Hungarians often complain that the world ignores their little country, which has given humanity some of its greatest freedom fighters, mathematicians, physicists, architects, musicians, photographers, film directors, financiers—and war criminals. Truly international attention has come to Hungary only periodically, with the revolution of 1848–1849 under Louis Kossuth, Béla Kun’s Republic of Soviets in 1919, the mass deportation of Jews in 1944, and the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising. In between these times, it was often as if the country did not exist.
Now attention is here again, although only temporarily and mainly in Europe, and it has much to do with Hungary’s assumption of the presidency of the Council of the European Union against a backdrop of recently enacted domestic policies that are said to violate the principles and practices of the European Union. Among other things, Hungary’s right-wing government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has set up a National Media and Communications Authority consisting of five members of Orbán’s party, Fidesz, with the authority to fine journalists and media organizations up to $1 million for “immoral reporting.”
In addition, its critics accuse the government of such things as the erosion of many autonomous state institutions, the firing without explanation of civil servants, and the poisoning of the Central European political atmosphere through the granting of Hungarian citizenship to any inhabitant of a neighboring country who claims to be of Hungarian ethnicity. Recently the Orbán government presented a draft of the new national constitution. In its preamble, the bill states the Christian history of the Hungarian nation; it discusses the importance of the Crown of Saint Stephen as a symbol of historical continuity, and it avoids the use of the term “Hungarian Republic.” These developments are something quite new in the history of the European Union.
Public criticism of the Orbán government took an astonishing turn during the introduction in Strasbourg, on January 19, 2011, of Viktor Orbán as president of the European Union’s second legislative body, the European Parliament. Since the presidency of the council rotates every six months there is no particular merit in the prime minister of a member state who becomes, for a short time, what some call the president of Europe. Still, just to hold the office can be a source of considerable influence and prestige.
This time, however, the appearance in parliament of Viktor Orbán went awry from the beginning: some deputies sat with Band-Aids covering their mouths in protest against the new Hungarian media law. Others held up blank issues of potentially censored Hungarian dailies. The leaders of the liberal and socialist groups of deputies declared Orbán unworthy of the presidency, and the leader of the Greens, the former student anarchist Daniel Cohn-Bendit, shouted that Orbán was turning Hungary into a “Communist surveillance dictatorship.”
Cohn-Bendit also said that Orbán…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.