The consensus seems to be that in his address to the Hungarian ambassadors Viktor Orbán retreated from his previously articulated doctrine of illiberalism. In so doing he followed the lead of several right-wing analysts and journalists who tried to downplay the significance of the radical speech he delivered in Tasnádürdő/Băile Tușnad. In fact, they went to great imaginative lengths to explain the “true” meaning of the word “illiberalism.”
A friend called my attention to an editorial by Matild Torkos of Magyar Nemzet who argued that Orbán’s criticism was not of liberalism per se. What he meant was the kind of liberalism that existed in Hungary before 2010 when the Hungarian state did not defend state assets, when it did not recognize Hungarians living in the neighboring countries as part of the Hungarian nation, and when it allowed the country to be indebted. Or, there was an editorial by Zsolt Bayer of Magyar Hírlap, according to whom Orbán was not talking about the elimination of liberal democratic rights but only about people who make their living by work and not by welfare payments.
Tamás Fricz admitted that the choice of the word “illiberal” was unfortunate because since 1997 it has been equated with autocracy and semi-democracies. He even had a suggestion about a better way to describe “the new state and social model.” It should perhaps be called “national democracy,” where the emphasis is on the community as opposed to the individual.
George Schöpflin, formerly Jean Monnet Professor of Politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, is Fidesz’s “political philosopher.” He gave some learned answers to questions posed to him by HVG. For Schöpflin “liberalism” is a dirty word because “it seeks to coercively impose its ideals on the whole world.” In his interpretation, “Orbán was referring to economic liberalism, to market fundamentalism and the damaging impact that this has had on the Hungarian economy.” Later in an interview which is still unavailable in its entirety online he argued that in the United States “illiberal” has a different meaning than it does in Great Britain and therefore “its use was unfortunate.”
Fidesz analysts came to the conclusion that the word “illiberal” should be avoided, and indeed Orbán used the word only once in his address–by now available online–to the ambassadors. Orbán talked about the necessity of raising the number of the actively employed. In this context he said: “Our labor policy cannot be considered liberal because it does not give primacy to the individual but wants to have an equilibrium between individual and community interests. In plain language that means that we will not be able to provide social assistance to someone who is able to work and is offered a job by the government but is unwilling to work . This is an illiberal point of view. György Schöpflin is right that this word should be avoided because the Americans’ understanding of the word is different from that of the Europeans.” Of course, what Schöpflin claims is nonsense. Americans and Europeans have the same negative understanding of the word “illiberal.”
I think it’s fair to say that as far as “illiberalism” and the admiration for authoritarian states or outright dictatorships are concerned, Orbán backpedaled in his address to the ambassadors. In fact, he stressed that “his country is anchored firmly in Western culture and political institutions.” As Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság wrote today, Orbán must have listened to the critical voices coming from conservative circles and changed his tune. Of course, that doesn’t mean that he has given up on building an illiberal state, a project that has been going on for the past four and a half years. He has no intention of abandoning his goal. He just realized that it is not a good idea to talk openly about his plans.
The speech was crafted to avoid controversy. It was basically a pep talk to the ambassadors urging them to encourage foreign investment. There was relatively little about foreign policy, which in Orbán’s opinion has lost its importance.
When it came to the question and answer session, however, Orbán was less guarded. He addressed the subject of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in response to a question from the Hungarian ambassador to Bratislava. And he offered a view of immigration that will undoubtedly raise hackles in Brussels.
European and American politicians are accustomed to Viktor Orbán’s “peacock dance.” At home he is belligerent while in Brussels he rarely raises objections and votes dutifully with the majority. Jean-Claude Juncker’s nomination was an exception and turned out to be a mistake. It is very possible that if it comes to further sanctions against Russia, Orbán will again support the majority. And the “peacock dance” continues.