I must say that Viktor Orbán's foreign press is abysmal. Most writings in the English-language press found Hungary's decision to break off the negotiations with the IMF wrong-headed, with the notable exception of Adam LeBor in The Times (July 26) and an opinion piece by a Washington-based economist, Mark Weisbrot, in The Guardian (August 9). Weisbrot is an expert on Latin America and a great admirer of Hugo Chavez. The fiercely anti-socialist Hungarian government wasn't picky: it was most grateful for Weisbrot's encouraging words.
Today I'm going to focus on the foreign reaction to what's going on inside of Hungary. Earlier I wrote that the international journalist community, not surprisingly, reacted vehemently to the new media law that according to most constitutional lawyers is unconstitutional. The Orbán government probably knew that the law wasn't quite acceptable because first they postponed voting on it and then waited until the very last day to send the bill over for the president's signature. By that time Pál Schmitt was president and he signed the bill on his first day in office. All neatly figured out.
The media law was not the only target of the foreign press. As I mentioned earlier, Viktor Orbán took a drubbing in a Washington Post editorial (July 19). The writer reminded his readers that the last time he served as Hungary's prime minister "Viktor Orbán made himself a persona non grata in Washington." George W. Bush's administration was offended by Orbán's "habit of catering to Hungary's extreme right, which still embraces 1930s-style nationalism and anti-Semitism."
Once Orbán received such an overwhelming mandate in the most recent elections "many Hungarians figured that Mr. Orbán would temper his formerly polarizing policies." But by granting passports to ethnic Hungarians living in other countries Orbán, the editorial continued, is "again pandering to those in his country who have never accepted the 1920 Treaty of Trianon." After listing some of the new government's legislative moves the author concluded that if Orbán is using his two-thirds majority to weaken democratic institutions "he will merely ensure that he once again becomes a pariah in Western capitals." This coming from an influential paper published in Washington sounded like a serious warning.
There was an immediate reaction in Budapest. Zoltán Kovács, who is in charge of government communications, wrote "an official letter" to the editor of The Washington Post, which predictably wasn't published. But Fidesz politicians are in the habit of writing letters if they feel that their government is being criticized. I will never forget the time when István Simicskó, undersecretary of defense in the first Orbán administration, wrote an ugly letter to Celeste Wallander, a political scientist who published a study about NATO in Foreign Affairs. In it she quoted a high-ranking British official of NATO who asserted that Orbán's Hungary didn't fulfill its obligation toward NATO. Celeste Wallander today is assistant undersecretary in the Department of Defense. I wrote about this incident a few months ago in galamus.hu. The whole thing was embarrassing. It revealed the provincialism of the Hungarian political elite.
Géza Jeszenszky, foreign minister (1990-1994) and Hungarian ambassador to the United States (1998-2002), at least knew that a respectable newspaper would not publish an "official" protest from any government. However, he also knew that a former ambassador's letter to the editor normally gets printed. So he wrote a defence of Viktor Orbán and his government. It turned out to be a rather weak answer to the charges. He claimed that The Washington Post's editorial was "as inaccurate as it was unfair." He blamed the author for his "superficial understanding of Hungary and Fidesz." Jeszenszky claimed in the letter that Orbán didn't cater to Hungary's extreme right. On the contrary, he "successfully opposed it and helped oust its representatives from parliament by defeating them during the elections."
We'd better stop right here. In 2002 Fidesz lost the elections, so it didn't defeat MIÉP, the party of the extreme right at the time, or any other party. In fact MIÉP received practically the same number of votes in 2002 as in 1998 and only the unusually high voter turnout prevented MIÉP from reaching the 5% threshold necessary for parliamentary representation. During the four years of the Orbán government Fidesz relied on the votes of the members of MIÉP, which was only nominally in opposition. In reality, members of MIÉP most of the time voted together with the government. So much for Géza Jeszenszky's historical accuracy.
Jeszenszky blames the strained relations between George W. Bush and Viktor Orbán on Hungary's decision to purchase fourth-generation Swedish-British Gripen fighter planes instead of refurbished American F-16s. But that didn't make "Mr. Orbán persona non grata and a pariah." In fact, in March 2002 President George W. Bush telephoned Viktor Orbán and invited him to visit the United States following the elections, "which looked like an almost certain victory of Mr. Orbán's Fidesz party." Finally, Jeszenszky expressed his hope that in the future the The Washington Post's "editorial policy relating to Hungary will be more balanced and factual."
I'm sure that Washington was not too happy with Viktor Orbán's last minute decision, against the advice of the Hungarian military, to purchase the Gripen fighter planes, but that wasn't the real reason for George W. Bush's fury. Shortly after 9/11 István Csurka, chairman of MIÉP, made a speech in parliament in which he said that the United States got what it deserved. Viktor Orbán, who was in the chamber, remained silent. Charles Gati, Senior Adjunct Professor of European Studies at Johns Hopkins University, talked about the affair in 2005. He remembered that the American government specifically asked Viktor Orbán to distance himelf from Csurka's outrageous remarks. János Martonyi did so after many urgings, but Orbán never did. That was the real reason for Orbán's problems with Washington in 2002.
Jeszenszky wrote a letter to the editor in 2002 as well. It was much longer than the current one, but according to Gati he would have been better off if he had remained silent. He complained about an editorial by Jackson Diehl, one of the senior editors of the paper, in which Diehl accused Orbán of nationalism and referenced "his secret association with anti-semites." Jeszenszky's argument against the alleged anti-semitism of the Hungarian government was telling. He called attention to the fact that "the Jewish community is well represented within the government." As Gati said a few days later, Jeszenszky did more harm than good with this letter. First, Jeszensky complained that the journalist of The Washington Post didn't consult with the Hungarian government. It is not exactly western journalistic practice to ask a government's opinion on subjects to be covered in the paper. Second, bringing up the representation of Jews in the government is also unheard of in the United States or anywhere else. Surely, one wouldn't discuss the religious affiliations of members of a government. Jeszeszky's reference to the number of Jews in the Orbán government reminded Gati of "those anti-semites who keep saying that they have Jewish friends."
All in all, The Washington Post's editors are not exactly enamored with Viktor Orbán and his politics. If it were only The Post that expressed negative feelings toward the new Hungarian government, one could say that it is an aberration. But unfortunately as we will see in the next few days it is not. Almost all well known papers have serious misgivings about the democratic nature of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz.