Foreign media on the Orbán government: The Washington Post

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.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Odin's Lost eye
Guest
In addition to focusing on the on the foreign reaction to what’s going on inside of Hungary, one should also look at the internal reaction in Hungary as to what is going on. The foreign reaction is mainly recorded in the so called ‘broadsheet’ (quality) papers. The editors of the popular press (tabloids) are only vaguely aware that Hungary exists somewhere in Europe. Inside Hungary the ‘view of Orban Victor et al from the Koscma’ –the Public Houses- is very different. At the moment to use an old Anglo-Saxon expression ”The sun shines from under his tail (if he had one, which he may do)”. They see his rather foolish moves over passports etc as being a re-assertion of Hungary’s greatness, strength and position in the world. To quote from the words of 18Ce traveler Julia Pardoe “the besetting sin of the Magyar is vanity”. This view may well lead the Hungarian government, if it wins the local elections by a ‘landslide’, into believing that it is omniscient. Some of the things it is and will be doing in the future will lead it to become like a ‘runaway freight train’. It will then surely run slap bang into the… Read more »
Alias3T
Guest
I’m not comfortable with this cultural cringe the Hungarian press, and some Hungarians, express with regard to the foreign press. Sure, several of us write up what we see for a foreign audience, and, perhaps with the odd exception, we do our best to be well-informed, accurate and fair. But then you wake up the next day to find your article being brandished like a revolutionary flag, once one side or other has decided it serves their purpose. It’s somewhere between sycophantic and servile: “Look XY Newspaper is saying this about us! What shame the government has brought on Hungary.” What gets lost is any sense of the gravity of the event being reported on. It’s the original action of the government – whether that be Feri’s Oszod speech, the IMF talks breakdown, the status law or the Medgyessy D/203 – that warrents discussion, condemnation or praise. It demeans the actors when they forget about the original issue and start hoisting scabby bits of foreign newsprint on their flagposts. It gives the impression that they lack the confidence to form their own conclusion. And Odin – do you really think everyone thinks the sun shines out of the Great Man’s… Read more »
Odin's Lost eye
Guest
Alias3T. The view I am getting from those who frequent the public houses is a feeling of pride that O.V. (‘The Mighty One’) has told all the foreigners and everyone where they ‘get off’. These folk are not the ‘sophisticated of Budapest’ or members of the local ‘café society’. After a long day’s work they mainly drink some sort of ‘fire water’ chased down with beer until their money is running out, when they drink the sour white wine from plastic bottles mixed with soda water (fröccös I think). They usually depart on foot (‘cause of the Rozers) in a very unsteady fashion. I occasionally see one or two ‘sleeping it off’ by the track. If anyone bothered to ask their opinion they would be very wary about giving one. I do not think that many of them even register to vote. If the more politically aware have the same attitude then support of this type can vanish like the mists on a warm August morning but for the moment it is solid. If Fidesz gain total (or nearly so) control of the local government machines this autumn, then there will be no stopping them. This is what they want.… Read more »
Passing Stranger
Guest

Hungary’s great unwashed do not care much for the passports for Slovak Hungarians. If they did, they would have voted en masse in favour of dual citizenship when they had the chance several years ago. My contacts within Hungary’s drinking classes tel me they are very impressed with Orban’s toughness versus IMF and EU. I have also met Orbanites who think a bit further and they are very worried that he will not be able to meet his economic promises and will be ousted in several years.
The one issue that really gets people’s blood boiling is corruption and cronyism, and they see the survival of communism mostly in these these terms. They hate the MSzP because many socialists have enriched themselves from teh colapseof communism. These bitter people will be very disappointed if there is no ‘reckoning’.If Orban does not put Gyurcsany et al on trial, or proves as corrupt as his predecessors, there will be no helping him in four years regardless how much political control he has over the country now.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Passing Stranger: “.If Orban does not put Gyurcsany et al on trial, or proves as corrupt as his predecessors, there will be no helping him in four years regardless how much political control he has over the country now.”
Orbán will not dare to put Gyurcsány on trial. There would be an international outcry, something he can’t afford. Gyula Budai, the “commissioner” investigating the former prime ministers’ “crimes” is a primitive idiot who will surely fail in his task. But I think that Orbán right now wants noise and no more.
As for corruption. I’m sure that both Bajnai and Gyurcsány are completely innocent. There were surely some corrupt MSZP politicians but not as many as people think. Fidesz was extremely corrupt between 1998 and 2002. This crew is nothing in comparison. Most of the corruption goes on in the local goverments where Fidesz politicians take their share of the cases but they don’t get as much publicity as the other side.
Unfortunately corruption in Hungary is endemic. Not just the politicians but practically everybody from doctors to locksmiths. Or the homeowner who doesn’t demand receipt. The whole country. So why are we surprised that politicians are also corrupt?

