Did Viktor Orbán backpedal in his address to Hungarian ambassadors?

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.”

Suggested reading on "illiberalism"

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.


  1. The part on Hungary & the European Union sounds particularly worrying to me.

    Now, I’m not very familiar with the PM’s previous speeches on the subject, and I understand that countries who have only been members for ten years may have a different perspective from that of founding members. Nevertheless, the picture that emerges here is that of Hungary’s EU membership being merely a signature on a sheet of paper (something that can be erased the same way it was done: by referendum) and not a long-term commitment to European construction.

    For unlike NATO, the EU is a building process involving all its members, a work in progress. Member States may naturally disagree on the directions it’s taking (and they sure do more often than not), citizens and intermediary bodies may and should debate upon what its next steps may be, or upon the efficiency of those already taken… but it isn’t a specialized, static alliance. To borrow one of OV’s latest rattles, the EU is work-based, it’s a global political project. .
    ‘Erről nincs mit beszélni’ ? Oh, dear.

  2. On a positive (?) note, if the European construction is ‘ideology-based Foreign policy invented by smart countries for dumb countries’, Mr. Orbán certainly seems dedicated to prove Hungary can be dumber.

  3. Az Uj Péter of 444.hu correctly pointed out: whatever happened the famous ‘értékközpontú’ or ‘értékalapú’ politics?

    Two of the most meaningless, inane words Hungarian politicians loved to repeat over and over were the above terms roughly meaning ‘politics based on values’ and ‘politics with values in its centre/focus’.

    As opposed to the ‘interest-based’ politics which Orban is talking about re Ukraine and Russia.

    Of course these are just words, but interesting to note nonetheless.

    As regards the “work-based society”, it is extremely popular with voters. Way more popular than any concept or idea with which the entire left-wing has come up in the last 10 years. Anybody who criticizes this immediately loses out politically. First, most voters would send gipsies working immediately (instead of having them ‘just loitering’ all day long on taxpayers money), and more importantly people without work or with degrading work would actually love to work (probably for unrealistically lot of money, with small efforts, sure, but they would want a job nonetheless). Most people would love to work and any dream however problematic philosophically that is about such an ideal state is very positive for them. Orban or Habony really found a great term here, just like with ‘polgár’ in 1998. Their minds never stop thinking about concepts which deeply catch the imagination of average people, the left-wing has just no brains.

  4. @Marcel De

    “…the EU is a building process involving all its members…”

    Well, yes, if you’re talking about a normal member state. Hungarian politics is another matter:
    it’s still at the tribal stage so the struggle is about who gets on top; who can screw mightily the opposition; and who can garner the most loot. Accommodation and co-operation are non-starters: they put the silly-bugger right out of the game as hopelessly idealistic. As proof, I submit the case of Laszlo Bogdan, a hugely successful Roma individual who is the mayor of Cserdi. Although an aspiring national politician, no party would ouch him, I mean, touch him, with a 10 foot pole. Now why would that be? Could it perhaps have to do with the existing, magnificently corrupt Roma political clique that has nefarious agreements with politicians
    of every stripe…? Throw an idealistic individual into that mix and it would be like throwing a hammer into a blender.

  5. Please note that according to my “Bogdan Test” the ethos and ethics of the pontificating Gyurcsany is thrown into question no less than the obviously guilty others.

  6. WORDS


    Yes, politics is becoming the “art” of duping the populace with empty words through the pervasive media.

    Perhaps Orban is simply among the first to find and exploit this soft-underbelly of democracy.

    But to the usual corruptive scope of demagoguery Orban has added megalomania and amorality to demonstrate how to transform democracy into dictatorship without the native populace even noticing.

    Nor would I put my hand into the fire on the bet that he would not resort to violence when the time comes (and his chosen entourage is already becoming increasingly brutish and brainless).

    Nothing in his profile suggests that he has any scruples whatsoever .

    It is simply not yet opportune to play that card.

