Viktor Orbán: “No significant minority among ourselves”

A day before yesterday I wrote about the Hungarian reaction to the terrorist attacks in Paris. Or, to be more precise, about Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s long-held views on immigration and multiculturalism and the right-wing media’s attitude toward freedom of the press. Orbán is against immigration, and right-wing journalists blamed the victims for the tragedy.

A few hours after I posted my article we learned that Viktor Orbán, along with many other prime ministers and presidents, was invited to join the Paris march against terrorism and on behalf of freedom of speech. All told, 44 high-level politicians from all over the world gathered in Paris yesterday, Viktor Orbán among them. The Hungarian media immediately reported that Orbán would fly to Paris on the private jet that belongs to OTP, Hungary’s largest private bank, and that on the way back he would stop in Zurich, apparently to attend a gala gathering of FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) today.

From the very first moment, news of Orbán’s attendance was received with misgivings in the opposition media. Zsolt Sebes in Gépnarancs  was one of the first who questioned Orbán’s right to be among those marchers who are committed to liberal democracy, to freedom of the press and freedom of speech. He is anything but a democrat, in fact he himself admitted that he wants to build an illiberal democracy, the journalist pointed out. “Orban n’est pas Charlie, what is he doing in Paris?” asked Sebes. Sztárklikk considered Orbán’s attendance one of “his most hypocritical gestures since 2010.” This march was about “the republic, freedom of the press, unity of Europe, about everything which is the essence of Europe. What is Orbán doing there?”

But Hungarian opposition papers were not the only ones who considered his presence in Paris incongruous. Le Monde expressed its surprise at seeing such politicians as Benjamin Netanyahu, Sergey Lavrov, Viktor Orbán, Ahmet Davutoğlu, and Ali Bongo in the front rows of the march. Le Monde‘s criticism of Orbán focused on his government’s attacks against the media. Le Monde was not the only paper to object to the presence of certain politicians. Libération and Metro followed suit. And The Independent had the same kind of negative opinion of Viktor Orbán: “In Hungary, Mr Orban pushed through a law in 2010 which restricts independent media and gives the government extensive power over the flow of information.” In brief, he shouldn’t have been among the marchers.

The French president’s reception of Orbán seems not to have been the warmest, as Hungarian opposition papers gleefully pointed out. It stood in sharp contrast to his warm embrace of other dignitaries. Indeed, judging from the pictures taken at the scene, Hollande extended his hand at a moment when Viktor Orbán was still quite far from him, two steps down. Apparently a sign of distancing in the world of diplomacy.

Hollande and Orban

Viktor Orbán is not the kind of man who, when encountering resistance, tries to keep a low profile. On the contrary, in situations like his unwelcome presence in Paris he makes sure that he further incites ill feelings toward him by making inappropriate pronouncements. The rally he attended was “in support of free speech and tolerance in Europe” yet Orbán right on the spot told the Hungarian state television that the Charlie Hebdo murders should make the EU restrict access to migrants. According to him, economic immigration is undesirable and “only brings trouble and danger to the peoples of Europe.” Therefore “immigration must be stopped. That’s the Hungarian stance.” He added that “Hungary will not become a target destination for immigrants…. We will not allow it, at least as long as I am prime minister and as long as this government is in power.” As he said, “we do not want to see a significant minority among ourselves that has different cultural characteristics and a different background. We would like to keep Hungary as Hungary.”

These words got extensive press coverage in the last couple of days not only in Hungary but also abroad because they go against the common values of the European Union to which he himself officially adheres. As the spokesman for the European Commission tersely said: “I don’t comment on statements of any prime minister but the Commission’s viewpoint in connection with migration is unambiguous.”

All opposition parties criticized Viktor Orbán’s nationalistic, xenophobic statement with the exception of Jobbik, whose spokesman praised the prime minister for speaking “almost like a member of Jobbik.”

Lajos Bokros was perhaps the most eloquent. Bokros is the chairman of the Movement for a Modern Hungary which he describes as a liberal conservative party. He wrote an open letter to Orbán, published on Facebook, in which he told the prime minister that he should not speak in the name of all Hungarians. “This is the view of you and your extremist xenophobe allies.” He asked the prime minister why he went to the rally when he does not understand what the whole thing was all about. Bokros repeated Orbán’s words about Hungarians who don’t want to see among themselves people who are different from them, who have different cultural characteristics. It is “terrible even to repeat these words…. If Hungary belongs to the Hungarians, then why doesn’t Romania belong to Romanians? Or Slovakia belong to the Slovaks? What would happen to Hungarians if the neighboring states thought the same way you do?”

DK pointed out that Viktor Orbán’s politics have gotten closer and closer to the extremist attitudes of Jobbik. Orbán’s “chronic populism” has reached a point where he is capable of uttering anti-freedom thoughts at the march for the republic. Orbán’s statement is especially disgusting since about half a million Hungarians currently work in Western Europe and the British Isles. PM joined in, stressing the ever decreasing differences between Fidesz and Jobbik. József Tóbás of MSZP added that “Viktor Orbán sent a message to David Cameron and Angela Merkel to send those Hungarians working in their countries back home.”

