Charles Gati’s article “The Mask is Off”appeared on August 7 in The American Interest and a day later in Hungarian Spectrum. I guess readers will not be surprised to hear that it created quite a storm in Hungary, especially in the right-wing press. And in a counterattack Válasz published a piece by an Italian politician assailing Gati and whitewashing Viktor Orbán’s ideas on the “illiberal state.”
Let’s start with the reception of Gati’s article, which was not translated word for word but was extensively summarized in Népszabadság on the very day of its appearance. Other left-of-center publications followed suit. Two days later Magyar Nemzet, the unofficial mouthpiece of Fidesz, published an unsigned piece that condemned the article and accused Charles Gati of willfully misinterpreting Viktor Orbán’s concepts and of meddling in the internal affairs of Hungary. His article, it argued, was intended as an instrument of political pressure.
Magyar Nemzet reported on Hungarian reactions to the article, starting with Fidesz’s official position. The answer the paper received emphasized that “Hungary is an independent, democratic state whose government and prime minister were chosen by the Hungarian people.”
Magyar Nemzet, Fidesz if you wish, received additional ammunition from András Schiffer of LMP. After paying lip-service to the importance of checks and balances, Schiffer declared that “Hungary must be governed from Hungary and no matter how serious a situation was created by the ‘system of national cynicism’ it can be remedied only at home as a result of the will of the Hungarian people…. Those from overseas who entertain visions of a cultural war don’t realize that with their pronouncements they hurt the self-esteem of the Hungarian people and unwittingly extend Viktor Orbán’s stay in power.”
Magyar Nemzet also asked a “political scientist” from the Nézőpont Intézet who is a committed supporter of Fidesz and the current government. Gati’s article struck him as “desperate” and, he said, the “foreign misgivings” repeated by Gati “have been ordered” by unnamed foes of the Hungarian government. So, it seems, the sin Charles Gati committed was to dare to “meddle” in Hungarian affairs by voicing his opinion about Viktor Orbán’s regime and by outlining options the United States could pursue under the circumstances. András Schiffer, whose position vis-à-vis the Orbán government is anything but clear, was perhaps the most explicit: foreigners shouldn’t have “visions” about the Hungarian situation, especially since such criticism damages the self-esteem of the Hungarian people. But even the somewhat meaningless Fidesz statement makes a sharp enough distinction between “Hungarians” who have a right to express their opinions and foreigners who don’t.
But then what can we do with Viktor Orbán’s “vision” of the Hungarian nation as a “world-nation” (világnemzet)? This concept is supposed to express the unity of the Hungarian nation regardless of where these Hungarians happen to live. Of course, we all know the reason behind this generous gesture, and we also know the efforts the Orbán government made to limit the number of possible voters from the West while actively recruiting voters from Romania and Serbia. But still, he can’t have it both ways. Either those who are Hungarian by birth are part of the nation and can have a say in the governance of the country or not. Once the Orbán government extended that privilege and made all of us members of this wonderful world-nation he has to take the bad with the good. He cannot pick and choose.
As for foreign powers “meddling” in another country’s internal affairs, it happens all the time. Viktor Orbán in his long political career openly sided with George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney during U.S. presidential campaigns. But others are not supposed to speak their mind about Hungary. Even non-Hungarian Europeans know this. The pro-government Válasz published an article by Luca Volontè, an Italian Christian Democratic politician who was at one time the whip of the European People’s Party in the Council of Europe. Válasz gave this title to Volontè’s polemic against Charles Gati: “Hands Off Hungary!”
Luca Volontè is the only outsider the Orbán government managed to recruit so far. His article sounds not a little suspicious. Almost as if he received some help from Budapest. He seems to be too familiar with the current Hungarian political scene, and the interpretation of Orbán’s speech bears a suspicious resemblance to some of the Hungarian right-wing media’s efforts at explaining Orbán’s message away. We will see whether Fidesz will be able to gather a few more supporters from Europe. The emphasis is on Europe because the current Hungarian line is that in Europe the speech did not make waves; that happened only in the “anti-Hungarian” United States. In fact, Válasz‘s byline made it clear that the anti-Gati voice came from Europe.
And finally, an illustration of the right-wing media’s efforts to control the damage caused by Viktor Orbán’s speech. Today a brief exchange was published, also in Válasz, between Harold Meyerson and Zoltán Laky. Meyerson wrote an opinion piece on August 6 entitled “Hungary’s prime minister a champion for illiberalism” in The Washington Post. Laky, a journalist who obviously thinks that The Washington Post is the mouthpiece of the U.S. government just as Válasz is of the Hungarian government, wanted to know whether Meyerson received instructions concerning Viktor Orbán’s crossing the Rubicon with this speech either from the U.S. government or from the editors of The Washington Post. Meyerson set his Hungarian colleague straight. He has no idea what the U.S. government thinks of Viktor Orbán’s speech and, as far as The Washington Post is concerned, he is not an employee of the paper; the editors don’t even know what he will write about. He is an independent journalist. Yet the title of the Válasz article was titillating: “Permission to target Orbán? The journalist of The Washington Post speaks.”
As for damage control in the United States, I believe the Hungarian government’s chances are slim to none. Budapest can send a new ambassador, as it will in September, and it can spend millions of dollars on lobbying efforts, but its quest is hopeless as long as Viktor Orbán is the prime minister of the country. When the conservative Washington Times publishes an opinion piece entitled “Democracy’s dangerous descent in Hungary,” then Hungary’s chances in Washington are close to hopeless. Viktor Orbán managed to alienate even the paper that in the past usually defended his government.