Last night when I read that Heti Válasz will be coming out with sensational revelations about how Ferenc Gyurcsány’s infamous speech at Balatonőszöd in the spring of 2006 ended up in Fidesz hands, I thought that today’s topic was a given. I should have known better. It turned out to be a cheap journalistic performance. The so-called “crown witness,” that is the informer, was totally discredited within a few hours. Anyone who’s interested in the story should listen to György Bolgár’s interview with the informer on “Megbeszéljük” on Klubrádió. Actually, the whole two-hour program makes for worthwhile listening, including two other important interviews that Bolgár conducted.
But it’s just as well that I had to change topics because for days I have been contemplating turning to one of my favorite essayists, András Nyerges, for inspiration. I’ve written about Nyerges several times. He is a full-time novelist and poet, but on the side once a month or so he writes short pieces comparing the present Hungarian right to its counterpart between the two world wars. Nyerges must have combed through hundreds and hundreds of right-wing newspapers. Some of his findings are quite embarrassing to later greats of Hungarian literature. That’s why the subtitle of one volume of his collected essays is “Blasphemous Investigations.”
A couple of days ago it came to light that one of the most distasteful characters in Viktor Orbán’s entourage, Imre Kerényi, made another outrageous comment on a local television station serving the inhabitants of District V in Budapest. I’ve written about Kerényi three times, but perhaps the most revealing post was entitled “Imre Kerényi, the brains behind the ‘Table of the Basic Laws.’” Kerényi seems to have a free hand when it comes to spending billions of forints on kitsch art or a “National Library” that even includes a third-rate cookbook from the Kádár period.
There is only one good thing that one can say about Kerényi. He doesn’t hide the fact that as “commissioner in charge of art” he divides all art forms into “right and left” or “national and international.” Good and bad. For instance, he views the history of twentieth-century Hungarian literature as a victory of the left over the right. In fact, he makes no secret of his belief that the literary greats of the right were actually suppressed. But, he says, from here on everything will be different. The current regime will develop its own “national canon.” Now that they are in power, they will make sure that those who have been successful both inside and outside the country, for example Péter Esterházy and Péter Nádas, will be pushed into the background.
Actually, it is unlikely that the Hungarian government can ruin the careers of these two particular writers because their international fame protects them, but others are not so lucky. Let’s take, for example, the University of Performing Arts whose president is not a favorite of the regime. In order to ruin the institution, the government simply cut back its support. With the National Theater at least they had the decency to let Róbert Alföldi, the current director, finish his term. But when he reapplied for the position, the powers that be made sure that their man, naturally someone with right-wing political views, got the job. Kerényi was one of the jurors. He admitted that the nomination of the new director wasn’t exactly cricket but, he said, sorry, “our time has arrived.”
Kerényi’s latest pronouncement on the local TV station was that from here on everything will be different in the National Theater. It will not be a theater of “fags” but of “loyalty” and “love.” Keep in mind that this man is a member of the Hungarian government.
And now to Nyerges. Let’s see how the Hungarian right saw the state of Hungarian literature in the 1920s and 1930s. A Hungarian member of parliament in 1920 expressed his view that “national literature went to the dogs and anyone who tried to follow the national or religious path was branded. A new kind of literature was born: the literature of Pest, an anti-literature.” And he went on to list the names of those “from whom the national feeling died out”: Ferenc Molnár-Neumann, Mór Szomori-Weiss, Sándor Bródy, Ernő Szép-Schőn, Lajos Bíró-Blau. “The time of reckoning has come. The time will come when everybody will be measured by our natural feelings.” Cécile Tormay, just lately elevated to the national curriculum, called Endre Ady, one of Hungary’s greatest poet, “the singing gravedigger of the nation.” These right-wingers bemoaned the fact that Hungarian literature seemed to be following Western models. Just as Kerényi in the same television appearance complained that the Hungarian National Theater’s performances are not Hungarian enough. The performances are indistinguishable from others elsewhere in Europe or North America.
