This interview with Charles Gati was conducted by Gábor Horváth, deputy editor-in-chief of Népszabadság and appeared in the July 15th issue of the paper.
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László Kövér, speaker of the house, in an interview a few days ago accused you of organizing a coup. It is not a secret that you are closer to 80 than to 75. Is it possible that you are still actively politicking and spending your days working on the removal of the Hungarian government?
Not at all. In the last two years my most important task was writing and editing a book on Zbigniew Brzezinski, which I just finished. This week I signed a contract with Johns Hopkins University Press, the oldest university press in the United States. I hope that the book will be published by the spring, just in time for Brzezinski’s eighty-fifth birthday. It might be strange but until now no book has appeared in English about this wonderful man and outstanding thinker although as national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and as a scholar he has played a major role in the formation of U.S. foreign policy for half a century. Otherwise, regardless of age and years I’m already thinking of a new book.
So, you’re not thinking of retirement.
This past year I was department chairman at the university but I was asked to return to teaching in September. I’m still thinking about that offer. After all, I have been teaching for forty-nine years at American universities. I guess a fiftieth is still possible. But I’m also thinking about leaving teaching or even leaving Washington and moving back to New York. That depends on my family.
With all that work do you still have time to organize a coup d’état?
That’s ridiculous. Someone who doesn’t work in the highest circles of the American government or is not a congressman like, for example, Tom Lantos was cannot substantially influence events. It is also foolish to think that I’m being asked to provide information about Hungary. The U.S. Embassy in Budapest has almost 300 employees, many of whom are being paid to inform Washington about the political, economic, social, and cultural situation in Hungary. State Department employees are being inundated with information. Certain influential people outside the government might play a role in shaping American policy as was the situation in Tom Lantos’s lifetime but today that is not the case. György Soros might be a possibility, but as far as I know he isn’t involved with Hungary. If I could name anyone who has an indirect influence on the emerging American picture of Hungary it is Eva S. Balogh, formerly history professor at Yale University, whose English-language blog, Hungarian Spectrum, is exceedingly popular among American State Department officials.
Aren’t you too modest? After all, you also give advice to the U.S. State Department.
I haven’t been employed by the State Department for two decades. My contacts, despite claims from Hungary to the contrary, are disastrously outdated. This year, for example, I was called only once for a consultation. It is true that occasionally my former students ask me questions, mostly about Poland and Hungary, but it doesn’t happen too often.
Then how can you explain your unexpected “popularity” in the Hungarian right?
Every regime that is unable to fulfill the demands of the population needs enemies. Moreover, it is easy to remember my name. It is easy to pronounce, perhaps even László Kövér will manage to do it although his knowledge of English is meager. Lots of luck with the conspiracy theory.
You sound bitter, as if you were sorry that things worked out this way.
Indeed, I wouldn’t have thought that he or Viktor Orbán would one day look upon me as an enemy. We got to know each other at the end of the 1980s at one of the functions of the Századvég Publishing House. Then they called me Karcsi and I called them Laci and Viktor. We were on the same wavelength. They were liberal anti-communists like me. I remained the same person as I was then, but they changed because they discovered an empty space on the right of the political spectrum. I have met Laci many times since. Ten years ago at the party headquarters of Fidesz we argued for two and a half hours. He was practically yelling at me, demanding to know where my anti-communism had gone. I answered that “MSZP naturally has roots in the past but at least they changed in the right direction, not like you.” At the end, he shook my hand saying “well, we did have a good shouting match but come again.” Later, however, he didn’t answer my e-mails. To be sure, he plays a particular role in Fidesz. He tries to gain the votes of the Jobbik camp. Thinking back to 1989, I find this very surprising. Perhaps it is enough to mention that Laci was the editor of the Hungarian translation of my book, Hungary and the Soviet Bloc, published by Századvég. I had especially close relations with Orbán and his family. It was during the first Orbán government that I had breakfast with Orbán and his wife on one of the balconies of the parliament building. Afterward Orbán insisted on driving me himself to the Academy building where I gave a lecture. I heard that his driver was disciplined later for allowing him to drive.
Why is the Fidesz leadership so sensitive when it comes to outside criticism?
Yes, this is rather strange. Laci Kövér rudely lectures the Slovaks and the Romanians but he is terribly offended by Hillary Clinton’s polite, balanced although unquestionably also critical letter to Orbán. As if democracy was in the blood of the Hungarians. As if during our history it was part of our being. That might be the case in intellectual terms but certainly not in the sphere of political institutions. After all, this was the situation in the whole region with the possible exception of Czechoslovakia where between the two world wars there was an attempt to follow a democratic model. Laci and his comrades should welcome the assistance offered by the leading democratic countries. After all, democracy is a process which is nowhere perfect. It would be useful to admit past mistakes but Laci, captivated by the lure of power, believes that he knows everything. This is childish. They will pay for that attitude because the country cannot stand alone. The European People’s Party doesn’t criticize them openly yet, but what will happen if in the fall Angela Merkel and the exceedingly cautious Donald Tusk say something? Both of them know full well what’s going on in Hungary and I suppose that privately they have already rebuked Orbán. If they do that publicly the effect of such a reprimand will be immeasurable. The question of where Hungary wants to belong is slowly becoming a matter of civilizational choice.
Was there a time when the West thought it would be useful to remove Orbán from his position?