If you want to reflect on the irony of the prime minister’s xenophobic position you need look no further than yesterday’s celebration of the country’s German minority, an event that occurs every year on January 11. For the occasion President János Áder made a speech praising multiculturalism. “During the one-thousand-year-history of Hungary it has become evident many times that the members of our national minorities became great Hungarian patriots who enriched our common values, cultures, language.” And he quoted, as is usual on such occasions, the famous line from St. Stephen’s Exhortations to his son Imre: “nam unius linguae uniusque moris regnum, imbecille et fragile est” (a kingdom where only one language is spoken and only one custom is followed is weak and fragile).

M. André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé d’affaires, recalled this quotation in a tweet: “Over lunch, among other things, discussed St. Stephen’s advice about the benefit of diversity.” And he gave a link to the bilingual text available in the Hungarian Electronic Library. Lajos Bokros also asked Orbán: “Didn’t you learn anything from the history of Central Europe? When was the last time you turned the pages of St. Stephen’s Exhortations?” A very long time ago, if ever.


Tamás Gomperz: Yankees, come here!

I will continue with the same theme: U.S.-Hungarian relations, but this time in a lighthearted way. I discovered a short and very funny opinion piece in HVG which I would like to share with those readers of  Hungarian Spectrum who haven’t yet mastered the intricacies of  the Hungarian language. I just hope that my limited skills as a translator will be sufficient to capture the flavor of this short spoof. The author is Tamás Gomperz, a regular at HVG. I might add that a lot of right-wingers and Jobbik voters don’t seem to have a sense of humor. When Mandiner republished it, its readership (which unlike the editorial board is anything but moderately conservative) accused Gomperz of all sorts of  evil intentions.

The quotation at the beginning of the article should be familiar to the readers since I cited it a couple of days ago. It is one of László Kövér’s ruminations. So, here goes.

American flag

* * *


We would be okay without Europe but only if the Americans came instead

“If that is the future of the European Union, then it is worthwhile to contemplate that perhaps we should slowly, carefully back out.” It’s hard to remember the last time that this deeply tormented man said anything intelligible or did anything useful, but now it seems that at last he wants to change his doleful course. But one should not take him terribly seriously and nobody should worry about our speedy departure from the Union.

There are two moral considerations here. One is that most of the money that can be stolen comes from the Union, and we all know that one cannot heat the swimming pool with patriotism. The second is that Hungary’s departure from the Union is not in Moscow’s interest. On the contrary, the Russians would be not at all happy if the Trojan horse suddenly bolted from the fortress and found itself outside its walls.

As long as this remains the situation, we stay. Moscow pays because it has managed to acquire an agent; the Union pays because it is stupid. Meanwhile the prime minister is convinced that he is very clever and cunning because he can take advantage of both sides. Based on his pocketbook, his reckoning is pretty accurate, although that does not mean that he would hesitate even for a second if he had no other choice. Then he would quit without the slightest hesitation. So, all those who love Europe should hold their collective breath for two things: Hungarian foreign policy will still be conducted from Moscow and the European Union will remain as stupid in the future as it has been in the past.

Given the cast of characters, the prospects are good for both. On the other hand, it is worth contemplating that America managed to do more for Hungarian democracy in one week than all the European political leaders have in the last four years. Therefore, perhaps it would be useful to rethink the situation. Perhaps we should slowly retreat from all that vacillation over Europe. Instead we could perhaps beg for a real American occupation, colonization, protectorate, whatever. They didn’t come in 56, they can make up for it now. We will take over the constitution, M. André Goodfriend could be the nádor,* governor, or sheriff, we are open to all solutions. He could start immediately with a proclamation. Because it is a good thing that people representing our worst features can’t go across the ocean. Actually, it would be even better if someone would expel them from here. We can’t solve the problem alone.

So, as the saying goes: there is life outside the Union but one must swim farther.

*nádor/palatinus local representative of the king in Hungary

Viktor Orbán and Christian democracy

It was yesterday that leaders of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (Kereszténydemokrata Néppárt/KDNP) celebrated the establishment of their party seventy years ago. Well, not exactly because three of the founding fathers remembered three different dates and none of them was September 27, 1944. In any case, sometime between October 8 and November 30 a few conservative legitimist politicians with strong ties to the Catholic Church got together to establish a “Christian party.” Before the party’s founding the blessing of the Hungarian Catholic Church was sought and received.

This original party never managed to get permission from the authorities, either before or after the occupation of Hungary by the Russians, to be officially recognized. Under the leadership of Count József Pálffy, the group was considered to be reactionary and undemocratic. In the fall of 1944, however, the leaders decided to ask a newspaperman turned politician, István Barankovics, to join them in the hope that his name would make acceptance of the party easier. Barankovics’s political ideas were more in line with modern Christian democracy of the kind that came into being in Germany after World War II.

