The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the control of Nagorno-Karabakh had only started a few days earlier, but Hungary’s foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, had already expressed Hungary’s support for the authoritarian regime of Azerbaijan very diplomatically:
“The Armenian-majority Nagorno-Karabakh lies within the internationally recognised borders of Azerbaijan, and Hungary supports the territorial integrity and sovereignty of states as a general principle of international law.”
Hence, Szijjártó’s recent visit to Baku on 10 March did not come as a surprise.
The steady development of political and economic relations
Received by his counterpart, Jeyhun Bayramov, and later by the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, Szijjártó declared that the Hungarian government would support Hungarian companies’ participation in the “reconstruction of Nagorno-Karabakh.”
Beyond the symbolic 25,000 euros donated to demining the war zones, Budapest will allocate a 100 million dollar credit line, through the state-owned Eximbank, for Hungarian enterprises willing to do business there.
In fact, several of them already do: Wizz Air has been operating a direct connection between Budapest and Baku; the Hungarian energy drink Hell owns 25 percent of the Azeri market; and the oil company MOL signed a 1.5 billion dollar investment in 2019.
The development of economic and commercial relations follows a relatively recent diplomatic rapprochement between Budapest and Baku. It started before the return of Fidesz to power with former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, who went twice to Baku in 2008. President Ilham Aliyev also visited Hungary twice, in 2008 and 2009.
Since then, Orbán’s government has been actively contributing to this rapprochement. Nowadays, Ilham Aliyev talks about Hungary as one of “Azerbaijan’s closest friends.”
Familiar moves from Hungarian diplomacy
The recent visit to Azerbaijan again illustrated some features of Hungary’s foreign policy. For example, Szijjártó declared that Hungary, in its upcoming presidency of the Council of Europe, will emphasise the need to contribute to sustainable peace in the region. Especially to “enable all those who have been displaced to return to their homes.”
Here, one can read between the lines regarding Orbán’s concern not to have more refugees on the roads to Europe.
Another familiar move is the signature of a cooperation agreement between the ADA University of Azerbaijan and the Diplomatic Academy of Hungary. This agreement comes as Hungary has been proposing 200 scholarships to Azeri students each year as part of the “Study in Hungary” programme.
In 2020, more than 10,000 students coming mostly from the Middle East, Asia or South America came to study in Hungary.
Hungary and the ‘persecuted Christians’ of the East
However, there is one thing this visit did not confirm at all. Indeed, there is a narrative that Fidesz has been repeating regularly since its comeback: that Hungary is committed to defending Christendom.
In Orbán’s view, this objective has two aspects. On the one hand, and most importantly, it means that Europe has to be defended as the bastion of Christian civilisation. Purportedly, Hungary is fighting for the preservation of the Christian heritage of Europe. On the other hand, this means that Hungary stands up for persecuted Christians abroad, especially the “eastern Christians”.
In 2017, these calls for supporting persecuted Christians took a concrete shape with the creation of the humanitarian foundation Hungary Helps. Although this state foundation does not explicitly state any objectives related to Christians, it mentions humanitarian assistance “with special but not exclusive attention to persecuted religious groups.”
A recent illustration of this happened in December 2020, when Viktor Orbán himself gave to Ignatius Aphrem II, the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, the keys of a villa on the Buda hills – not any villa, as it used to be occupied by János Kádár, former communist dictator of Hungary between 1956 and 1988.
During this small and private ceremony, Tristan Azbej, director of Hungary Helps, again underlined the necessity to support the Orthodox Churches of Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.
Signal lost between Yerevan and Budapest
In terms of persecuted eastern Christians, is there any stronger symbol than Armenia? Doesn’t it come as a surprise that Budapest supports its Muslim counterpart instead of the small Christian country of Armenia?
As a matter of fact, it is not surprising at all knowing the current state of affairs between Budapest and Yerevan. There have simply been no diplomatic relations since 2012 because of the Safarov affair.
In 2004, the Azeri officer Ramil Safarov was sent to Budapest to attend a Nato meeting. Once in the Hungarian capital, he met with Gurgen Margaryan, an Armenian officer, sent for the same reasons. One night, Safarov entered Markarian’s room and murdered him with an axe. Immediately imprisoned, a Hungarian court sentenced him in 2006 to life imprisonment for premeditated murder.
However, in 2012, the Fidesz government decided to accept Baku’s insistent demand to extradite Safarov to Azerbaijan – with the promise that the Hungarian court’s decision will be respected and reinforced.
Yet, at his return, far from being sent to jail, Safarov was welcomed as a national hero, amnestied, compensated for the last eight years spent in prison and promoted within the Ministry of Defence, where he works today.
Armenia immediately cut off all diplomatic relations with Hungary. Since then, relations between the two countries have stalled.
Therefore, the continuous development of bilateral relations between Budapest and Baku is not surprising. Although Hungary certainly could have worked on at least improving relations with Armenia, the Fidesz government preferred to concentrate all its efforts on Azerbaijan.
Turkey’s growing influence
What role could have Turkey played in this rapprochement? Indeed, one can reasonably assume that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, close both to Viktor Orbán and Ilham Aliyev, could have encouraged his allies to strengthen their ties.
This could be seen through Hungary’s accession to the Turkic Council in 2018 as an Observer State, following Orbán’s strong and repeated belief that the Magyars are historically tied to Turkic tribes. In 2020, Orbán declared that “the Hungarian people consider the Turkic peoples to be their brothers.”
The aggressive foreign policy of Turkey, which is further than ever from actually joining the EU, should force Brussels to refine the definition of the Eastern Partnership (EaP). Indeed, Turkey’s role as the intermediary actor in the Caucasus appears to be too often sidelined by the excessive focus on Russia given by the EaP framework.
Turkey’s importance grows not only as it expands its influence in the South Caucasus, but also as EU member states like Hungary become closer to it. Istanbul and Budapest have constantly been strengthening their relations, most notably in the military-industrial sphere. If the EU does not react, Viktor Orbán will continue pushing Hungary towards authoritarian regimes like Turkey or Azerbaijan.
Hungary and the limits of the Eastern Partnership
Blaming only Hungary would be too easy. Other EU countries have become closer to Azerbaijan, most notably Italy. The EU’s emphasis on democracy and the rule of law has remained cheap talk, as Brussels continuously encouraged economic cooperation with Baku.
Unsurprisingly, Viktor Orbán’s government is also partaking in classic Realpolitik. Despite their claim to do politics according to “values”, they likewise fail to conduct a value-based foreign policy.
Obviously, the main incentive for the rapprochement is Azerbaijan’s energy resources. Azerbaijan is estimated to possess the 25th largest natural reserves of gas, but many experts suspect the country to be lying on much bigger amounts, hidden in the Caspian Sea.
In November 2020, the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) was completed. It transports Azeri gas through Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece and ends its course in Italy, connecting to the European network.
Although the quantities are insignificant compared to what Russia can offer, the EU has always supported this project, owned mainly by Italian, British and Azeri companies, because of its alternative to Russian gas. Szijjártó expects that, after Hungary finishes building a pipeline connecting the country to Serbia, it will be able to purchase Azerbaijani gas by 2025 at the latest.
Hungarian foreign policy is often denounced within the EU. However, in this case, it would be hard to accuse Budapest of getting out of the line: its rapprochement with Baku has only been facilitated by pragmatic economic relations the EU (encouraged by the United States) has established with Azerbaijan, partially as a result of the Eastern Partnership.
The convenient absence of diplomatic relations with Armenia and the friendship between Orbán and Erdoğan has helped seal the Hungarian-Azeri rapprochement.