Today it is apparent that the over-optimistic words of President G. H. W. Bush delivered exactly eleven years before the attack on the World Trade Center, announcing a New World Order, recalling the unfulfilled promises of the Atlantic Charter of 1941, were expressions of an illusion. Writing in the very first issue of this journal in November 2010 I enumerated some of the signs of disillusionment and even had the temerity to offer a few remedies. Today the political scene and the perspectives are very different. Apart from the menacing war capabilities of China and the immediate threat posed by the “Islamic State”, the European dream is shattered by Euro-scepticism born out of the financial crisis of 2008, and Putin’s Russia has reasserted itself as an imperialistic great power threatening its large “near abroad” area. In Central Europe, and particularly in Hungary, where enthusiasm towards the West was very strong during the Cold War, faith in capitalism has almost evaporated, as the gap in the standard of living and in the quality of life between the western and eastern half of Europe has hardly narrowed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The phrases of the old Marxist political economy textbooks about the vices of capitalism are dusted off to be wielded by the rightist media in Hungary, and by a re-born (though still small) New Left in the West, particularly in Greece. This disillusionment has opened up a chance for Russia, unimaginable even two years ago, to be seen as an attractive partner, even as an alternative for an exclusively Western political and economic orientation. Energy dependence plays a big role in that, but secularist opposition to Christianity in the West (like the replacement of wishing “merry Christmas” by “season’s greetings” or “happy holidays”) also provokes such feelings.

In 2013 the emerging year promised to be full of anniversaries and celebrations. The hundredth anniversary of the First World War carried the obvious moral: nationalism and imperialistic ambitions, combined with the failures of diplomacy lead to devastating wars and inadequate peace treaties. The 70th anniversary of D-Day offered an opportunity to revive the spirit of the Grand Alliance between the western democracies and Russia. 1944 was also a reminder that human evil could set up factories for killing millions of innocent civilians, including half a million Hungarian Jews. (That number was higher than all the Hungarian lives lost on the battlefield in the two world wars.) The 25th anniversary of the Fall of the communist dominoes was duly observed in the Western world, but it failed to generate genuine enthusiasm on either side of the one-time Iron Curtain. Neither did the 15th anniversary of the accession of three Central European States to NATO and the 10th of many to the European Union – at least not in Hungary. At the beginning of 2015 the mood in Europe is rather blue: unlike 25 years ago, there is little confidence in a bright future, even less in the European institutions, including the common currency, the euro. The conduct of Russia and the dilemma of how to deal with Russian leader Vladimir Putin seems to be the biggest headache for the Western leaders, but the gloomy perspectives in the Middle East, combined with the enormous problem of refugees and asylum-seekers are equally serious, not to mention demography or the threat of climate change.

In the larger Central Europe, from the Baltic to the Balkans, Russia and its concomitant, the supply of energy is the most acute issue, but it does not overshadow the perennial problem of catching up with the West, now reduced to the desire to have prosperity, i.e. to have incomes at least approaching those in Western Europe. For these countries the problems of Africa and Asia are remote and their finances exclude substantial involvement with them. Due to their lower standard of living (compared to the more advanced countries of Europe) they are not inundated by refugees, although the Balkans and Hungary act as a transit station and these countries are expected to stop the flow before it reaches the North and the West. But whereas until recently differences between the post-communist countries were mainly limited to the size of the GDP (and in some cases to the treatment of one another’s national minorities), now there is the threat of a split in the reactions to the sanctions imposed upon Russia in response to its policy towards Ukraine. The countries that have a common border with Russia (plus Romania) perceive a threat to their own security, and look for more guarantees than Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. The rest, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Serbia and Bulgaria, do not hide that they are unhappy with the sanctions (although they, too, voted for them), but they concede that in the foreseeable future they will continue to depend on Russian oil, gas and nuclear reactors. They think, rightly or wrongly, that western Central Europe, Austria and Germany, and even Italy, understand and at least tacitly support their position.


“Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” Lord Palmerston formulated this maxim more than once. It has since become a commonplace, equally valid for Great Powers and for smaller states like Hungary. But first every nation has to make up its mind what those interests are. Peace and prosperity – that is the basic interest of all sensible countries. But how to achieve and maintain that – here is the rub, this is the crux of the matter.