At least in the 1920s some of the critics of the Western model admitted that Hungarian conservative literature didn’t really have outstanding writers “with the exception of Ferenc Herczeg and Ottokár Prohászka.” The latter, as you may recall, was the founding father of the idea of Hungarism later adopted by Ferenc Szálasi. Cécile Tormay’s “rehabilitation” as a great writer is especially amusing considering that her own conservative or right-wing contemporaries found her untalented. Dezső Szabó compared her to Renée Erdős, the author of light novels much favored by middle-class ladies of no great literary refinement.
Gyula Pekár, a mediocre writer and politician, was certain that there were “two Hungarian literary canons that are engaged in a life and death battle.” He, as undersecretary in charge of cultural affairs in the early 1920s, made sure that the “national side” would emerge victorious. The Hungarian writer Sándor Márai, recently discovered in international circles as a great writer, complained in 1932 about “the ideological terror of a reactionary minority.” He added that “not liking Pekár but reading [Gyula] Krúdy is considered to be treason, but even then we cannot agree to make the mistake of mixing up Hungarian literature with national literature.”
The Orbán government’s cultural policy is practically a carbon copy of the Horthy regime’s attempt to force “national” literature on the country’s literati. The interesting thing, in my opinion, is that Kerényi most likely knows very little about what András Nyerges is talking about in this essay. His own instincts are simply guiding him down the same path. There is nothing new under the sun.
Readers of this blog didn’t, couldn’t, realize that yesterday was a special day in the history of Hungarian Spectrum. Yesterday I posted the two-thousandth (yes, #2,000) article. My first post appeared on June 27, 2007, almost six years ago. In case anyone is interested in a more precise calculation, there were 2,156 days between June 27 and yesterday. So, there were very few days that Spectrum offered its readers nothing new.
Perhaps I should explain why I started the blog in the first place. I became interested in current Hungarian politics in early 1994 when the Internet was in its infancy. There was no possibility of reading newspapers, listening to radio stations, or watching television online. There were no social sites, although people gathered in small groups, mostly centered around Yahoo, to discuss politics or other topics of common interest. Those using AOL had to be very careful how much time they spent online because the basic AOL service was only ten hours a month.
As soon as I had Internet access I signed up for the two or three discussion groups that dealt with Hungary, and eventually I started a group of my own. But it was almost inevitable that the members of these groups would either become tired of one other or bored with the topics members brought up and that eventually these discussion groups would fall apart. Mine didn’t for a very long time, but finally the discussions became less interesting and less instructive and I became increasingly frustrated. I began to feel that I was wasting my time. As a group leader of sorts I felt that I was responsible for keeping the conversation going, and I spent hours combing the Hungarian media to come up with timely topics. Eventually I had to admit that no amount of effort on my part would keep the group discussion vibrant.
It was at this point that a friend of mine said to me: “Why don’t you start a blog? You are wasting your considerable knowledge of Hungarian politics here. You’re reaching very few people who are not even interested in what you have to say.” I knew very little about blogs and had no experience with the kind of writing that one expects from a blogger. My first draft attempt met with scorn: “You’re not writing a historical treatise in a periodical. Loosen up!” Finally, on June 27, 2007 I was ready to go live.
Well, I might have been ready to write a blog but people were not quite ready to read it. I don’t remember how long it took before there were even 100 readers a day. I do know that the first days were agonizing. One day there were only nine hits, as it turned out all my own. But eventually there were even comments. I started getting letters telling me that expats and foreign newspapermen in Budapest had become avid readers of Hungarian Spectrum.
Lately there has been some discussion about the purpose of Hungarian Spectrum. I think that first and foremost it should inform people, especially those who don’t know Hungarian, about day to day Hungarian politics. No American, Canadian, British, German, or French paper will ever cover Hungarian affairs in any depth, if at all. Yet, judging from the size of the readership of Hungarian Spectrum today, there are a lot of people out there who are eager to know more about the country.
Second, I think that Hungarian Spectrum as an English-language blog opens the door to a country where information directed at the outside world is scarce, be it official government publications or the messages of the opposition. That’s why I spend a great deal of time translating material. Just lately the decision to translate the Tarlós-Orbán conversation made a difference. Even Portuguese newspapers picked up the story from Hungarian Spectrum. My decision to translate Viktor Orbán’s unfortunate remarks about the German cavalry in the form of tanks was picked up by the German press.
