foreign trade

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.

Viktor Orbán’s state visit in India

What a happy day for Viktor Orbán. He is on an official state visit to India, with all the attendant pomp and circumstance. I can well imagine his pride when he walked down the red carpet accompanied by a Indian officer, dressed all in white, with sword drawn. And that long line of soldiers several rows deep. I suggest that you take a look at the official photos on the website of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Viktor Orbán in his element / Source: Viktor Orbán Facebook page

Viktor Orbán in his element / Source: Viktor Orbán Facebook page

In keeping with the Orbán government’s standard practice, the official word of his three-day visit to India came only yesterday afternoon, after he boarded the plane. The trip was announced both in Hungarian and in English. Mind you, the English version sounds a bit odd because it says that “the prime minister holds official visit in India.” (You see, this is what can happen when politicians buy certificates of foreign language proficiency, as we found out a few days ago. Language professors at the Hungarian Reformed University did a brisk business selling these phony certificates. Among their clients they had a VIP group that was handled separately.)

As soon as the news of Orbán’s trip was out, sarcastic headlines appeared in blogs and other Internet sites. I liked the one that read:  “Viktor Orbán will fight for three days in India.” Actually, ever since August when Péter Szijjártó visited New Delhi one could sense that something was in the offing even though in the past Szijjártó’s extensive travels seldom resulted in an invitation for a state visit. This time he was successful.

Orbán was accompanied by Mihály Varga, minister of economics, Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, and Péter Szijjártó, undersecretary in charge of  external economic relations and foreign affairs. The schedule is rather tight. Today Orbán delivered a lecture at the Indian Foreign Policy Institute entitled “Hungary and Europe in a Changing World,” and later in the day he will address the Hungary-India business forum. After meeting with Shree Pranab Mukherjee, India’s president, he will also “exchange views” with Sonia Ghandi, the chairman of the United Progressive Alliance. Tonight he will be meeting with India’s prime minister, Mamohan Singh, to sign several bilateral cooperation agreements in R & D, medicine, culture, sports, and aviation. Hmmm! Not exactly heavy-weight business cooperation between the two countries. Tomorrow he will open the Mumbai stock exchange and later in the day will inaugurate the opening of a Hungarian consulate in Mumbai.

“More than seventy Hungarian and several dozen Indian businessmen” attended his speech at the Foreign Affairs Institute. Considering that 66 Hungarian firms went along with the prime minister’s entourage, it looks as if Hungarian business interest in India may be greater than Indian business interest in Hungary. I would like to see the list of businessmen who went along with the official Hungarian delegation.

Orbán clearly would like to have more trade with non-European countries. He explained that 82% of Hungary’s exports go the countries in the European Union and three years ago only 8% went to non-European countries. This number by now is 12%, and “by 2018 he would like it to reach 33%.” He was always an ambitious man. He emphasized his own “re-industrialization” project which would provide great opportunities for Indian businessmen. Although the large business contingent indicates that he would also like to increase Hungary’s business footprint in India, the speech emphasized investment in Hungary where there are already a few Indian businesses. I do hope, however, that not too many Indian businessmen remember Apollo Tyres’s attempt to set up a factory in Gyöngyös in 2008, which Orbán managed to wreck.

Orbán spent a great deal of time expounding his long-held belief that European economic success will come only from the Central European region. He claimed that Hungary is one of those countries that have already left behind their economic woes and are on the road to spectacular near-term growth. He asked Indian businessmen and politicians “to put Central Europe on their map.” (The prime minister’s upbeat economic pronouncements came at about the same time a business analyst announced that there are two countries that aren’t following the Central European growth pattern: Hungary and Romania.)

It’s hard to imagine, but he even managed to squeeze into his speech his favorite theory of late: Europe’s past greatness derived from its Christian roots as formulated by Saint Benedict in his rules of monastic life “Ora et Labora” (Pray and Work). Today the old rule is still applicable. Only hard work and a return to its Christian roots will make Europe great again. The Indian audience  must have been impressed considering the religious diversity of their own country where one can find followers of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism, and the Bahá’i Faith, just to mention the most important.

Of course, there will be more speeches and a lot of boasting about the successes of Hungary, but only time will tell how useful this trip was. Similar attempts in Russia, China, and the Middle East have brought only meager results thus far.