German foreign ministry

Another strange Orbán speech at the 25th anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic

Another day, another speech. Earlier I briefly mentioned that the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic has been one of the important topics in the German press lately. The interest is understandable. It was the very beginning of the German unification process.

During the summer of 1989 Otto von Habsburg, who at the time was a member of the European Parliament, gave a lecture in Debrecen extolling the benefits of a Europe without borders. A couple of MDF activists came up with the idea of organizing a picnic right at the border between Austria and Hungary, symbolizing the artificial nature of borders. The organizers convinced Otto von Habsburg and Imre Pozsgay, a member of the Németh government and high-ranking party functionary, to attend the gathering to be held on August 19.

It turned out to be more than a simple picnic. Some East Germans who happened to be in Hungary heard about the event and decided to crash it in more than one way. They ran to the gate between Austria and Hungary and broke through. The Hungarian border guards were instructed to let them go. In fact, some children who were left behind were taken by Hungarian border guards across the border to join their parents. What followed we all know. On September 11 the Hungarian government opened the borders for all East Germans who were camping out in Hungary waiting for an opportunity to leave.

Hungarian border guards open the gate to freedom

Hungarian border guards open the gate to freedom

Yesterday Germans, Hungarians, Austrians, and some of the few hundred people who broke through the gate gathered to remember that  momentous day. Naturally, Viktor Orbán was also present. But instead of giving a formal speech he had a fairly lengthy “conversation” with Philip Rákay, a long time Fidesz activist and nowadays the superintendent of MTV, the state television station.

It was a strange conversation in which Orbán combined praise of the Hungarian nation with an explanation of his use of the word “liberal.” His speech back in July does need some explanation, especially since a couple of days ago he received some harsh words from the German Foreign Ministry. Undersecretary Michael Roth indicated that in the opinion of the German government “Hungary is going in the wrong direction.” According to Roth, Germany is grateful to the Hungarians for their courage in standing up for freedom in 1989, but today Germany must ask about the state of freedom in Hungary. “The developments taking place in Hungary raise concern,” he said, because “they affect our common European foundation.” This admonition came not from The Washington Post or The New York Times but from the government of the strongest and most influential country in the European Union.

This morning Péter Szijjártó responded by calling Roth’s “allegations” so general as to be meaningless, and he declared that no one should worry about the state of democracy in Hungary. Hungarians demand “respect” because they are freedom-loving people. “We are not the ones who threaten democracy.” Orbán at the commemoration ceremony also stressed the freedom-loving nature of Hungarians, adding that they are also chivalrous and magnanimous. Magnanimous because they did not take the money offered to them by Germany in exchange for the Hungarian courage and generosity shown in allowing thousands of Germans to cross over to Austria.

Soon enough, however, Orbán left history behind and began talking about matters that were in one way or another connected to his infamous speech. For example, he pointed out that Hungary cannot copy the Chinese, Russian, Japanese, or South Korean models because “we are Hungarians who come from a fundamentally Christian culture, motivated by freedom and [therefore] we must build a different economic and political system.” I have the feeling that this reassurance will not be enough for the politicians of the Trans-Atlantic alliance.

As for his description of the events of 1989, “the year of miracles,” it focused on Fidesz’s and his own role, with the usual emphasis on forcing the Russians to withdraw and getting rid of the communists. The Fidesz youngsters decided to be as radical as possible while there was such a revolutionary mood. It is almost as if Viktor Orbán and his youth organization were the only players in the drama of the regime change. Most of those present don’t remember the minute details of those months and don’t realize that Viktor Orbán and his friend László Kövér were only minor characters who until the last minute were not even admitted as negotiating partners in the Round Table Discussions. They don’t remember that the Russian troop withdrawals were negotiated by the Németh government, the “communists” who figured so large in Orbán’s discussion yesterday at the celebration.

According to Népszabadság the word “communist” was the most frequent one to leave his lips. Orbán’s critics keep repeating that they don’t understand where Orbán finds his communists because according to practically all independent observers there are mighty few of them, and they certainly cannot be found in public life. These critics, however, are most likely not familiar with the works of Gyula Tellér, who is convinced that the power structure that developed in 1954-55 is still with us. At the top were the hard-core Rákosists and the communists around Imre Nagy. These two power groups fought for supremacy. Under them were the middle classes and the petite bourgeoisie. This structure, according to Tellér, has remained surprisingly stable over more than fifty years.

Since Orbán is an attentive student of Tellér, according to whom these two top communist groups still exist, he continues to talk about communists in a country where the communist party is practically nonexistent. The real enemy, however, is not this group of ineffectual self-proclaimed communists; it is the opposition, whom Orbán views as communists who hide beneath the mask of Western-style socialism and liberalism. These covert communists must be obliterated, destroyed. The fight cannot end.

In fact, that fight has been intensified since 2010 when there was a revolution thanks to the electoral victory that produced a two-thirds majority in parliament.  Orbán recalled that József Antall sarcastically said to his critics who complained that his government did not stamp out the whole communist hierarchy, “Tetszettek volna forradalmat csinálni,” a very difficult phrase to translate because “You should have staged a revolution” doesn’t do it justice. Well, Orbán continued, in 2010 “tetszettünk forradalmat csinálni”  (We did stage a revolution). The fight against the “communists” will continue.

And the fight will continue on another front as well. János Lázár in his speech today told the Hungarians that they “are only half way into the reorganization of the Hungarian state.” Yes, they created new civil and criminal codes and a new administrative structure. What is still missing is a “new state structure.” I’m afraid that means a move toward a presidential system, with Viktor Orbán as president with far-reaching powers.

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Viktor Orbán’s grandiose plans might be thwarted by Strasbourg and Brussels

The bureaucrats, speculators, and foreign press are once again lining up against the Hungarian government.

Let’s start with the forint, which today breached the 300 mark against the euro. The forint’s weakness is the result of several factors: the appointment of György Matolcsy as chairman of the Hungarian National Bank; rumors about the possible exchange of some of the bank’s foreign reserves for rubles; and, the latest, word that the government intends “to assist” Hungarians with their foreign currency loans. The government would convert these loans into ones denominated in forints and would also lighten their burden by paying a certain percentage of their debt. The Hungarian government would use some of the reserves of the Hungarian National Bank for this purpose.

There are political pressures on the Orbán government as well. In the March 5 issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Michael Link, undersecretary in the German Foreign Ministry, wrote a piece that appeared on the op/ed page of the newspaper and available on the website of the German Foreign Ministry or in Hungarian on the Galamus site. The title itself is telling: “Hungary must remain a country of the law.” In the body of the article Link reasserts that “we cannot be indifferent” to what is happening in Hungary. Earlier the European Commission managed to convince the Hungarian government to change some passages in the Constitution. The Hungarian Constitutional Court also found some of the laws passed by the Hungarian Parliament to be unconstitutional. Now, however, there are new attempts to smuggle back all the formerly objectionable passages into the body of the constitution. These “new initiatives limit the freedom of expression for the alleged protection of the dignity of the Hungarian nation.”

rule of lawAs a friend of Hungary, Link would like Hungary “to demonstrate that the country has an effective separation of power between the legislative and the judicial” branches. As it stands, the Constitutional Court hands down judgments that the government ignores. “We need a vibrant parliament with a perceptible opposition and a confident Constitutional Court.” Link also wishes that “the two-thirds majority the Government relies on is used prudently. A two-thirds majority is not a free ride…. The European values that we share in the world, we must also cherish at home.” For good measure Link mentioned that Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle shares these concerns. Common European values “must apply to all EU members, both new and old.” As with each member state Hungary remains “master of its cultural identity,” but there have to be shared values. Among them the rule of law is the most central. “It must be able to develop without any ifs, and, or buts.”

The Hungarian answer that came from Gergely Gulyás, a young Fidesz MP and a member of the parliamentary committee on constitutional matters, was that “it is a misunderstanding” that the Hungarian government wants to limit the competence of the Constitutional Court. To the contrary, its latest amendments were made at the request of the Court itself. What else is new? We know from earlier government statements that everybody misunderstands the intentions of the Hungarian government and Viktor Orbán.

On the very same day the Financial Times came out with an editorial on “Orbán’s threat to democratic values.” It is about the same amendments Michael Link was talking about. The article reminds people that last year Viktor Orbán backed down on aspects of a new constitution that would have posed a threat to judicial, religious, and press freedoms. But this week the Hungarian parliament threatened to revive “curbs that violate European values in an amendment to the constitution. If this goes ahead, the response from Brussels should be rapid and robust.” According to the editorial, Brussels should “set out in precise detail where the amendment violates Hungary’s membership of the EU. But once that is established, it should warn Mr Orbán that it is prepared to use the most powerful weapons in its armoury to defend European values.” The article recalls that the EU was ill equipped thirteen years ago to handle the situation when the Austrian government included a far-right party as a coalition partner. But the editorial stresses that “this time there is greater political consensus that Mr Orbán’s attacks on democratic norms cannot be tolerated.” The FT editors suggest a withdrawal of Hungary’s voting rights and add that “financial sanctions too should be considered…. Faced with an economy in deep recession, and a decline in foreign investment, Mr. Orbán needs the money. Brussels should not hesitate to threaten a withdrawal of structural subsidies, for example, if Mr. Orbán does not call on his party to drop any amendments that violate EU membership. If the Hungarian prime minister insists on flouting European values, he cannot expect Europe’s support.”

And if that weren’t enough, today the secretary general of the Council of Europe called on the Hungarian government to postpone the vote on the latest amendment to the constitution. Thorbjørn Jagland wrote: “I have misgivings concerning the amendments that may not be compatible with the rule of law.”  He further argued that with the incorporation of these amendments the government with its two-thirds majority is forcing its will on the Constitutional Court and is thereby endangering the system of checks and balances. He suggests a postponement of the vote in order for the Venice Commission to study the matter.