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


Ádám Szigeti

Thousands of protesters at a rally for press freedom, which was organized on Facebook, Budapest, March 15, 2011. The speaker projected on the screen is András Istvánffy, leader of 4K!, an organization dedicated to the creation of the fourth Hungarian republic.

As soon as it was elected, the Fidesz government issued a manifesto proclaiming that “after forty-six years of [foreign] occupation, dictatorship, and the two troubled decades of a transitional period, Hungary has regained its right and ability to govern itself.” Following the traumas of the last two decades, the manifesto continues, “the nation has regathered its life force and in the voting booths achieved a successful revolution.”

According to the authors of the manifesto, there will now be a new “National System of Cooperation” that will bring happiness not only to every inhabitant of the country but also to Hungarians living abroad. The manifesto does not acknowledge that Hungary was after all independent between 1990 and 2010 when, among others, Viktor Orbán was prime minister for four years. Nor does it say how the opponents of Fidesz, who are held responsible for Hungary’s “deep spiritual and economic crisis,” would fit into the new cooperative society. On June 14, 2010, parliament voted the manifesto into law and ordered that it be permanently displayed in every public building. Ever since, satirists have made much of its pompous language.6

The Manifesto on National Cooperation was probably the brainchild of Pál Schmitt, who soon became president of the republic. In the past, the president was elected by the entire parliament after long haggling among the major parties, but Schmitt was virtually appointed by Orbán. For this, he seems to be duly grateful; his predecessors frequently sent back laws to parliament for further debate—Schmitt signs every one of them immediately.

A former fencing champion and a high-level sports functionary in the Communist regime, Schmitt preaches the creation of a national, conservative, and Christian Hungary, in which a patriotic, healthy, and well-educated young generation should be taught to speak and write “unpolluted” Hungarian. Unfortunately for him, following the publication of his New Year’s Message, Schmitt, too, became the target of ridicule for the many grammatical and spelling errors his message contained, including some bad mistakes in his brief citation of the National Anthem.

For the last few months, the government and its absolute parliamentary majority have been feverishly active, already bringing about substantial changes in politics and society. The most famous and most controversial of the innovations is the already mentioned media law giving extensive powers to the five Fidesz members who run the media authority. Appointed for nine years, they can impose a heavy fine on journalists and media outlets for reporting considered “immoral” or “unbalanced.”

Still, at the moment the media remain entirely free, and in view of the publication of the far right’s hysterical calls for violence against the Roma and the Jewish population, one might even argue that some of the media in Hungary are a little too free. Also, on February 16, 2011, the Hungarian government agreed to amend the media law to comply with changes proposed by the European Commission. The right-of-center coalition in the European Parliament has declared its satisfaction with the technical changes in the law but, in a recent development, the European Parliament as a whole called for more changes. The problem is less with the law than with the chilling effect that the rumor of censorship has had on some journalists and writers, and with the haste of some publishers and other media bosses to exercise self-censorship in order to please the new leaders of Hungary.

Something similar might be said of most other governmental reforms. Because the laws are new, the regime’s promises and claims have to be judged with respect to the warnings of the opposition. There is, for instance, the special tax on industries dominated by foreign investors, which greatly angers Western European governments. The nationalization of private pension funds would no doubt dismay Fidesz’s fellow ideologues in the American Republican Party. Fidesz’s program is not to weaken but to strengthen the state.

Particularly debatable is a new law that offers Hungarian citizenship to all Hungarian speakers abroad. This could affect millions of people and would mainly benefit—or harm—the Hungarian minorities in Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, and Austria. The parliament’s offer leaves many questions open. What, for instance, if Hungarians abroad demanded that their wives benefit from the Hungarian law offering a total of three years of paid leave to young mothers? That would mean giving benefits to people who do not pay taxes in Hungary and never will. And what if the Slovak government, for instance, decided to revoke the citizenship of the thousands of Slovaks of Hungarian origin, claiming that they are now Hungarian citizens? But then many Hungarians feel that their country owes something to its fellow nationals who, since the Trianon Peace Treaty of 1920, have been living under foreign rule. Other Hungarians contend that the government’s offer of dual citizenship is motivated by the expectation of gaining supporters abroad who will have received nothing worse from Fidesz than representation without taxation.

