The first meaning of “endgame” is “the final stage of a chess game after most of the pieces have been removed from the board.” What is happening now in Hungary greatly resembles the last stage of an extended chess game. There are very few “pieces” left for Viktor Orbán to play in his dangerous cat and mouse game against the European Union, a community of nations to which Hungary belongs.
His relationship with the United States wasn’t the best even when the American president was a Republican. Now that Barak Obama is in the White House and Hillary Clinton is in charge of foreign policy Orbán’s chances of arriving at a modus vivendi with Washington is minuscule. That’s why I was amused when I learned that an American-Hungarian group of conservatives is bombarding the White House with letters urging Barak Obama to receive Viktor Orbán at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Perfect timing! The gentlemen’s political acumen is remarkable.
Today on Facebook Ferenc Gyurcsány predicted that Viktor Orbán could still be the winner of this game but only if he is ready to abandon his hitherto cherished ideas about Hungary as a country that can go its own way. After all, Hungary is a member of the European Union and as such has been receiving generous subsidies from Brussels. In return, the European Union demands that member nations adhere to the rules of the community, rules that Hungary promised to abide by when the country joined the EU. What Viktor Orbán is trying to do is to get the benefits that come with membership without fulfilling his end of the bargain. And that won’t do. Sooner or later the European Union will have had enough of what Hungary’s prime minister is doing.
The fact of the matter is–and I’m not at all sure whether Orbán understands this at the moment–that he can’t waste much time if he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his days as a coach at the Ferenc Puskás Academy of soccer hopefuls. (Although I’m not even sure whether he could do a half decent job there after seeing his pathetic soccer performance this morning.)
Until now few people believed that the European Union even has the instruments by which it can put an end to the kinds of Orbán policies that have led Hungary off the accepted Euro-Atlantic path. And yet, as A.L.B. said in The Economist article “Democracy in Hungary: Slip-sliding away,” this is surely something Brussels cannot allow from a member state. Because, as Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times, if the political leaders of the European Union don’t act, “they risk losing everything they stand for.” Most likely Brussels has been aware of the danger coming from Budapest for some time. If I had to guess I would say for at least a year. Since the Hungarian parliament voted into law the infamous bill on the media.
Unfortunately, the Union is sadly lacking political instruments by which to discipline “rogue nations.” It does, however, have one weapon that might make Viktor Orbán think twice. Money.
Orbán with the help of György Matolcsy maneuvered the country into such a dire financial situation that the government had to turn to the much maligned IMF. And because the IMF can make a loan to an EU member only with the permission and cooperation of the European Union, the Orbán government was in a predicament.
The other day I heard an interview with László Andor, EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion and himself a Hungarian. From the interview it was evident that in the past few weeks the Hungarian situation has been discussed at the highest level: at the weekly meetings of all twenty-seven commissioners chaired by José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission. Moreover, Andor alluded to the fact that Barroso himself is concerned. In fact, it didn’t take long, only a couple of days, for it to become known that Barroso actually wrote a very strongly worded letter to Viktor Orbán.
Viviane Reding and José Manuel Barroso, the two heavies
Last night, shortly before midnight, Origo reported the arrival of Barroso’s letter to Viktor Orbán. In it he “strongly urged [Orbán] to withdraw two cardinal laws,” the one on the National Bank and the other on the country’s financial stability. Origo had a copy of the letter. This time most likely the leak didn’t originate in Budapest. Perhaps someone in the European Commission wanted the Hungarian people to know that the letter had been sent to their prime minister.
Péter Szijjártó, spokesman for Viktor Orbán, admitted the existence of the letter but naturally wasn’t going to talk about it. András Giró-Szász, government spokesman, claimed that he had no notion of what was in the letter because he is, after all, spokesman for the government and not for the prime minister and the letter was not written to the Hungarian government. However, he insisted that the information released by Origo about the contents of the letter was no more than “speculation.”
Well, the speculation was rather specific. Barroso stated that the negotiations with the IMF-EU delegation came to a halt because the members of the delegation didn’t receive “assurances from Minister Fellegi concerning the postponement of the vote on these two cardinal laws until we are certain that they are compatible with the laws of the European Union.” Barroso also wrote that Hungary’s financial and economic problems are largely due to wrong domestic decisions and moves and not the crisis in the eurozone.
If Viktor Orbán or János Lázár thinks that the IMF-EU delegation will return in January without receiving the assurances Barroso was talking about, they are mistaken. The head of the “embassy of the European Union in Budapest” said that the delegation will not return until there are satisfactory answers to their questions and guarantees for the fulfilment of their demands.
For the time being Viktor Orbán refuses to heed the warnings. Yesterday he had a fairly long meeting with the Fidesz parliamentary delegation in which he emphasized that “what we started we have to finish.” They may change a word or two in the two cardinal laws but basically he is unwilling to oblige the would-be lenders. Apparently Orbán tried to convince the Fidesz members of parliament that the IMF’s “dictating terms in Hungary means the political defeat of the government.” A well-known Fidesz politician told a reporter of Népszabadság that the EU cannot get rid of Viktor Orbán as it did with the prime ministers of Greece and Italy. “This is not Italy, Orbán is not Berlusconi, Hungary doesn’t belong to the eurozone, and its government has a stable majority. The two-thirds wouldn’t permit the removal of the prime minister.” If the EU in the final analysis prevents agreement with the IMF, after removing András Simor from his position as governor of the Hungarian National Bank, “we can use part of the 35 billion euro reserve of the bank for purposes of financial liquidity.”
But, the same politician admitted, there is another possibility. In case Viktor Orbán has to go, his successor would be Mihály Varga. The only good thing one can say about Varga is that he has been safely tucked away by Orbán somewhere in the background. He was exiled after some careless remarks before the elections about the Swedish pension system that might be introduced by the Orbán government. Until then he was supposed to be finance minister for a second time. Otherwise, according to the WikiLeaks documents, Varga talks a lot in almost incomprehensible English. At official receptions everybody tries to escape from him. And, yes, he wasn’t much of a finance minister either. However, he can’t be worse than Matolcsy.
P.S. Just got the news that the Media Authority refused to grant KlubRádió a frequency. The only voice on the air against the government is silenced. I am stunned. I was sure that they wouldn’t dare to be that blatant.