There was mention of a Bohemian Sea in one of Shakespeare’s fable plays, yet no Central European State has an Atlantic coast. Nevertheless their political traditions show a strong attachment to the values that became dominant on both sides of the Atlantic. Ever since the adoption of Christianity, Central Europe was part of a (western) Europe, used the Latin alphabet and followed Rome in the Great Schism. The idea to stand up jointly to aggression, to defend one’s territory and heritage against invasion is also very old in Central Europe. Not immediately and not always, but on the whole those peoples could rely on the help of many other Europeans in the centuries of warfare against the Ottoman invaders. The final liberation in the late 17th century was the result of a huge international army moving into Hungary and pushing on to Belgrade, then an Ottoman stronghold. The nations of the Balkans rose against the Ottoman masters in the 19th century and achieved their independence due to strong diplomatic intervention by the Western powers – often supported by Russia too. The spirit of the American Revolution and the European Enlightenment inspired all the Central Europeans. The industrial progress of Western Europe and later of the United States in the 19th century was the model the rest of Europe wanted to follow. The political and social movements of the West leading towards reforms were also emulated east of them. The 20th century saw fateful divisions all over Europe, but the principles of the League of Nations, and 25 years later of the United Nations were trusted in the region to bring peace and fair settlement of disputes for all. In the 1940s the US and Britain hoped to maintain the Grand Alliance even after the war, and in order to facilitate that they were ready to accept a Soviet sphere of influence over Central and Eastern Europe, but by that term they did not mean total subordination and Sovietisation, only the replacement of the cordon sanitaire with a cordon fraternel.

The absence of options facing Central Europe after 1945 was not initially obvious, but it became quite plain by 1947. Its nations did not want to be hostile to the big Eastern neighbour, but they wanted to remain independent and to work closely with the Western democracies. By 1948 a monolithic, communist-controlled system emerged, all the Central and Eastern European countries became satellites of the Soviet Union and found themselves on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. All through the years of communism most of them looked at NATO as the ultimate hope that freedom would not disappear from Europe and would be restored one day. During the days of the Hungarian Uprising against communism in 1956 help was expected from the UN rather than from NATO, but the realistic public of 1956 did not aspire for membership in the Atlantic Alliance, rather it hoped for a neutral status modelled upon Austria’s. With the Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and with the threat of that in 1981 in Poland the hopes of Central Europeans were dashed, but the inability of the West to help was not seen as a cynical and deliberate betrayal – as it is often suggested today by the ignorant and by wily propagandists.

In 1988–89 the US and its allies gave substantial moral and political help to the forces working for radical change, for replacing the Communist system with democracy and the market economy. The transition process was slower and far more painful than most people had expected, hopes for a kind of Marshall Plan did not realise, instead came Western investments. First they were most eagerly awaited and welcome, but certain aspects of greedy capitalism soon led to the slogan: the (Soviet) tanks were replaced by the (Western) banks. Although capitalism is not a synonym for altruism, and its wild version in the former communist countries badly needed bridling, good sheriffs, measures against growing corruption and strong law-enforcement, I see absolutely no reason to revise the position I took in my article in the first issue of this journal, mentioned earlier. “Criticism of globalisation and multinational companies is not helpful, but the conduct of the international financial world and its institutions is often rightly criticised. Disappointment with the West, particularly with the United States, as a helpful and well-meaning superpower, who can and will stand by its allies, is unfair and misleading. Those who represent and publicise such views are ignorant of Hungary’s (or of other Central European countries’) real position and needs. Such people should consider the alternative: either to stand alone in a dangerous world, without wealth, without natural defences, without formidable armed forces or security system – or to rely on and join another power-centre. In our vicinity there is only one such: Russia. The radical Right in Hungary and wherever it exists […] should be watched most carefully.”

With the ending of the Cold War neutrality, primarily a status one may assume in a war, lost its ground, while the restoration of full sovereignty made it a natural aspiration to make the changes irreversible so that Central Europeans no longer have to worry about hostile Great Powers or neighbours under their patronage. “Taking time by the forelock”, substantially contributing to and making use of the ending of the Cold War, in 1989/90 Central Europe unequivocally declared its intention to return to its traditional cultural and political orientation, the West. Hungary, soon joined by its neighbours, initiated the dissolution of that coalition of the unwilling, the Warsaw Pact. But none of the countries of “the new Europe” showed any hostility towards the new Russia, which emerged out of the ruins of the Soviet Union. They all made a distinction between the imposed communist system and the Russian people, who were the first and utmost victims of that inhuman utopia. However, none of the former Soviet satellites acquiesced to remain a no- man’s-land in the middle of Europe; they all submitted applications to join the Council of Europe, the European Community and NATO. By 2004 all those aims were reached by most of them and the political as well as the economic landscape of Europe – on the whole – looked promising. The rise of terrorism, especially Islamic fundamentalism, the financial crisis of 2008, the growth of scepticism about the European Union and its currency, these developments do not warrant any change in their foreign policy, just the contrary, they make reliable friends and allies even more important. The ancient Roman historian, Sallust, rightly said that “Truly not armies, or treasures are the safeguards of a kingdom, but friends”. Today, when the rules of international law and the Charter of the United Nations, including respect for human rights, are being violated in many parts of the world, when there is an armed conflict going on in Ukraine, when unemployment, poverty, uncertainty about energy supplies have spread widely, when serious questions rise about the world’s climate and environment, when both the bipolar and the unipolar world are things of the past, when Europe is losing its earlier standing, it is understandable for any country to do fresh thinking about its place and future in a world in turmoil. But does that warrant questioning the decisions made 25 years ago about the new foreign political orientation?


