Normally sometime in the second half of August the 104 Hungarian ambassadors from all over the world gather in Budapest where they attend a series of instructional speeches by the prime minister and the foreign minister. Last year György Matolcsy was also present, but I guess this year it would have been too embarrassing to hear from him how fantastically well Hungary is doing economically. InsteadViktor Orbán did the honors.
Apparently this event is supposed to offer a kind of road map that informs the ambassadors about the general direction of Hungarian foreign policy. However, although I read several descriptions of Viktor Orbán’s speech, I found only one sentence that referred to foreign policy per se. It went something like this: good Hungarian foreign policy doesn’t depend on an imitation of the western model but on whether it serves the national interest or not. Therefore the ambassadors must be much more creative. I don’t think that one can get any vaguer than that. But, indeed, if someone wants to defend the Hungarian government’s activities one does need an unusual amount of creativity.
Last year on the same occasion Orbán announced his intention to wage a war against the European Union in defense of the country’s sovereignty and urged the ambassadors to steadfastly defend all of the government’s unorthodox moves, from bank levies to taxation. He made optimistic references to Hungary’s economic progress in the near future. This year somehow he had to pretend that the great economic strides that he’d promised last year have been fulfilled. So it’s no wonder that Sándor Burány (MSZP) declared after the text of the speech became known that the heat wave had had an adverse effect on Orbán’s thought processes. Or as Péter Balázs, former foreign minister, said, Orbán was looking at the road map upside down.
Because how can anyone claim with a straight face that Hungary is handling the crisis better than other countries when the Hungarian economy is in recession and its inflation is the highest in Europe? Real wages decreased by 3.2% and 21,400 fewer people work than a year ago. And that latter number includes the many thousands of people who are currently employed in public works projects. Orbán always put the blame for the crisis on the European Union, but other countries in the region, with the exception of the Czech Republic, are doing much better than Hungary. The Slovak numbers are especially impressive where for the last two or three years economic growth is between 3 and 4%. So it is simply not true that Hungary is a success story in this respect. But Orbán promised that shortly Hungary will again be the leader in the region. Promises, promises, as usual.
Viktor Orbán indicated, however, that there will be no change in economic policy. They will not change the tax system and will not lift the heavy levies on selected businesses and banks. He is still planning to take over utility companies and make them non-profit which according to economists is a disastrous idea; moreover, he himself knows that the European Union will not approve it. Given the current economic policies pursued by the Hungarian government, it is almost predictable that Hungary will sink lower and lower toward a perhaps very serious economic crisis. This will especially be the case if, as predicted by many, there is no agreement with the IMF.
Although the speech was not that different from the run-of-the-mill speeches he normally delivers, there were a few remarks I personally found interesting. I think they tell a lot about the state of mind of the Hungarian prime minister. One was that “an Italian type government of experts is not a solution for Hungary because the citizens will only accept the necessary measures taken if the government that introduces these measures is legitimate.” I may add here that Orbán considered both the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments illegitimate in the sense that they didn’t have the support of the majority. At the moment the government enjoys the support of 17% of the adult population. Why did Orbán feel compelled even to mention the possibility of a government of experts? I leave that to the imagination of the readers.
Orbán’s other odd remark touched on the economic crisis and democracy. It was about a month ago that Orbán, talking to a group of businessmen, expressed his hope that the current crisis will not require a political system different from the current democratic setup. Commentators were aghast. They considered the very fact that the Hungarian prime minister was contemplating such a possibility an outrage.
I guess Orbán himself thought that he had gone too far and wanted to take the edge off of this remark. This is how he handled it. According to him, the solution to the protracted economic crisis is “not made any easier” by the existence of the democratic model. “Europe chose the democratic model after World War II,” so that’s that. This is not a criticism on his part, he added.
Well, I think with this explanation Orbán made things much worse. He is certain that a non-democratic regime could handle the crisis much more effectively, and he regrets that he has to abide by the rules of democracy. Mind you, in my opinion he is working pretty hard on changing this situation in Hungary.
Another interesting passage was his reference to the loss of confidence in the leaders of the European Union which he described as a new stage in the crisis of Europe. The politicians of the nation states cannot afford this kind of loss of trust. Why mention something like this? Surely, he must know that people’s confidence in him is shaken. For years he tried to block every attempt at economic reform while promising pie in the sky to the Hungarians who expect the state to take care of them. And, not surprisingly, this tactic that may lead to electoral victory also generates great disappointment and a loss of confidence. In fact, it may result in a hatred of all politicians. This is pretty much what’s going on in Hungary at the moment. I sense a shift away from Fidesz from comments in mainstream newspapers. While a year ago, even half a year ago, the majority of the comments came from Fidesz true believers, today one can hardly find one or two among the hundreds.
So, to my mind, this speech said perhaps more about the mental state of Viktor Orbán than the newspapers reported and the commentators noticed. He is a man who, while boasting about the success of his government, is afraid that one day he may have to leave and his government may be replaced by a cabinet of experts. He knows that his popularity is very low. Here and there I think he is seriously thinking about a new kind of political system that might solve all his problems. Not the country’s but his! No, Sándor Burány is wrong: it is not the heat wave. It is fear and insecurity.