Third, I wouldn’t do all this work if I didn’t enjoy it. I do, and I enjoy the lively discussions that follow the postings.
Hungarian Spectrum is often described as a “liberal blog.” Indeed, it is if by liberal we mean “not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry.” I try to present the facts unvarnished, but the opinions expressed are my own. It cannot be otherwise.
Yes, I’m proud of the road we’ve traveled in the last six years: Hungarian Spectrum has become an important source of information on Hungary. It is more than I ever expected. Thank you, dear readers, for your support and your comments.
It was only yesterday that I learned from Péter Szijjártó that the “Eastern Opening” also means Hungary’s move toward Africa. Very soon I think they will have to change the name “Eastern Opening” to “Opening to any country outside of the European Union.” Admittedly, it is cumbersome but apt.
You may recall that a few months ago one Hungarian delegation after another made pilgrimages to affluent Middle Eastern countries, targeting Saudi Arabia in particular. They made at least twenty official and semi-official trips to Riyad in the last year and a half, but, as Hetek, the publication of Faith Church, reported, until now with no great results. Prince Abdulaziz, son of King Abdullah, spent a few days last week in Budapest since he is the sponsor of an event called “Saudi Arabian Days” that showcased the culture and history of the Saudi Kingdom. Abdulaziz met Foreign Minister János Martonyi, who was especially eager to establish student exchange programs between the two countries. From here the next step was to entice the Arab country to invest money in Hungary’s poverty stricken higher education.
Corvinus University was the first to offer the Saudis an opportunity to be generous. The university’s senate decided to establish a Center of Islamic Studies and an M.A. program to go with it. Apparently the suggestion was welcomed by the faculty because the university is so strapped for funds that “it will be a miracle if [they] survive the summer.” The university also bestowed an honorary doctorate on Khalid bin Mohammed Al-Anqari, Saudi minister in charge of higher education.
The dean of Corvinus, László Csicsmann, is convinced that if Corvinus establishes an Islamic Center “one could speedily agree on a few million dollars of assistance to the university.” He used the expression “strike while the iron is hot.” After all, the minister received an honorary doctorate only recently, the university delegation just returned from Riyad, and here is the occasion of the Saudi Arabian Days in Budapest.
I suspect that Csicsmann is too optimistic about Corvinus’s chances of receiving a few million dollars with no strings attached. How much say would the Saudi government have in setting up the Islamic Center and how much influence they would demand when it comes to the curriculum? The dean was unable to give a clear answer, and why should he?After all, Saudi assistance cannot be taken for granted; discussions of the matter haven’t even begun.
According to the students, the new president, Zsolt Rostoványi, is very interested in developing close contacts with Arab countries. Since he took office there have been many conferences and the number of honorary doctorates to Arab officials has multiplied in the hope of some Saudi money coming to the university’s aid.
Corvinus is desperate in the wake of severe budgetary cuts. You may recall that about two years ago there were rumors that Corvinus might not survive a future reorganization of Hungarian higher education planned by the Orbán government. In the end, it seems, Viktor Orbán didn’t dare close or amalgamate into another institution one of the best universities in the country. But he doesn’t like the institution, which he considers to be a stronghold of liberal, “orthodox” economics. Slowly starving it to death is a perhaps less obvious strategy.
As Hungary seeks alliances with countries in the “East,” it’s burning its bridges with those in the West. Viktor Orbán’s ill-fated words about the German tanks didn’t remain unanswered by the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, who considers Orbán’s statement “a regrettable derailment that [Germany] rejects.” The Hungarian Foreign Ministry is desperately trying to explain away Orbán’s remarks, but this time their job seems especially difficult. Undersecretary Gergely Prőhle, who is usually quite skillful at defending the government’s position, did a poor job today during an interview with György Bolgár on Klubrádió. He is normally diplomatic and can even be semi-convincing; today he was irritated and aggressive.