Born out of necessity to balance between stronger aggressive neighbours, there had been a tradition in Central Europe to alternate between East and West, often switching (unequal) alliances. That never paid, but often led to war and eventual servitude. It would be a tragic mistake to attempt anything even faintly resembling such a course. When in 2008 the Socialist government of Hungary started flirting with the government of Russia, Fidesz, then in opposition, attacked that trend in the strongest terms. While not a member of Fidesz, I concurred, and in a Hungarian bimonthly published in Austria I quoted the Director of the programme “New European Democracies” run by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) of Washington DC, Jan Bugajski, who in two books (Cold Peace and Expanding Eurasia. Russia’s European Ambitions) warned about the drift of investments into the infrastructural and energy programmes in Central Europe, and the danger of continued dependence on Russian energy and pipelines. I also referred to the forecasts for 2025 by the US National Intelligence Council on the growing influence of international organised crime and the failure of the EU to adopt a united energy policy. I was then (as today) in favour of friendship and increased trade with Russia, but not doing it alone. I advocated working closely with our Visegrád partners, the Baltic States, Croatia and Slovenia in the EU and NATO for a new policy towards Russia. Not as a new form of Cold War, but as a partnership based on mutual economic and political interests. “The elementary interest of Russia is not the expansion of its sphere of influence but the elimination of internal backwardness and poverty. Real threat for Russia is not coming from the West but from the South and [possibly] from the East.” Six years later we can read a book review of Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?” by Anne Applebaum in the 18 December edition of The New York Review of Books: “How He and His Cronies Stole Russia”. The book, or at least this detailed review should be widely discussed in the Atlantic community, and particularly in Central Europe. One revealing passage: “the Kremlin began putting out messages designed not necessarily to make Russia look good, but rather to undermine the Western establishment and Western institutions, including the European Union and NATO. Using both money and information, they seek to empower the Western far right, the anti-establishment left, and the international business community all at the same time. Thus Russia Today supports Occupy Wall Street. A Russian oligarch organises a meeting in Vienna attended by the French National Front, Hungary’s nationalist political party Jobbik, and Austria’s Freedom Party.” Dawisha argues that it is totally wrong to believe that “the harder-line face that Putin has more recently shown to the world is somehow, once again, the West’s ‘fault’, that we have provoked Russia into autocratic behaviour through our talk of democracy in Ukraine or that – once again – the ‘reform process’ was somehow brought to a halt because the Russians felt threatened by the expansion of NATO or by Western policy in the Balkans”. Far too many people seem to have swallowed that bait.

Ten years ago the unity of the Euro-Atlantic community was challenged by the war against Iraq’s dictator, and Central Europe stood by the United States. When President Obama declared “reset”, a renewed effort to bring Russia on board to tackle world problems, many Central Europeans feared a deal over their head, against their security interests. Today Putin managed to restore the unity of North America and Western plus Northern Europe with his conduct in Ukraine. At the same time he came close to splitting Central Europe between those who feel threatened by his actions and those who are unhappy about the imposition of sanctions. The West started to believe in its inevitable decline, but Russia cannot feel victorious. Is there no chance to remedy the rift between East and West, to bring them together and thus to imbue optimism into that enlarged West which Zbigniew Brzezinski advocated less than three years ago in his Strategic Vision. America and the Crisis of Global Power, as the way to avoid the chaos which threatens if the supremacy of the US is gone?


The world is not entering 2015 with optimism. It is not unusual to hear talk about a kind of new Cold War. Hungary might sound the loudest in fearing such a standoff, but less the loud may also have the same fears. Yet none of the major actors want a cold war, I believe. They are prudent enough to forestall it, not to mention the danger of a hot war. To me there appears a firm ground for reducing the current tensions.