Karl Pfeifer
Guest

József Debreczeni writes in his “Arcmás” about the difference between Ferenc Gyurcsány and Viktor Orbán: While Gyurcsány became first a millionaire and then a politician, Orbán (and family) became first politician and then millionaire. (quoted from memory)

Odin's Lost eye
Guest
Professor you say ** “will not dare to put Gyurcsány on trial. There would be an international outcry, something he can’t afford. Gyula Budai, the “commissioner” investigating the former prime ministers’ “crimes” is a primitive idiot who will surely fail in his task. But I think that Orbán right now wants noise and no more.” **. I am not so certain of this. Or is your article called ** “Crime and punishment? The case of Béla Biszku” part of ‘Plan B’. Whereby Orban can ‘tar’ both Bajnai and Gyurcsány with the same brush by implication. Actualy I do not think ‘The Mighty One’ (Orban) gives a ‘tinker’s curse’ for foreign opinion or outcry. Mr Passing Stranger as you point out ** “The one issue that really gets people’s blood boiling is corruption and cronyism,” **. Yes it enrages them, mind you if ‘they’ could get onto the ‘gravy train’ they would be there like ‘long dogs’. As to the graft and peculation, most of it occurs in where most of the money is spent and where audit controls are weakest.. This occurs at the large (County) and the medium (City) project level. Government projects are watched carefully by not only… Read more »
Jules
Guest

@Eva: I am surprised by this comment “As for corruption. I’m sure that both Bajnai and Gyurcsány are completely innocent. There were surely some corrupt MSZP politicians but not as many as people think. Fidesz was extremely corrupt between 1998 and 2002.” While I often agree with what I read here, I find your statement pretty shocking. How can you be so sure? I believe both sides are very corrupt. MSzP had/has a far greater reach (into the till) given their network that was grown over decades.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Jules, I’ll tell you why I said what I said. Because I know only too well how Fidesz operates. This is what they did in 1998: they created a slew of armed attacks against themselves. This certainly helped them to win the elections.
This time one is struck by the sudden discovery of all these corruption cases. All of a sudden! Out of the blue! Just before the elections. A great number of these cases are accusations of selling this or that piece of property under value. This is a very flimsy ground for criminal proceedings. Very often there is no other proof than the say so of a former colleague. I’m extremely suspicious.
As for Bajnai and Gyurcsány you can be certain that they have no role in any kind of corruption case. For one thing, neither of them need money. They are wealthy men who worked for the government without accepting salaries.

GW
Guest

“While Gyurcsány became first a millionaire and then a politician, Orbán (and family) became first politician and then millionaire.”
For example, how come no one has publicly asked how Orban, on the salary of a member of parliament, was able to buy the land and build a house in Kutvolgy, in the hills of Buda’s prestigious district XII?

Jules
Guest

@Eva — I still have a hard time believing that you are ‘sure that both Bajnai and Gyurcsány are completely innocent.’ That’s a pretty brave statement to make. The fact that they were rich prior to their appointments doesn’t mean they would necessarily stop being corrupt once they got into power. Their rags to riches stories are a bit hard to swallow as well. (Just like Orban’s, I might add, h/t to GW.) Even though I respect your right to your own opinion, Eva, I find it unfortunate that a woman of your educational training and intellectual background, which I admire, would go out of her way to constantly give the MSzP a free pass on just about every issue that paints them in an unfavorable light. That said, I do enjoy your blog, because I always get a good overview of the previous day’s events in Parliament, etc., w/o having to sort through both the left’s and the right’s twisted versions of said events…

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Jules: “That’s a pretty brave statement to make. The fact that they were rich prior to their appointments doesn’t mean they would necessarily stop being corrupt once they got into power.”
First of all, they were not corrupt before they they became politicians. Gyurcsány took the opportunities that offered themselves and made money on his investments. That’s just good business practice. Only in Hungary people think that making money is an immoral enterprise. Bajnai who is in his early forties is a very talented man. I know an old friend of his from university who couldn’t say enough good things about him. A young man with good knowledge of English and a solid background in economics can get very far in Hungary.

wanna be correspondent
Guest
wanna be correspondent
About foreign coverage of Hungary. It’s nice to see when The Post and others get all excited about the country when Orban dares to say no to the IMF or when he makes some shocking comments on patriotism… Then, every one just forgets Hungary is on the map. Foreign readers get a caricatural image, something like, Hungary, member of the EU since 2004, had its capital regularly stormed by far right hooligans since 2006, than elected “par défaut” a dictator in the making while fascism is living a new spring everywhere in the country… France 2 aired a package this spring about Jobbik basically telling millions of French viewers in the evening news that Hungarians had to fear a return of fascists in the country. This by showing 3 people in front of the Parliament who were ready to say they’re afraid to go out in the street at night, and a respectable historian in the castle with a nice Budapest panorama behind him saying the likes of Horthy are back. Foreign coverage should be read carefully both inside and outside Hungary. Not sure you can trust a foreign paper that doesn’t even have a permanent correspondent and sends in… Read more »
pgyzs
Guest

“First of all, they were not corrupt before they they became politicians.”
Because you were there and saw that, right? I tell you what, I know several people who worked very close to Gyurcsány and beleive me, their description is not very honouring. I’m pretty sure he is guilty, but unlike you I don’t think that my opinion is necessarily the utter truth so I might be wrong but I wouldn’t put a dime on that this case.
I’ve heard much better words about Bajnai, but that doesn’t mean he is the angel sent from above. He’s clearly smart and talented (much more talented as a leader than Gyurcsány, even though he doesn’t have the charisma to be a real politician), and in his case I’m tempted to say that I believe in his innocence too, but I can’t be sure, and you can’t be sure either no matter what you say.
How you’re constantly defending them is like someone defending his/her loved ones and this is unacceptable from anyone who wants to keep at least the tiniest feeling of independence (although in your case I think it’s long lost when it comes to day to day politics).

wpDiscuz