Like two peas in a pod: that’s the impression Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave last week when they cozied up in Budapest. Erdoğan met Orbán for the second time in a row in a span of few weeks; the duo was just together on October 15 at the Turkic Council meeting held in Baku.
Erdoğan and Orbán have long been compared to one other as examples of populist leaders in power, and Turkish-Hungarian relations have been increasingly harmonious at the leadership level. However, the Budapest meeting on November 7 marked zenith of warm bilateral relations between the two countries. The official occasion for the visit was the 4th Turkey-Hungary High Level Strategic Cooperation Council, but the underlying reason was obviously to convey a message of “strength” to Europe and beyond.
The “Turkey-Hungary High Level Strategic Cooperation Council” was a mechanism established back in 2013 back when Erdoğan was the Prime Minister. The council had remained basically defunct up until now; its meetings were held only every two years, and nothing very “strategic” was ever achieved.
Bilateral relations have been getting closer since the failed coup attempt in 2016, though. Orban swiftly sent Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó to Ankara weeks after the July 15 coup attempt, while other EU countries were not as keen as Hungary to pay solidarity visits to Erdoğan. In return, Turkey has been raising its “cultural presence” in Hungary: the Yunus Emre Cultural Center is one of the biggest and by far the swankiest foreign cultural institute in Budapest, with its plush historical building purchased by the Turkish state, located at one of the most prestigious and expensive parts of Budapest, Andrássy Avenue. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) has been sponsoring “Kurultáj” (Kurultay) since 2016, a convention of nomadic games that celebrates Central Asian roots and traditions. Ankara engaged in a project to restore the historical Gül Baba Tomb, dating back to 16th century Ottoman rule, and the tomb was inaugurated in October 2018 with Erdoğan in attendance.
But starting about a month ago, Turkish-Hungarian relations have been rejuvenated with a completely new zest, and have become “strategic” for the first time. Hungary has been the only country to unconditionally and vocally stand by Turkey’s Peace Spring Military Operation in northern Syria since it was initiated on October 9. Hungary also went as far as to slow down the European Union’s process of condemning the operation: Foreign Minister Szijjártó confirmed that he blocked the issuing of an EU statement of condemnation "for a long time." As I have written before, Szijjártó subsequently skipped the EU meeting discussing an arms embargo for Turkey, and instead headed to Baku with Orbán to show off at the Turkic Council Meeting.
At this meeting, Orbán once again endorsed the “common ancestry” of Hungarians and Turkic peoples, and said that, “given the admirable achievements of the Turkic countries, calling Hungarians an Eastern people is now a form of praise.” At the 2018 meeting of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, Orbán reiterated that “Hungarians see themselves as the late descendants of Attila the Hun, and the country’s citizens are proud of their Hun-Turkic origins and their language, which is related to the Turkic languages.” In March 2019, speaking at a conference organized by the Hungarian Turan Foundation, Orbán described Hungary as “Christian Turkish lands.” He argued that Hungarians are “Kipchak Turks” — descendants of a Turkic tribe originating in Central Asia — and that Attila the Hun is the common ancestor of both Turks and Hungarians; this is why Hungary is a “Christian Turkish land.”
On the one hand, emphasizing a shared “Hun-Turkic ancestry” fits perfectly into Orbán’s “Eastern Opening.” He claims that “the old world order – with its dogma that capital and knowledge flow from West to East in search of cheap labor – has come to an end” and that “the new world order is fundamentally determined by the development of the rising states of the East.” Orbán likes to tie his arguments of Turkic historical affinity to what might be termed the “rise of new powers that take strength from their inherent greatness.” For example, he argued that the Gül Baba tomb serves “a reminder of the two nations’ greatness, and an admonition that today we must rise to that level of greatness.”
Because “Turanism,” the ideology that claims to unite peoples originating from Central Asia (the “Turan” land), was created in the 19th century by Hungarians, Orbán’s references to shared Turkic roots are not that novel. However, it is still curious as to why he is using the jargon and ideas of the Hungarian Turans because the ideology was also instrumentalized by the fascist Arrow Cross Party that governed in 1944-45 in collaboration with the Nazis. More recently, Hungary’s far-right populist party Jobbik used such Turanic references. However, the ideology itself does not have much resonance among contemporary Hungarian people.
It is also interesting how Erdoğan’s rhetoric about opening Turkey’s borders to push Syrian refugees towards Europe drew no criticism from the most anti-refugee Prime Minister in the EU. Erdoğan repeated that he is ready to open the gates to let millions of refugees to flee to Europe during his recent visit to Budapest. Orbán supported Erdoğan’s view, stating that, “Without Turkey, you cannot stop migration headed for Europe … As a consequence of this, Hungary is a strategic partner of Turkey in security and migration questions.” At the end of the day, the gist of the Erdoğan-Orbán camaraderie is displaying an image of strength to the EU. Their policies regarding Europe, popular domestically, aim to push their own agenda at the expense of Brussels.
Last but not least, it is ironic how Turkey has become an item on the domestic political agenda for the Hungarian public: while Erdoğan and Orbán team up, Budapest’s newly elected mayor from the opposition camp, Gergely Karácsony, visited Istanbul’s newly elected mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu prior to the local elections in Hungary to get tactical advice. İmamoğlu and Karácsony sang each other’s praises, and met up at the Bundestag in Germany to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall — just two days after the Erdoğan-Orbán meeting.
For an excellent book on Hungarian Turanism for reference, check out Taık Demirkan’s “Macar Turancıları” (Hungarian Turanists), printed by Tarih Vakfı — available only in Turkish for now.