Never. Moreover, it cannot be done from the outside. What means do they have at their disposal? People shouldn’t judge western governments on the basis of films coming from Hollywood. Moreover—and I do not intend this as an insult—Hungary simply doesn’t attract that kind of high-level attention. It would be an error to mistake the press, for example the article about Hungary in Foreign Affairs this week, with the potentials and the intentions of governments. Western governments are in part very cautious and in part busy with entirely different matters. For example, with the Near East, with the possible developments after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, or with the transformation of U.S.-Chinese relations initiated by Hillary Clinton. Hungary is not in the top twenty-five most important topics, but the Hungarian right has difficulty coping with even the little attention Budapest receives. Of course, I’m not happy when I read in Foreign Affairs that Hungary is “a boil on Europe’s body politic which, if allowed to spread, might cause greater problems.” Instead of creating theories about non-existent coup d’états they should realize that without the loan from the IMF and the EU Hungary’s economic situation is untenable and in the case of a serious economic meltdown not only will Economic Minister György Matolcsy most likely have to leave but perhaps even the prime minister. This wouldn’t be the result of French, German or American foreign intrigue but the consequence of internal developments. From the outside no one can replace Orbán. It can be done only from the inside. In my interview that appeared in Heti Válasz in January I outlined five possible scenarios: (1) Fidesz loses the elections in 2014; (2) they hold elections in 2012 or 2013 and they lose; (3) with the worsening of the economic situation the inner circles of Fidesz replace the Matolcsy-Orbán duo with a conservative government that remains in power but without the two of them; (4) this conservative government, in order to bolster its legitimacy, asks credible personages from both right and left, for example, Gordon Bajnai, Péter Ákos Bod, György Surányi and Lajos Bokros, to join the cabinet; and (5) if Fidesz’s new election law closes the door to free elections it is even possible that a civil war might break out. At the same time I added that God should save us from the last possibility. I may add here, for the sake of my former friend Laci Kövér, that I’m not the confidant of all prevailing Democratic secretaries of state. For example, I have never even met Hillary Clinton. Too bad that Kövér didn’t have the chance to study at a western university where he could have learned something about the democratic ways of thinking. Otherwise he wouldn’t imagine me hiding in a watchman’s hut and sewing secret messages into the skin of a ground squirrel somewhere near of the border—something László Rajk was accused of.
Like you, Ambassador György Szapáry spent decades in Washington. You know and understand each other. Couldn’t he mediate?
Unfortunately not. It turned out that this government feeds Szapáry’s worst instincts. I learned, and even discussed the matter with him subsequently, that he had informed Budapest that I was planning to attack the Hungarian government in a paid ad in The New York Times. One should first ask how on earth I would have $50,000 for that particular enterprise. I also managed to learn who his informer was. The Hungarian Embassy in Washington today hasn’t had such a bad reputation since the end of the Kádár regime. The officials of Congress and academic colleagues keep asking me why the Hungarian diplomats go to them for consultation when they don’t listen to what they are being told. Just the opposite, they regularly lecture the Americans. I’m really sorry that Szapáry, such a civilized and educated man, feels compelled to follow such a course. It is an open secret that he is practically in exile because he lost the fight with Matolcsy over the economic policy of the administration.
OK, tell me the truth. Would it be worth spending $50,000 for a critical ad?
You must be joking. I never paid to have anything published. They pay me. Last year I wrote an article in the Herald Tribune for which I received $250.
You, together with Mark Palmer, former ambassador to Hungary, and Miklós Haraszti, suggested restarting the Hungarian broadcast of Radio Free Europe. Hungarians really cannot learn the news?
The picture is not black and white. The readers of Népszabadság, HVG, and a few Internet newspapers are well informed. At the same time the government through the Media Authority and the oligarchs does its best to make the situation of the free press close to impossible. Over and above the sad situation of Klubrádió or Népszava the one-sided reporting of MTI is also worrisome. Unfortunately, not even Népszabadság has money for a Washington correspondent although a few years ago four or five Hungarian journalists worked here. In a significant portion of the country people must rely on MTV, whose news coverage is patently biased. Thus the Hungarian media is neither “free” nor “not free” but is somewhere in between. Moreover, it is heading in the wrong direction. This situation would not be altered even if the Hungarian program of Radio Free Europe was renewed.
Can you get away from politics at least within the family circle?
Having such a big family is a real pleasure. From my two marriages I have five children, nine grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. Among the grandchildren the youngest is a pure joy because she was born in Washington. So, we can pamper her. Twice a year we all get together, all twenty-two of us. During the summer on the North Carolina coast. During the winter at our place. In the summer during the day everybody does his or her thing but we always get together for dinner. On such occasions I try to come up with a good topic for table conversation. This year I have been thinking about marriage between gays. I never tell them my own opinion ahead of time.
As a young man in Budapest you were a referee at water polo matches and you are still deeply interested in the sport. The Olympic Games are coming. Are you going to watch them?
I wouldn’t miss them for anything. Dénes Kemény should be a model for Hungarian politicians. Unfortunately, I don’t know him personally, but as far as I know he is a modest, hardworking man who always wants to win but doesn’t look upon his opponents as enemies. And if he loses he looks for the fault in himself and not in others. If I could be there I would yell from the grandstand: “Hajrá, Kemény, hajrá magyarok!”
Translated by Eva S. Balogh