Foreign media on the Orbán government: Le Monde, Le Nouvel Observateur and The Economist

A day after the appearance of the editorial in The Washington Post, Le Monde came out with another hard-hitting article entitled “Hungary–The peculiar behavior of Orbán.” The gist of the article is that European taxpayers saved Hungary in 2008 when the IMF and the European Union lent twenty billion euros to Budapest. This loan enabled Hungary, a country that “by the way is not even part of the eurozone,” to meet its debt obligation.

Naturally there were conditions attached, which were actually less severe than those the IMF has been demanding from some of the Baltic countries. “But the new government, the conservatives of Fidesz, looks as if it wants to free itself from these obligations.” There are signs that Viktor Orbán, the new prime minister, is planning to go back on the word given to the IMF and the European Union. “Orbán’s behavior is impertinent.” He opted to attend the world cup soccer final rather than to negotiate with the IMF and the European Union.

But there is more. “Orbán put his own men in positions that are supposed to supervise the economic and financial institutions of the country. He seems to be forcing a ‘Fidesz state’ on the country. He started an onslaught against the officials of the former government. He ordered the display of the Proclamation of National Unity, which is a kind of party manifesto. The prime minister has his own private media empire at his disposal, yet he wants to change the country’s media law. This Christian conservative, in the name of the struggle against the far right, is shamelessly playing on Hungarian nationalism.” The article ends by asking whether “all these are acceptable from a country that will fill the office of the presidency of the European Union. Orbán must be reminded that Hungary is a member of a club that has its own rules.”

A few days later the Nouvel Observateur published a long article, “The Disquieting Herald of Greater Hungary,” by Vincent Jauvert. The picture that accompanies the article is interesting. Although I saw this or similar pictures many times before, this is the first time that all those flags seemed ominous.

The topic again is Viktor Orbán and the extreme right. “He does everything in his power to convince the extreme right to support his cause. … He stole their program, their symbols, and their slogans.” Orbán with his large majority doesn’t need Jobbik, but “he is afraid that this political grouping that proudly claims to be the successor to the old Arrowcross party may be his rival at the next elections.” He wants to keep his own electoral base and at the same time he wants the support of the extreme right, and therefore he is undertaking “a series of rather frightening initiatives.”

In times of difficulty people are always looking for scapegoats. In Hungary today they are the Jews and the Gypsies and lately the officials of the IMF and the European Union. According to the author that was the reason Orbán refused to negotiate with the visiting delegations of the two organizations. He wanted to please those who blame the outside world for Hungary’s troubles.

The journalist mentions the Treaty of Trianon and the bill commemorating the anniversary of the signing of the treaty in 1920 and comes to the conclusion that this particular piece of legislation was proposed for the sole purpose of appeasing Jobbik. The journalist visited Zsuzsanna Répás, assistant undersecretary in charge of Hungarian policy toward the fellow Hungarians living in the neighboring countries, and found that in her room there are two large maps of historical Hungary. In a government office this is really not appropriate. It would be perfectly natural to have such a map in the study of a historian.

Orbán satisfied another Jobbik demand: the government is planning to make school trips to former Hungarian territories compulsory. The French journalist also claims that the new government is contemplating the official segregation of Roma children because some of the right-wing educators argue that such an arrangement would actually be good for the Gypsy kids.

Vincent Jauvert seems to know that the German and French Christian Democratic political leaders met recently with Viktor Orbán, who “swore to them that his strategy is the same as that of Nicolas Sarkozy: to weaken the extreme right and nothing more.” His partners apparently warned him that he might lose his center-right voters.  “But Hungary must face a far greater danger than that: its prime minister for the sake of holding onto power will himself become an extremist.”

And finally, The Economist (August 5) came out with an article that begins: “Outsiders are worried about Hungary.” He mentions extending citizenship to all ethnic Magyars living beyond the country’s borders. “Critics heard sinister echoes of revanchism in that.” The prime minister started replacing the leaders of public institutions and agencies with “his party pals.”  Targets ranged from the elections committee to the national audit office, from the financial regulator to the president of the country. “His predecessors are not safe either: the new anti-corruption commissioner says two previous prime ministers committed perjury.” (Since then both have sued Gyula Budai, the commissioner.)

Naturally, the article criticizes the new media law which “increased official oversight of public and private broadcasters.” According to estimates “Mr. Orban and his allies now control, directly or indirectly, 80% of Hungary’s media.” Some see him “as a Hungarian version of Vladimir Putin… bringing stability after a discredited and corrupt political era, but via a power grab rather than real reform.”Pannon Putin, Magyar Naarancs

After mentioning that for the time being Hungary’s economy is in order, the article continues that “the real worry is over Mr. Orbán’s headstrong ways and cliquish habits. These hampered his last stint in power, from 1998 to 2002, and seem to have worsened since then. Moreover, EU membership and jittery financial markets now impose new constraints. Even supporters doubt if Mr. Orbán understands the game’s new rules. His tantrum at the IMF, as well as chilly encounters with sympathetic figures, such as the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, and Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, highlight the gulf in understanding. It needs to be bridged soon.”

So, as we can see, French and British publications are not kinder to Viktor Orbán than The Washington Post was. And that is not the end of the list. Since then several other very critical articles appeared. It got to the point that some Fidesz supporters with connections abroad decided to publish articles defending Viktor Orbán and praising the new government. However, I’m not sure whether this counteroffensive can undo the damage which has been inflicted by the negative assessments of Viktor Orbán and his government. The Orbán government likes to blame the opposition for its bad billing. But the fact is that Orbán is a very aggressive politician who exhibited these traits between 1998 and 2002 and of course ever since, but then the world wasn’t watching. Now it is.