syria. The response was effective and eventually Erdoğan caved in and apologized to Putin.

During the period of Russian-Turkish tensions, Russia did not focus on moralizing towards Turkey, and other than pointing out the latter’s complicity in trading oil with ISIL, did not attack them on their domestic problems. Once the tensions were resolved and rapprochement occurred, Russia has continued to refrain from criticizing Turkey’s internal domestic situation. It should be noted that Putin was one of the first world leaders to contact Erdoğan following the failed July 15 attempted coup as a show of support, something which the Turks greatly appreciated.6 Putin has not to my knowledge said one word about Erdoğan’s harsh and rather autocratic post-coup response.

Putin and Erdogan meeting.

So why is Putin ignoring Turkey’s poor domestic behavior. One could argue that being a strongman himself, Putin is not overly bothered by Erdoğan’s autocratic tendencies. This may be true, but I think a more relevant explanation is that Putin is ultimately a pragmatic politician. His main goal when dealing with other nations, is to achieve bilateral relations and agreements that promote the economic and geopolitical interests of Russia. He is not concerned with reforming other nations or exporting his own form of socio-political organization to them.

Putin understands that harping on Erdoğan to improve his human rights record or to increase the freedoms and liberties of the Turkish people will not help to promote Russia’s interests. Instead such moralizing will probably be a hindrance to Putin’s aims.

I suspect that Orbán’s statement with respect to Turkey is basically a call to Europe to adopt a more geopolitically pragmatic approach and to stop acting in such an unproductive and sanctimonious manner towards others. In a way whether intentionally or not he is suggesting that Europe take a page out of Putin’s geopolitical playbook. Thus far who has had better success handling Erdoğan, Putin or Europe? I would answer Putin. In addition, I imagine Orbán can relate with Turkey, as his government has also been the object of European criticisms.

What about Turkey’s behavior in Europe

Is the other possibility is that Orbán is also criticizing European leader’s treatment of Turkey’s recent behavior within Europe. If this is the case than I must disagree with him. One could argue that if the Turkish people want to support a dictator like Erdoğan and in the process plunge their nation into a neo-Ottoman style autocracy then that is their problem. Moreover Western attempts to meddle in Middle Eastern countries and remove autocratic leaders, for ostensibly benevolent reasons, such as in Afghanistan, Iraq and the whole Arab spring movement, have not benefitted the region, but have only succeeded in furthering chaos and destabilization. So even if one justifiably disagrees with Erdoğan’s domestic policies, attempting to oppose the latter may not lead to the intended results.

However, if Turkey begins to arrogantly meddle in European affairs, then that is Europe’s problem and some type of response is warranted. While the question whether Turkish politicians campaigning in favor of the yes vote in the upcoming referendum constitutes meddling in Europe is debatable, there are numerous other examples of Turkish meddling in European affairs.

For instance Erdoğan has attempted to curtail freeom of speech within Europe by demanding the prosecution of those daring to insult him.7 Turkish spies as alleged to have planned the assassination of Kurds in Germany.8 Imams affiliated with Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) are accused of spying on suspected Gülenists in Germany and Holland.9 A Turkish cabinent minister has been accused of telling Bulgarians living in Turkey to vote for Lyutvi Mestan’s DOST party in the upcoming Bulgarian election.10 In the Greek province of Thrace leaflets have been distributed to local Muslim villages (seemingly by Turkish officials) which promote strife between Christians and Muslims.11

I am sure Orbán would not be pleased if Turkish officials were doing such things within Hungary (for all we know maybe they already are), as he has already protested against the meddling of Soros backed groups within his country. It may be advisable in a geopolitical sense for Europe to go easy on Turkey’s domestic record but when Turkey attempts to export their domestic behavior to Europe then it is not “smart policy” to sit back and do nothing.

Does Europe really need Turkey?

Orbán’s view on Turkey is founded on the assumption that the latter is vital for Europe’s security, as Minister Peter Szijjarto expressed. There is no doubt that Turkey is a strategically important nation due to its geographic positioning at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. If Turkey was to descend into chaos like Libya has or was somehow taken over by a group like ISIL then this would be a major problem for Europe. In this sense the stability of Turkey is important for Europe.

However, should Europe not be able to maintain its security without Turkey? For all of its problems, Europe as a whole has more economic output than the US. With all of this wealth, even if Turkey was in chaos or Erdoğan was completely antagonistic, is not Europe capable of securing its border with Turkey, which on land amounts to ~300 kilometers and in the Aegean ~800 kilometers. Is the collective might of nations such as France, Germany, Italy and others insufficient to blockade unwanted migrants from entering through the Balkans and the Aegean without Turkish help?

In my view Europe has more than enough wealth and military power to do so, but what they lack is the desire or will to do so. While Orbán does have a valid point that Europe’s criticism and condemnation of Turkey’s domestic matters is not helpful for Turkish-European relations, ultimately when it comes to Europe’s security, this is not the salient issue. What is most important is Europe’s own desire to defend its external borders, which outside of countries like Hungary and other Eastern Europeans ones, is lacking.

It may be that Europe has finally gotten fed up with Turkey’s behavior, or it is possible that Germany’s and Holland’s tough talk against Turkey could just be a ploy of sorts to fend off the surging European right. If Europe truly does get tough with Turkey, then expect the latter to renege on the migrant deal and begin to unleash migrants into Europe. Unfortunately since the European establishment has shown little desire to secure their external borders with Turkey, this likely torrent of migrants will be able to enter Europe and cause further destabilization.

There is much reason to be highly critical of how Erdoğan is running Turkey and where he intents to take his country. The question that remains is how should Europe and the West respond to Erdoğan. Should they adopt Putin’s and Orban’s pragmatic approach and tolerate Turkey’s domestic problems for the sake of productive relations or should they adopt a more patronizing and moralizing approach, the one Europe currently seems to be using, in an attempt to cause Erdoğan to change his wicked ways?

One factor to consider, is that if the weakness or indifference of European leaders with regards to the external borders continues, then maybe they should heed Orbán’s advice.

O Mouggos

References and Notes






[*] As Putin commented: “If the powers that be today (i.e. the West) find some standard or norm to their advantage, they force everyone else to comply. But if tomorrow these same standards get in their way, they are swift to throw them in the bin, declare them obsolete, and set or try to set new rules.

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