It took Defense Minister Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky more than a week to confirm the biggest overhaul in the ranks of Hungary’s army in the past two decades after the first articles appeared about a major wave of layoffs. For days, news about the dismissal of hundreds of high-ranking officers, some of them only recently promoted, were circulating in the Hungarian press without any official comment from the government.
Szalay-Bobrovniczky said in an interview on January 31 that several hundred officers were being sacked, mostly from the top ranks, in order to help “meritocracy and competition” in the army and to make the organization a little less top-heavy. The decision came as the government struggles to fill up to 10,000 roles in the lower ranks (the current personnel ceiling is 37,460.) The layoffs have already been taking place based on a decree signed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán a week earlier, which allows the firing of officers who have served at least 25 years and are at least 45 years old, with two months’ notice. Many are at the rank of lieutenant colonel and above. There were reports of officers summoned from posts abroad to be summarily dismissed.
Given the government’s unwillingness to offer much explanation, others began to fill in the blanks.
The opposition MP and member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Ágnes Vadai, called the decision a “political purge.” A former Secretary of State in the Ministry of Defense, she said the decision was a government attempt to “de-NATO-fying” the armed forces.
Others have disputed this, arguing that many of the sacked officers had been promoted since Orbán’s current stint in the government started in 2010, and have said that the dismissals will ultimately create space for younger officers with more international experience. Yet, if the purpose is to revitalize the army with younger people, is difficult to explain why Orbán’s decree drew the line at 45 years, a relatively young age.
Szalay-Bobrovniczky sternly declared that the army was “not a social institution”, but “an army . . . next to a raging war at the center of Europe.”
This is surprising from a member of Orbán’s government. For the past year, his administration has argued that the prime minister has an amicable relationship with Russia and that the constant threats to veto EU sanctions and refusal to provide military aid to Ukraine have been necessary to keep Hungary far away from a war, into which reckless left-wing politicians, in Orbán’s telling, would “drag” the country and its population. It is worth noting that even now, the minister did not refer to Russia as a threat; instead speaking only about NATO’s eastern flank.
The government has significantly increased military procurement in recent years, in part to meet NATO’s 2% of GDP target which it has long failed to achieve.
Spending rose in 2018 when, as per the sources of the investigative outlet Direkt36, a more business-focused leadership took over in the Defense Ministry. German, and to a somewhat smaller extent, US and Israeli suppliers were the main beneficiaries of these deals. Some reportedly also benefited business circles around Fidesz. Another explanation circulating around the dismissals has been that they allow the government to break opposition to certain deals.
Whatever the true reasons for the latest development, the circumstances of it and the way it has been handled by the government highlight bigger and more deeply rooted problems — of a political, not military nature.
Given Orbán’s subversive foreign policy it’s easy to understand why there are suspicions. There are also concerns that such abrupt changes might be the result of ulterior motives, and the risks of further eroding trust between Hungary and its allies. His administration has launched diatribes against Western sanctions and military aid to Ukraine, has vetoed initiatives to bring Ukraine closer to NATO, has taken a lenient approach to Russian diplomats and government-controlled organizations, and still provides residence rights to the son of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency (SVR) head.
That significant personnel changes have been executed by Szalay-Bobrovniczky, a businessman without substantial expertise in the field of defense, is perhaps more concerning given that prior to taking office, he co-owned a company with the Russian Transmashholding (whose former president is sanctioned.)
Even if the dismissals themselves do not amount to a politically motivated purge, it is difficult to argue the government’s case. The country is currently the most corrupt member state in the European Union (EU), according to Transparency International, and it is possible to believe that the decree could be used to put political pressure on young officers as they approach 45 years of age.
Perhaps most importantly, even if the layoffs do promote promising younger officers into the newly freed-up spaces, they are unlikely to solve what Direkt36’s sources called the main problems of Hungary’s military: the lack of specialists able to operate the modern equipment that the government has acquired in recent years.
Currently — as the minister himself acknowledged — the Hungarian military is not an attractive place for young professionals to work. Poorly executed and poorly explained dismissals, and persistent rumors of over-politicization, are unlikely to change this.
Just as with Hungary’s diplomatic corps, which also experienced mass layoffs and the influx of a new cohort of officials with a “business-focused” approach and political connections, there is a very clear risk that the country’s key institutions, which guarantee the security and ethos of the state, will become hollowed out and rotten.
András Tóth-Czifra is a Non-resident Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) He is a political analyst from Hungary, based in New York City.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.