The ideological differences between Pálffy and Barankovics led to the breakup of the party. In May of 1945 Barankovics was chosen to be leader of the newly constituted party. Instead of following a conservative-legitimist line, the party chose a a more secular (even though officially still Christian–Protestant as well as Catholic) socialist ideology as its guiding principle. I might add here that Barankovics’s ideas were condemned by the head of the Catholic Church, József Mindszenty, who tried to keep his finger on the pulse of the party through Pálffy. In May of 1945 even the old name, Christian Democratic People’s Party, was abandoned. The new party was known simply as the Democratic People’s Party (Demokratikus Néppárt/DNP).

When, in 1989, the party was revived, the new leaders chose the old name, KDNP,  instead of DNP even though DNP was the only officially recognized Christian Democratic Party in Hungary between 1945 and 1949. I believe that the choice of name is significant. Today KDNP is really a party of the Catholic Church, something its current leader, Zsolt Semjén, does not hide. A few years back, in fact, he called his own party “the political arm of the Catholic Church.”

KDNP today is no more than a club of individuals who consider themselves devout Catholics. The last time KDNP was on the ballot (2002) it received 2.59% of the votes. Even the communists (Munkáspárt) had a larger following (4.08%). Today its support is immeasurable. It exists only in name–and in parliament, with a delegation of sixteen members. These people are in effect assigned to KDNP by Fidesz so that KDNP can have a separate caucus with all the privileges that this entails.

Yesterday there was a gathering to celebrate the great day in October-November 1944. About 150 people were invited, but many did not show up. In fact, according to Origo, it almost seemed that there were more members of the press corps than of the private club. After long speeches and a documentary film came the man everybody in the room was waiting for: Viktor Orbán. His speech was short but, as noted, “he said a few funny things.” He announced, for instance, that “KDNP is a large, significant, and influential party” which “stands on the shoulders of giants.” There is a doctored short clip on YouTube in which canned laughter was injected every time Orbán said something untrue or ridiculous.

The speech lasted only 13 minutes, and most of what the prime minister said we have heard before. What was new was his lecture on Christian democracy, which he juxtaposed with liberal democracy. In his view liberal democrats are exclusionary when they claim that only liberal democracy is democracy. With that they exclude great Christian democratic statesmen like Konrad Adenauer or Robert Schuman. As far as Konrad Adenauer is concerned, it is a well known fact that his ideal was a “market-based liberal democracy.” As for Robert Schuman, Orbán likes to quote him as saying that “Europe would either be Christian or not at all,” but I could not find that exact quotation except in an article about the betrayal of Europe’s Christian roots, where the author, Gianfranco Morra, wrote the following: “Konrad Adenuaer, Alcide De Gasperi and Robert Schuman … drew from religious faith, professed and lived, and from their political commitment to a common conviction: that only Christianity could be the cement for the European Union. Europe and Christianity are an inseparable pairing. With the same understanding as Leo XIII, they affirmed that Europe and Democracy would either be Christian or not at all. Schumann wrote: ‘All the countries of Europe are imbued with Christian civilization. This is the soul of Europe, it must be reborn’.” It seems that the words the prime minister quoted are Morra’s, not Schuman’s.

Orban KDNP

After Orbán’s catastrophic speech about “illiberal democracy” he has been trying to explain his words away. Both he and some of his followers initially claimed that he was just talking about economic neo-liberalism, but this explanation, given the context, was untenable. George Schöpflin, the academic who usually comes to the regime’s rescue, offered another interpretation in the course of answering questions posed to him by HVG:

Liberal democracy is a particular variant of democracy, albeit in the most recent period it has sought to establish a hegemony. Other possible forms of democracy – Christian Democracy, Social Democracy, Conservatism – have been increasingly marginalized. This further means that what we call “Liberal democracy” these days, or indeed calls itself, has moved away qualitatively from the concept of liberalism defined by the founding fathers.

Finally, Orbán stated that “we are a government based on Christian democratic foundations. We govern in Christian democratic spirit in the interest of all Hungarians.” There is nothing shameful, he said, about what’s going on in Hungary. Indeed, it is not a liberal democracy but a very respectable Christian democracy. There are two problems with this claim. One is that Christian democracy, although conservative on social issues, is no enemy of liberal ideals like autonomy of the individual, civil and political liberties, government by law with the consent of the governed, and protection from arbitrary authority. Second, everybody knows that Orbán’s system has nothing to do with Christian democracy. In fact, very soon it will have nothing to do with democracy in any shape or form.


Viktor Orbán and the gathering storm clouds in the East

Meetings of the heads of EU member states usually last much longer than anticipated. At eight in the evening participants were still discussing who will replace Herman Van Rompuy as European Council president and Catherine Ashton as foreign policy chief.  They finally determined that the former post will be filled by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and the latter by Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini.

It seems, however, that the decision on further sanctions against Russia will be postponed for at least a week, although a draft of such sanctions dated August 27 exists which says that the bloc “stands ready to consider further steps” against Russia due to the “reported participation of Russian armed forces in operations on Ukrainian soil.” Petro Poroshenko, who was present at the discussions about his country, indicated that further sanctions are likely. The EU only wants to wait on implementation to see how Russia reacts to his attempt to revive a “peace plan” next week.

