An Interview with Charles Gati of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
[The interview, published in the January 2, 2014 issue of the weekly 168 Óra (168 Hours) and conducted by József Barát, was translated by Professor Gati for Hungarian Spectrum.]
József Baráth: Hungary is doing better. This is what we hear every day from Fidesz politicians. Some of them even demand better classification from global rating agencies and the resignation of the European Union’s finance commissioner. Looking at it from the United States: How’s Hungary doing these days?
Charles Gati: The Hungarian economy is at a standstill. It suffers from policies of re-centralization and re-nationalization. The global credit agencies issue their ratings on the basis of available numbers. Some presumably make mistakes – after all, human beings always do – but together they reflect a factual condition: that Hungary has come to occupy the last place among the Visegrad Four. The situation could change for the better only if the government no longer stood in the way of Western investments, recognized the advantages of European integration, and prepared the country for the introduction of the euro.
JB: The Hungarian government is no longer criticized so frequently in the United States as in the past. Does this mean that American officials and observers see positive changes? Or is it only that Washington has lost interest, perhaps accepting the view that Hungary belongs to that part of Europe where the values of democracy and the rule of law don’t matter so much and therefore outsiders can’t make a difference?
CG: As far as I know officials don’t see such “positive changes,” and no one has written off Hungary’s democratic potential. Yet, for now, they don’t expect to convince the current Hungarian government any more than they could convince the current government of Ukraine of the values and advantages of Western-style democracy. Given the ingrained optimism of Washington officials, you won’t hear them state it like this but their deeds reflect considerable skepticism. Far more important, however, is Washington’s preoccupation with the agonizing problems of the Middle East.
JB: Tamás Fellegi, a former member of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s cabinet, is conducting a public relations campaign in Washington to improve Hungary’s image in the United States. He’s reaching out to Hungarian-Americans. Does he have a chance to influence American public opinion?
CG: I’m aware of the campaign run by Mr. Fellegi, but I’m not familiar with the specifics of his outreach to Hungarian-Americans. I do know that several Washington think-tanks received contributions from his so-called “Hungarian Initiative Foundation,” which is supported by a $15 million grant from Hungarian taxpayers. In exchange, I presume, Fellegi himself and various pro-Fidesz speakers have been invited to lecture or participate in panel discussions at various forums. I attended one such lecture by György Schöpflin, a Fidesz-member of the European parliament, that was quite successful. Of the twenty or so invited guests, about half were officials of the Hungarian Embassy in Washington. As for substance, these speakers often advance the same view as the one Fidesz promotes: that it’s [the far-right] Jobbik rather than the [right-wing] Fidesz government that opposes Hungarian democracy. They say or suggest that Fidesz, by defending national values against Western “colonialism,” weakens Jobbik’s base, and therefore the West should support rather than criticize Orbán’s Fidesz-led government. This is what one hears from Fellegi, Schöpflin, as well as from Katrina Lantos Swett (daughter of the late Tom Lantos who heads the Lantos Foundation in the US and the Lantos Institute in Budapest, and who sees his father’s legacy differently from me and for that matter from what I think his father’s view would be). By focusing on Jobbik, Anne Applebaum, a respected American journalist, promotes this interpretation, too. To answer your question directly, then, I don’t believe this campaign by officials and fellow-travelers of the Orbán government falls on fertile soil here.
JB: Many are surprised that there isn’t greater resistance in Hungary to the government restricting the rule of law, curtailing the system of checks and balances, and even proceeding with the expansion of funding its clients from the state budget. How do you assess this tendency?
CG: Applebaum’s recent book, Iron Curtain, offers an account of the strategy employed after World War II by Hungarian [and other East-Central European] Communists and their Soviet advisers, a strategy aimed at the immediate capture of the press which at that time meant the Radio, above all. Leaders of Fidesz have learned from Lenin; after gaining power in 2010, they conquered key positions in the press, notably television and radio, so much so that lots of Hungarians didn’t and still don’t realize what’s going on around them. So while internet helps somewhat and there are still independent papers, freedom of the press no longer exists. Those who need information most – people in the countryside who hear and watch one-sided news accounts and one-sided opinions on government-controlled stations – don’t seem to take advantage of what’s available on the internet. Moreover, businessmen as a group appear to be afraid of supporting independent or opposition voices. All in all, the attack against [Western-style pluralist] democracy in 2010 was both sudden and devastating, and much of the public have yet to wake up to the new political environment.
JB: Viktor Orbán claims that European politics should be renewed on the basis of his prescriptions. Could he find followers in Europe? Is the process of European integration endangered by Hungarian government policies?
CG: He has no followers in Europe for now. The British, Lithuanian, and Polish governments — the latter primarily because of domestic circumstances — are somewhat “understanding” of Viktor Orbán, but on a variety of issues they don’t agree with him. As for integration, it isn’t in danger of being reversed. Some countries try to slow down the ongoing processes, partly to protect their sovereign existence, partly to protect their power, but the deepening if not the widening of European integration continues unabated.
JB: There will be election this year in Hungary. Do you think the divided opposition has a chance of winning?
CG: I gave 168 Óra an interview exactly two years ago. Looking back, I note with pleasure that the right-wing press chose one sentence from that interview and attacked me for it thousands of times since. In a long and hysterical editorial, the government daily Magyar Nemzet went so far as to curse me and members of my family as well. I note this with pleasure because not only friends but people of common sense have responded to these attacks by sending me encouraging emails. The sentence in question was this: “I agree with Palmer [the late US Ambassador to Hungary Mark Palmer who served there from 1986 to 1990]: there are possibilities for the removal of this government by democratic means if possible, by other means if that’s not possible.” The meaning of the sentence is clear: If the government stands in the way of free election, the people have the right to protect their democratic rights, restore the well-tested system of checks and balances, as well as freedom of the press and religion. Two years later I can only repeat what I said in 2012. But, with a view toward the approaching election, I can add that while the new electoral law that the Fidesz super-majority in parliament passed strongly favors Fidesz, I still hope the election will be free. I can’t tell how the opposition will do, but I note that the number of undecided voters is very high indeed.
JB: We keep hearing that Gordon Bajnai has influential American supporters — though, truth be told, we hear this primarily from Fidesz propagandists. Are there significant American interest groups that are prepared to help one or another side in Hungarian politics?
CG: Such “significant interest groups” exist only in minds suffering both from delusions of grandeur and a persecution complex. There are no conspiracies against Hungary if for no other reason but because America is otherwise preoccupied. The government press has claimed, for example, that I work with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on trying to overthrow the legitimate Hungarian government. Too bad I’ve never even met Mrs. Clinton. Never. As for Gordon Bajnai, he has made a very good impression during his visits to Washington and New York. Over the years I heard three or four of his lectures about European integration. I also know that he had a chance to meet with high officials and respected analysts. I can say the same about Attila Mesterházy’s valuable lectures and conversations as he also visits the US quite regularly. It’s too bad the Hungarian Press Agency and most of the Hungarian press seldom or perhaps never report on Bajnai’s and Mesterházy’s successful encounters in America.
JB: Could Fidesz win again with a two-third majority?
CG: It received 53 percent of the vote in 2010, which resulted in a two-third super-majority in parliament. I expect a tough match this year.
JB: According to some interpretations of the new electoral law, even 30 percent popular support might translate into a two-third parliamentary majority — if the opposition is divided.
CG: This is a possibility, but months before the [Spring 2014] election such pessimism is unwarranted. Don’t forget that I’ve lived in America for 57 years…
JB: What do you expect to happen if Fidesz wins? What’s more likely: will Orbán pursue policies of consolidation, or strengthen his one-man rule?
CG: Fidesz is Viktor Orbán’s party. Some of his colleagues may be grumpy, especially those who expected higher positions or greater influence, but there’s no principled opposition to him. His one-man rule could be influenced by economic trends and by the European Union.
JB: There are those who believe that it could take generations before Hungary returns to European values. Do you agree with them?
CG: I couldn’t disagree more. Permit me to mention only one example from Hungarian history. Who would have thought around, say, 1860 that a Ferenc Deák would soon emerge with the idea that a grand compromise [with Austria] had to be the nation’s primary goal and that the necessary political capital for such a goal was within reach? What followed at the turn of the 19th-20th century was the construction of Budapest’s most lasting, most beautiful buildings and boulevards. And what an extraordinary cultural boom took place at the same time! Deák also understood that the economy needed the talents of Jewish and German-speaking citizens, and he recognized their rights. It’s often said that he was “the nation’s wise man.” He was. And he held up the example of Hungary for all of Europe!
Deák’s wisdom is missing from Hungarian politics today. This is so because the emphasis all too often is on “heroism,” not on prudence. But heroism in 21st century Europe is old hat, an outworn value, since there’s no immediate enemy. Hungary has never enjoyed such a favorable international environment.
JB: There are critics.
CG: There are critics, of course. Their criticism shouldn’t be met with vindictive, ad hominem attacks, but with serious adjustments in the realms of both domestic and foreign policies. That’s when Hungary’s image would begin to improve. In this connection, let me recall the memory of Nelson Mandela. Once a most radical, uncompromising leader, Mandela emerged from 27 years in jail promoting tolerance. He sought coexistence between whites and blacks. Let’s also remember than the political prisoner and his jailer received — together — the Nobel Peace Prize. Hungary will do well when wise leaders appear on the political scene who will not only respect their opponents but are able to lift the country from its last place to Europe’s premier class — even if it means that they must shelve their own political past, even if it means painful compromises.