This was one of the themes of Viktor Orbán's speech on Saturday in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tuşnad, Romania. The reporter for MTI, the Hungarian news agency, realized the importance of the relationship between nation and state in Orbán's rambling and mostly self-delusional speech. The headline was: "A successful state can be built only with a strong nation behind it."
In Orbán's formula the nation has primacy. It is the result of a natural, organic development while the state is an artificial construct. The exact relationship between nation and state in this formula is not really clear, and I'm almost certain that even if one pressed him on its exact meaning we wouldn't get any closer to a coherent description of the relationship between "nation" and "state." In the first place, both in English and in Hungarian the two words can be used interchangeably. For example, in "the nations of Europe" and "the states of Europe" both refer to "the countries of Europe." Or, state and nation can be used together as in "nation state," meaning a political unit inhabited predominantly by a people sharing a common culture, history, and language. So, what does this juxtaposition of state and nation mean in Viktor Orbán's often nebulous vocabulary and thought processes?
"State" in its stricter meaning is "a politically organized body of people occupying a definite territory." It is precisely this "definite territory" that is so distasteful to Viktor Orbán. Because the state of Hungary, whether Orbán and his fellow nationalists like it or not, has jurisdiction only within the country's current borders.
Behind a state stands, in modern political theory and practice, not the nation but the totality of its citizens. These citizens, regardless of national origin, have certain rights and privileges granted by the power of the state. But if the relationship between state and its inhabitants is not the usually accepted state-citizen connection but some abstract notion of nation, then the whole modern structure of state collapses right in front of our eyes. Who belongs to this nation? Do the Gypsies, when in ordinary parlance one hears more and more often the distinction being drawn between Hungarian and Roma? The Roma themselves refer to their non-Gypsy fellow citizens as "Hungarians," indicating that they don't view themselves as belonging to the privileged majority. The Hungarian far-right wants to send the Roma back to India and the Jews to Israel. Certainly the far-right doesn't consider either of these groups Hungarian. And the great majority of the population would like to close the door to all foreigners.
Orbán claims that the "strength of the state springs from the nation" and one needs a strong Hungary (anyaország) because without it there can be no strong "Hungarian nation in the Carpathian Basin." He envisages an entirely new economic and perhaps political era in which Hungary will have a leading role to play. (More about this fantasy land of his a little later.) In some unspecified, and let's add unfathomable, way the arrival of a new era will result in "the growing together of the Hungarian nation." He uses the noun "összenövés" which is rarely used and then mostly in medical literature; it means two or more organs spreading and growing into one. Thus, this vision presupposes a demographic turnabout. Although birthrates are low both in Hungary and among the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries, Hungarians will spread and will grow together into one mass. I guess in order to make this statement less frightening to the neighboring countries, he added that as a result of this great economic revolution that will take place in Europe, "the whole of Central Europe will grow together … and will be the economic center of the new economic era." That will be a historical first, because as long as there has been written history the eastern part of Europe has always lagged behind the west.
And here we have arrived in la-la land. According to Orbán, the whole world is at the threshold of an entirely new world order which will be born on the ruins of the old. A complete collapse is unavoidable because of the inordinate indebtedness of the western nations. In this new economic era "the state will have an entirely new role to play," but unfortunately Orbán doesn't elaborate. Or rather he added the following sentence: "The sovereign debts can be paid back only with the instruments of state." My first reaction was: "Well, that is brilliant. Who else will pay back state debt if not the state?" But then I stopped and became suspicious that perhaps Orbán means here the kind of state capitalism that Putin introduced in Russia. Perhaps what he was alluding to was the nationalization of certain sectors in the economy. After all, the Hungarian state purchased 21.3% of all MOL shares not long ago and there are rumors that they are negotiating with E.On, the German gas company, to buy its Hungarian holdings. Thus, it is very possible that Orbán thinks that profitable state firms will produce enough revenue to pay back Hungary's current debts.
There are several problems with this great scheme, if it is what Orbán has in mind. First and foremost, the Hungarian budget is in terrible shape. Mihály Varga, former minister of finance and now head of the prime minister's office, a few days ago indicated that the state might have to sell some or all of the MOL shares it just purchased from the Russians. He also admitted that the figures for the convergence program, the Széchenyi Plan, and the Kálmán Széll Plan might have to be recalculated and a period of even more severe austerity might have to be introduced. With an empty treasury one cannot buy up firms or purchase shares in large and profitable companies.
Orbán wants the state to occupy a central position in social and economic matters. It will be the state, according to him, that will solve the unemployment problem. Moreover, it will be the state that will reorganize the economy. Neither of these tasks belongs to the state in a free-market economy and in a democracy. One can only hope that Orbán's solution to the unemployment problem is not the public works projects, which will mean thousands of dislocated poor people working with shovels building soccer stadiums and dams under the supervision of former policemen and retired soldiers.
Orbán likes to talk about "an economic system based on work," and a lot of people don't quite understand what this can possibly mean. No wonder, because all economic systems are based on work of some sort. But perhaps the mystery is solved if we read in the description of Orbán's speech that "the economic system based on work" will replace the welfare state. So, no work, no check.
And finally, Orbán emphasized at the end of his speech that "it was Hungary that before any other country in Europe gave the right answers to the imminent arrival of the new era." Every time I hear Orbán and Matolcsy boasting like that I think of the American idiom about the man who is whistling in the dark when he is actually scared witless. It is becoming more and more obvious that the revolutionary new economic policy is in deep trouble. Whistling won't help make the figures add up.