If Vladimir Putin’s threatening remarks are any indication, further sanctions and an increased Western military presence in Eastern Europe are indeed likely. Putin told the press that “Russia’s partners … should understand it’s best not to mess with us,” adding: “I think no one is thinking of unleashing a large-scale conflict with Russia. I want to remind you Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.” Nuclear threat or not, the number of NATO troops in Poland and Romania has doubled already, and NATO is planning to send an additional 1,ooo troops to the region. And Britain and six other states are planning to create a new joint expeditionary force of at least 10,000 personnel to bolster NATO’s power.


Meanwhile a rather frightening map was published by the Russian weekly Expert that showed the sphere of influence Russia is attempting to create. The green line indicates the reach of Soviet dominance, the red the current situation, and the orange Russian hopes for an expanded sphere of influence. That would include Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Observers of Russia and its plans might be also interested in reading a statement by Kazakhstan’s 74-year-old dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev. Let me quote it verbatim from Kazakhstan’s official English-language website Tengri News.

If the rules set forth in the agreement are not followed, Kazakhstan has a right to withdraw from the Eurasian Economic Union. I have said this before and I am saying this again. Kazakhstan will not be part of organizations that pose a threat to our independence. Our independence is our dearest treasure, which our grandfathers fought for. First of all, we will never surrender it to someone, and secondly, we will do our best to protect it.

Of course, he added that nothing of the sort can possibly happen because “there are three representatives from each country [Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan] and three Vice-Prime Ministers. They also make their decisions together.”

Putin’s response to Nazarbayev’s statement called Kazakhstan’s future independence into question. Yesterday he said that Kazakhstan, although large, is only one-tenth the size of Russia. He also explained that Nazarbayev “created a state on territory where no state had ever existed. The Kazakhs had never had statehood. Nazarbayev created it. In this sense, he is a unique person for the former Soviet space and for Kazakhstan too.” But, Putin continued, underscoring his expansionist intentions, Kazakhstan is better off in the “big Russian world.”

Meanwhile Viktor Orbán, as his wont, gave a press conference upon his arrival in Brussels. Interestingly enough, he is usually driven to these meetings in his own Volkswagen minibus, an odd choice for such occasions. According to normal protocol, the hosts provide vehicles for visiting dignitaries, but for one reason or another Orbán insists on his own bus. One must wonder how this vehicle gets to Brussels. Is it driven or transported there ahead of time? Or, perhaps he has several identical vehicles?

It is also hard to know whether only Hungarian reporters are interested in what the prime minister has to say or whether journalists from other countries are also present. I suspect that only Hungarian reporters attend these events. On one of the pictures taken at the press conference I could see the mikes of only MTV and HírTV.

In Orbán’s opinion, today’s meeting was organized only for “the review and correction of the current political situation.”  The discussion centers around whether “the sanctions have reached their desired goals” but for that “we should know what the desired goals are.” He is convinced that sanctions will not work. Sanctions until now have not been successful and it would be self-deception to think that more of the same would end the conflict.

Finally, I would like to say a few words about the Conference of Western Balkan States that took place in Berlin on August 28, 2014. Participating were representatives of the European Union, Germany, Austria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and the Republic of Macedonia. It was called together by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also chaired the meeting.

The idea for the conference came in response to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. The intention was to show commitment to the process of future enlargement of the European Union as well as to shore up relations with Serbia as a strategic partner of the EU, especially in light of the problems in Ukraine.

Serbia has, since the second half of the nineteenth century, been a close friend and ally of Russia. Its negotiations with the European Union for membership have been going on for a long time, but Serbia’s chances have been strengthened by what is going on in Ukraine. Because, as Adelina Marini of points out, “if Serbia becomes part of the EU, Russia will lose its influence in the Balkans or, at least, it will be significantly limited.”

However, Serbia apparently wants to have its cake and eat it too. Although it desperately wants to join the European Union, it also wants to keep its special relationship with Russia. Brussels is unlikely to accept such a “special status” for Serbia. But if Russia becomes a real threat to Europe, Serbia’s membership in the EU might help block the spread of Russian influence.

Diplomacy in Europe and especially in Eastern Europe and the Balkans is a much more complicated enterprise than it was a few years back when these countries did not have to worry about the Russian bear. Orbán’s idea that diplomacy can be pretty much replaced by foreign trade is patently wrong. The current situation is complex, negotiations are difficult, and a bad outcome would be very dangerous for Europe. And even as storm clouds are gathering in the East, Hungarian diplomacy is being guided by Péter Szijjártó, who is totally unfit for the job.


Attila Ara-Kovács and Bálint Magyar: On the periphery of empires–a buffer zone of the EU?

Today the European Union is faced with conflicts it has never encountered before either within or beyond its borders. In 2004, when several Eastern European countries were admitted to the EU in the wake of the Drang nach Osten, the democracy deficit of the new member states was considered no more than a children’s disease which—given proper treatment—they would surely outgrow. However, as the post-communist mafia state took shape in Hungary between 2010 and 2014, this assumption proved utterly mistaken. Outside its borders—as in Ukraine for example—the hope that societies will necessarily come nearer to European “civilized” norms turned out to be an illusion.

Within the Borders of the EU

Hungary was once a pioneer of the region in expending efforts to dynamically modernize and democratize the country. Although the “central field” policy was described by Viktor Orbán well before 2010, it has been implemented since he came to power. The main aim of this policy is to prevent any change in the political setup and establish an autocratic regime, while stressing that stabilizing liberal democracy is just one alternative in our region. Eastern European post-communist societies today are under the threat of becoming autocratic regimes, thus stabilizing themselves. It is a moot point whether the EU has the clout to put these countries back on the trajectory of liberal democracy or—failing that—excommunicate them from the EU.

Eastern EuropeThe system of sanctions against democracy deficit as legitimized by Brussels is based on two premises. The first one posits that integration implies a system of values whose effectiveness is dependent on the coherence and homogeneity of these values. According to the second premise the fundamental principle of the policy followed by the member states is underpinned by the shared values of liberal democracies, and deviations from this policy should not be regarded as intentional only as occasional slips. The system of sanctions works only if both of these premises are accepted because—short of the second one—exclusion from the community would automatically come into force as a last resort. In other words, unless the shared values of the member states fail to be harmonized due to the reluctance of certain countries to eliminate those deviances, the community is bound to reject those countries in self-defence, lest for other reasons.

Since the perception of public opinion in Hungary denying the value system of the EU is not incidental but systematic, it is often assumed that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s long-term goal is to lead Hungary out of the EU.

Challenging this view, we assert that neither the exclusion of Hungary nor a government attempt to quit the EU is a likely scenario.

Beyond the Borders of the EU

The recent brutal events in Ukraine reveals an increasingly fierce geopolitical competition between the European Union and the “Euro-Asian Union” being formed and led by Russia. This competition is rendered particularly intense owing to the fact that the battle of the great spheres of interest is reinforced in two more dimensions. On the one hand it can be interpreted as a fight between quasi-democratic and quasi-autocratic forces while on the other as a Russian-Ukrainian conflict tinged with a more and more obvious ethnic character. The latter problem also has some cultural undercurrents: after World War II the territory of Ukraine grew, extending its borders from the onion domes of Orthodoxy into the world of Gothic churches of Catholicism.

The lofty goals of fighting for a better value system are mixed with the down-to-earth goals of expanding the empire. This war is not waged with weapons though. Just the opposite, the big powers are trying to win the voters’ sympathy with offering “bonuses”. The Russians dangle the carrot of supplying cheap energy and opening an administratively controlled market in the former Soviet regions whereas the EU is giving the associated countries financial support and access to EU markets operating on a competitive basis. The imperialistic nature of this battle is revealed by attempts at mutually ruling out the possibility to avail of both channels of “bonus”.

If the requirements of homogeneity in value systems were imposed in strict terms, Ukraine would not at all stand a chance of joining the EU. At the same time however the geopolitical aims of the West seem to move towards a policy of increasingly close cooperation with Ukraine.

Value system versus geopolitics

The rationality of common values as declared by the EU on the one hand and the rationality of geopolitics with its pressure of circumstances on the other are mutually exlusive concepts, impossible to realize simultaneously. A move to admit or lure the former communist countries from the Balkans and Eastern Europe which are still outside the EU would lead to a catastrophic inflation of the system of common values. However, a flat rejection of these countries, let alone an expulsion of the quasi-autocratic regimes within the walls of the EU, would give the Russian Empire in the process of reincarnation the opportunity to expand towards the West. An EU decision to draw its geographical borders according to the system of common values would surely result in a reincarnation of Yalta, with the implication that the validity of political community would be overruled by the historical self-movement of value systems. Whereas the post-war Yalta agreement cut Europe into two along the North-South axis largely leaving out of consideration issues of cultural value systems, the axis now seems to move diagonally, from North-East to South-West. Such a move is supposed to irrevocably embed the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and possibly Slovakia into the EU but renders the place of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria in this community ambiguous.

Even though Brussels declines to consider this option, it looks as if the contradiction between the dream of common values and the reality of geopolitics can be solved only by means of a two-speed EU, introduced under political duress. The euro-zone, a “westernized” form of multi-speed Europe has already been realized. The post-communist member states well entrenched in the EU either belong to the euro-zone already or are intent, irrespective of their ideological commitments on joining the euro-zone within a few years. Others however, including Hungary produce a national ideology to justify their resolve to stay permanently outside. The claim for preserving our autonomy hidden in the rhetoric of “national war of independence” is in fact the euphemistic demand that we be exempted from the norms of liberal democracy. Let there be no mistake: what these countries mean by “the Europe of nations” is an obvious claim to establish or maintain their quasi-autocratic regimes. No one but their own citizens can resist such demands effectively. If there is no resistance or if the resistence turns out to be unsuccessful, the stabilization attempts of “national autocracies” are sure to succeed. Whereas the geopolitical considerations of the EU should not allow the Russian Empire to reach out again as far as the River Leitha on the Western border of Hungary. The Western-European political elite—while giving up its romantic belief and original mission following the collapse of the Berlin Wall—is considering Eastern-Europe falling behind not as a companion in a cultural sense but only as an era to be influenced economically. In fact today’s Eastern-European elite –instead of trying to civilize– only wishes to strenghten its eastern scale of values with the help of national and social populism—in order to build up and preserve their autocratic power.

