Attacks on Charles Gati and the American media

Charles Gati’s article “The Mask is Off”appeared on August 7 in The American Interest and a day later in Hungarian Spectrum. I guess readers will not be surprised to hear that it created quite a storm in Hungary, especially in the right-wing press. And in a counterattack Válasz published a piece by an Italian politician assailing Gati and whitewashing Viktor Orbán’s ideas on the “illiberal state.”

Let’s start with the reception of Gati’s article, which was not translated word for word but was extensively summarized in Népszabadság on the very day of its appearance. Other left-of-center publications followed suit. Two days later Magyar Nemzet, the unofficial mouthpiece of Fidesz, published an unsigned piece that condemned the article and accused Charles Gati of willfully misinterpreting Viktor Orbán’s concepts and of meddling in the internal affairs of Hungary. His article, it argued, was intended as an instrument of political pressure.

Magyar Nemzet reported on Hungarian reactions to the article, starting with Fidesz’s official position. The answer the paper received emphasized that “Hungary is an independent, democratic state whose government and prime minister were chosen by the Hungarian people.”

Magyar Nemzet, Fidesz if you wish, received additional ammunition from András Schiffer of LMP. After paying lip-service to the importance of checks and balances, Schiffer declared that “Hungary must be governed from Hungary and no matter how serious a situation was created by the ‘system of national cynicism’ it can be remedied only at home as a result of the will of the Hungarian people…. Those from overseas who entertain visions of a cultural war don’t realize that with their pronouncements they hurt the self-esteem of the Hungarian people and unwittingly extend Viktor Orbán’s stay in power.”

Magyar Nemzet also asked a “political scientist” from the Nézőpont Intézet who is a committed supporter of Fidesz and the current government. Gati’s article struck him as “desperate” and, he said, the “foreign misgivings” repeated by Gati “have been ordered” by unnamed foes of the Hungarian government. So, it seems, the sin Charles Gati committed was to dare to “meddle” in Hungarian affairs by voicing his opinion about Viktor Orbán’s regime and by outlining options the United States could pursue under the circumstances. András Schiffer, whose position vis-à-vis the Orbán government is anything but clear, was perhaps the most explicit: foreigners shouldn’t have “visions” about the Hungarian situation, especially since such criticism damages the self-esteem of the Hungarian people. But even the somewhat meaningless Fidesz statement makes a sharp enough distinction between “Hungarians” who have a right to express their opinions and foreigners who don’t.

But then what can we do with Viktor Orbán’s “vision” of the Hungarian nation as a “world-nation” (világnemzet)? This concept is supposed to express the unity of the Hungarian nation regardless of where these Hungarians happen to live. Of course, we all know the reason behind this generous gesture, and we also know the efforts the Orbán government made to limit the number of possible voters from the West while actively recruiting voters from Romania and Serbia. But still, he can’t have it both ways. Either those who are Hungarian by birth are part of the nation and can have a say in the governance of the country or not. Once the Orbán government extended that privilege and made all of us members of this wonderful world-nation he has to take the bad with the good. He cannot pick and choose.

Right-wing Hungarian media is convinced that Viktor Orbán is an innocent political target

The right-wing Hungarian media is convinced that Viktor Orbán is an innocent political target

As for foreign powers “meddling” in another country’s internal affairs, it happens all the time. Viktor Orbán in his long political career openly sided with George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney during U.S. presidential campaigns. But others are not supposed to speak their mind about Hungary. Even non-Hungarian Europeans know this. The pro-government Válasz published an article by Luca Volontè, an Italian Christian Democratic politician who was at one time the whip of the European People’s Party in the Council of Europe. Válasz gave this title to Volontè’s polemic against Charles Gati: “Hands Off Hungary!”

Luca Volontè is the only outsider the Orbán government managed to recruit so far. His article sounds not a little suspicious. Almost as if he received some help from Budapest. He seems to be too familiar with the current Hungarian political scene, and the interpretation of Orbán’s speech bears a suspicious resemblance to some of the Hungarian right-wing media’s efforts at explaining Orbán’s message away. We will see whether Fidesz will be able to gather a few more supporters from Europe. The emphasis is on Europe because the current Hungarian line is that in Europe the speech did not make waves; that happened only in the “anti-Hungarian” United States. In fact, Válasz‘s byline made it clear that the anti-Gati voice came from Europe.

And finally, an illustration of the right-wing media’s efforts to control the damage caused by Viktor Orbán’s speech. Today a brief exchange was published, also in Válasz, between Harold Meyerson and Zoltán Laky. Meyerson wrote an opinion piece on August 6 entitled “Hungary’s prime minister a champion for illiberalism” in The Washington Post. Laky, a journalist who obviously thinks that The Washington Post is the mouthpiece of the U.S. government just as Válasz is of the Hungarian government, wanted to know whether Meyerson received instructions concerning Viktor Orbán’s crossing the Rubicon with this speech either from the U.S. government or from the editors of The Washington Post. Meyerson set his Hungarian colleague straight. He has no idea what the U.S. government thinks of Viktor Orbán’s speech and, as far as The Washington Post is concerned, he is not an employee of the paper; the editors don’t even know what he will write about. He is an independent journalist. Yet the title of the Válasz article was titillating: “Permission to target Orbán? The journalist of The Washington Post speaks.”