But if the troubles with Germany weren’t enough, it seems that the Orbán government is taking on another “enemy,” the United States. On Friday Magyar Nemzet launched a frontal attack in a lead editorial. Magyar Nemzet has taken a consistently anti-American stance, but I’ve never seen such antagonistic writing as the piece by Gábor László Zord.
There is no question that Viktor Orbán is not exactly crazy about the United States. He has been snubbed too many times by successive American presidents ever since September 11, 2001. What did the young Hungarian prime minister do, or rather didn’t do, in 2001? He remained silent while the anti-Semitic István Csurka delivered a speech in parliament in which he stated that the U.S. deserved what it got on 9/11. Later, when there were attempts to make Orbán mend his way and at least belatedly express his sympathy with the United States, he neglected to do so. Subsequently, he tried to get an invitation to the White House but without success. I remember that János Martonyi was certain that Orbán would have an opportunity to make a state visit to Washington sometime in the fall of 2010. As we know, the doors of the White House seem to be closed to him. So it’s no wonder that Orbán carries a grudge against the United States and is irritated by what he considered “lectures” on democracy from Hillary Clinton and others. It seem that Magyar Nemzet’s reporters have a free hand to publish violently anti-American articles.
I don’t know what has happened in U.S.-Hungarian relations lately, but this latest attack on the United States is unprecedented. The reporter latches onto some of the problems currently facing the Obama administration to announce that “the United States doesn’t have the moral authority to tell the Hungarian government anything about democracy. If anyone is guilty of undemocratic acts it is the United States.” He offers a laundry list of sins, from the “murdered millions in pointless wars” to “doing business with representatives of dictatorship.” He is convinced that “if international law would work properly, masses of American officials and soldiers would be dragged to the Hague where they would receive the hospitality of the International Court of Justice.” But, says the reporter, sadly there is no justice in the world. “The truth lies with the powerful.” So, what can we do?
One thing Hungary can do, the reporter writes: “Keep up the list of their sins and always be ready to come back with our own answers. Don’t worry, we have a lot we can be proud of and they’d better huddle in some corner quietly.”
The Orbán government currently has enough problems with the country’s most important ally, Germany. I wouldn’t advise them to pick a new fight, this time with the United States.
Yesterday I wrote that Péter Szijjártó, undersecretary in charge of foreign policy and foreign trade, has been working to develop close political and economic partnerships with three former Soviet Republics–Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The prime minister’s office, a huge administrative unit with hundreds of politicians and bureaucrats, is not exactly diligent about informing the public of Szijjártó’s doings. In fact, the first bit of news I discovered appeared in a paper dealing with sports.
The president of the International Weightlifting Federation is a Hungarian, Tamás Aján, who is also secretary-general of the Hungarian Olympic Committee and a member of the International Olympic Committee. He was visiting Tashkent on the occasion of the world championship of youth weightlifters that was held in the Uzbek capital. Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan, invited Aján for a private audience. After a long talk it became evident that the Uzbek dictator would like an arrangement whereby Uzbek athletes could train in Hungary. One of Karimov’s daughters is especially active in promoting education and sports for youngsters. Hence, I guess, the interest.
As for Karimov himself, he is an outright dictator who wins elections with 90-95% of the votes after he makes sure that no other party can participate in the elections. During the Soviet period he was a party apparatchik who eventually became the party’s first secretary in Uzbekistan in 1989. After Uzbekistan became an independent nation, he won the first presidential election in 1991 and has been in that position ever since.
A month after the weightlifting story Magyar Nemzet described the “Eastern Opening” as a “rumbling” while ” we flirt with Uzbekistan.” It turned out that Vladimir Norov, the first deputy foreign minister of Uzbekistan, came to Hungary to confer with Péter Szijjártó. According to Szijjártó’s press secretary, the Hungarian side emphasized that Budapest wants to have “close cooperation with the Middle Eastern countries.” Hungary will extend a loan to Uzbekistan that would enable Hungarian firms to modernize the lighting of Uzbek cities. In addition, the Hungarian government would financially assist the export of Hungarian medical equipment. There will also be student exchanges and stipends to go with them. And Hungary will supply irrigation systems for the Uzbek agricultural sector.
