The world is in such a turmoil that although Viktor Orbán’s open admission of his goal to eliminate the “liberal” component of western-type democracy might be considered a watershed both domestically and in Hungary’s relation with the European Union, it is receiving scant attention. After all, the armed conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East are serious current problems, while Viktor Orbán’s threat to Hungarian democracy and to the European Union would have negative implications only in the future.
In English I managed to find only a couple of news items about Orbán’s speech. The Associated Press published a short summary which was then picked up by ABC. Zoltán Simon’s reporting from Budapest for Bloomberg was more detailed and to the point: “Orbán Says He Seeks to End Liberal Democracy in Hungary.” This article must have had a large readership judging from the number of comments.
Vox.com quotes an important passage from the speech: “I don’t think that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations.” Actually, I trust that this will be a sticking point soon enough. The author of the article also takes issue with Orbán’s contention that illiberal states are economic success stories; they are in fact doing a great deal worse than liberal states. Russia, Turkey, and China are all poorer than Croatia, Poland, or Hungary for that matter.
The German and Austrian papers that are usually full of news about Hungarian politics are silent. Perhaps everybody is on vacation. I found only one German article and even this one only through a Hungarian source. It appeared in the liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung. The title of the piece is “Enough!,” a reference to the question of how long the European Union will tolerate Viktor Orbán’s anti-democratic policies that have already transformed Hungary into a non-democratic state. “One must urgently pose the question whether Hungary led by Viktor Orbán wants to remain part of the European Union or not.” And while he was at it, the journalist suggested that the European People’s Party should expel Hungary from its delegation.
On the other hand, interest in Orbán’s speech was great in Romania. After all, it was delivered there and its implications can already be felt. Romanian-Hungarian relations are at an all-time low.
Before I turn to the Romanian press I would like to talk about Viktor Orbán’s contradictory messages and how they affect the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries. Let’s start with Romania. The Hungarian minority in Romania is large: 1.2 million people or 6.4% of the population. Yet, according to the Romanian constitution, Romania is a “nation-state.” The Hungarian minority would like to have Romania be officially transformed into a multi-national state.
Orbán should know full well that the highly charged nationalism he is advocating is not in the interest of the Hungarians in the neighboring countries. Nationalism on one side of the border evokes nationalism on the other side. This is exactly what happened in Romania. Bogdan Diaconu, a nationalist politician and member of parliament, published an article in Adevarul, a leading Romanian newspaper, which was subsequently translated into Hungarian. The nationalistic hate speech of Diaconu there was countered with obscene, equally hateful comments by Hungarians.
Surely, Orbán’s nationalism does not make the life of the Hungarian minority any easier in the neighboring countries. Just the opposite. Great suspicion follows every word Orbán utters in connection with his plans for the “nation.” And that is not all. Orbán’s attack on Hungarian NGOs that receive foreign money was also a double-edged sword. He argued that this money is being used to influence the Hungarian government, which cannot be tolerated. But the Hungarian government is financing Hungarian NGOs and parties in Romania and Slovakia. Thus, the Hungarian government is trying to influence the Slovak and Romanian governments on behalf of the Hungarian minority. What will happen if Romania or Slovakia follows Orbán’s example and refuses the receipt of any money from Budapest destined for the Hungarian NGOs? In fact, one of the Romanian articles that appeared in Romania Libera talked about the incongruity of Orbán’s stance on the issue. According to the journalist, if Orbán tries to silence the NGOs financed from abroad, “the bad example” might be imitated in other Eastern European countries where democracies are not yet sufficiently stable. We know which countries he has in mind.
In any case, although for the time being it is unlikely that either the Slovak or the Romanian government will try to imitate Viktor Orbán, Romanian commentators are worried that Hungarian bellicosity will have an adverse effect on the stability of the region. Romanian papers talk about an “illiberal” state’s possible revisionist tendencies which could upset the stability of the region given the presence of Hungarian minorities in Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia.
All in all, Orbán with this speech declared war on several fronts. Against his own people, against the European Union, against Hungarian civil society, and last but not least by his overcharged nationalist rhetoric against the amity of nations in Eastern Europe.
I would like to call everyone’s attention to Hungarian Free Press, a new English-language news portal from Canada. Here are some introductory words from the editor-in-chief:
The Hungarian Free Press, an online newspaper published by Presszo Media Inc., a Canadian federally-registered company based in Ottawa, was launched this morning. The HFP aims to offer informed opinion on current events in Hungary and East/Central Europe, and to expose to a broader English-speaking audience the explicit move away from liberal parliamentary democracy, which now appears to be the overt policy direction of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government.
While pro-government English-language publications, such as the newly launched Hungary Today site, as well as Mandiner’s English-language blog, The Hungarian Globe, aim to create the impression that Mr. Orbán’s government is really no different than any other right-centre or conservative administration and is simply “attacked” by the left for the same ideological reasons, this is not an accurate reflection of the situation. A good case-in-point is Hungary Today’s coverage of Mr. Orbán’s Tusnádfürdő (Băile Tușnad) speech, where the prime minister formally declared that the days of Hungarian liberal democracy were over and that his preferred authoritarian political model was similar to that found in countries like China, Russia and Singapore. Hungary Today, in its coverage, made it appear that Mr. Orbán, like most right-centre politicians, was merely challenging the welfare state and was attacked for this reason by the left-centre opposition, thus making the speech and the reactions that followed seem like “business as usual” in the world of parliamentary politics.In 1961, American President John F. Kennedy was among the most articulate in expressing the media’s role in the long-term survival of multiparty democracy. Kennedy, addressing the American Newspaper Publishers Association on April 27th, 1961 noted:
“Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed–and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment– the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution- -not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants”–but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.”The HFP joins a very small handful of English publications in exposing the danger that Mr. Orbán and his avowedly illiberal, anti-democratic and openly authoritarian government represent in the heart of Europe.