Conference in Washington: “Hungary: A second change of the system?”

Advanced Yesterday a discussion about the Hungarian political situation took place at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of International Studies (SAIS) in Washington. First, an explanation of the title. During the 2010 election campaign Viktor Orbán, leader of Fidesz, called for “a second change of the system.” The implication was that the regime change that took place in 1989-1990 wasn’t complete. The last twenty years were only a “muddled” period. If Fidesz wins the elections, the argument went, the political change will be completed.

As it turned out, Orbán wasn’t thinking of further democratization but rather the establishment of a semi-autocratic state that strongly resembles the successive governments of the Horthy regime. Since the elections, Orbán has changed the constitution innumerable times, introduced a controversial media law that prompted international indignation, enacted retroactive taxation, and curtailed the constitutional court’s authority. Fear is spreading in the country from top to bottom. Nobody can be sure of his or her job. If someone occupied an important government position in the last eight years he can be happy if he escapes a jail sentence on trumped-up charges. But little people are afraid too. The first monthly checks arrived, and people with already miserably low salaries in many cases received even less money than before. When asked what these people say, the answer was that they don’t dare to say anything because they are afraid of losing their jobs.

It was in these circumstances that Ambassador Kurt Volker, senior fellow and managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS, organized the conference. The participants were Pamela Quanrud, deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe; György Szapáry, the newly appointed ambassador of Hungary to the United States, and Charles Gati, interim director of the Russian and Eurasian Studies Program at SAIS. Two Hungarian journalists were present: László Szőcs, correspondent of Népszabadság, and Demeter Pogár, correspondent of MTI.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend. As regular readers of this blog know, I’m snowbound in Connecticut. However, I read three different descriptions of the proceedings and a friend of mine who was in the audience phoned me immediately after the event. Thus I think I will be able to give a fair summary of the proceedings.

Pamela Quanrud’s speech, though diplomatic, was described by a Hungarian online paper ( as a “warning” and her message as “unambiguous.”

Pamela Quanrud is anything but a frightening person, but when an American diplomat says that “we are watching Hungary” it might sound a bit worrisome to those in power in Budapest. After some diplomatic niceties, she came to the core of the problem. “Although the desire for order may tempt a powerful governing party to dispense with seemingly endless political discussions, … in our system of government … we must continue the dialogue even with those with whom we don’t see eye to eye.” That is clear enough, I think. Even the deaf Hungarian politicians must understand the meaning of these words. She “urged our Hungarian friends to create an atmosphere in which there is place for open and rational exchange of ideas.”

Quanrud expressed her hope that the new constitution will be based on consensus and will reflect universal values and the will of the people, i.e., that it will not be a party document. But even here there was a warning: “Constitutions by their nature are supposed to be lasting documents but at the same time there ought to be an pportunity for the people and their representatives to make rational changes later on the basis of a new consensus.” In simple words: Don’t try to do what you threatened to do. Don’t try to enact laws that will prevent any change whatsoever in the constitution for decades if not for centuries.

György Szapáry, the new Hungarian ambassador, came next. I have written about Szapáry often enough, the last time when the Orbán government changed a law in order for Szapáry to become ambassador to Washington. The rule was that no one over the age of seventy can be appointed to a foreign post, and Szapáry was born in 1938. Szapáry, who spent twenty-seven years with the IMF, has been an economic advisor to Viktor Orbán, and his appointment to the post in Washington therefore seemed a bit odd. We don’t know of course what Szapáry thinks of György Matolcsy’s “revolutionary” ideas on economics, but I suspect that he doesn’t quite approve of them. Perhaps Szapáry was hoping for some high position where his background in economics could be used. Instead, he was sent to Washington. Surely, he knows his way around Washington, but I can’t help feeling that his appointment falls under the category of “out of sight, out of mind.”

According to the report in Népszabadság Szapáry “gave a lengthy description of the priorities of the Hungarian rotating presidency of the European Union, talked about the handling of the economic crisis and about the history of the change of regime” in 1990 when he returned to Hungary as IMF representative. In brief, he decided to ignore most of the topics that were subject to criticism in Quanrud’s speech. As for the media law, he said that “every law can be misused, even the speed limit at 50 miles, and yet people don’t do it.” Well, first of all that is not true. People break laws right and left, and one cannot just hope that the people in power will not misuse their law-given opportunities.

And finally came Charles Gati, professor at Johns Hopkins University. Gati was born in Hungary and left in 1956. He was very critical of the Orbán government. He seemed especially worried about the new Hungarian government’s systematic reorganization of the governmental structure that resulted in the practical elimination of checks and balances. Gati considered Orbán a “true democrat” in the 1990s but today he has to conclude that Orbán is no longer devoted to the idea of democracy. His “anticommunist rhetoric is Orwellian.” Hungary is “not a dictatorship, at least not at the moment.” In his opinion, we can talk about “centrally controlled democracy” in domestic terms while in foreign policy Hungary is alienating all her western friends.

There were a few questions from the audience. The first came from MTI’s correspondent who inquired from Pamela Quanrud about Hillary Clinton’s possible visit to Hungary in May. Quanrud confirmed that the secretary of state had received an invitation but because of Clinton’s busy schedule and other obligations she will decide only at a later date whether she can participate in the summit. I have a very strong suspicion that Hillary Clinton will be otherwise occupied.

And finally, an attendee called attention to the rising Hungarian antisemitism and talked about the antisemitic outbursts in newspapers and the electronic media supporting Orbán’s party. She specifically mentioned Magyar Hírlap and EchoTV. The loudest anti-Semite is Zsolt Bayer, one of the founders of Fidesz and still a very close friend of Viktor Orbán. Her complaint was that Orbán and Fidesz refuse to condemn these anti-Semites in the party. In fact, it was a Fidesz local politician who recommended Bayer for a literary prize. In her question to Szapáry, she also mentioned the witch hunt against Ágnes Heller and her fellow philosophers.

All in all, I don’t think that the new Hungarian ambassador will have an easy time in Washington.

February 10, 2011