Uzbekistan is a politically isolated country. At the moment Hungary has no embassy, consulate, or even honorary consul in Tashkent. But I have the feeling that it will not be long before Hungary joins the odd assortment of countries with embassies in Uzbekistan.
There has been even less news on Turkmenistan in the Hungarian media. I found that at the end of March Gulsat Mammedowa, minister of education, was in Budapest and conferred with Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources. The topic was cooperation on higher education. Balog emphasized that Hungary is ready to engage in joint projects in education and in the field of science. They agreed that a bilateral agreement will be signed to that effect. The Turkmen minister of education also had conversations with Rózsa Hoffmann and István Klinghammer, two of the undersecretaries in charge of education within the ministry of human resources.
The history of Turkmenistan since the early 1990s is very similar to that of Uzbekistan. It is a single party state that was ruled by president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov until his death in 2006. Niyazov was a former bureaucrat of the Soviet communist party who in 1985 became the head of the Communist Party of the Turkmen SSR. He retained absolute control over the country even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow followed him in 2007. Although he is also a dictator, he’s made tentative steps toward establishing more contacts with the West. The former communist party is now known as the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan and is the only one effectively permitted to operate. Political gatherings are illegal unless government sanctioned. Hungary has no diplomatic relations in Ashgabat. But, once again, I assume there will be if Orbán is around for another four years.
To give you an idea of the kind of country Turkmenistan is, consider this story. The president is crazy about horses and horsemanship. On May 1 there was a horse show where he himself also rode. In the finish Berdimuhamedow fell off his horse. The television station was forbidden to show his fall and pictures taken on the spot by reporters were confiscated. Even ordinary spectators had to hand over their pictures. Security men came and took him away. For half an hour there was deadly silence in the stadium. There were some who cried. However, forty minutes later, as if nothing had happened, Berdimuhamedow showed up dressed in a national costume. Amid great applause he took the top prize money of $11 million as the winner of the race. (By way of comparison, the owners of the Kentucky Derby winner Orb took home $1.4 million.) I can’t ascertain whether he fell before the horse crossed the finish line or after.
Despite the Turkmen officials’ best efforts, the video ended up on YouTube.
On May 15 Péter Szijjártó, undersecretary in charge of foreign policy and foreign economic relations, received three new jobs from Viktor Orbán. He will be the chairman of the Hungarian-Belarussian, Hungarian-Turkman, and Hungarian-Uzbek bilateral economic councils. Following the announcement, Szijjártó’s spokeswoman emphasized that “economic cooperation with the former Soviet member states are the foundation pillars of the government’s strategy of the Eastern Opening and therefore the government will pay special attention to bilateral relations with Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.’”
Uzbekistan is described by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. Department of State as ”an authoritarian state with limited civil rights” in which there is “wide-scale violation of virtually all basic human rights.” Turkmenistan’s record is no better. Its government operates as a single party state. The country has been widely criticized for human rights abuses and has imposed severe restrictions on foreign travel for its citizens. According to Reporters Without Borders 2012, Turkmenistan had the second worst press freedom conditions in the world, just behind North Korea. Belarus is described as a dictatorship and has been barred from the Council of Europe since 1997.
So, these countries are the pillars of Viktor Orbán’s “Eastern Opening.” Nice company Hungary is keeping. Clearly, the Orbán government is ready to cooperate with countries with natural resources. Both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have extensive natural gas reserves and phenomenal economic growth. Belarus, on the other hand, seems to be in constant economic crisis; occasionally Putin’s Russia helps the country out with large loans.
Not much appeared in the Hungarian press about Belarus before November 2012 when HVG reported that Alexandr Lukashenko, the country’s president, announced that “the Hungarians seemed to have had enough of democracy and market economy. They sobered up.” He recalled that in the good old Soviet days the two countries were friends, and he expressed his belief that the two countries will strengthen their ties in the near future. “We cannot lose Hungary.”
