There is no doubt that there are strong historical connections between Turks and Hungarians, and some claim they go all the way back to Central Asian roots with a common past of more than 1,500 years. The memory of a Turkish presence is still fresh in modern Hungary today, with so many historical buildings from the Ottoman era kept in excellent repair by successive Hungarian governments. I had a chance to see some of them with my own eyes during a cold winter weekend in Budapest thanks to an invitation extended by the Manfred Wörner Foundation to discuss issues of Turkish foreign policy and events in the Middle East.
It was quite a telling story that just a few days ago visiting Turkish EU Minister and Chief Negotiator Egemen Bağış told the audience here in Budapest that former Hungarian President Pal Schmitt confided to him in March 2011 that it was for the best that Hungarians remained under Ottoman rule for some 150 years. Schmidt even acknowledged that had his country remained under the rule of another nation, his country would have been forced to convert to another religion and speak another language and thus would ultimately have been assimilated.
It was Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid who said “I would give up my crown, my throne, but I would never extradite those who have taken refuge in my state” when Austria and Russia pressured Turkey to surrender Lajos Kossuth and other Hungarian revolutionary refugees in the 19th century. It was in the Turkish city Kütahya that Kossuth drew up the first modern constitution of Hungary. There are many more common links that are worth mentioning — some sweet, others bitter.
However, I think Turkish President Abdullah Gül outlined the framework well during Schmidt’s visit to Turkey in November 2011. He said: “History awards not those who dwell on the bitter memories of the past but those who can turn their faces to the future. As two peoples who have achieved this, Turkey and Hungary work together today to improve their relations on the basis of friendship, cooperation and mutual interest.”
That is in fact what we need today between the two countries: to look for ways to exploit the opportunities mutually and tap into these potentials by devising mechanisms to turn goodwill wishes into concrete action. The fact that we have already some promising projects in progress right now between the two countries as part of NATO and the EU means that we can very well fast track these cooperation schemes and generate much more productive and fruitful relations.
For example, in October 2011, Turkish and Hungarian interior ministers signed an agreement for Turkey to learn from the Hungarian experience on Integrated Border Management as part of requirements for the Turkish application for EU membership. The agreement allowed Turkey to tap into Hungary’s successful experience in setting up a professional border security organization and transferring the responsibility for border security from the military to the national police force. The agreement will help Turkey harmonize its border management system according to EU standards and pave the way for an eventual visa waiver by the EU for Turkish nationals. There is also increasing evidence that Hungary is now cooperating more effectively with Turkey on terrorism on the bilateral level when some EU member states turn a blind eye to fundraising and recruiting activities of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in their own countries. In March 2011, Budapest joined NATO’s Ankara-based Center of Excellence Defense Against Terrorism (COE-DAT) as well.
Nevertheless, more can be done on economic cooperation. Turkey, with the sixth largest economy in Europe and the 17th largest in the world, is perfectly positioned to help Hungary benefit most from the country’s “Look East” policy as Ankara has gained much experience in dealing with fast-growing economies in the East and among Muslim countries in which Budapest is looking to expand trade, investment and tourism. It was not just the burgeoning middle class consumer with significant purchasing power in Turkey alone but Ankara’s diversification trade policy in the last decade too that have helped Turkey cushion adverse impacts of the 2008 US-led financial crisis as well as the current debt and growth crisis in Europe.
As Hungary’s heavily indebted economy is expected to contract by more than 1 percent this year, possibly hitting a recession next year, the successful experience in Turkey may speed up Hungary’s recovery. In fact, there are signs that the Hungarian government has been trying to buy time from investors by holding out the promise of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) deal, as Turkey did in 2009. More Turkish investment can be lured to Hungary, as more and more businesses in Turkey are looking to expand their markets. This will also prevent a negative impact on the worsening economic conditions in Hungary from taking their toll on the trade volume between the two countries. Though the trade volume increased to $2 billion in 2011, up from $1.8 billion a year earlier, in the first 10 months of 2012, the volume dropped to $1.4 billion, a decrease of 18 percent over the same period of last year. The Hungarian economy will eventually recover from the crisis, and when that happens, the trade volume will bounce back to a more promising level.
The growing number of passengers carried by Turkey’s national flag carrier Turkish Airlines (THY) between İstanbul and Budapest is testament that things are moving in the right direction at least in the travel and hospitality industry. THY celebrated its 15th year of operation in Budapest last week, having carried 107,000 passengers on flights between the two countries in 2011, up from 84,000 a year earlier. It will likely exceed its target for 2012 with 130,000 passengers.
Turkey is also a strategic partner for Hungary when it comes to the security of energy resources because Turkey constitutes a natural energy bridge across Central Asia, the Caspian Basin, the Middle East and the EU countries. Hungary is closely involved in the gas pipeline project called Nabucco, which will cross Turkey before heading to Europe. Hungarian oil and gas group MOL is also involved in upstream projects in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, where oil is exported through Turkish ports. Because of Turkey’s position on gas and oil routes, Hungarian officials are unhappy about the fact that prevention of the opening of energy chapter talks with Turkey by some EU member states is really hurting Hungary’s national energy security interests.
Turkey and Hungary, two countries situated on the opposite rim of the Balkans region, see eye-to-eye on many global and regional issues. Once they join forces, they are well-positioned to make a difference on many issues of common concern. Unfortunately, the respective peoples of each country know little about the other and there is a great need to invest heavily on educational and media exchange programs to better promote Turks in Hungary and Hungarians in Turkey.