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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 29:87–91.


The Balkan Region and Hungarian Foreign Policy


Foreign policy has traditionally been playing a prominent role in shaping the scope of action and the external conditions of development of open small countries deeply embedded in international relations. A rich set of historical examples illustrates that small countries are often forced to carry on a drifting foreign policy due to their limited bargaining power and various constraints. Active foreign policy has become a precondition of successful competitiveness, catching-up and the improvement of positions as a result of globalisation and deepening international interrelationships.

Naturally, small countries cannot conduct a really influential foreign policy and cannot simply copy the foreign political behaviour of great powers, as it can be experienced in several spheres of politics. As contrasted to great powers, they cannot really manifest domestic political considerations in their foreign political behaviour, because it usually has a boomerang effect. Frequently they have no chances for a value-driven foreign policy due to international realities, and the posture of being a ‘moral great power’ and getting away from real political interests would again narrow their already modest scope of action.

Hungarian foreign policy restarting after World War I has always faced particularly difficult challenges due to its geo-strategic situation, special characteristics of its development history and the bargaining power related to its modest potential. Our mistaken historical tracks have often been rooted in the misinterpretation of international processes, power relations and the resulting national interests, in disregarding the possibilities and limitations of action, and the resultants of desirable and possible movements, even in retrospect to a millennium. In the spirit of “extra Hungariam non est vita”, characterising well the specificities of our mentality, the political class of the past as well as of the present, and even the society sense the significance of foreign relations in the shaping of the country’s destiny far less than several of our neighbours do.

The process of European integration and our European Union membership relieves several areas of traditional diplomacy of burden, and reshapes them in terms of negotiation, representation, the acquisition of information and formulating internal decisions. External conditions of development have acquired an enhanced significance, together with tasks shaping the image of the country and Hungary’s attractivity as a potential partner. Similarly, tasks related to awareness-raising about the external power field and interest relations, as well as to enlightening the society and in particular the decision-making sphere, also gained additional emphasis, just like the widening of our perspective.

Although four decades ago one could already emphasise publish the notion according to which the foreign political interests of small countries are primarily of economic nature, the possibilities of autonomous actions by Hungarian foreign policy remained limited in the once existing socialism and were determined by politics, to put it mildly. With the system change a doctrine of Hungarian foreign policy was born with a triad of aims including the return to the Euro-Atlantic community, a proper relationship with the neighbouring countries and the representation of the interests of all Hungarians. This doctrine, enjoying broad support in the medium term was not swept away by the wind, but greatly faded by the objectives of the prevailing policy wishing to put foreign policy in the service of domestic political aims. The December 2004 referendum gravely hurt the former unity of foreign political aims, the indirect consequences of which were also reflected by the changes of ‘good neighbourly relations’.

The tasks of Hungarian foreign policy, becoming particularly grave are hindered by the deficit of concept and consensus that has emerged in the country and the extent of which is conspicuous in our region as well as in Europe. Hungary has not elaborated strategic answers to political and economic development and to the changes in the power relations that have taken place during the past one and a half decades. The country has a large number of action programmes and projects, but it has no long-term development strategy, which undoubtedly makes the location of the international place of Hungary difficult, just like the clarification of the national interest in the Euro-Atlantic community as well as in relation to partner countries outside that community. Hence, Hungarian foreign policy is governed primarily by current issues and the requirement of adjusting tasks to the diplomatic timetable.

The topic is our relationship with the Balkans which offers a special field of study and action. It is worth setting out from the ‘evergreen’ requirement of diplomacy and from the theses of Prime Minister József Antall’s foreign political doctrine (functioning well for years in practice), in order to be able to provide an analysis of the situation and to clarify the tasks. One and a quarter of a century ago Bismarck, the Chancellor of the then upcoming imperial Germany stated that the two starting points of foreign policy were geography and economy. The changes and experiences of the time that have passed since then show that the impact of nationalisms emerging with historical delay on shaping relations cannot be disregarded. History also demands its place, though a more sublime social and political mind can tame historical heritage to a great extent, as it is indicated by French-German relations. The institutionalised alliance systems and processes of integration that have emerged after World War II have also an obvious impact on shaping foreign policy.

The Bismarckian foreign policy in the 1870s and 1880s, and subsequently József Antall’s doctrine in the postulates of the 1990s coincide in the Balkan policy of Hungary. A decisive foreign political interest of Hungary is to become as deeply and successfully embedded in the European processes of integration as possible. A decade ago the greatest ‘dowry value’ of Hungary’s accession for the European Union was its role in setting an example with regard to the process of transformation, catching-up and integration, which, according to the assumptions of the day, could exercise a benevolent radiating effect on the Central European region. The potential role of setting an example was blown away by the wind due to Hungary’s weak performance during the past half decade. Today Hungary is more of a liability than a potential asset in the process of European integration. Yet the value of the Hungarian dowry has not disappeared totally. The stability and modernisation of the Balkans is a priority target for the European Union, which was also reflected by the 1999 Union decision for enlargement towards Southeast Europe. This strategic aim is explained by interests related to the security of the ‘European backyard’ and the requirements of the former perspective of a ‘long march’ towards Byzantium. The participation of any country in the rapid and cost-effective stabilisation of the Balkan region, in its modernisation and integration is a value for the European Union.

Geographically Hungary has the most advantageous positions of the member countries of the Union for becoming a jumping board. The Brussels–Budapest–Belgrade–Byzantium route is obvious. Currently Hungary has the longest border with the Balkans among the Union member countries. Historically evolved knowledge of the region and experiences, as well as the potential role of Hungarians living there in building bridges may further increase the value of the dowry. The consequences of our integration into Europe can well be combined with the requirements of good neighbourhood and protecting Hungarians stipulated in the Hungarian foreign political doctrine formulated more than one and a half decades ago.

However, the most important present element of the interests governing Hungarian foreign policy is economic interest. The Balkan region represents a region of world economy where Hungarian economy has relative competitive advantages due to its geographical position, historical experiences and heritage as well as its relative level of development. Losses deriving from differences of bargaining power and asymmetries of interests cannot ever be totally eliminated in the relationships of small countries and great powers. Of the Balkan states the economic potential of Romania is 30% bigger expressed in GDP terms than that of Hungary, but as far as foreign economic relations, foreign trade and capital flows are concerned, Hungary is undoubtedly the first in the Southeast European region. Thus, asymmetries in bargaining power do not cause any problem, and the endeavour of small countries to develop closer economic cooperation with other small countries of similar potential can be realised.

The opportunities of cooperation are well illustrated by the fact that 12-15% of Hungarian exports were oriented to states belonging to the Balkan region seven decades ago, in the tense and hostile atmosphere of the 1930s. At the threshold of the system change this proportion dropped by half, to 6% after four decades of ”friendly cooperation” that had evolved in the framework of the CMEA. As a result of the system change and the process of European integration the return to natural partnership relations is perceivable. The Balkan region means the fastest developing major sector of Hungarian foreign trade. In the first half of 2008 Romania became, with Austria in tie, the third-fourth most important trading partner of Hungary with a share of 5%. The proportion of Croatia is 1.8%, of Serbia 1.6%, of Slovenia 1.3%, and of Bulgaria 1.1%. Altogether the countries of the Balkans have almost reached their relative importance prior to World War II. More than half of the stock of capital invested abroad from Hungary (the largest by scale among the former socialist countries) can be found in the Balkan countries. The Balkan region, short of efficiently functioning small companies is a more favourable territory of cooperation for the Hungarian small and medium enterprises participating otherwise with little weight in our external economic relations. The ‘upgrading’ and preparation of this area is also an interest of external economics.

The dynamics and structure of economic relations clearly indicate that the foreign political activities in the Balkans are of particular importance. Foreign policy can rely on economic interests and presence; at the same time its task is to serve the deepening of economic cooperation in several ways.

There are significant reserves for the development of relations in the exploitation of new channels and fields of foreign policy. The strengthening of our foreign political presence is a primary national interest. In addition to inter-state relations, the significance of building contacts with local and provincial governments, as well as big companies in the Balkan region is growing rapidly. Companies with a seat in Hungary but operating in the region, i.e. the leaders of these companies concentrate on immediate profit and do not always pay attention to the possibilities of modernising Hungarian structures, improving competitiveness and promoting supply, which are all hidden in the direct business contacts. The set of tools of ‘small diplomacy’ is also upgraded, such as the potential for developing contacts between cultural institutes, universities, sport relations and chambers. The success of our foreign policy in the Balkans largely depends on the skills of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a ‘conductor’ co-ordinating Hungarian presence and forms of action, orienting, informing and encouraging Hungarian actors active in the region.

Cooperation in the solution of the specific problems of the Balkan region requires special preparedness in foreign policy. Local knowledge about the Balkans is a competitive advantage. Here it is not enough to know the common European roots and cultural heritage to be successful in foreign affairs. There is a demand for Balkan experts who know the local conditions well, have an extensive education; there is need for training in Balkan Studies, and also for fora monitoring the situation. In a difficult world economic situation the requirements of competitiveness and of improving performances grow particularly. Today the opportunity is still available for exploiting the real and potential competitive advantages of Hungary in the cooperation with the region.


* Regular Member of the HAS