2015 should be the year of sensible changes in Europe. The European Parliament, that huge and expensive talking shop, may play a role in that, but it is the EU governments, supported by the national parliaments, that can bring about the change. National leaders with vision, supported by a vigorous European Commission, now with a Central European President, should take the initiative. The political problems are easier to be tackled than the economic ones, as they require only imagination, common sense, unity, and sometimes a break with old dogmas. The first problem to be resolved is the Russia–Ukraine imbroglio, to be followed closely with restoring external and internal peace in the Arab world, in order to decrease mass emigration to Europe and contain Islamic terrorism.

When sanctions were imposed upon Russia most people in diplomatic circles (privately) were not optimistic about their effectiveness. To go with the sanctions was considered more as a moral duty against the violation of international law than something that would compel a nuclear great power to bend. The weight of sanctions, unexpectedly strong reactions in Ukraine (the real birth or the consolidation of a Ukrainian identity), or just the drop in the price of oil – whatever the cause, the defiant mood of the summer is over. One can sense today a chance for the political solution everybody has been talking about without any public proposal on the table. The EU could take the initiative. Sanctity of treaties, inviolability of borders, territorial integrity – those are not empty words. But neither is self-determination. Here are just a few ideas which could be part of bilateral or multilateral negotiations over the dispute. In international law a condominium is a political territory (state or border area) in or over which two or more sovereign powers formally agree to share equally dominium (in the sense of sovereignty) and exercise their rights jointly, without dividing it up into “national” zones. In Europe there are a few such territories, although rather small ones. (The Moselle River and its tributaries between Luxembourg and Germany, the Pheasant Island between Spain and France, the Brčko District in Bosnia-Herzegovina between the Serb and the Bosnia entities, and perhaps Lake Constance, which is considered to be a tridominium. Andorra is a co-principality between Spain and France – for me it sounds quite a promising model between the two Slavic brother nations.

Plebiscites were called in order to decide territorial disputes in several cases in 20th century Europe. With strict international supervision that should not be ruled out in the territories occupied by Russia. But the precondition for all talks should naturally be an immediate and real cease-fire. If the two capitals agreed on that and the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) would be ready to effectively supervise that the suffering local civilian population would undoubtedly be elated. The lifting of sanctions could be linked to an effective and lasting cease-fire and the beginning of talks. The government of Ukraine could enhance the chances for such an initiative by passing an exemplary law on the linguistic rights of the various non-Ukrainian national groups: Russians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians. That would not be something unheard of: on 31 May 1991 Hungary and Ukraine signed a Declaration on the Principles of Cooperation Safeguarding the Rights of National Minorities. In 1992 Ukraine passed a Law on National Minorities granting extensive rights, and I am not aware that it has been revoked or repealed. Lifting the sanctions in connection with a peaceful settlement between Russia and Ukraine would immediately give a boost to the economy of Europe, especially in Scandinavia, Germany, Central and South-Eastern Europe. European mediation and involvement would also enhance the prestige of the EU and its Common Foreign and Security Policy. That could be beneficial for the results of the coming referendum in the UK on EU membership.

There is a proverb in many languages that strength lies in unity. In the present international climate both America and Europe must preserve the unity they achieved after 1945 and after 1989. For Central Europe unity is not a new idea. It has been institutionalised in the Visegrád Cooperation since 1991, and with membership in the EU and NATO. Hungarian politicians, too, understand that the independence and the national interests of member nations lie in these cooperations. 1989 and all the 25 years since then have been about achieving and consolidating that unity. The foremost precondition for prosperity is peace, and peace is guaranteed by the Atlantic Alliance. It is strengthened by what started two years ago: regular consultation and close cooperation between the Visegrád Four, the Nordic Five and the Baltic Three. In the last 25 years Hungary has also established the most cordial relations in its history with Croatia, Slovenia, with all the Balkan States and also with Romania. Looking further, the much advertised “opening to the East”, towards Eurasia, Latin America is fine, but it cannot be regarded as an alternative to Europe, to the West. Quarrels over secondary domestic issues – sometimes over mere perceptions – should not be allowed to cause tensions in the Atlantic Alliance at this difficult juncture.

In his seminal speech laying down his government’s programme on 22 May 1990, Prime Minister Antall spoke of the exceptionally favourable conditions Hungary had then, but also warned: “If we fail to join forces, if we do not mobilise all our best energies, then we will miss an historic opportunity unparalleled in recent Hungarian history, and no one knows when we might have such an opportunity again.” Europe, including Russia, is at the parting of the ways. A right choice is available.

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