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The Threat in Hungary: An Exchange

In response to:

Hungary: The Threat from the April 28, 2011 issue

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To the Editors:

My old friend István Deák’s article on Hungary [“Hungary: The Threat,” NYR, April 28] contains much that is cogent and relevant. On some topics, however, he appears to have assumed the role of an “unreliable narrator” and this requires additional information for the sake of balance.

There is, for one, the membership of the Hungarian Media Authority. Professor Deák’s formulation, that these are Fidesz loyalists, has become one of those widely accepted “truths” that turn out to be more complex on being probed. No one knows how these persons voted (there is secrecy of the ballot in Hungary), so whether they are Fidesz loyalists is not proven. What is also omitted is that the persons appointed are recognized professionals in the field.

The Media Law makes provision for a maximum fine of $1 million for a good reason. Much of the Hungarian media was effectively unregulated and had acquired very bad habits, like showing hard pornography and violence on daytime TV. Under the prior legislation, fines were too small to deter this.

Then, Professor Deák writes of “the firing without explanation of civil servants.” Again, this requires elucidation. When the left came to power in 2002, they purged around ten thousand persons from the public sphere and filled these positions with their own party loyalists. So we are not dealing here with nonparty “civil servants,” but with political appointees, whose loyalty is to their party and not to the public good. Regrettably Hungary does not have a nonpolitical civil service.

In granting Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians in the neighboring countries Hungary is following the practice established by its neighbors, all of which have parallel citizenship provisions. Only Slovakia is concerned by Hungary’s move, so “poisoning of the Central European political atmosphere” is far-fetched.

Then, the article says that the new constitution “avoids the use of the term ‘Hungarian Republic.’” It is not a question of avoiding anything; it is a name change bringing things into line with common usage. The great majority refer to Hungary as Hungary rather than as the Hungarian Republic. I can’t see anything reprehensible in this.

In reference to a decidedly unpleasant piece of journalism, Professor Deák notes, “nor did Orbán publicly distance himself from his friend,” i.e., the man who wrote it. True, but then there is freedom of the media in Hungary and it is hardly appropriate for a prime minister to go around distancing himself from what appears in the press. Has any prime minister in any democratic country done this? Is it conceivable for President Obama to do something like this? I doubt it. By the same token, shouldn’t Professor Deák demand that European Greens distance themselves from Cohn-Bendit for having compared Orbán to Chávez?

György Schöpflin
Member of the European Parliament Fidesz EPP
Brussels, Belgium

István Deák replies:

György Schöpflin, who is too modest to mention in his letter that he is a former Jean Monnet Professor of Politics at the University of London, might be putting too much faith in his fellow Fidesz members. The inevitable temptation for the members of the party-appointed new Media Authority, for instance, will be to crack down not only on pornographers but also on outspoken opposition to the government. The question then becomes whether there are enough moderates in the governing party to see to it that their party’s dominance does not deteriorate into dictatorship.

Similarly, even if the previous socialist-liberal government fired thousands of public servants, professors, researchers, theater directors, artists, journalists, and others, that is no excuse for the present government to fire thousands of others who have little chance to find private employment in a society where every day the state controls more of public life.

Again, neighboring countries might also have laws on dual citizenship but this does not assuage the worries of the Hungarian opposition that the government might try to make its rule impregnable by means of the votes of Hungarians in the neighboring countries, who have much to gain but little to lose from their dual citizenship.

And while György Schöpflin is right that Hungarians normally refer to their country as Hungary and not as the Hungarian Republic, he also knows that Hungarians have established a republic only three times: in 1918, in 1945, and in 1989, and that the first two attempts were squashed by a combination of foreign intervention and violent domestic opposition. Now the new regime is doing everything it can to make the word “republic” unfashionable. There is much play, instead, with the anachronistic “doctrine of the Holy Crown of Saint Stephen,” and even with the myths of pre-Christian times, in which, incidentally, the ancestors of no more than one in a hundred contemporary Hungarian citizens could possibly have partaken.

Finally, there is the agitation against Jews and Roma. I am convinced that such sentiments are shared neither by the highest Fidesz party leadership nor by the majority of the country’s inhabitants; but they definitely have sympathy from the far right with its 17 percent of the parliamentary votes as well as from large segments of the government’s supporters. Zsolt Bayer, one of the wildest anti-Semites, is among the founders of the Fidesz party, and he is, or at least until recently still was, very close to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. He and fellow party hacks do not hesitate to call the Roma “wild beasts” and to complain about a global Jewish-Israeli conspiracy to colonize Hungary. For György Schöpflin this is no more than a “decidedly unpleasant piece of journalism.” The Jews and Roma attacked may feel that “unpleasant” is far too mild a word to describe such virulent prejudice.

Finally, no one familiar with the US would have the slightest doubt that any American president would publicly condemn anti-ethnic utterances by officials of his government or members of his party. Perhaps what Hungary needs is to elect a half-Roma prime minister; if this sounds like a mad idea, then let Hungarians remember that ten years ago the election of Barack Hussein Obama would also have sounded like a mad idea. Still, the United States survives.

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