VISEGRAD BLOG: Central Europe's populists need a new strategy for Biden

VISEGRAD BLOG: Central Europe's populists need a new strategy for Biden
Hungarian premier Viktor Orban could once again become a pariah in Washington.
By bne IntelliNews January 19, 2021

Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Hungary’s Viktor Orban will have to fundamentally rethink their foreign policies following the inauguration of US President Joe Biden on January 20, now that Donald Trump is no longer around to provide them with diplomatic cover.

“For Orban and Kaczynski the election of Biden means they have to change their strategy,” Vit Dostal, director of the Czech Association for International Affairs (AMO), told bne IntelliNews in a telephone interview.

Both Poland and particularly Hungary made no secret of supporting Trump in the US elections, seeing him as an ideological soulmate. They have been slow and grudging in congratulating Biden, initially casting doubt on his victory and afterwards limiting themselves to just noting his “successful campaign”. This reflects fears they could return to being the virtual pariahs they were under President Barack Obama.

Poland’s PiS has most to lose as it had forged a very successful relationship with Trump, securing a stronger US commitment to the country’s defence, which enabled the government to downplay its diplomatic setbacks with the EU.  In return, the PiS government bought US warplanes and did not target US-owned TV station TVN during its campaign of harassment against independent media.

Under Biden, Kaczynski is now likely to face more US pressure over human rights and the erosion of democratic checks and balances.

“They (PiS) had a deal with Trump,” says Dostal. “They knew they could not touch the private media. Now, it’s not only media freedom, but also constitutional rights and the rule of law are important in this relationship, which was not so much the case before.”

As part of this drive, Biden is likely to line up with the EU on the issue of the rule of law, giving Orban and Kaczynski less space to justify themselves internally or externally. Moreover, unlike Trump, Biden will not cheer on their efforts to divide and weaken the EU.

“This US administration will put much more stress on EU unity, which was not the case with Trump. That is a signal for Poland and that is a problem for Hungary,” says Dostal.

Yet Biden could also provide opportunities, at least for Poland.  Poland remains strategically important to the US and Biden is unlikely to row back from the defence commitments the US made under Trump.  The US will also continue to back the Three Seas Initiative, a Polish initiated project to improve infrastructure links within Central and Southeast Europe.

In fact, according to Dostal, Biden will be careful to ensure he does not repeat Obama’s mistake of downgrading the region. “The US remains interested in the stability of the eastern flank of Nato,” he emphasises. “Now it seems that the US is really interested in the [economic] potential the region has,” he adds.

Nor will Biden want to repeat Obama’s “Reset” with Putin. Instead Poland (as well as the Baltic states) can count on him pursuing a tougher policy towards the Kremlin, particularly in Putin’s current weakened position.

“Russia has very little to offer now. This was the main reason there was no deal with Trump,” says Dostal. “It was not that Trump didn’t want a deal, but Russia had nothing to give.”

Kaczynski therefore could learn to like a Biden presidency, so long as he does not further weaken democratic checks and balances; but for Orban there is no such silver lining. In contrast with Poland, the US does not need to keep Hungary on side, and the Orban regime’s authoritarianism, corruption, attacks on the EU, and cosying up with Russia and China could easily make the ‘Viktator’ a marked man in Washington.

“That is a big problem for Orban,” says Dostal, who predicts the relationship could quickly become fractious. “He will probably just portray Biden as a candidate of [US-Hungarian philanthropist] George Soros.”


Below, bne reporters in Central Europe look at how politicians in their countries have reacted to the new US president and what they expect from him:


POLAND: No U-turn expected

As soon as the news broke of Joe Biden winning enough electoral college votes to become the 46th president of the US, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda wrote a tweet.

“Congratulations to Joe Biden for a successful presidential campaign. As we await the nomination by the Electoral College, Poland is determined to maintain a high-level and high quality PL-US strategic partnership for an even stronger alliance.”

The grudging tweet, merely acknowledging the success of the campaign, was symptomatic of the Polish rightwing government’s attitude to the president-elect, whose defeat of Trump – whom Warsaw idolized – came as an unwelcome development.

Poland claimed to have had a special relationship with Trump, who visited Warsaw in 2016 and pushed the country’s happy button with a lengthy speech laced with historic references.

Afterwards Poland managed to have the visa regime to the US lifted and signed some more or less concrete deals with the Trump administration, including on defence and potential US involvement in developing Poland’s first nuclear power plant.

Therefore, as Trump kept undermining the legitimacy of his defeat, Poland’s government-run media outlets kept reporting as if the matter was far from settled, creating a diplomatically awkward situation.

When the Trump-incited mob stormed the Capitol on January 6 – the day Biden’s election was to be formally certified – all that Poland could muster was a largely meaningless tweet from Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau. “US democracy was always empowered by values and upheld by institutions, enabling it to overcome even the most daunting challenges,” Rau wrote.

Rau’s predecessor Witold Waszczykowski even went as far as blaming former US president Barack Obama for dividing US society, which then exploded during the Capitol riots.

But Warsaw is also aware that under Biden – with all his swipes at Poland’s treatment of LGBT people or the independence of the judiciary – there will not be a U-turn on what really is a strategic relationship between two Nato member states.

“The relationship between the Republic of Poland and the United States is the shining beacon of what a true Strategic Partnership is, and what can be achieved while working together. We share ideals and values, the core of which are undoubtedly liberty, justice, democracy and the principal role of international law,” Duda eventually wrote to Biden in a congratulatory note.


HUNGARY: Biden’s team knows Orban too well

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban can expect a deterioration in US-Hungarian relations as the new US administration will include politicians at the top level who are well acquainted with the Hungarian situation, according to Hungarian analysts.

The new US administration will not be as lenient as Donald Trump on Hungary’s democratic backsliding, but in the early days of the new presidency it will have limited impact on the US-Hungarian alliance, they added. Hungarian leaders will anyway follow a pragmatic approach in the hope of preserving good ties established with the outgoing president.

After a rocky relationship with the Obama administration, bilateral ties flourished in the last four years. Orban was the first European premier to come out in full support of Trump in 2016, which finally earned him a visit to the White House in May 2019. Donald Trump called Viktor Orban his twin, which sums up how cosy the ties were between the two leaders.

The Trump administration looked the other way when Hungary kicked out the George Soros-funded private university CEU from Hungary, or when Orban was under fire for the deterioration of the rule of law, the dismantling of checks and balances, and attacks on NGOs and the press. 

Probably the level of openness and kindness and helping each other will be lower if Democrat challenger Joe Biden wins the US election, Orban told Reuters in an interview in September, where he openly endorsed Donald Trump and said he was convinced he would win a second term. There is no plan “B”, he said.

In October, Orban’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto struck back at criticism by Joe Biden by repeating corruption allegations against Biden’s son in Ukraine. The government felt angered by his comments when Biden grouped Poland and Hungary with the authoritarian regime in Belarus.

After Biden's election win, Orban was amongst the last EU leaders to congratulate the 78-year-old politician. Even then, his comments were ambivalent. "Allow me to congratulate you on a successful presidential campaign. I wish you good health and continued success in performing your extremely responsible duties," Orban was quoted as saying by state news agency MTI.

The Orban regime has also not criticised Trump for inciting the Capitol riots, hiding behind not wishing to interfere in domestic US politics (as other countries should not interfere in Hungary’s).

But here are signs that the Hungarian government may want to strike a different chord if they are to avoid potential antagonism between the US and Hungary. Secretary for International Communication and Relations Zoltan Kovacs has said that even though the government had its fair share of debates with previous Democrat administrations, due to their “preaching tone and lessons on democracy”, Hungary is and always has been open to discussions based on mutual respect.

Yet analysts expect a clear rebuke from the new administration if there is no policy shift in Hungary, which analysts ruled out. Istvan Dobozi, a former senior economist at the World Bank, expects US- Hungarian relations could go downhill fast. He is not the only one to see it this way. A US about-turn is expected as the new president and many of his colleagues have a profound knowledge of Hungary.

As a young senator, Joe Biden visited Hungary in August 1977. The meetings with Hungarian Communist leaders paved the way for the return of Hungary’s most sacred national treasure, the Holy Crown, which was smuggled to Austria just before the end of WWII.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has family roots in Hungary. His father Donald Blinken was the US Ambassador to Budapest between 1994 and 1998 during Bill Clinton’s presidency. His great-grandparents on her mother’s side originated from Hungary. Blinken’s stepmother Vera Linken emigrated from Hungary in 1949. A week after the US elections, the CEU’s OSA archives were renamed the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives. The 95-year-old Donald Blinken is a CEU trustee emeritus.

