Soso Chachanidze, International Relations BA student at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest
In the latest demonstration of friendly relations, a Hungarian charter flight evacuated six out of 22 Georgian private contractors from Afghanistan. The Georgian side was unable to provide a flight to bring home its citizens due to the “chaotic situation” at Kabul airport caused by the rapid takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, after the United States and its allies withdrew most of their troops from Central Asian state. Rather than a single exception, this gesture from Hungary for Georgia can be considered a continuation of recently growing cooperation between the two post-socialist states, which has strengthened during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Direct diplomatic relations between Georgia and Hungary go back more than a decade, after the two countries established their embassies in 2008, in Budapest and Tbilisi, respectively. Recent visits and cooperation between the Hungarian Fidesz and Georgian Dream governments have seen relations between the two states reach a new level.
The Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Péter Szijjártó, has visited Georgia twice since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. With his first visit in July 2020, he became the first high ranking foreign official to visit the Caucasian state since the start of the pandemic. His visits included the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Hungary and Georgia in science and technology, discussions on overcoming the pandemic through cooperation, and messages of support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as for its NATO membership aspirations and the government’s stated plan to apply for EU membership in 2024. Later, Hungary, being the only EU member state to vaccinate its citizens with Chinese vaccines (still not approved by the EMA), helped ship Sinovac jabs to Georgia. This summer, Georgia became one of the first countries whose national immunity cards were bilaterally recognised as valid by Hungary for entering its territory without Covid restrictions, including for touristic purposes. This came after Hungarian low-cost airline Wizzair restarted operating to several European destinations, including Budapest, from Kutaisi International Airport, after a year-long pause caused by the pandemic.
While it is captivating to see how the enhanced cooperation continues between Georgia and Hungary, another interesting component is what drew the two governments closer. Viktor Orbán’s government is known for its scepticism towards the current European Union as a strong geopolitical actor, preferring to look at it merely as an economic union of sovereign states doing their own politics inside and outside their borders. Péter Szijjártó’s speech during his second visit to Tbilisi included an expression of dissatisfaction with the EU’s current approach, seeing him stating that “the EU is losing its economic and political power on the global stage,” and the only way to reverse this process is “enlargement of the Union and finding new partners.” Thus, the Hungarian government does not shy away from making individual efforts to, as they see it, save the EU, while also forging their own foreign policy.
Being close friends with a state with an overwhelming majority of Orthodox Christians also seems to be well in line with Orbán’s idea of bringing up generations on Christian values, and his approach that Europe can only be saved if it “returns to the source of its real values: its Christian identity”. Szijjártó’s audience with the leader of the Georgian Church, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II, is a good demonstration of Fidesz’s hard-line Christian image.
One aspect that makes recent Hungary-Georgian developments quite paradoxical is Fidesz’s good relations with Russia, Georgia’s northern neighbour, which still occupies 1/5 of the internationally recognized territory of the Southern Caucasian state. Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin have openly expressed a liking of one another’s ruling styles and personalities. The Hungarian PM dubbed Russia a “successful illiberal society” and has pressed the fact that it is in Hungary’s interests to increase Russia’s cooperation with the West. Putin in turn offered words of praise to Orbán the last time he visited Budapest in 2019. Actions go beyond words, though, and are best expressed in enhanced economic relations, such as Russia funding 80% of the Paks II nuclear power plant project in Hungary. In addition, Hungary was the only EU member state which not only recognized as valid, but also vaccinated its citizens against Covid-19 with the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.
In parallel to having a good momentum with Russia, Hungary openly supports not only Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, but also its territorial integrity- while Putin claims that the occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are independent states. Most importantly, Russian officials continually state that Georgia’s potential NATO membership is a threat to their security and that they are willing to “do their utmost” not to let it happen. President Putin has even indicated that the main goal of starting the Russo-Georgian war in 2008 was to prevent the alliance from drawing Georgia closer to membership by awarding it a Membership Action Plan (MAP). This might make some wonder at this being a double game of sorts, which the Hungarian government is playing for the sake of preserving the “interests of the Hungarian people,” as they call their foreign policy goal.
From the scope of the Georgian government, it is interesting to see if their enhancing their partnership with Hungary is part of general efforts to try and make friends in the West, or if something in particular appeals to them in Fidesz’s approach to the EU. The latter is a viable option, considering the declining rule of law records of both states, with EU bodies pointing out issues in the judiciary systems of Hungary and Georgia. It is fair to say that Georgia and the EU have not been having the best of the times in their relations of late, especially following on from the political crisis after the 2020 parliamentary elections, which saw the opposition refusing to take their seats in the main legislative body. After several rounds of failed negotiations, eventually, an EU-mediated deal was achieved, bringing the opposition back to parliament with an overall agreement on key reforms in the electoral and judiciary systems. However, the ruling Georgian Dream party then unilaterally declared the April 19 deal as void, raising even more questions and concerns in the EU. In response, the leadership of Georgian Dream claimed that they are loyal to the country’s Euro-Atlantic path, and critics should “mind their own business” – rhetoric the Hungarian government would be familiar with.
Another area with a common approach from the Hungarian and Georgian governments seems to be minority issues. A recently passed Hungarian law removing any information about LGBTQI+ identities from school education drew huge backlash from the EU and NGOs. Meanwhile, in Georgia, government failed to ensure the safety of participants and organizers of the Pride Parade in Tbilisi on July 5th. Due to the violent activity of counter-pride protesters, the parade was cancelled. Dozens of media reporters were physically abused, including a cameraman, who died several days later. In response to this, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili claimed that as “95% of the Georgian population is against pride” it should not be held in the centre of the capital city. He suggested that it was organized by the opposition to cause insurgency, and, in a populistic statement, added that the only parade held which he personally recognizes is the one the Georgian army holds on independence day.
Overall, while Georgia’s relations with the EU have taken a turn for the worse, they have gotten better with Hungary. Yet, there could be some danger to the Caucasian state’s European prospects if they take Fidesz as an example of ruling or approaching the EU. Clearly, it would be comfortable for Georgian Dream to receive European aid while taking no obligations on to make key reforms and respect rule of law, but as it is obvious that Georgia does not have the same weight or power as Hungary, it would be unlikely to work. It will be interesting to watch how Georgian-Hungarian relations evolve in post-pandemic conditions, and what it will bring to both states and their foreign policy goals.