    But Orban has a disadvantage:

    He is not just answerable to his small native fiefdom of credulous and apathetic magyarophones.

    The world is inceasingly listening and watching now too.

    And Orban’s preferred trajectory — the Sandor Palace of Pyongyang on the Danube — is in increasing conflict with the vital interests of not only the EU, but the democratic portion of the planet.

    And neither LilliPutin nor Hungary is big enough to sustain that, even with CapoPutin in the background.

    But can we please stop faulting the (admittedly jejune) democratic opposition for not being prepared (or able) to abuse words as unscrupulously as VO and his retinue do?

    For that would simply transform them into VO and his retinue.

    In trying to take on VO, his media, his minions and his millions, it is definitely a handicap to be trying to retain some semblance of integrity…

  7. I would have no problem if PM Orban developed a serious critique of the sell off of public property to investors during the transition from Hungary’s command economy to a market based economy, but he has not done so. I would also have no problem if PM Orban could explain how an expanded public sector would interface with the private sector within the existing world economy, again he has not done so. I also have no complaint about his raising concerns about the market dynamics of the EU, but he has presented no plan for Hungary to become less dependent on being a low wage economy tied to German production.

    PM Orban has referenced the Chinese economy as being a dynamic one that does not follow a classical liberal model of development of a market economy because of its large public sector. China’s state-owned enterprises, have near-monopoly status in oil, aluminum, coal, banking, telecommunications, electricity, transportation and other fields. The largest state-owned banks focus mainly on lending to large state-owned customers despite constant exhortations by the government to boost lending to smaller, private firms, which complain that they have to borrow at much higher rates from informal lenders. The firms are among the largest in the world and have considerable clout domestically.

    A little-known Chinese defense company, the China Precision Machinery Export-Import Corporation has become a world player and it is state owned and controlled. China’s foreign arms sales is rising fast in dollar terms. According to IHS Jane’s, an industry consulting and analysis company, Chinese exports have nearly doubled over the past five years to $2.2 billion, surpassing Canada and Sweden, and making China the world’s eighth-largest exporter by value. The total global arms trade revenue in 2012 was estimated to be $73.5 billion, and the United States had a 39 percent share, according to IHS Jane’s. All of China’s arms sales are done by publicly owned firms, whereas it is totally the opposite for the USA where these companies are in the private sector and heavily supported by US military contracts and our own internal consumption of guns.

    China has two outlets for its public sector, one is the world market the other is the world’s largest internal market. Hungary is a tiny nation, effectively just the population size of the Chicago metropolitan area in the USA. I have yet to see Orban or Fidesz present a coherent plan for expanding Hungary’s public sector in its export based economy. The economic argument seems to me to be largely political cover for creating a party state in Hungary based on patronage and Hungary’s variant of gangster capitalism.

  8. “Their minds never stop thinking about concepts which deeply catch the imagination of average people, the left-wing has just no brains.”

    You mean concepts like “we hate the gypsy and Jew scum as much as you do”?
    It might “capture the imagination” of those who vote Fidesz/Jobbik but that shouldn’t be a market any civilized human being should be looking to attract and shame on you for saying that socialists should be looking to “compete” that way.

    Looks like Russia has finally invaded Ukraine, it will be interesting to see what Putyin’s poodle does now.

  9. Eva S. Balogh: George Schöpflin (…) is Fidesz’s “political philosopher.”

    Unfortunately as the years go by, he’s more political and less of a philosopher. Soon one may not believe, in reading pieces such as the interview you gave the link to, that the man once had brains.

    György Schöpflin: The ranking order of the ratio of GDP per capita in the EU hardly changed between 2004 and 2012. Not one former communist state was able to reach the EU average, in other words the EU conserved backwardness.

    I’d love to think sentences like these take the biscuit – but I’m afraid there are more to come.

  10. @D7

    The problem is that the Hungarian left has not competing on any level. It gave up. It is almost completely mute. Stopped breathing. I really don’t get them, are they really so lazy, and without vision or ideas? I guess this is the situation.