For some members of the EU to stop this process might seem all the more hopeless since to create a stable democracy is utterly impossible without an autonomous citizenship and a wide middle class.  What’s more, the financial crisis of 2008 even cast light upon the fact how vulnerable EU member South-European societies may be in this respect.

EU buffer zone – the playing field of autocrats

It follows from the above that we are moving towards a buffer zone, an area permanently outside the euro-zone, where unprincipled concessions in EU norms may be made. The new imperial logic defends itself not with the tactic of “scorched earth” but with a policy of giving support in well-proportioned doses while acquiescing in democracy deficits—in the past such behaviour was tolerated only exceptionally.

Why on earth would autocrats like Orbán wish to leave the EU once they can live in this buffer zone by “milking two empires”: regular support arrives through structural and cohesion funds from the EU whereas cheap energy through agreements with the Russian empire? While the former is made to pay for a semblance of showing good manners in politics and espousing the ideals of freedom, the latter for our submission into an Eastern system of dependency.

Attila Ara-Kovács, ex-diplomat

Bálint Magyar, ex-minister of culture and education


Charles Gati: Hungary before the election–Interview

An Interview with Charles Gati of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

[The interview, published in the January 2, 2014 issue of the weekly 168 Óra (168 Hours) and conducted by József Barát, was translated by Professor Gati for Hungarian Spectrum.]

József Baráth: Hungary is doing better. This is what we hear every day from Fidesz politicians. Some of them even demand better classification from global rating agencies and the resignation of the European Union’s finance commissioner. Looking at it from the United States: How’s Hungary doing these days?

Charles Gati: The Hungarian economy is at a standstill. It suffers from policies of re-centralization and re-nationalization. The global credit agencies issue their ratings on the basis of available numbers. Some presumably make mistakes – after all, human beings always do – but together they reflect a factual condition: that Hungary has come to occupy the last place among the Visegrad Four. The situation could change for the better only if the government no longer stood in the way of Western investments, recognized the advantages of European integration, and prepared the country for the introduction of the euro.

JB: The Hungarian government is no longer criticized so frequently in the United States as in the past. Does this mean that American officials and observers see positive changes? Or is it only that Washington has lost interest, perhaps accepting the view that Hungary belongs to that part of Europe where the values of democracy and the rule of law don’t matter so much and therefore outsiders can’t make a difference?

CG: As far as I know officials don’t see such “positive changes,” and no one has written off Hungary’s democratic potential. Yet, for now, they don’t expect to convince the current Hungarian government any more than they could convince the current government of Ukraine of the values and advantages of Western-style democracy. Given the ingrained optimism of Washington officials, you won’t hear them state it like this but their deeds reflect considerable skepticism. Far more important, however, is Washington’s preoccupation with the agonizing problems of the Middle East.

JB: Tamás Fellegi, a former member of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s cabinet, is conducting a public relations campaign in Washington to improve Hungary’s image in the United States. He’s reaching out to Hungarian-Americans. Does he have a chance to influence American public opinion?

CG: I’m aware of the campaign run by Mr. Fellegi, but I’m not familiar with the specifics of  his outreach to Hungarian-Americans. I do know that several Washington think-tanks  received contributions from his so-called “Hungarian Initiative Foundation,” which is supported by a $15 million grant from Hungarian taxpayers. In exchange, I presume, Fellegi himself and various pro-Fidesz speakers have been invited to lecture or participate in panel discussions at various forums. I attended one such lecture by György Schöpflin, a Fidesz-member of the European parliament, that was quite successful. Of the twenty or so invited guests, about half were officials of the Hungarian Embassy in Washington. As for substance, these speakers often advance the same view as the one Fidesz promotes: that it’s [the far-right] Jobbik rather than the [right-wing] Fidesz government that opposes Hungarian democracy. They say or suggest that Fidesz, by defending national values against Western “colonialism,” weakens Jobbik’s base, and therefore the West should support rather than criticize Orbán’s Fidesz-led government. This is what one hears from Fellegi, Schöpflin, as well as from Katrina Lantos Swett (daughter of the late Tom Lantos who heads the Lantos Foundation in the US and the Lantos Institute in Budapest, and who sees his father’s legacy differently from me and for that matter from what I think his father’s view would be).  By focusing on Jobbik,  Anne Applebaum, a respected American journalist,  promotes this interpretation, too. To answer your question directly, then, I don’t believe this campaign by officials and fellow-travelers of the Orbán government falls on fertile soil here.

JB: Many are surprised that there isn’t greater resistance in Hungary to the government restricting the rule of law, curtailing the system of checks and balances, and even proceeding with the expansion of funding its clients from the state budget. How do you assess this tendency?

CG: Applebaum’s recent book, Iron Curtain, offers an account of the strategy employed after World War II by Hungarian [and other East-Central European] Communists and their Soviet advisers, a strategy aimed at the immediate capture of the press which at that time meant the Radio, above all. Leaders of Fidesz have learned from Lenin; after gaining power in 2010, they conquered key positions in the press, notably television and radio, so much so that lots of Hungarians didn’t and still don’t realize what’s going on around them. So while internet helps somewhat and there are still independent papers, freedom of the press no longer exists. Those who need information most – people in the countryside who hear and watch one-sided news accounts and one-sided opinions on government-controlled stations – don’t seem to take advantage of what’s available on the internet. Moreover, businessmen as a group appear to be afraid of supporting independent or opposition voices. All in all, the attack against [Western-style pluralist] democracy in 2010 was both sudden and devastating, and much of the public have yet to wake up to the new political environment.

JB: Viktor Orbán claims that European politics should be renewed on the basis of his prescriptions. Could he find followers in Europe? Is the process of European integration endangered by Hungarian government policies?

CG: He has no followers in Europe for now. The British, Lithuanian, and Polish governments — the latter primarily because of domestic circumstances — are somewhat “understanding” of Viktor Orbán, but on a variety of issues they don’t agree with him. As for integration, it isn’t in danger of being reversed. Some countries try to slow down the ongoing processes, partly to protect their sovereign existence, partly to protect their power, but the deepening if not the widening of European integration continues unabated.

JB: There will be election this year in Hungary. Do you think the divided opposition has a chance of winning?

CG: I gave 168 Óra an interview exactly two years ago. Looking back, I note with pleasure that the right-wing press chose one sentence from that interview and attacked me for it thousands of times since. In a long and hysterical editorial,  the government daily Magyar Nemzet went so far as to curse me and members of my family as well. I note this with pleasure because not only friends but people of common sense have responded to these attacks by sending me encouraging emails. The sentence in question was this: “I agree with Palmer [the late US Ambassador to Hungary Mark Palmer who served there from 1986 to 1990]: there are possibilities for the removal of this government by democratic means if possible, by other means if that’s not possible.” The meaning of the sentence is clear: If the government stands in the way of free election, the people have the right to protect their democratic rights, restore the well-tested system of checks and balances, as well as freedom of the press and religion. Two years later I can only repeat what I said in 2012.  But, with a view toward the approaching election, I can add that while the new electoral law that the Fidesz super-majority in parliament passed strongly favors Fidesz, I still hope the election will be free. I can’t tell how the opposition will do, but I note that the number of undecided voters is very high indeed.

JB: We keep hearing that Gordon Bajnai has influential American supporters — though, truth be told, we hear this primarily from Fidesz propagandists. Are there significant American interest groups that are prepared to help one or another side in Hungarian politics?

CG: Such “significant interest groups” exist only in minds suffering both from delusions of grandeur and a persecution complex. There are no conspiracies against Hungary if for no other reason but because America is otherwise preoccupied. The government press has claimed, for example, that I work with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on trying to overthrow the legitimate Hungarian government. Too bad I’ve never even met Mrs. Clinton. Never. As for Gordon Bajnai, he has made a very good impression during his visits to Washington and New York. Over the years I heard three or four of his lectures about European integration. I also know that he had a chance to meet with high officials and respected analysts. I can say the same about Attila Mesterházy’s valuable lectures and conversations as he also visits the US quite regularly. It’s too bad the Hungarian Press Agency and most of the Hungarian press seldom or perhaps never report on Bajnai’s and Mesterházy’s successful encounters in America.

JB: Could Fidesz win again with a two-third majority?

CG: It received 53 percent of the vote in 2010, which resulted in a two-third super-majority in parliament. I expect a tough match this year.

JB: According to some interpretations of the new electoral law, even 30 percent popular support might translate into a two-third parliamentary majority — if the opposition is divided.

CG: This is a possibility, but months before the [Spring 2014] election such pessimism is unwarranted. Don’t forget that I’ve lived in America for 57 years…

JB: What do you expect to happen if Fidesz wins? What’s more likely: will Orbán pursue policies of consolidation, or strengthen his one-man rule?

CG: Fidesz is Viktor Orbán’s party. Some of his colleagues may be grumpy, especially those who expected higher positions or greater influence, but there’s no principled opposition to him. His one-man rule could be influenced by economic trends and by the European Union.

JB: There are those who believe that it could take generations before Hungary returns to European values. Do you agree with them?


CG: I couldn’t disagree more. Permit me to mention only one example from Hungarian history. Who would have thought around, say, 1860 that a Ferenc Deák would soon emerge with the idea that a grand compromise [with Austria] had to be the nation’s primary goal and that the necessary political capital for such a goal was within reach? What followed at the turn of the 19th-20th century was the construction of Budapest’s most lasting, most beautiful buildings and boulevards. And what an extraordinary cultural boom took place at the same time! Deák also understood that the economy needed the talents of Jewish and German-speaking citizens, and he recognized their rights. It’s often said that he was “the nation’s wise man.” He was. And he held up the example of Hungary for all of Europe!

Deák’s wisdom is missing from Hungarian politics today. This is so because the emphasis all too often is on “heroism,” not on prudence. But heroism in 21st century Europe is old hat, an outworn value, since there’s no immediate enemy.  Hungary has never enjoyed such a favorable international environment.

JB: There are critics.

CG: There are critics, of course. Their criticism shouldn’t be met with vindictive, ad hominem attacks, but with serious adjustments in the realms of both domestic and foreign policies. That’s when Hungary’s image would begin to improve.  In this connection, let me recall the memory of Nelson Mandela. Once a most radical, uncompromising  leader, Mandela emerged from 27 years in jail promoting tolerance. He sought coexistence between whites and blacks. Let’s also remember than the political prisoner and his jailer received — together — the Nobel Peace Prize. Hungary will do well when wise leaders appear on the political scene who will not only respect their opponents but are able to lift the country from its last place to Europe’s premier class — even if it means that they must shelve their own political past, even if it means painful compromises.




Back to the Middle Ages: Viktor Orbán at the Christian Democratic International

I have been wondering for some time when it is that the media “experts” in the Prime Minister’s Office decide to publish his speeches in full on his own website and when they are satisfied with only a summary. Lately I’m coming to the conclusion that they opt for a summary when the exact words that were uttered are not really suitable for a wider audience. Or perhaps when the prime minister’s speech was delivered at a conference where others also had a chance to talk and might have voiced opinions that are not in line with those of Hungary’s prime minister.

I suspect the latter may have been the case with the speech delivered by Orbán at the conference (“On the Road to a Stronger Europe”) of the Christian Democratic International held in Budapest on October 11. At the core of the speech was Orbán’s belief that “the denial of work and prayer is the reason for the decline of Europe.” Or at least this is what the Prime Minister’s Office decided was worth promulgating.

According to the prime minister, Europe will be strong again if Europeans return to the path of Christianity and work. In fact, he talked about St. Benedict’s dictum “ora et labora” upon which medieval monasticism was based. In the early Middle Ages the Benedictine monasteries were indeed key centers of cultural life, perhaps the only centers. Church and state were one and the same, and the king, for example, Orbán’s idol, King Stephen I, could force his people to attend church every Sunday. But many centuries have passed since then and the world has changed a bit. Orbán, however, longs for the days of “ora et labora.” He went so far in this speech as to claim that the economic crisis that befell the world was caused by modern man’s abandonment of his inherited faith, which is the basis of all good in life: human dignity, freedom, duty, work, family, and nation. Including nation on this list is truly odd because, after all, the Catholic Church stands for universality as opposed to particularism.

The Rules of Saint Benedict /

The Rules of Saint Benedict /

Not only is it the case that Europeans in the western half of the continent are faithless but there is “today a veritable manhunt against those, mostly central-European politicians who dare to talk about the values of Christian Europe.” Surely, Orbán here is talking about himself. In this connection he mentioned the fact and called it a “gross falsification of history” that the European Constitution make no reference to the Christian heritage of Europe. But as Ferenc L. Lendvai, a philosopher, rightly pointed out, the EU Constitution doesn’t mention the humanism of antiquity either, although it is equally part of Europe’s heritage.

Orbán’s other complaint was that European countries, including naturally the European Union’s superstructure, have no leaders of quality. The institutions they head run on autopilot or, as he put it, they “resemble computers which work very nicely as long as the programs are good.” The world is still “waiting for the mathematicians with their new programs.” I suspect he now thinks of himself as a computer scientist of great mathematical skill. Europe needs leaders who can make brave decisions and who exhibit real commitment. He concluded with the pronouncement that “Europe must be liberated from the mistrust of the liberals and from the grips of greed.”

It looks as if other speakers didn’t quite agree with this not at all Christian Democratic speech. How could they when it is a commonplace by now that in Western European countries there is little difference between the left and the right when it comes to social policy? In this respect both the socialists and the Christian Democrats are “liberals.” So, attacking liberalism is not necessarily popular in parts west of Hungary.

Moreover, Viktor Orbán’s “teachings” have nothing to do with conservatism. He offers up hard right-national talk masked with fake religiosity in the belief that this will be enough for him (and Fidesz) to be accepted in the family of conservative European parties.

I’m almost certain that the majority of European politicians, including those sitting in the European People’s Party’s caucus, are sick and tired of the lectures Orbán frequently delivers. I also wonder what they think of his ill-disguised self-praise of his political abilities and the sharpness of his vision. As if he had the answers to all of today’s economic and social problems which others lack. This must be especially annoying to those who are familiar with the meager achievements of Orbán’s government. Starting with an inherited 1.5 percent economic growth, he led the country back into recession by 2012. Admittedly, if he keeps lying about economic figures abroad, just as he did in London only a few days ago, perhaps the truth can be hidden for a while. But not for ever.