When Angela Merkel travelled to Budapest this week, she may have been on a delicate mission, but she didn’t pull her punches.
Standing next to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, she told reporters on Monday that she didn’t think there was such a thing as an “illiberal democracy,” the form of top-down rule championed by Mr. Orbán.
“I personally have always pointed to the fact that for me the roots of democracy are also always liberal,” she said, following three hours of talks with her Hungarian counterpart.
That was a direct challenge to Mr. Orbán's statement last December voicing his admiration for what he described as “illiberal democracies” in countries like Russia and Turkey.
In a joint press conference, the Hungarian leader looked visibly peeved at being publicly lectured by the German chancellor.
“Not all democracies have to be liberal," he said in response. "Those who say that democracy is necessarily liberal are trying to put one school of thought above the rest and we're not going to grant that privilege."
Ms. Merkel also hit out indirectly at the increased authoritarianism in Hungary. Even governments with a broad majority must appreciate the “role of the opposition, the role of civil society, the role of the media,” she said.
The visit, the first by the German leader since Mr. Orbán came to power in 2010, was an attempt to keep Budapest in the E.U. fold in the light of ongoing tensions between the European Union and Russia over the Ukraine.
I personally have always pointed to the fact that for me the roots of democracy are also always liberal Angela Merkel, German Chancellor
Hungary joined the now 28-country European Union in 2004.
Mr. Orbán, whose center-right party Fidesz, came to power with a two-third’s majority and was reelected last year, has been criticized for hard-line restrictions on Hungary's judiciary and media, criticism which his followers dispute.
He has taken advantage of his huge parliamentary majority to push through legislation with little debate. These constitutional amendments were regarded by many as moving away from the key European Union commitments to principles of freedom, democracy and rule of law.
His government has also come in for criticism over its treatment of non-government organizations. A report released by Amnesty International on Monday accused Hungarian authorities of an "unprecedented crackdown" on NGOs, "including public smearing, criminal investigations, office raids and the seizure of equipment.”
Ms. Merkel’s comments on the role of the media also indirectly touched on a point of conflict between Germany and Hungary.
A controversial tax on media companies’ advertising revenues has hit the Hungarian broadcaster RTL, a subsidiary of German media conglomerate Bertelsmann known for critical reports on the government.
The broadcaster was singled out for a 50 percent tax rate, but ahead of Ms. Merkel’s visit, the government entered talks with the station to find a compromise. RTL Germany boss, Anke Schäferkordt, recently assured the Hungarian opposition that the channel would not restrict its critical reporting as part of any deal.
Meanwhile, ahead of Ms. Merkel’s visit, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Budapest on Sunday to protest against the Fidesz government. They accused it of corruption and not respecting the rule of law.
The authoritarian Hungarian leader is not only a fan of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership style. In the news conference, he made it clear that Hungary is dependent on Russia for its energy supplies.
Hungary’s long-term contract with Russia for natural gas runs out this year.
And Mr. Putin is to visit Budapest on February 17, something which has infuriated E.U. partners, as the bloc had agreed not to hold bilateral meetings with the Russian president.
While Russia supplies 80 percent of Hungary’s gas needs, Germany is the country's biggest source of foreign direct investment.
At Monday’s press conference Mr. Orbán said the presence of 6,000 German firms in Hungary had contributed to keeping down unemployment by creating 300,000 jobs. He said Hungarian exports to Germany last year were worth €21 billion.
“I can only say to the German Chancellor: Thank you Germany,” he said.
Budapest is, therefore, caught not only geographically but economically between Russia and the West.
As such, Mr. Orbán is reluctant to be drawn into the confrontation between the European Union and Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine, something that has drawn criticism from Berlin and other European partners.
“We Hungarians are only on the side of peace,” he said on Monday.
Ms. Merkel sought to persuade Mr. Orbán of the necessity of a common E.U. line on the Ukraine conflict, which flared up after Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.
Europe and the United States accuse Moscow of backing separatists in the east of the country. The conflict has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 people and a fragile ceasefire agreed in September collapsed in recent weeks.
While Hungary has gone along with E.U. sanctions, the country has also voiced doubts about the bloc’s antagonistic approach to Moscow.
The West has imposed numerous sanctions on Russia as a result of its involvement in the conflict and last Thursday European Union foreign ministers agreed to impose another round of sanctions.
Ms. Merkel on Monday said she would not support delivering arms to the Ukrainians.
“Germany will not support Ukraine with guns and weapons,” she said. “We are putting all our bets on sanctions and doing our best to find a diplomatic solution.”
But the United States may be poised to deliver weaponry.
A senior White House official told the Associated Press Monday that President Barack Obama is considering sending anti-artillery weapons to Ukraine, but remains wary of provoking a proxy war between the United States and Russia. The U.S. administration said Ukraine's military is vulnerable to heavy artillery supplied by Russia against government troops in the east.
Siobhán Dowling is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition and covers politics in Germany and Europe. Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is Handelsblatt's Vienna correspondent. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected].