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Hungary: The Threat

Isopix/Rex USA
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on his way to an EU summit, Brussels, March 24, 2011

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 was “on the way of becoming a European Chávez,” while left-wing European commentators claimed that Orbán was trying to introduce “Putinism” into Hungary.1 Orbán, who thrives on controversy, responded in kind, insisting that his position as president of the council not be confused with his being prime minister of a member state, and those who insulted him were insulting the Hungarian nation—later adding that a conspiracy was being directed from inside the country. In general, Orbán likes to identify his followers as good Hungarians and his critics as enemies, if not as outright traitors.

What was amazing about the events surrounding Hungary’s assuming the presidency of the Council of the European Union was not only the intensity of the left-wing and centrist attacks on the prime minister but also the initial hesitation of Orbán’s European allies to come to his aid. Only slowly did the right-wing people’s parties, the largest political group in the European Parliament, to which Orbán and his Fidesz party belong, begin to say that the accusations against him were exaggerated. In Hungary itself, the ever-widening separation between left and right continues, with the left declaring him Hungary’s shame, and the right denouncing those who joined in the foreign attacks on Orbán in Strasbourg as “people fouling their own nest.”

One of the more outspoken defenses of Orbán appeared in Magyar Hírlap, a paper close to the government, by Zsolt Bayer, an old friend of Orbán’s. Bayer used the time-honored Hungarian rightist argument that only Jews and their hirelings could be evil enough to criticize Hungary:

A stinking excrement called something like Cohen from somewhere in England writes that “a foul stench wafts” from Hungary. Cohen, and Cohn-Bendit, and Schiff…. Unfortunately, they were not all buried up to their necks in the forest of Orgovány.2

The reference is clearly to Jewry as a whole and to a famous incident, near a small Hungarian village, in 1919, when White counterrevolutionary officers murdered both suspected members of the former Red Republic and ordinary nonpolitical Jews. The contemptuous reference to “Schiff” in Bayer’s article was to the famous pianist András Schiff, who is of Jewish Hungarian origin. In a letter to The Washington Post on January 1, 2011, Schiff had criticized the homophobia, “reactionary nationalism,” anti-Semitism, and hatred for the Roma that, according to him, were sweeping through Hungary. Upon hearing of Bayer’s attack, Schiff announced that he would now be afraid to go back to his native country, a statement that caused the right-wing media in Hungary to denounce him and such other artists as the conductor Ádám Fischer for daring to accuse Hungarians of anti-Semitism.

Following the publication of Bayer’s article, a group of Hungarians petitioned the new media authority to consider whether the contents of the article should be condemned for incitement to murder. So far, there has been no reaction from the authority; nor did Orbán publicly distance himself from his friend. It must be said, however, that the prime minister has recently assured Hungarian Jewish leaders that Jewish rights and freedoms would be carefully protected. Also, his government has repeatedly paid homage to the memory of Auschwitz and the Holocaust in Hungary. In an interview given to an Israeli newspaper, Orbán vigorously rejected the standard far-right charge that there existed a worldwide Jewish conspiracy for Israel “to buy up Hungary” with the ultimate purpose of settling the surplus Israeli population there. Instead, Orbán expressed his hope that more Israeli capital would be invested in Hungary.3

One of the more serious international attempts to publicly denounce Orbán’s politics in Hungary has been an “Appeal to the European Institutions” by European intellectuals and leaders, dated January 7, 2011, in which the authors deplore the development of “a full-fledged illiberal democracy” and the dismantling of “democracy’s checks and balances” in Hungary. They demand that the European governments and parties “build clear standards of compliance with the values of democracy” and that violators of these standards be punished.

The first signers of the appeal were those who had “fought against the Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe,” among them Hungary’s first post-1989 president, Árpád Göncz; former Czech president Václav Havel; the Polish public intellectual Adam Michnik; the Hungarian writer György Konrád; and the British historian Timothy Garton Ash. Strangely, this call for a common European struggle to strengthen democracy in Eastern Europe does not seem to have made it into more than a handful of European newspapers. Nor have I found a trace of it in The New York Times.4 The same goes for a peaceful protest of 50,000 in Budapest, on March 15, in defense of press freedom, with Michnik among the participants. Clearly, Havel and his friends are no longer of great interest to the Western press.

Nevertheless, there have been hundreds of editorials and reports in the European media on Hungary’s new politics. Viktor Orbán, their principal target, will be forty-eight this year; back in 1998, he was one of the youngest prime ministers in Hungarian history. His second tenure as prime minister began in 2010 and, according to his followers, it is bound to last fifteen to twenty years. Born near Budapest, where one out of every five citizens of the country lives (as if Washington, D.C., were a city with sixty million inhabitants!), he undoubtedly profited from the Communist education system, just as he later benefited from the generosity of the Soros Foundation, which sent him to Oxford University to study. Trained in law, he became a member of the opposition during the decline of communism, and in 1989 he made a name for himself by publicly demanding free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. He has been described as concentrated and ruthless yet capable of great charm. He is also an excellent soccer player—no small advantage in Hungary.

Orbán’s party, Fidesz, was once much admired in other European countries because of its ultra-liberal ideas on economics and politics, and because it admitted only young people to its ranks. Many will remember Fidesz’s early election poster showing two photographs: in the first an old and homely Leonid Brezhnev fervently plants a kiss on the mouth of the no less old and similarly homely East German Communist leader Erich Honecker; on the second, an enchanting young Hungarian couple are exchanging a bashful kiss. “Please choose!” the poster exhorted.

It soon turned out, however, that among the major political parties making up the new parliament in 1989—all of which claimed to be progressive and “European”—Fidesz could not put together a plurality of votes. In the 1990s, the party gradually changed from being liberal and cosmopolitan to being suspicious of foreign influences and “left-liberal intellectuals,” favorable to small and big business, and active in pursuit of national power—and these positions helped it win the election in 1998. Yet in 2002 and again in 2006, Orbán and his friends lost to a coalition of Liberals and Socialists, to which Orbán reacted very bitterly. He characterized his opponent, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, as a traitor to the fatherland. He encouraged Fidesz supporters to take to the street. Whenever the prime minister appeared at a session of the parliament, Fidesz deputies left the chamber. Such patently undemocratic behavior had been rare even in the admittedly stormy history of the Hungarian parliament.

During the recent economic crisis, the Socialist-Liberal coalition collapsed; even worse, two of post-Communist Hungary’s founding parties, the Liberals and a moderate conservative party, simply disappeared from the political scene. The Socialists were plagued by corruption scandals and, among other failures, refused to investigate seriously a controversial case of police brutality at a 2006 nationalist demonstration. They also refused to call national elections after Prime Minister Gyurcsány’s resignation in 2009. As a consequence, at the 2010 parliamentary elections, Fidesz and its Christian Democratic allies gained 53 percent of the votes against the Socialists’ 17 percent.

More disturbingly, Jobbik, a far-right, racist, and xenophobic party, got almost as many votes as the Socialists, with nearly one million votes out of a total of 6.3 million. Because of the system of mandates, Orbán’s own party and the Christian Democrats together muster over two thirds of the seats in the parliament, which means that he is free to draw up a new constitution that will give far more power to the government and the state. His party also controls the vast majority of county and local governments. No doubt he can, without much difficulty, restrain the far right, but it is still worrisome that, in the middle of Europe, a group of racist radicals might well represent the only alternative to Orbán’s populist conservative movement.5

  1. 1

    See, among others, Raf Casert, “Hungarian PM Warns EU to Back Off, Stop Meddling,” Associated Press, January 19, 2011. 

  2. 2

    Bayer’s peculiar style is nearly untranslatable. On this, see “Zsolt Bayer Vents Against Hungarian Jews and the Foreign Press,” Hungarian Spectrum, January 5, 2011. 

  3. 3

    Népszabadság Online, January 31, 2011. 

  4. 4

    The Appeal to the European Institutions, whose text was devised by the Hungarian writer Miklós Haraszti, was printed in full in the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza, January 10, 2011. On the same subject, see also Der Spiegel, January 7, 2011. 

  5. 5

    Like the other Hungarian parties, Jobbik has a wide variety of supporters and is as popular among university students as it is among the poorest rural population. It is of some interest that Jobbik’s candidate for the state presidency at the last elections and today a member of the European Parliament is the jurist Krisztina Morvai, who is a fanatical anti-Semite. She relentlessly distinguishes between “us” and “them,” on whom she pours venomous hatred. Yet she is still legally married to a journalist of Jewish origin, which leaves open the question whether their twin daughters are “us” or “them.” 

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