That exchange between the Belarus president and the new Hungarian ambassador to Minsk made quite a splash in Budapest. Árpád W. Tóta, a commentator known for his verbal virtuosity and keen sense of politics, had a grand time with Lukashenko’s description of Hungary’s undemocratic ways, adding that Hungary is nowhere close to Lukashenko’s Belarus but “we are coming along nicely.” According to András Giró-Szász, government spokesman, Lukashenko “was only joking.”
Interestingly, at the time the Hungarian government was not eager to inform the public of closer Belarussian-Hungarian relations. Hungarian papers learned about the details from the Belarussian Telegraph Agency. For example, already in October 2012 “Minsk was playing host to the third meeting of the intergovernmental Belarussian-Hungarian commission for economic cooperation and the Belarussian-Hungarian business forum.” The Belarussian Ministry of Sport and Tourism and the Ministry of National Economy of Hungary signed an agreement on cooperation in the field of tourism. Working groups were set up for the study of cooperation in the fields of agriculture, industry, and tourism, as well as science and technology. In mid-December 2012 Aleksandr Khainovsky, Belarussian ambassador to Budapest, met with Sándor Lezsák, deputy-speaker of the Hungarian parliament and head of the parliamentary friendship group Belarus-Hungary. “The parties discussed the prospects of Belarussian-Hungarian inter-parliamentary relations and agreed on expanding cooperation in these areas…. The sides also specified projects to promote Belarus-Hungary contacts in culture, education and youth exchanges.”
By February 2013 the Hungarian media learned, again through the Belarussian Telegraph Agency, that Belorussian officials carried on negotiations at the time when the Agro Mash Expo 2013 was being held in Budapest about Hungary’s importing more Belarussian agricultural machinery, especially tractors. Already in 2011 Hungary purchased 973 tractors from Belarus for $16.6 million.
On May 1, 2013, Fidesz’s official website announced that Péter Szijjártó met Alena Kupchina, Belarus deputy foreign minister, in Budapest. They discussed setting up direct flights (Minsk-Budapest-Belgrade) that would “encourage economic and cultural relations between the two countries.” The two agreed that, as of the coming academic year, Hungarian will be taught at the University of Minsk. Further plans call for close cooperation in pharmaceutical research and development.
I was somewhat baffled that the same Alina Kupchina who met Szijjártó on May 1 was again in Budapest on May 6 when she met with two senior officials of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, Zsolt Németh and Péter Sztáray. She came specifically for a “foreign policy consultation.” Németh at least brought up Hungarian concerns over the Belarussian human and political rights situation. He asked for the release of political prisoners because “this would assist Belarus’s more active participation in the work of the Eastern Partnership.”
Tomorrow I will continue with the other two “pillars” of Hungary’s Eastern Opening: Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
According to some analysts, Viktor Orbán’s latest Friday morning interview was perhaps one of the most revealing and most frightening. On such occasions the prime minister sometimes unwittingly reveals facts about himself and the country that would perhaps best remain hidden.
I already mentioned his inappropriate quip about the unwelcome German tanks in 1944. He went on to make a “non-threatening” remark about those who do not embrace Fidesz. In connection with the clearly fraudulent tobacconist shop concessions, he said: ”I am a mild-mannered person, so I am not saying this to threaten anyone, but if we wanted to enforce political considerations in such a tender, there would not be a single left-wing winner.” As Erik D’Amato wrote on politics.hu, ”if Viktor Orbán wanted to he could crush you like an ant, but he won’t, because he’s chill.”
Orbán again beat the drum about his government’s accomplishments, starting with the country’s fantastic economic achievement that by now “the whole world recognizes.” Please, anyone who’s heard such praise, stand up! I also learned from this interview that Hungary’s economic growth was respectable in 2011 but then came a “second wave of economic crisis in Europe” that caused all the trouble in Hungary. Thus, the Hungarian government’s unorthodox policies had nothing to do with the recession that followed two years of small economic growth.
Orbán actually boasted about his illegal seizure of private pension accounts from millions of citizens when he described how “we reorganized the system of pensions and took away the money from the financial markets, taxed the banks, forced the multinationals to pay taxes.” He admitted that he could do all that because of his party’s super majority. The truth? The pensions were taken away from the people and not the markets. Both the banks and the multinationals had paid taxes before; what he and his right hand, György Matolcsy, did was to levy crippling additional taxes on them.