No less serious is the government’s systematic weakening of the powers of the Constitutional Court, the National Elections Commission, the National Bank, and the independent Fiscal Council while also putting party loyalists in the top position of each body. The government has already expressed its right to control the Hungarian Telegraph Agency, government-owned television and radio, some state-owned theaters and museums, and a few research institutions. The government, moreover, has the newly enacted right to dismiss public servants without cause. In the United States, too, spoils have always gone to the winner, but not to the same extent as in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary,7 which does not have a civil service law to protect the jobs of government workers.

Finally, there is a concerted right-wing drive to shame and possibly prosecute some of the best-known Hungarian liberal philosophers, Ágnes Heller among them, for having requested and received from the state research funds for vaguely defined goals. The legal case against them involves dozens of scholars, many of whom are not Jewish; still, right-wing media play up the Jewish origins of the principal philosophers. Meanwhile, liberals, including the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, see the demand for prosecution as a concerted anti-Semitic campaign.8 Behind it lurks a good deal of envy for the worldwide connections and success of the Jewish scholars. Even more importantly, there is Hungarian society’s inability to confront the history of the Holocaust in Hungary, during which the Hungarian authorities and some members of the public caused the death of several hundred thousand Jews, while some of the same authorities and some citizens also spared, or even saved, the lives of perhaps 200,000 other Jews.

The question remains how far Fidesz is prepared to go to make its rule permanent. At the moment no one can stop the party; the checks and balances provided by the Hungarian constitution have been largely eliminated; public opinion is still solidly behind Orbán if for no other reason than because he seems to be able to defy the great European powers and the multinational corporations that many Hungarians blame for their problems, which are real enough and manifested in glaring inequalities in income and opportunities. Educated Hungarians have Europe open to them and are leaving the country in droves, creating a dire shortage of doctors and skilled workers; the less educated cannot find jobs.

Budapest and the western parts of the country are doing reasonably well, despite the general economic crisis; in the east, and especially in the northeast of the country, half a million Roma and at least the same number of non-Roma Hungarians live in extreme poverty. Many go hungry. What under the Communist János Kádár had been a region of fairly successful collective farms and a wasteful but labor-intensive heavy industry now consists of fallow lands and idle, rusty factories. Among the previously fully employed Roma there is now up to 90 percent unemployment. Hungarians in the same region are no better off either; hence the considerable hatred for the Roma who are said to prefer to live on welfare.

These economic and social dilemmas are not the fault of the new government, though in the past Fidesz managed to block every reasonable reform proposed by the Socialist-Liberal government. What is certain is that for the time being only the Fidesz government can deal with the problems; the Socialists are unpopular and they have not yet produced a leader; the far right is unacceptable to the great majority of the people. Meanwhile, an attractive new middle-of-the-road party has emerged, whose name, LMP, stands for “Politics Can Be Different.” Last year it gained sixteen seats in the parliamentary election, but not surprisingly it is having difficulty defining just how different it will be.

As for Fidesz it sees itself as having a sacred mission to frame a new “revolutionary” national constitution, which would replace those of 1949 and 1989. The draft, which at the moment is being subjected to a brief national debate, clearly reflects the party’s philosophy emphasizing family, faith, and order. The preamble, entitled “National Credo,” emphasizes the role of Christianity and of the Holy Crown of Saint Stephen in preserving the nation; it writes about “loyalty, faith, and love” as well as about “the unity of national culture.” The preamble avoids using the term “Hungarian Republic,” and talks only of “Hungary.”9

Such developments are indeed something quite new in the history of the European Union. For all practical purposes, Hungary has become a one-party state. Yet a one-party state is not necessarily a dictatorship, and there is still ample time and space for the many hitherto quiescent Hungarians to make clear to their leaders that they do not wish to live under a government that oversees a grateful but voiceless population.

Hungary was once the merriest member of the East European socialist camp; together with Poland, it showed the way to reform in the Soviet Bloc. It would be a tragedy if it now suffered a grave weakening of its democratic institutions.

March 29, 2011

This Issue

April 28, 2011