This morning I was still planning to write about how the state-controlled Hungarian television presents news. Or rather, how the evening news on MTV doesn’t give credible information about the events of the day. I will return to the topic soon because during the holidays I had more time than usual to watch Hungarian television. Unfortunately, I came to the conclusion that most Hungarians, even those who watch MTV’s news or listen to MR’s news programs, are badly underinformed. Or, one can even say, misinformed. On the other hand, some of the right-wing but independent newspapers and TV stations showed surprising boldness, especially in comparison to the state-owned media.
Here, however, I would like to talk about the renewed effort of the United States and the European Union to influence the course of events in Hungary. I think that by now there is no question that if Viktor Orbán isn’t stopped he will soon be in a position to introduce a quasi-dictatorship in Hungary. Today several people, most of them living abroad, phoned in to György Bolgár’s program and complained that the Hungarian people and Hungarian journalists didn’t raise their voices in time against Viktor Orbán’s regime when it was clear from at least the mid-1990s that Fidesz’s aim was to introduce a regime similar to that of Mussolini’s fascism. They are baffled by the relative passivity of the population. Indeed, let’s face it, the opposition under the best of circumstances manages to gather only a few thousand people at their demonstrations.
Yes, I get angry too when I hear from friends who have just returned from a visit to Hungary that “people are not interested in politics.” I angrily answer that “in that case they deserve what they get,” but when I calm down I realize that Hungarian democracy is still in its infancy. Many people don’t even understand how democracy works. Supporters of Orbán justify the policies of the government by pointing out the overwhelming mandate Fidesz received at the polls. They seem quite incapable of understanding that regimes, even if they have the overwhelming support of the population, might be undemocratic and evil. It is enough to think of Hitler’s Third Reich.
By now the initial support of 53% of the voters that brought Fidesz to power has dwindled, but inside of parliament a two-thirds majority in seeming unison votes mindlessly on hundreds of new laws that will not only affect the everyday lives of the people but that are steering the country away from democratic principles upon which Hungary’s Third Republic was built in 1989-1990. Fidesz politicians don’t even make a secret of the fact that “their democracy” is not the same one the democrats at the Round Table had in mind. János Lázár, head of the Fidesz caucus (akin to the majority “whip” in the American Congress), said in an interview that “with lots of American help a consensual democracy was established in Hungary in 1989-1990 but that doesn’t mean that a couple of decades later only that kind of democracy can exist.” Instead, he advocates “a majority democracy” which is more effective. Translated into plain English, it means that “we will run the country and you shut up.”
I’ve written at length about the European Union’s dissatisfaction with the way Hungary is heading. Three letters reached Budapest from Brussels alone. At the same time signs of renewed American efforts were visible. First, U.S. Ambassador Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis’s letter appeared in Heti Válasz, subsequently politely rebuffed by János Martonyi, Hungary’s foreign minister. Then Thomas O. Melia, assistant undersecretary in the State Department, gave a couple of interviews. To crown the American effort on December 23 came a letter from Hillary Clinton herself addressed to Viktor Orbán. According to Charles Gati, a Hungarian-born American political scientist who saw it, Clinton’s letter is “a kind of last warning.” At least this is what became clear from a conversation György Bolgár had with Gati on December 27 on “Let’s Discuss it!”
Viktor Orbán doesn’t look happy listening to Hillary Clinton on June 27, 2011
According to Gati, Clinton’s letter also touched on Klubrádió’s loss of frequency, which indeed is a terrible blow to Hungarian democracy. In fact Gati and Mark Palmer, ambassador to Hungary between 1986 and 1990, suggested that the American Congress consider reinstating the Hungarian-language broadcast of Radio Free Europe.
As we know, none of these letters made a dent in Budapest. The laws the European Union and the United States objected to and asked that they be tabled were passed, although some with minor alterations. The attacks on Klubrádió are continuing, and the two journalists who have been on a hunger strike for almost three weeks were just fired. Demonstrating MPs were carried away by force and detained for hours.
As for Hillary Clinton’s letter, the Christian Democratic László Varga didn’t mince words today in parliament. “And even Mrs. Clinton raises her voice! We would like to create a European law [on the churches and religion], not an American one which allows all the flowers to bloom” referring here to Mao Zedong’s well-known saying. In English this doesn’t sound as bad as in Hungarian where Hillary Clinton was referred to as “Clintonné nagyságos asszony.” Before 1948 there were all sorts of silly titles given to people of rank. The lowest was “nagyságos.” Everybody who had a high school education and a white collar job was “nagyságos úr” and his wife “nagyságos asszony” even if she was just a homemaker. People over a certain rank in the civil service or in the army were called “méltóságos.” So, poor Hillary Clinton didn’t fare too well in the hands of László Varga, the Calvinist minister who likes diversity of opinion so much that he hit his fellow MP Gábor Vágó, lying helpless on the ground after the LMP protest, on the head with his briefcase.
So, it is becoming quite clear that even strongly worded letters don’t make the slightest difference. We will see what will happen if there is a tangible sign of a financial threat. Because today the International Monetary Fund announced that no decision has been made on the resumption of negotiations with Hungary. Whether there will be negotiations at all depends on whether the Hungarian government is willing to discuss some of the “key policy issues.” If not, no negotiations.
Christoph Rosenberg, mission chief on Hungary, specifically mentioned additional concerns that emerged regarding new legislation proposed by the Hungarian government that led to an interruption in the discussions earlier this month. “If the Hungarian government is interested in proceeding on program discussions, it should demonstrate its willingness to engage on policy issues that are relevant to macroeconomic stability. This includes close consultation on the proposed central bank legislation and the financial stability law as part of the negotiations.” This is specific enough. If these laws go forward, as they are doing at the moment, there is no money. Your choice.
Christoph Rosenberg might not be so jolly next time in Budapest
But, of course, these two laws are no more than a small part of the concentrated effort to dismantle Hungarian democracy. And to tackle those problems the IMF-EU negotiating team’s threats are not enough. Here is where the Hungarian people must become engaged.