The reception of Viktor Orbán’s speech in the West and in Romania

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. 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.

Gavrilo Princip and Serbian nationalism

If any of you subscribe to Google’s Alerts for “Ungarn,” you will encounter absolutely hundreds of articles in the German and Austrian press on World War I. Austria-Hungary’s role in the events that followed the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Dual Monarchy, naturally looms large in these writings.

One hundred years after the event there are still deep divisions about how to interpret the assassination itself, especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia.  A few days ago The New York Times reported that scholars from the United States and 25 other countries gathered in Sarajevo to mark the centennial of World War I. The conference “set off an ethnic firestorm in the Balkans that reached the highest political circles.” There were several points of serious disagreement and, in the end, no research papers were submitted from Serbia proper or from the so-called Republik Srpska, the Serb-dominated area of Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Serb politicians accused the conference of bias against their country, and the president of Republik Srpska called the conference “a new propaganda attack against the Serbs.”  In general, the Serbian view is that no revision of history that would put any blame on Serbia is acceptable. To them Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, is a hero and German, Austrian, and Hungarian historians, “the losers of the war,” refuse to afford Princip the honor he deserves.

The book that really inflamed Serbian historians and politicians was Christopher M. Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, which became an international success of late. In it Clark argues that Princip was an arm of Serbia’s intelligence services, not just some Bosnian teenager acting on his own. Clark puts a greater emphasis on the responsibility of Serbia than most historians had done previously. According to other, non-Serbian historians, the Serbs misunderstood Clark’s conclusion, which places the blame on all the great powers, including Great Britain and France. In any case, the effort to organize a civilized international conference on World War I failed due to nationalistic passions.

The population of Bosnia-Herzegovina is deeply divided over the very person of Gavrilo Princip. In the Serb-controlled East-Sarajevo the Serbs erected up a full-size statue of Princip, who is considered to be a hero of Serbia. The Muslims and the Croats, on the other hand, do not consider Princip a hero at all. On the contrary, they view him as a terrorist who killed a politician and his pregnant wife. More than that, they look upon him as the man who put an end to a prosperous period in the life of Bosnia-Herzegovina, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. The Bosniaks, the Muslim Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina, fought on the side of Austria-Hungary throughout the war and apparently suffered huge losses fighting against the Serbs. Eighty years later Serbs and Muslims were again on opposite sides.

Emir Kusturica, Serbian filmmaker, and Gavrilo Princip's statue at Tovarisevo Source:

Emir Kusturica, a Serbian filmmaker, and Gavrilo Princip’s new statue at Tovarisevo

As for Gavrilo Princip, Serb politicians and historians can argue that they were not responsible for the outbreak of World War I. Indeed, when Princip aimed his revolver at the Archduke and his wife he didn’t think in terms of such far-reaching consequences. But Serbian nationalism had reached such heights that it was bound to end in some kind of conflict. In fact, two serious wars had already broken out in the Balkans. It was clear that the goal of Serbian nationalists after 1878, when Austria-Hungary was allowed to occupy Bosnia-Herzegovina, was the gathering of all Southern Slavs into one country, naturally under Serbian leadership. Originally the Serb nationalists envisaged a “Yugoslavia” that even included Bulgaria. It was natural that Slovenia, under Austria and Croatia under the Hungarian Crown, would have been part of this new state. But there was another area that was an integral part of Greater Hungary, not like Croatia that had limited home rule, that was in danger as far as the Hungarians were concerned. That was the Bánát-Bácska (Vojvodina) area, just south of  Szeged and Makó all the way to the Danube in the south. In this area lived about 500,000 people who declared themselves to be Serbs in the 1910 census.

How did these people end up north of the Danube river? Most of them came as a result of what is described in historical literature as the Great Serb Migrations. The first occurred in 1690 during the Great Turkish War when Leopold I allowed Serbian refugees to settle in Hungarian territories. The second migration took place after 1739. How many people are we talking about? There are different estimates, but the most often cited is 37,000 families. The majority of these people stayed in the Vojvodia region, but some of them went as far as Szentendre, just north of Budapest, and even Komarno in Slovakia.

In closing, let’s look briefly at the attitude of Prime Minister István Tisza toward the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war in 1914. According to the structure of the Dual Monarchy as it was set up in 1867, the assent of both the Austrian and the Hungarian prime ministers was necessary for a declaration of war. The Austrians enthusiastically supported the punishment of Serbia, but Tisza was reluctant. His reluctance can easily be explained by the large presence of Serbs in Bánát-Bácska (Vojvodina) and also in Croatia. If the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary were to escalate into a larger war and Austria-Hungary were to go down in defeat, these territories would be lost to a victorious Serbia. In the end, however, he changed his mind, mainly because Austria-Hungary received a so-called “blank check” from the German Emperor that promised military support in case of a larger war. He believed that the presence of a strong German army behind Austria-Hungary was a guarantee that Hungarian territories would be safe. But what seemed impossible for Tisza and fellow politicians in Germany and Austria-Hungary became a reality four years later: they lost the war and the territories.

Finally, an interesting bit of news I picked up the other day: some relatives of Princip have over the years become Hungarians. A strange part of the world.