  11. Putin is not “surrendering” to “the West”, and neither is Orban.

    By the way the word on the street is that Csanyi is going down. True or not, I dunno, but that’s what I heard.

    Meanwhile Matolcsy went really crazy, he is practically a madman out of control.

  12. Berg,
    Why do you keep changing your posting name?

    “The problem is that the Hungarian left has not competing on any level”

    Guess what? If “competing” with the regime means dropping down to the lowest common base denominator as you are implying, then I don’t want the “left” to “compete”.

    A large proportion of the Hungarian electorate have attitudes which haven’t progressed from the Middle Ages- they would actively applaud another Jewish/Roma holocaust or at the very least “their” country being cleansed of the Jewish/Roma “undesirables”. I challenge you or anyone else reading this to dispute this fact .

    Your original point was that Orban and his bunch of fascist thugs pandering to and encouraging those racist and anti-Semitic sentiments somehow makes them great political strategists.
    It doesn’t, it simply makes them opportunists of the very worst order.

    If you find that kind of political opportunism admirable then that makes you as bad as Orban and his neo-Nazi supporters who appreciate his racist and anti-Semitic policies.

  13. @D7

    I don’t know who ‘Berg’ is but I agree that stooping to Fidesz levels is a no-no. However, that means that you can’t reach the majority of Magyars.

    “…it simply makes them opportunists of the very worst order…”
    What stupefies me is that people don’t seem to understand that in the end they will be the ‘game’–they will get chewed up no less than the German people at the end of the second world war.

    That Hungarians can be talked into accepting the bankrupting of their airline thereby costing all the transfer traffic and multitude of visitors who used to visit; that they would accept a non-explanation
    why the Azeri was released which resulted in the country’s shame before the world; that they should accept the burden of billions of euros to build a nuclear reactor which may never prove
    to be financially viable while absorbing lord knows what cost over-runs….is just beyond my ability
    to comprehend, or my willingness to stomach.

    I’ve lived in Moscow during the time they were refurbishing the Bolsoi. They budgeted the astronomical figure of $700 million dollars. After 5 years, they had spent 7 BILLION dollars, and were not yet finished. (Why end a good thing?)
    Now, extrapolate that to Paks…

  14. Petofi, I also don’t get it – and neither does my wife understand her compatriots …

    But we’re too old and happy that we found each other (we were both over 60 when we met – though of course you shouldn’t tell a woman’s age …) so we just watch the situation in Hungary and talk to others (sometimes).

    Today I went to the cigarette shop in Keszthely where I’ve been buying cigs for 15 years (not for us, but for our friends in Germany) and had some small talk with the proprietor (the lady has had that shop for 15 years at least and speaks good German) – I think she can call herself lucky that she got that “Nemzeti dohany …” licence, but she doesn’t say if she paid anyone/anything …

    I said that even though the price had gone up cigs are still much cheaper here in Hungary and she answered:

    Prices will continue to go up – Orbán is hungry!

    I had to chuckle at that but of course it’s true …

  15. @D7 Democrat:

    I think you are wrong.

    Competition does not necessarily mean dropping down to the LCD, but it does mean having some ideas, which the left could then (provided it has any) perhaps even communicate to voters.

    For example, once in this century the Hungarian left could create its own discourse about anything. What you imply would mean the left’s entry into Fidesz’ discourse on the terms Fidesz has set. Fidesz and Orban would never do that. So the left does not have to (in fact must not) counter anti-semitism or anti-roma ideology with its own leftist politics of hate, but would have to create something entirely new. It just cannot. Why? And why despite the so many parties and leftists intellectual participating in a lively debate about, well, what exactly? Well, about themselves mostly…

    So the left could have some ideas and then it could communicate them so that the voters could have at least a minimal inkling about what those lefty smarteggs think about issues which concern the voters. I honestly don’t know their standpoints about anything and I follow Hungarian politics probably more closely than 99% of the voters. I tell you, they really have no idea about anything, be that Paks 2 or tax policy or concepts like the nation.

    We know well that they can very smartly argue about who the real leftist is, and who the bourgeois sellout, but other than that they are, except maybe for DK (whose appeal is radically limited by its leader, who solely owns his party just as Orban owns Fidesz), non-existing, non-visible, mute, like a corpse. MSZP has been dead since 2010. The new party chairman goes on a holiday in the middle of a campaign. And this farce involving Ferenc Falus is also astonishing too. I have never seen anything like it in politics, ever. If a class of middle school kids were asked to play a game of politics, they would come up with a more professional, better focused campaign than what the left currently has. The left is, let’s face it, brain-dead. Deal with it.

    I agree with your views about the probable thinking of a huge portion of the voters, although I would have used weaker language. Having said that, they are the voters. The fate of the country is in their hands. No deus ex machina will ever grant power to any opposition without such opposition having to obtain those votes. Perhaps, I dunno, the Hungarian left is just waiting until these people grow up, get educated and civilized because its ideas are so terribly complicated that no ordinary, median voter could understand them. If that is the case, then I am afraid they are in for a very long losing streak.

  16. “I agree with your views about the probable thinking of a huge portion of the voters, although I would have used weaker language. Having said that, they are the voters. The fate of the country is in their hands. No deus ex machina will ever grant power to any opposition without such opposition having to obtain those votes”

    Well, there is the conundrum. Do you believe those attitudes can be changed?
    I personally do not and if that is the case, then no self-respecting socialist or liberal should be trying to compete with Orban in the gutter.

    The next question, which is a valid one, is what any self-respecting socialist or liberal should be doing when faced with Orban’s war against not only the Roma, the Jews but also the homeless, the unemployed and the generally disadvantaged. Stand up and say it’s wrong it’s as simple as that- doesn’t involve complicated or “western anti-Hungarian” concepts. If it doesn’t win votes, then it doesn’t win votes but Hungary will never change and prosper if we change one racist, corrupt state by another racist, corrupt one.

    Also, the left should be involved on the ground, getting their hands dirty, helping the groups I mentioned. I live in one of the Budapest districts which, I am proud to say, chased their corrupt and downright racist Orbanist MP out of parliament at the last election. The MSZP rep who replaced her as been conspicuous in his absence ever since. No Help Centres, no meet and greet at the various markets, nothing whatsoever to help folk who have borne Orban’s attack on the most vulnerable in society. In contrast the Jobbik Nazis have not one but two help-centres.

  17. @D7 Democrat:

    No Hungarian leftist party has even the slightest idea how enormous and comprehensive Jobbik’s on the ground, grass roots machinery is. It is simply staggering.

    I think Jobbik will take over several orders of magnitude more municipalities (mayorships) than the entire left wing combined will.

    It is one thing that Jobbik has the “right brand and ideology” (however deplorable its ideology is) for the current times, but Jobbik does its home work too. That part is no rocket science. There are books one can order from Amazon via the famous a one click shopping. But as some wise person once said: there exists no medicine for stupidity.

    The current leftists feel alive and purposeful only when they can quarrel, as though that would be enough. Weird as it sounds, it seems to me that the left wing (except for DK) desperately wants to lose and disappear in a kind of death drive. I am afraid their wish shall be granted soon.

  18. Berg,

    Where we agree:

    1. The uselessness of the official self-defined “leftist” opposition to Orban
    2.. The appeal to a large section of the electorate of Fidesz/Jobbik’s views on foreigners, the Roma and the Jews
    3. Jobbik’s incredible presence “on the ground”, re help centres and in universities etc.

    Where we disagree:
    1. That Orban’s opportunist use of racist and anti-foreigner sentiments is a work of political genius
    2. That there isn’t a genuine (and I stress that word) socialist way to bring down Orban’s fascist regime.

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