Hungary Ousts Hundreds From Top Army Ranks, Defense Chief Says

(Bloomberg) -- Hungary’s nationalist government ousted hundreds of senior military leaders in the most far-reaching overhaul of the central European nation’s army since it joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

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The dismissals affect the top ranks, including generals, with colonels and lieutenant colonels making up the biggest share, Defense Minister Kristof Szalay-Bobrovniczky said in an interview on Monday. It was the first time the government confirmed the scale of the changes, with the final number of departures to be known next month, he said.

Some opposition politicians said the aim was to weaken the country’s western orientation during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and to fill the military with political loyalists as the next step in Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s power consolidation. Orban has extended his influence over the courts, media and even universities since 2010, in a self-proclaimed challenge to liberal democracy within the European Union.

Szalay-Bobrovniczky, who assumed office in May after Orban’s fourth consecutive landslide election win, rejected the criticism and said the changes were long overdue.

“You can’t have hidden agendas when doing things on this scale,” Szalay-Bobrovniczky said during the interview in his office, where nearby two assault rifles and a pistol lay on his desk. “I want to introduce meritocracy and competition in the defense forces.”

Orban has repeatedly threatened — but not carried out — a veto on ever-expanding EU sanctions against Russia, clashing with allies over his lukewarm support for Ukraine. On Friday, he told state radio that Ukraine’s allies had effectively made themselves part of the war by increasingly sending modern weaponry to help Kyiv fight Russian invaders.

Key to the revamp is a decree signed by Orban last week that eases rules for the dismissal of experienced soldiers. Those who have served at least 25 years and have turned 45 can be fired with just two months notice.

Szalay-Bobrovniczky said the defense force was burdened by a bloated leadership. But it’s also struggling to fill its ranks, with about 8,000 to 10,000 unfilled positions. The plan is to expand it to “multiples” of the current 37,640 personnel ceiling, he said.

The changes will open career paths for younger, physically fit, multilingual and decorated soldiers with NATO mission experience. They will also shift the emphasis to combat units from civilian jobs and non-combat roles, he said.

“This is not a social institution,” said Szalay-Bobrovniczky, adding that leaders who fit the new criteria and were doing mission-critical work would stay. “This is an army and one that is next to a raging war at the center of Europe.”

New Weapons

Staff changes are only part of the overhaul. Under a decade-long plan launched in 2016, Hungary is also replacing Soviet-era weapons with modern arms — including radar systems from Israel’s Iron Dome and Leopard tanks from Germany.

It’s also preparing to create a new defense industry, with German arms maker Rheinmetall AG setting up three factories in Hungary.

“We are making very important partnerships with large – and for strategic reasons, mainly European defense industry actors — to come to Hungary and shift production here,” Szalay-Bobrovniczky said. The weapons that will be produced are “not only for the needs of the Hungarian defense forces, but also for international sales,” he said.

Despite Hungary’s opposition to sending arms to Ukraine — something Orban insists he won’t do — part of the aim of the overhaul is to better align with NATO command structures, Szalay-Bobrovniczky said. The country is an active participant in NATO missions, including peacekeeping in Bosnia and patrolling Baltic airspace.

Asked to identify the main strategic threat to Hungary, he repeatedly said the “eastern flank.” But he demurred from explicitly naming Russia, in line with Orban’s efforts to avoid antagonizing Russian President Vladimir Putin and the country on which Hungary relies for much of its energy needs.

“The war on our eastern flank is our No. 1 priority,” he said. “We clearly said that we agree with the NATO statement that the most obvious and largest threat is from our eastern flank.”

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