The untrue statements didn’t end here. Orbán claimed that the European Union wants to force the Hungarian government to “take away from ordinary people … lower pensions … lower social welfare, decrease child support.” Orbán categorically stated that he will never satisfy such demands from the European Union because they amount to an austerity program, a concept whose very mention is forbidden by Fidesz. But the fact is that every time the chips were down Orbán gave in to the demands of the European Union concerning the budget deficit. Except the Orbán government refuses to use the word “austerity” (megszorítás). All sorts of other words are substituted for the austerity packages that followed each other in rapid succession throughout 2011 and 2012. One of these synonyms is “zárolás” (sequestration, freezing of funds), which according to Orbán “doesn’t take money away from people.” So, if the Ministry of Human Resources must spend less on education or healthcare it does not affect, according the economic wizardry of the Hungarian prime minister, the well being of the country’s citizens.
It is also clear that Orbán is unwilling to begin serious structural reforms. If Hungarians don’t like to hear about austerity they are equally leery about “reforms.” Their experience in the past has been that reform means a diminishment of their income or their access to social welfare benefits. Instead, Orbán is ready to contemplate such suggestions as spending less on government bureaucracy, further raising taxes on banks and the multinationals, and even increasing the transaction tax rate “if the European Union insists on a lower deficit.”
And finally, a few words about Viktor Orbán’s attitude toward his own role as prime minister of the country. Ever since 2002 Orbán has often repeated that “the nation cannot be the opposition.” He equates his own political side with the nation. Those who have a different set of political views are outside of the nation. At the end of the interview this interpretation of his own role became clear: he considers himself the prime minister of those who are Fidesz supporters.
I already mentioned this gentle soul’s words about his limitless power to grant tobacconist licenses based on political considerations. Orbán explained further: “I would like to make it perfectly clear that I will never turn my back on our supporters. Why is it wrong if entrepreneurs who share our values and otherwise fulfill the requirements win these tenders?… To turn our backs on our own voters, our followers (hiveink), our supporters just because we politicians will receive less criticism this way, that I will never accept. We have to endure these criticisms because if our followers cannot count on us, who can?”
It’s no wonder that last night Ágnes Vadai (DK) in an interview on Egyenes beszéd kept referring to Viktor Orbán as “the man who calls himself Hungary’s prime minister.”
The big item in the Hungarian media today was an exchange between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Peer Steinbrück, her social democratic rival at the next German election. The scene was a yearly event called WDR Europaforum. WDR stands for Westdeutscher Rundfunk (West German Broadcasting), based in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The program of this year’s forum is available on the Internet. In addition to Steinbrück and Merkel, such important European politicians as Guido Westervelle, German foreign minister; José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Union; and Wolfgang Schäuble, German minister of finance, attended.
It says a lot that Hungary came up at all at such a high-level gathering. But it did and in a country like Hungary, small and deeply divided politically, its very mention at such a forum brings immediate and sometimes violent reactions at home. Peer Steinbrück, who would like to have Angela Merkel’s job, criticized the chancellor for not being forceful enough regarding Hungary’s repeated violations of human rights and democratic principles. He urged a more aggressive policy instead of CDU’s shielding Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. He wouldn’t even exclude the possibility of Hungary’s exclusion from the European Union.
Merkel naturally defended her party’s handling of the Hungarian case and warned Steinbrück that “one shouldn’t send a whole cavalry to fight a war” that may end in exclusion because that way the European Union would have no influence whatsoever on Hungarian political developments. This way there is hope to persuade Viktor Orbán to change his ways. Foreign Minister Westervelle, a liberal, concurred.
Undersecretary Gergely Prőhle interpreted Merkel’s opinion as a sign that the German chancellor “rightly expects that Hungary will choose a European solution.” On the other hand, Népszabadság emphasized that Merkel promised that her own party, CDU, will pay close attention to Hungarian politics and that “we must do everything to change the ways of our Hungarian friends.” The editors decided to give the following headline to the news about the Merkel-Steinbrück exchange: “Only because of the leash is Hungary not kicked out of the European Union,” which may not be the most accurate interpretation of what happened at the WDR Europaforum.
