ZOiS Spotlight 11/2024

Hungarian Diplomacy: Defying Accepted Norms

by Ákos Kopper 29/05/2024

Under Viktor Orbán, Hungary is stretching the rules of diplomacy to their absolute limit – and alienating its EU and NATO allies in the process. In the run-up to the European elections, Ákos Kopper highlights three examples of anti-democratic tendencies in the Hungarian brand of diplomacy.

The Foreign Ministers of Belarus, Hungary and Russia at a conference in Minsk. IMAGO / SNA

For observers of illiberal-populist regimes, it is sometimes hard to pin down how exactly they violate democratic principles. As critics of Hungary have pointed out, although in many ways Hungary resembles a democracy, in fact it has become a Frankenstate[1] where practices prevail that individually are no cause for concern, but taken together produce a mix that is fundamentally contrary to the norms of democracy. The Hungarian government’s conduct on the diplomatic stage defies what NATO and EU allies have come to expect from one another, as illustrated by the three examples below. Judged on their own terms, each of them could be seen as instances of bad timing, a faux pas, or an idiosyncratic attitude to diplomacy. But their cumulative effect is much more worrying.

Handing out diplomatic passports like there’s no tomorrow

In the past five years alone, the Hungarian Government has issued over ten thousand diplomatic passports. These kinds of passports are usually reserved for people who represent their country on official business abroad: diplomats, consuls and high-ranking officials. In Hungary’s case, however, they were also offered to friends of the government, including bureaucrats, businesspeople and sportspeople. The issue typically only comes to the fore when the holders of such passports are charged with crimes, or when the US rejects their entry application because they are not travelling on official diplomatic business. While in principle diplomatic passports only offer immunity once a diplomat’s accreditation is recognised, they make travel easier, and as ordinary officials are uncertain how to deal with them, they often help their holders to escape the consequences, for example, of a traffic offence. Although states are free to distribute diplomatic passports as they see fit, being over-generous in this regard goes against the intended purpose of these passports.

Protecting fallen autocratic leaders

Illiberal autocrats often befriend one another, and the Orbán regime is willing to help its friends in need. In 2018, the former Macedonian prime minister managed to escape prosecution in his home country when Hungarian diplomatic agents helped him to cross international borders without a proper identification document (his passport had been confiscated by the Macedonian authorities). More recently, Brazil’s former president Jair Bolsonaro spent two days at the Hungarian Embassy in Brasilia after two of his close associates were arrested for plotting a coup against the elected government.

The principle of offering refuge to people facing prosecution for political reasons is internationally accepted, and the right to diplomatic asylum in embassies is recognised in Latin America. Yet, these moves by the Hungarian government are problematic for several reasons. For one thing, they are interventions into the domestic affairs of other states, something to which Hungary is vehemently opposed in its own case, as demonstrated by the recent founding of a controversial Sovereign Protection Office. For another, there is a strong symbolism attached to who is offered protection, akin to the symbolism in Viktor Orbán’s decision to accept, in April of this year, a medal from Republika Srpska president Milorad Dodik that had been awarded just a year before to President Putin. Such symbolic acts play a crucial role in diplomacy by signalling what a state values and where it stands.

Causing affronts to allies

Hungarian diplomatic manoeuvrings are frequently calculated attempts to provoke by publicly breaking ranks with the country’s Western allies. There are countless examples of this: Hungary’s foreign minister posing with Russian foreign minister Lavrov on the same day the papers reported about Alexei Navalny’s funeral; Fidesz turning down a request to meet US senators in Budapest at roughly the same time the government was discussing security cooperation with a Chinese delegation; or refusing to ratify Sweden’s bid to join NATO. Hungary never offered a clear explanation for the latter, making one suspect that the government regarded this as a bargaining chip in rule-of-law debates over funds with the EU or a way of courting its domestic supporters and Russia. Small states often hedge their bets to give them leeway in a world dominated by big states. But in times of crisis, this strategy should be used with great caution.

What is diplomacy?

For the past 14 years, the Hungarian government’s strategy has been to act on the borderline of what is acceptable to Hungary’s Western partners. Orbán has not shied away from confrontations – and probably even enjoys them – but was always careful to pull the breaks when the situation was getting critical.

There have been various attempts to capture the essence of diplomacy. Some see it as the ‘angels’ game’, driven by a collective ambition to promote peace in the community of states. Others think that diplomacy is about ‘giving one and taking ten’, as the adage attributed to Mark Twain goes. Diplomacy is also frequently seen as a ‘never-ending global cocktail party’.

One wonders what the Orbán regime thinks about diplomacy. While its practices do not explicitly violate the formal rules of diplomacy, they bend them and stretch the limits of what is tolerable from an ally. Adam Watson, a doyen of diplomatic theory, warned that diplomacy can fulfil its role in managing international society only if states use it to promote a dialogue that yields mutual benefits. If they merely exploit the diplomatic system and seek only their own advantage, then ‘diplomac y recedes into a technique and a political device.’ This is the art of diplomacy that the Hungarian government has mastered.

[1] Kim Lane Scheppele, ‘The Rule of Law and the Frankenstate: Why Governance Checklists do not Work’, Governance 26, no. 4 (2013): 559–562. The comparison with Frankenstein is implied here: a monster that results from the mixing of ostensibly normal but disparate body parts.

Prof. Ákos Kopper is a Humboldt research fellow and a visiting researcher at ZOiS.