It is one thing to read written reports of an event and something else to see it on video. It also helps to read other people's reactions a day after. I did both this morning and I must say that today I consider Viktor Orbán's performance in the European Parliament a disaster. He managed to show himself in a light that until now he reserved for home consumption.
While in opposition Orbán became a different man as soon as he hit foreign soil. He sounded like a reasonable and responsible politician who could be entrusted with the burden of governing. Foreign politicians who didn't know any better most likely thought that once his party wins the elections Hungary will be in good hands and that he will be a trustworthy ally in the political community of the European Union. Of course, those who saw him in action at home had an entirely different opinion. They saw in him an unyielding obstructionist incapable of compromise.
When it comes to knowledge of Viktor Orbán abroad one must make a distinction between the opinions of the foreign ministries and the general public's information about the Hungarian opposition leader. The foreign ministries most likely were accurately informed. It's enough to mention the couple of documents released by Wikileaks and published by the German magazine, Der Spiegel. The English-language documents from Budapest have a fairly accurate description of Orbán, and thus to the U.S. State Department the Orbán government's last eight or nine months didn't come as a surprise. We have some idea that the government of the United States is less than enthusiastic about Viktor Orbán and his government. It looks as if Hilary Clinton, who was supposed to attend a European Union function held in Budapest in April, may not be present. I came to that conclusion after reading the speech of Philip H. Gordon, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, delivered on January 13, 2011, in Budapest. He wrapped up his speech with these words: "I have no announcements to make about Secretary Clinton's travel plans but just as soon as I do those announcements will be made." Moreover, I have the feeling that Viktor Orbán himself knows that he is practically persona non grata in Washington. I know from a reliable source that Orbán announced to a close circle of political allies that although he is planning to visit the United States during the EU presidency, he has no intention of visiting the White House. Instead he will meet with Hungarian émigré communities who are his steadfast supporters. Translation: he will not be invited by the American president and he knows it.
I assume that the reporting from other Budapest embassies to their respective foreign ministers was equally accurate and therefore the German, French, British, and Luxembourg government's reactions to the media law were based on first-hand knowledge and not, as Orbán tried to make out, on antagonistic interpretations of an otherwise perfect piece of legislation. The Russian government cannot raise its voice on media freedom, but the Russians for other reasons find Orbán unacceptable. Just to give an idea of Russian-Hungarian relations, there are 99 foreign embassies in Budapest and only three countries were not represented at President Pál Schmitt's New Year's reception: Oman, Panama, and Russia! Mind you, the United States was not represented by the ambassador but by someone else, perhaps the deputy chief of the mission.
When it comes to the general public abroad, Hungary is not in the news too often and therefore most people have no idea which party is in power in Hungary and who the prime minister of Hungary is. Well, since January 1 that situation has changed and one is not entirely sure whether it wouldn't have been better if the reading public were just as ignorant about Hungary as before.
At the beginning of this blog I talked about the two Viktor Orbáns. The one that tries to impress the world outside of Hungary and the other not-so-nice domestic Viktor Orbán. A Jekyll and Hyde story that could be played by Orbán while in opposition. The question was how long he could play the same game when in power. The answer is: the game is over. He showed his true self when he answered his critics in Strasbourg. He talked very loudly and his voice by that time had become hoarse. He tried occasionally to be light-hearted but his levities fell flat. For example, when he claimed that he feels quite at home because he receives criticism in similar tones in Hungary. He paused for a second, hoping for an applause that didn't come.
His attempt to make a distinction between himself as prime minister of Hungary on the one hand and, on the other, as one of the leaders of the European Union was severely criticized with good reason. As the prime minister of a country that is carrying on with the duties of the rotating presidency, he simply can't "have his Hungarian prime minister's hat on" one moment and his "European cap on" the next. As he was corrected immediately: "we are all only Europeans here." When he tried to shift the criticism away from himself to the Hungarian nation as a whole, he was immediately rebuked.
All in all, he made new enemies in Strasbourg and therefore it will be even more difficult to have a successful rotating presidency in the next six months. I also suspect that the Orbán government's domestic policies will be watched with increasing scrutiny. As it stands now, the new constitution that is supposed to be discussed and voted in with record speed will be a "Fidesz constitution," perhaps with some Jobbik help. The MSZP will certainly boycott the proceedings and I have the feeling that LMP will as well. If there is such an outcry over the media law, just wait until the details of the new constitution become known.