I hope I made it eminently clear what I think of George Friedman’s brief description of the role of Miklós Horthy who, he claims, heroically tried to balance between two great powers. Friedman’s knowledge of the period is woefully inadequate. He couldn’t even keep his facts straight, never mind the validity of his conclusions.
On the basis of this inadequate description of what transpired in Hungary between, let’s say, 1933 and 1944, he portrays Horthy as a politician of vision who brilliantly managed to keep Germans and the far right at bay as long as possible. Thereby, he managed to save thousands of lives.
In Friedman’s eyes Prime Minister Viktor Orbán resembles Horthy: he is also trying to steer the ship of a weak and poor country though dangerous waters. Admittedly, he says, times are different, but “circumstances still bear similarities to Horthy’s time.” What, however, we never get any answer to is why Germany is a dangerous enemy of Hungary today. Because Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy is described as a balancing act between a hostile Germany and a hostile Russia.
Friedman, it seems, envisages a Russia that sooner or later will run down all of Ukraine and thus will become a direct neighbor of Hungary. In the case of Germany, Friedman focuses on the nature of the EU and economics. First, “Hungary is already facing Germany’s policy toward liberal integration within the European Union, which fundamentally contradicts Hungary’s concept of an independent state economy. Hungary is already facing Germany’s policies that undermine Hungary’s economic and social well-being. Orban’s strategy is to create an economy with maximum distance from Europe without breaking with it, and one in which the state exerts its power. This is not what the Germans want to see.” And second, “There is little support from Hungary’s west, other than mostly hollow warnings. He knows that the Germans will not risk their prosperity to help stabilize the Hungarian economy or its strategic position.” Of course, the European Union does try to stabilize the Hungarian economy by pouring billions of euros into it, without which it would have gone under a long time ago.
And, according to Friedman, there is another similarity between the situations of Horthy and Orbán. Both leaders were faced with a far-right threat. Just to set the historical record straight, Horthy’s success with the extreme right was less than successful, not that he tried very hard. Horthy’s National Army from its birth was a gathering place of extremists. Although he boasted that he could get rid of them at any time, in fact both his administration and the army were full of anti-Semitic extremists who were great admirers of Hitler’s Germany. His friendships with far-right military and political actors in the 1930s dated to 1919-1920 when he was the hope of the extreme right. In the 1920s, Prime Minister István Bethlen managed to keep Horthy away from both his old extremist friends and politics. Once Bethlen was gone, there was no one to keep Horthy in line. He was on his own, with the well documented results.
Friedman sees Orbán just as he imagined Horthy to be: the guarantor of right-of-center politics. The real enemy is Jobbik and, if we didn’t have Orbán, Jobbik today would be the leading political force in Hungary. At least this is what the following muddled sentence indicates: Orbán “constructed a regime that appalled the left, which thought that without Orbán, it would all return to the way it was before, rather than realizing that it might open the door to the further right.” Friedman either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to know the real facts: Orbán has fulfilled several demands of Jobbik in the hope of siphoning off some of its support.
Orbán’s strategy as far as the extreme right is concerned has so far been quite similar to that of the governments between the two world wars. The problem is that the strategy didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now. Jobbik has not lost its appeal. On the contrary, the extreme right has gained ground during the last four years. In 2010 855,436 people voted for Jobbik (16.67%) while this year the number was 1,020.476 (20.22%). It seems to me that Orbán is no guarantee of anything. In fact, with his constant courting of the far right, he only added legitimacy and political heft to Jobbik.
As for the sorry state of Hungarian democracy, Friedman whitewashes Orbán’s domestic policies. “Internally he is increasing his power constantly, and that gives him freedom to act internationally.” Or, “Orbán is trying to do what Horthy did: strengthen his power over the state and the state’s power over society. He is attacked from the left for violating the principles of liberal democracy and Europe.” But, as Friedman explains, all this is necessary because of the external and internal threats Hungary faces.
In many ways George Friedman and Viktor Orbán see the world similarly. Both consider the European Union a massive failure. Moreover, in Friedman’s view, Orbán doesn’t want “to continue playing the German game in the European Union because he can’t. As in many European countries, the social fabric of Hungary is under great tension.” So, the general portrait of Orbán that circulates at home and abroad as a man who wants to reap the benefits of the European Union but refuses to abide by its rules is all wrong. If we were to believe Friedman, Orbán is doing all this for the higher purpose of saving his country from the Russian bear and the German imperial eagle. He is the hero of the nation, and we are all too short-sighted to realize his true aim.
This particular construct, I’m afraid, is the work of Friedman’s imagination. Orbán’s policies are largely guided by his insatiable desire for power. He whips up nationalist and anti-European sentiments in order to bolster his popularity with Fidesz and Jobbik voters. At the last election, although more than half of the population wanted to see Orbán go, with help from clever mathematicians who managed to construct an electoral system that could produce a two-thirds majority from 44.87% of the votes cast for Fidesz, he managed to stay in power for another four years. After that, apparently he has another plan. Just like his friend Vladimir Putin, he is planning to move on to the presidency. Admittedly, right now the Hungarian president doesn’t have much power, but Orbán with his two-thirds parliamentary majority can easily change the Hungarian constitution to transform Hungary’s parliamentary system into a presidential one. If this happens, Orbán will be a major political figure in Hungary until at least 2022!
The real moving force of Orbán is his personal power and his inability to cope with any authority above himself. The rest is just talk.
I could wrap up my critique here, but I feel I should give a few more examples of the author’s wanton disregard for facts and the unsupported “grand theses” in this article. Here are a few examples. “The great depression in Mediterranean Europe, contrasted with German prosperity, is simply the repeat of an old game.” What old game? Or, Hungary allegedly lies between Russia and “the European Peninsula.” European Peninsula? Or, “the Ukrainian crisis can only be understood in terms of the failure of the European Union.”‘ In what way?
If this article had been published by a run-of-the-mill journalist I would be less appalled. But it was written by a former academic who is supposed to be an expert on international affairs and geopolitical strategy. Based on this piece, I think we can safely exclude from his areas of expertise Hungarian history and politics.