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Balkan Csárdás: Hungarian Foreign Policy Dance

By María Belén Soriano Zamora

Since Viktor Orbán reassumed power in 2010, the Hungarian government has taken a more active role in the Western Balkans, significantly expanding its political and economic influence. This shift raises questions about the driving forces behind Hungarian foreign and trade policy in the region. Who sets these foreign policy priorities in Hungary, and how do formal and informal actors interact? What economic interests shape Hungarian foreign policy in the region, and to what extent has the war in Ukraine impacted it? Furthermore, how does Hungary's position within the EU affect the accession process of the West-Balkan countries? 

To address these questions, the CEU Democracy Institute, Political Capital and the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy (CEID) organized a discussion, including the presentation of a research paper from the Belgrade Center for Security Policy.  

The paper, addressing the multiple historical, economic and political motivations behind Hungary’s approach to the Western Balkans, was presented by Ivana Ranković, Junior Researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy. Zsuzsanna Szelényi, Program Director of the CEU Democracy Institute Leadership Academy delivered the opening and closing remarks. Srdjan Cvijic, president of the International Advisory Committee of the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy; Political Capital's Executive Director and CEU DI Research Affiliate Péter Krekó and a Balkan specialist from the Institute of Foreign Policy and Trade Ferenc Németh participated in the panel discussion, which was moderated by Márton Dunai, correspondent for the Financial Times. 

One of the key points in the debate revolved around Viktor Orbán’s perspective that aimed to move Hungarian politics towards a ‘center force field’ that conceives the country as an active agent that is no longer peripheral. 

This enlarged scope underscores the pursuit of sovereignty, and the recognition of Hungary’s negotiation and alliance potential with its Balkan neighbors. Orbán’s decision to contribute to peacekeeping missions in the region and advocating for the fast-track EU accession for Western Balkans countries is closely tied to the possibility of controlling the migration influx to Hungary. Ivana Ranković highlighted, 

“What is interesting and, to some extent, contradictory is that in addition to the Western Balkans being perceived as a potential security threat, they are also perceived as a security provider for Hungary in terms of migration.”  

When discussing how intergovernmental friendships benefit each stakeholder, Srdjan Cvijic stated that although there is not a solid strategy, there is an intricate network of long-term interests. 

“While Fidesz was obviously instrumentalizing ethnic tensions for political gain in 2005, we now have a different situation where we do have reconciliation, where Hungary buys ads in all major EU member states to promote Serbia as the next EU member. This shouldn’t be overlooked. 

Cvijic also explained that, however, reconciliation has also brought about depopulation and assimilation in the Hungarian population in Serbia.  

Furthermore, Cvijic emphasized that in the case of these trade partnerships, economy follows politics, but investments also bring political influence. Hungary being a vocal supporter of EU accession that does not fully comply with EU values and the rule of law has a lot to do with exercising soft-power in the region and taking up opportunities for leadership. In this regard, Péter Krekó added that most Western Balkan leaders look at Orbán as inspiration not in terms of ideology but in terms of power mechanics, economic policy, dealing with western alliances and dealing with dictators, and very importantly, the media machinery. 

“For Viktor Orbán, I think he plays the role of this illiberal coach in the Western Balkans, where he is really a role model for many, […] because he has been in power for 14 years, and if someone can teach politicians in the Western Balkans how to dance well the peacock dance, [balancing act] this is exactly him.”  

Ferenc Németh pointed out that reconciliation started well before Orbán. He mentioned that the historical experience of mistrust between the countries of the region is a phenomenon that has been previously tackled by different political forces, but has failed to translate into a societal shift and transcend shared political visions that accommodate temporary interests. 

“I truly believe that before 2010, before Orbán came back to power, there were good grounds to expand Hungarian political aims and economic community in the Western Balkans.”  

The participants concurred that Hungarian-inhabited regions in the Western Balkans represent relevant areas for the competitiveness of Hungarian investments, where high political risk has discouraged other countries from exercising economic leadership. The growth of sizable banking networks and other emerging industries has been accompanied by a mutual exchange of state capture techniques and mechanics of power that have rendered the intervening parties into useful intermediaries to foster each other’s interests in intergovernmental scenarios. 

However, Hungary’s approach of ‘playing nice, but playing tough’ has also brought up concerns within the EU regarding the diplomatic proximity of the ‘troublemakers’, which may cause delays in the consideration of their cases. On top of that, Hungary and Serbia’s position as landlocked countries with a heavy dependence on Russian oil and gas amid the war has raised dilemmas on the creation of a new energy hub in the region that avoids Ukrainian pipelines and proposes deeper links to Chinese companies and other international stakeholders. 

Download the paper here

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