But let’s see what Viktor Orbán’s reaction was. This morning he had his customary weekly radio interview, if you can call the conversation between a subservient reporter and a dictatorial prime minister an interview. One would have thought that, like the spokesman for the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, Orbán would have been appreciative of Merkel’s defense of Hungary against her social democratic rival. But obviously Orbán’s interpretation was closer to that of Népszabadság. He read it as a threat to limit his government’s freedom of action. He most likely didn’t like the fact that Merkel, as chairman of the CDU, made a reference to her party’s insistence that Orbán not overstep the limits imposed on him by the country’s membership in the European Union.
Orbán decided to attack Merkel and Germany. He announced that “the Germans once sent the cavalry to Hungary in the form of tanks. So, our request is: don’t do it. It wasn’t a good idea then. It didn’t work out.”
Why was this attack necessary? After all, Merkel didn’t demand a cavalry attack on Hungary. Just the opposite. Moreover, why was it necessary to bring up the subject of Nazi German tanks? This was especially inappropriate from the prime minister of a country that was allied with Hitler’s Germany to the bitter end. The tanks came but there was no Hungarian resistance. All in all, it would have been better to have said nothing. I don’t know whether there will be any diplomatic fallout from this unfortunate couple of sentences, but I’m sure that the German embassy in Budapest already sent a note to Berlin reporting on Orbán’s interview.
For the edification of those who are not familiar with pro-Fidesz arguments and their tone, here is an excellent example of what Viktor Orbán has managed to achieve with his anti-European Union propaganda. The article appeared on the site of Civil Összefogás Fórum (CÖF), the so-called civic group that organized the peace marches and launched a vicious campaign against Gordon Bajnai. The author is Eszter Dunst, vice president of Women for the Hungarian Nation. Judging from its Facebook page, it’s not exactly a bustling organization.
Here are a few choice sentences from her “Dear Madame Merkel!” opinion piece. First, she tried to figure out what Merkel actually said in German about the EU’s influence on Hungary. Perhaps “auf den richtigen Weg bringen,” to which she answers, “No, thank you! Hungarians don’t allow themselves to be directed or to be driven. The Bolshevik times are over. Do you understand? Not by anyone. Not even by the Germans…. How dare you lecture us on democracy when you must thank us, Hungarians, for the unification of your country…. It was we who destroyed the iron curtain. So, what are you talking about? It is Viktor Orbán who is right and not you. You are not even fit to carry Mr. Orbán’s umbrella. … You ruined Europe twice and still come out victorious in all things. … But enough! Just because you are 80 million strong it is not at all sure that you are right. You once made such a mistake and it wasn’t even such a long time ago.* But now we are right! Do you understand? Because we have a statesman that can be born in Europe only every hundred years. Someone who thinks about the long term. Someone who understands the situation thirty years ahead. Someone who thinks in terms of nation against internationalism. … We fought in defense of Europe, dear Madame Merkel, for almost a thousand years, and it is worth knowing that the bell at noon time is rung not only for us but for Europe.** … For us Hungarians only our national anthem and the ringing of the bell at noon time remained. What is important: you have no right to direct us. You have no moral authority. Do you understand?”
This is, I think, an excellent example of what a large proportion of Hungarians think of the European Union, of Germany and the Germans, and of their own infallible leader. Orbán succeeded in turning these people against everything outside of Hungary. It will be a very difficult task for any future government to undo the damage Orbán has inflicted on his own people. And if an attack on Germany weren’t enough, it seems that Orbán’s government is beginning another assault, this time against the United States. But more on this tomorrow.
*Clearly a reference to Hitler starting World War II.
**It is an urban legend that the noontime ringing of bells in Catholic churches was ordered by Calixtus III to commemorate the Battle of Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár) in July 1456. Actually the papal decision to add to the morning and evening bell ringing a third at noon was made three weeks before the victory of an international army led by János Hunyadi against the Ottoman forces. But once news of the victory reached Rome, the pope decided that the custom be “rebranded” to commemorate the victory at Belgrade.