The English-speaking world, mostly because of the language barrier, doesn’t normally follow the German-language media, which is a pity especially for those who are interested in Hungarian affairs. The German and Austrian press spend a great deal more time on Hungary than do the English-language publications although lately, thanks to the Orbán government’s unorthodox economic and political policies, there is plenty of space devoted to the affairs of the government in Budapest.
MTI, the Hungarian news agency, only sporadically and far too briefly reports on articles that appear in foreign papers. Moreover, their summaries are very selective. Therefore, it is always wise to go to the original source. That is what I did when I read in a ten-line report by MTI that Viktor Orbán had given an interview to Die Presse, a conservative Austrian paper, while spending a day in Vienna on June 12.
First, a few words about the trip to the Austrian capital. It was not an official visit but was organized by the Vienna Insurance Group (VIG), whose CEO received a decoration from the Hungarian government at the Hungarian Embassy in Vienna. While in Vienna Orbán laid a wreath at the memorial plaque commemorating Cardinal József Mindszenty in the Pázmáneum, a seminary established by Cardinal Péter Pázmány of Esztergom, in 1623. Orbán also gave a lecture on current economic issues in the Austrian Chamber of Commerce. And finally, Orbán briefly met with Werner Faymann, the socialist Austrian chancellor, but no one knows what they talked about.
Immediately after Orbán’s visit Die Presse published an article that was quite sympathetic to Viktor Orbán and his struggle with the European Central Bank over the bank law. The reporter of the Austrian paper remarked that, after all, the Austrian government would also like to have a larger say on the Austrian National Bank and yet Faymann received only mild criticism while the Orbán government received harsh criticism from several quarters.
Although Die Presse initially seemed to be sympathetic to Viktor Orbán’s view of the world, a few days later, on June 16, an interview appeared in the paper in which very hard questions were posed and where the Hungarian prime minister came off quite badly.
The interview began with a question about Hungary’s attitude toward the greater integration of the European Union. Given Orbán’s attitude on the subject one should not be surprised by his rejection of greater integration. But the way he formulated his objections was far too radical and not at all diplomatic. To quote him: “There are two visions of the future of Europe. A Europe as an empire and a Europe of nations.” He added that he is “definitely for a Europe of nations.”
When it comes to his attitude to the eurozone, Orbán rightly pointed out that too early an adherence to the currency union might backfire and that Hungary shouldn’t rush into the eurozone fiscally and economically unprepared. So far so good, but then he continued his thoughts by claiming that the countries outside the eurozone, including Hungary, were more successful in handling the financial crisis than were those within the eurozone.
This boasting about Hungarian economic successes prompted the Austrian journalist to be a bit more aggressive. He asked whether Orbán considered paying nine percent interest on bonds a success. A fair question, but Orbán dodged it by saying that “when we speak of success, it depends on the goals that you set for yourself.” Obviously at this point Orbán had to resort to his usual unfounded claims. Hungary’s situation was worse in the spring of 2010 than that of Greece today; then only 2.6 million people paid taxes while today that number is 3.9 million. This is an increase of 50 percent. He also claimed, unjustly, that the Hungarian sovereign debt today is lower than it was two years ago.
When the conversation turned to the negotiations with the International Monetary Fund Orbán became frustrated. Especially when the Austrian journalist suggested that “apparently it’s not so easy for Hungary to receive an IMF loan.” He repeated the Hungarian accusation of double standards as the cause of Hungary’s difficulties. The reason for this unfairness is that bureaucrats make decisions instead of politicians. According to Orbán “politicians need to seek fairness. If politicians do not treat their voters or economic actors fairly, they cannot be successful. For bureaucrats, this doesn’t apply. Bureaucrats want to show their power.” Orbán who had several times alluded to the bureaucrats of the European Union now also included the bureaucrats of the European Central Bank.
Thus, it is not at all surprising that Orbán refuses to take the criticism coming from these bureaucrats seriously. According to him, all the criticism on the media law and the new constitution “was useless and meaningless. But in politics there are sometimes useless and pointless discussions.'” At this point the reporter was obviously nonplussed and asked pointedly: “Were you able to understand any aspect of the criticism?” Orbán claimed that he could accept only some “technical details” of the criticism but nothing else.
The conversation at this point turned to the present political situation and Fidesz’s serious loss of popularity. The reporter reminded Orbán that the goal of Fidesz was to destroy the Hungarian left but as things stand now MSZP has recovered and today the two parties are neck and neck unlike in Poland where the socialists haven’t been able to recover. Naturally, Orbán didn’t agree with the reporter. According to Orbán he single-handedly smashed the left in Hungary. (Fidesz’s “stated aim was to smash the left in Hungary …. That’s what I did.”)
As for Orbán’s attitude toward the past that “can cause irritation,” the reporter brought up the growing Horthy cult. Given the timeliness of the topic, let’s see what Orbán’s attitude is. After all, until now we didn’t hear Orbán express any opinion on the subject. So, I will quote a few important passages from his reaction to the question of a reevaluation of the past. First of all, the Hungarian prime minister claimed that these historical debates about the past “have no relevance to the current political life in Hungary. ” Naturally, that is not true. Only today a demonstration was organized by the civic associations and the opposition parties (with the exception of LMP) to protest the government-assisted revision of the past.
Viktor Orbán takes the position that the erection of Horthy monuments are “decisions exclusively of the local communities,” an obviously untenable position as Die Presse‘s reporter pointed out. He brought up an example: “If suddenly in Austria monuments to the glory of Engelbert Dollfuss were built, it would certainly be an issue for the central government.” The same argument was put forth in an excellent French article that appeared a couple of days ago: “Imagine that in 2012 we erect a statue to Marshal Petain, we give his name to a park, or that someone hangs a plaque in his memory on the walls of a university. This is roughly what happened in Hungary in recent weeks.”
Orbán cloaks the government’s role in promoting a Horthy cult in an appeal to democracy. He claims that the majority’s wish must be honored, thus implying that these new Horthy statues or renaming streets in his honor was the desire of the majority. The truth is that no referendum was held on these issues anywhere that Miklós Horthy was so honored. Town councils comprised of people with far-right political views made a decision without asking the local inhabitants.
In the course of this interview it also became clear that if such a referendum took place in Orbán’s own town he would most likely vote with the pro-Horthy faction. Naturally, he didn’t admit this openly but it can be implied from the following reply to a question about his own position: “I would respect the decision of the voters. If they wanted to erect a statue of Lenin, Stalin, or Hitler, I would definitely be against it.” But not Horthy!
So, I think that we can safely say that the Hungarian prime minister stands on the side of those who are ready for a revision of the Hungarian past. The Hungarian right, including Viktor Orbán, seems to find its political heritage in the counter-revolutionary Horthy period. And all that comes with it. A grim prospect.