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Katrine (8) with her coach, Hungary’s first European figure skating champion, Júlia Sebestyén

Four Years in Budapest and 40 in Diplomacy

Ambassador Berstad leaves Hungary after four years in the Hungarian capital

In the WittyLeaks series, Diplomacy&Trade regularly publishes the personal accounts of ambassadors and other diplomatic mission leaders accredited to Budapest. This time, the departing Norwegian ambassador looks back at his career.

I have now over 40 years of diplomatic service behind me, continuously since 1980. I was very pleased to be posted as ambassador to Budapest. Central Europe has – and continues to play – an important role in European life and history. Hungary is a brilliant example of a country, which stood up against the great post-war divide in Europe and liberated itself thirty years ago.
I will, of course, think back on the corona crisis and the recent months of lock-down in Hungary – and the generally strong-handed Hungarian policies. Hungary unfortunately appears at the center of many controversies. Many have concerns about Hungary’s decline on important international rankings, like media freedom and rule of law. But I will remember also the rich and pleasant life as a diplomat here. For instance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade organized trips to different parts of the country. You get to see the best, of culture, landscape, industry etc., complementing your own professional and private travels around Hungary. And Hungarian wine and cuisine! I have become a great fan of simple gulyásleves topped with spicy green paprika (certainly softened by a shot of pálinka). Our family has gotten to know Hungarian sports, particularly figure
skating. Our small daughter, Katrine performs well under professional Hungarian trainers.

Ups and downs
My predecessor served in a period of bilateral political friction in 2014-15 over the management of the Norway and EEA grants in Hungary. I have been more fortunate. Still, we lack agreement with Hungary on the 2014-21 cycle of grants, but that has not significantly affected my tenure here, although I regret the loss of opportunities. More than EUR 200 million is awaiting use, enough – perhaps – to almost double the already estimated 1,400 small and large projects implemented in Hungary under this scheme since 2004, many with a Norwegian partner.
Budapest gave me two ‘invitations’ to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to receive a notice of displeasure. Most recently, in May, with my Nordic colleagues in Budapest over our governments’ concerns with regard to the Hungarian corona emergency legislation. And in 2017, I was reprimanded for having commented critically on the ‘Say no to Brussels’ campaign. These were not pleasant episodes, but – in fact, I regard both as a bonus to my CV….
I think Norway is on secure footing when it comes to relations with Hungary. We emphasize dialogue, knowledge and partnership over theory and passion. Hungary’s membership in NATO and in the EU and European Economic Area are strong foundations of cooperation.
1956 also has a special place in the minds of Norwegians. I myself had a Hungarian refugee as teacher in German and gymnastics in junior high school. Henrik Ibsen in 1849 at the age of 21 wrote a poem to the heroic Hungarian freedom fighters. Hungary’s fate has also been a lesson to the Norwegians and has helped our knowledge of Europe’s reactionary and darker forces. In 2020, we mark 100 years of diplomatic relations. We planted a tree in the Castle district. Hopefully it will grow strong, like Norway and Hungary.

Looking back at four decades in diplomacy
If I am asked what I have learnt after 40 years in Norwegian diplomacy, one thing is certain. It takes time to build, change things, foster progress in international affairs, create trust and peace. It is much easier and quicker to destroy it all. I regard Saddam Hussein’s attack on Kuwait in 1990 as such a destructive moment, which detracted attention from a much larger issue, namely, how to work with and integrate a rapidly changing Soviet Union. Being on the UN desk in our Oslo ministry, I had, at close hand, seen how, from about 1988, Soviet leaders and diplomats would talk and act in international fora – almost like us.
I had big hopes that together with a changed USSR, we would be able to effectively tackle all sorts of challenges, ranging from Middle East peace issues, the environment and climate, to poverty reduction, health and progress for everybody. In 1990, the Charter of Paris for a New Europe was adopted. It was a period of great expectations, a new era of democracy, peace and unity as decreed by the charter. And then Saddam, in my view, caused us to weaken our attention directed at the future of Europe and the Soviet Union.
Luckily attention was not totally lost. I remember a question on our side whether we should propose a kind of massive new Marshall aid to Russia and the others. However, most NATO allies felt that with their huge natural resources, industrial and agricultural potential, the new independent states should easily be able to finance their own transition and development, with some technical assistance from our side. The USA was in the lead, among many things helping Russia to increase its oil production (to earn hard currency) and reform agriculture (to reduce costs of importing food).
The EU implemented a comprehensive program called TACIS. Personally, I saw at close hand how successfully Norway could work with new Russia, even on such sensitive issues as nuclear safety, the dismantling of old Soviet nuclear submarines and handling of plutonium. We approached the issues as technical and practical tasks without any hidden agenda and managed to build considerable trust. We ensured that Russian secret services were comfortable with the way we did this, also involving the EU, USA and other international partners.
70 % of my professional life has been dedicated to issues related to Russia and the post-Soviet space. A Russia, which now has turned away from partnership with the West, is a definite loss to all of us. If I am asked about any errors of judgement I have committed, I would mention the skepticism which I had with regard to early NATO membership for Poland, the Baltic states and others, including Hungary. NATO is a values-based partnership and I thought that EU-membership should come first in order to solidify democracy, the rule of law, etc. I was also concerned that NATO membership might send an unintended signal to Russia, where large parts of the population have negative feelings about NATO. But European history clearly shows that stability cannot be achieved by surrounding powerful players with smaller, weak states and ‘zones of influence’. I now firmly believe that extending our collective security guarantees to up till now 14 new members has been the right, stabilizing decision to make.

Olav Berstad

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