As for damage control in the United States, I believe the Hungarian government’s chances are slim to none. Budapest can send a new ambassador, as it will in September, and it can spend millions of dollars on lobbying efforts, but its quest is hopeless as long as Viktor Orbán is the prime minister of the country. When the conservative Washington Times publishes an opinion piece entitled “Democracy’s dangerous descent in Hungary,” then Hungary’s chances in Washington are close to hopeless. Viktor Orbán managed to alienate even the paper that in the past usually defended his government.


  1. Marcel the situation in Ferguson Missouri is reflective of many urban areas of the world, including the Tottenham, London rioting following the death of Mark Duggan, a local who was shot dead by police on 4 August 2011. Or the 2005 rioting in suburban Paris following the electrocution of two boys, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré who had been chased by police and jumped over a wall to hide in a power substation.

    All of these cases are similar and reflect underlying tensions in these respective communities based on race and poverty. Police tactics in suppressing what are called “civil disturbances” are fairly similar in all urban areas of western Europe, US, and Canada. If you go to the Aljazeera website you will see a story on the standardized procedure for crowd control. The Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS) in France are a brutal as any riot squad in the United States.

    The US, through the FBI and other federal agencies has been involved training some Hungarian police through what is called the International Law Enforcement Academy. I do know if any of the training involved crowd control tactics.

    The primary difference between Europe and the US in relation to riot suppression is the reality of armed citizens in the USA including minority communities. On Tuesday night hundreds of rounds were shot at police helicopters and all commercial flights over that part of suburban St. Louis were banned.

    In 2014 it was estimated that for each 100 residents in the USA there are 97 civilian guns of various types.The United States owns more guns per resident, than any other nation in the world. The U.S. has over 50% more firearms per capita than the next two highest nations. The second most armed nation in the world interestingly is Serbia. Just so everyone knows Hungary has only 5.5 guns per 100 citizens.

    Living in Chicago I am very surprised we have not seen significant race based rioting for a long time. Maybe its because here we are very busy killing each other in general, last year in the City of Chicago (not including suburbs) there were 415 homicides, a total of 1,864 people in the city were shot. 2013 by the way was a good year here in Chicago, we have seen worse and 2014 is looking worse. Any thought of race based rioting in Chicago or our suburbs is a frightening thing for me having lived through the rioting following the murder of ML King in the late 1960s.

    Just for your information Marcel it is true that many members of US national guard units are given some crowd control training. There is more specialized training done at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, in the State of Washington for what are called “domestic quick reaction forces.” To the best of my knowledge no National Guard units have been deployed in Ferguson.

  2. Polgar: “No, all power is vested in one single person, who is completely sovereign with respect to any issue in Hungary, only he has to make up the laws, influence the court decisions etc. to make that happen, but he will if he wants to.”

    I actually found the comment of Polgar worth an answer. Polgar, if you insist so much on Hungary being a dictatorship, with one person deciding everything, and yet without using force, how does that fit into the idea of “dictatorship”? Usually in dictatorships the army and the police have quite a role to play, how come Hungarians are so obedient and OV so powerful without such forces and even threats? I read here frequently that Hungarians are obedient the moment someone plays the national anthem and/or when someone promises to pay the utility bill and/or when they are threatened by losing their jobs (which they do anyway, but that is somehow overlooked). Not exactly “dictatorship”, they could refuse, in particular when united in this resistence.

  3. The apathy of Hungarians really is a strange phenomenon, at least in my eyes. You see all the empty houses, closed shops, restaurants and even hotels in Hévíz which is a rich part of Hungary – I shudder when I remember the small town in Eastern Hungary where my wife is from.

    How come nobody from the common people reacts (except a few intellectuals …)?

  4. @Istvan: sure, I was just taking a little dig at you. The attire and gear look impressive, though!


    Fun fact: I am considering voting in Hungary for the first time since I live there, at the upcoming municipal election. And at the moment my preference goes to… LMP. How do you like them apples?

    It doesn’t mean that I don’t think that Schiffer’s argument about ‘self-esteem’ is particularly lame. Because it is. And yes, it does remind me of the persecution syndrome so often demonstrated in the Russian and pro-Russian media. I doesn’t mean that I think both countries are the same, although if I read OV’s speech correctly they might soon be. Where Hungarians are going to find the oil, I’m at a loss to say.

    Criticizing the power is an essential part of the democratic spirit: mind you, I just criticized the U.S.A. in a previous comment to Istvan, and look how he responded: calmly, with solid arguments, aptly passing the buck when mentioning riots in my own country, certainly acknowledging the imperfections of the country he lives in (as hopefully I do when it comes to mine). Now, look at your answer ….

  5. @Zoltán, For the time being we are still able to express our opinions about politicians and what they stand for. If Marcel Dé thinks Schiffer’s “self-esteem argument” is a joke, he certainly has the right to do so. And I have the right to dislike Schiffer and what he stands for.

  6. Istvan: ” To the best of my knowledge no National Guard units have been deployed in Ferguson.”

    My understanding is that the county police was removed and the state police took over crowd/riot control in Ferguson, at the order of the governor.

  7. @Eva S. Balogh: I’ll tell you when – if – it’s done! A huge majority of EU citizens abroad do not use their right to vote in local elections.

    LMP do have an intelligible program (at least, to me) for Budapest. And while they stand no chance of winning the city nor my district, they performed quite well in the recent elections and my hunch is they may have a substantial influence in the next one.

    But then, I’m having a hard time adapting to the single-round system: in a two-round system alliances are made in between rounds, so you know who your second bulletin is meant to eliminate. I guess bets are safer …

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