Susan Rice, the former national security adviser for the Obama administration. will run Biden’s domestic policy council. She has been a vocal critic of Viktor Orban’s policies. In a Twitter post  last spring, she called on the EU to kick Hungary out of the block, after the Hungarian parliament gave unlimited powers to the prime minister, which was revoked in June as the pandemic situation eased. Rice has condemned Hungary’s democratic deficit and played a major role in isolating Orban, who was regarded as a black sheep in Washington during Obama’s presidency.


CZECHIA: Changing horses in a hurry

Czechia’s dominant populist politicians, President Milos Zeman and billionaire premier Andrej Babis, have often identified themselves (and been identified) with outgoing US President Donald Trump, but both have recently quickly stepped back from too close an association with the tarnished American leader.

Babis, who visited the White House and claimed afterwards to be even richer than Trump, stopped wearing his Trumpesque red MAGA baseball hat (with “Strong Czechia” emblazoned on it) after the Capitol riots. He has sent a boilerplate letter of congratulations to Biden.

Zeman was one of the first European leaders to endorse Trump, even before his 2016 victory, but he never secured an invitation to the White House. He was fulsome in his congratulations to Joe Biden on his victory over Trump.

“The support you received is not only a reflection of the American people’s trust in your leadership skills, which you have proven countless times during your years of public service, but it is also a call of the American citizens for change,” he wrote.

Hynek Kmonicek, Czech Ambassador to the US and a former advisor to Zeman, gave a more revealing insight into the Czech position in an interview with Czech web TV station DV-TV, pointing out that Trump had at least taken some interest in Central Europe and that he hoped that Biden would not step back from this.

“I expect that we will have to try not to reduce interest in our part of Europe. It must be remembered that the United States was not the most active during the Obama administration in our region. It was the Trump administration that returned there, albeit with its own interest in pushing Russia and China out of our part of the world. Joe Biden should try, and we will try to do our best to find enough reasons not to lose the position we gained in the previous administration,” he said.


SLOVAKIA: Ready for close co-operation

Slovakia’s PM Igor Matovic, another businessman turned populist rightwing politician, has not been around long enough to become identified with Donald Trump.  He congratulated Joe Biden on his election as the next US president and said that the close cooperation between the US and Slovakia is bound to continue. He expects the EU and the US to become global and engaged allies. Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok added that Slovakia stands ready for close cooperation with the future US president.

Slovak President Zuzana Caputova, originally a member of the left-liberal Progressive party, warmly welcomed Biden’s victory. “Faced with two options, American chose the path of reconciliation and stability,” she said.


BALTIC STATES: Hoping for a tough line on Russia


The Baltic states have largely welcomed the election of Joe Biden, expecting that he will pursue a tougher line with Russia than the outgoing president Donald Trump. Nevertheless, they don’t expect that confronting Russia will be his main priority.

Kestutis Girnius, associate professor at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University, believes that Joe Biden‘s presidency will bring more predictability, stability and Obama-era kind of dealing on most issues, including geopolitics, environment and the economy.

“But what is clearly obvious from the tragic events on the Capitol Hill is the new administration‘s focus will largely be on domestic politics – America has been gripped with some huge challenges, like the stark divisions of the society, racial issues and Trumpism, which embodies outgoing president Donald Trump's policies and approaches. When it comes to foreign politics, the reining in of China will be the most important task for Biden," Girnius said.

Girnius said that Lithuanians favoured Biden over Trump because the Democratic candidate “promises to treat Russia more strictly, to support Nato more consistently and to pursue the traditional US policy towards the Baltic states”.

An opinion poll has found that 32.5% of Lithuanians preferred Joe Biden as a new US president for Lithuania, while 18.1% picked Trump.

Political analyst Linas Kojala, the director of the Eastern Europe Studies Centre, said the results were in line with the prevailing trends in most of Europe. “Earlier surveys have also shown that Trump is a less favoured leader in Lithuania than other former US presidents such as Barack Obama,” Kojala said.

“Biden is more predictable. He has visited Lithuania, too. So even if respondents don't delve into his specific political proposals, they apparently find his personality more attractive,” he said.