As you know, I was contemplating writing something about the internet tax, but I felt I had to deal with the further reverberations of Hungary’s shaky relations with the U.S. Now, it seems, the two topics have converged with M. André Goodfriend’s appearance at the demonstration last night.
So, let’s start with the demonstration itself. I considered the crowd very large, especially in comparison to similar gatherings when the issues were purely political. Abstract concepts don’t move crowds in Hungary. The reason might be the low level of political culture and sophistication, the lack of a sustained democratic past, and perhaps even the sinking living standards that force people to concentrate on sheer survival.
I watched the entire demonstration and was impressed with Balázs Gulyás, the organizer and speaker. Although he tried to keep the focus on a single issue, the internet tax, it was clear from the first moment that the demonstration was much more than that. It was a rejection of the kind of life Viktor Orbán and his minions are offering Hungarians, especially young people. I especially liked a phrase in Gulyás’s speech–“we only turned the clock back, not the century”–referring to going off Daylight Savings Time the night before. The demonstrators obviously knew full well that the internet tax is just a symptom of the many anti-modern moves that make the Orbán regime a retrograde construct that can only lead the country to disaster. We are already pretty close.
Another welcome feature of the demonstration was a healthy mix of the young, middle-aged, and old. Yes, I know that young people are not interested in politics, and I wish this weren’t the case, but one must face facts. Unfortunately, by and large this is the situation all over the world. But those young people who went out yesterday realize that this government does not serve their needs. They consider Viktor Orbán a man of the past, an old fuddy-dud who is computer illiterate. Someone who is never seen with a smart phone. Someone who “cannot send an e-mail.” The boys–as longstanding acquaintances call the Fidesz founders–are looking old and tired. Although Orbán is only 50, he is “not with it.” Something happened to these young revolutionaries of the 1980s over the last twenty years. Time has left them behind, and they want to foist their outdated ideas and outlook on life on the new generation.
On the other hand, the American chargé d’affaires, André Goodfriend, seemed to be very much with it as he stood in the crowd with a backpack. As he said in one of his many recent interviews, he spends a great deal of time on the streets of Budapest. A planned demonstration on the internet tax was certainly something he thought he ought to see in person. I’m also sure that he has the State Department’s backing for both his appearances at demonstrations and his presence on Twitter. There a so-called conversation developed between the American chargé and Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary for international communication. I find Kovács unsuited for the job he holds, but perhaps it is fitting that such a man represents the Orbán government abroad. He is a perfect embodiment of this aggressive, crude regime.
Here are a couple of tweets, starting with
“Interesting to see the nature of crowds in Budapest. Internet tax march seemed large & orderly w/good police support.” Then later: “Seeing the news reports of vandalism during the march as well, which I condemn. Not as orderly as it seemed where I stood.”
“Checkin’ the mood, André?! @a demonstration organized by MSZP and liberals’?! As Chargé d’Affaires? Interesting, Eh?”
“Absolutely. I’ve also checked the mood at the Peace Marches, and at numerous other events organized in Hungary.”
“Are you sure that’s the wisest thing in this histerically stirred-up atmosphere while you vindicate to be a key actor? Eh?!”
“There’s always a choice between hiding away, & getting out to see what’s happening. I try to hear the full range of perspectives.”
“Sure ‘hearing’ and influencing does make a large difference.”
“When I want to influence, I speak. Otherwise, I’m listening. Sometimes there’s not enough listening.”
“That we’ve learned through the past couple of days. Sometimes there’s too much ‘demonstration.'”
“So, now is the time to draw lessons from the discussion, and follow words with constructive, meaningful deeds.”
“Surely, giving an ultimatum by demonstrators to a govt is no ground for constructivity. Good luck with friends like that…”
“Some people see ‘ultimatum’ others see a proposition awaiting response as part of dialog. Constructive part may be the response.”
An extraordinary exchange in which Zoltán Kovács showed his true colors and the baseness of his discourse.
Meanwhile the likes of Kovács, András Bencsik, and other organizers of the Peace Marches were ready to call their 100,000 followers to defend their leader because the United States may prepare a coup against Orbán just as it did in Ukraine, they claimed. Apparently they were told to cool it because it might be taken as a sign of weakness of the all-powerful prime minister. Just as they were told to scrap a planned demonstration on behalf of the poor Russians suffering under the yoke of sanctions.
But the volume was turned up by members of the government. László Kövér last night on HírTV talked about a verbal cold war and warned the West that further criticism of Hungary might change the positive picture Hungarians have of the United States and Western Europe. He also tried to explain away Hungary’s isolation by saying that Hungary has so few friends because this is the “nature of politics.” And naturally he did not forget about the NGOs that serve foreign interests.
At the same time there are a few voices warning the government that its relations with the United States have reached a dangerous juncture. Péter Boross, prime minister for a few months in 1993-1994, came out with this observation: “The European Union and the European Parliament are terrains where the government and the prime minister can defend their actions. But the United States is different. The United States is a great power and I would not suggest getting into an argument with her. That can be dangerous for Hungary.”
Others share Boross’s view. An opinion piece in HVG was entitled “The country that came into the cold.” In another, which appeared in privatbanker.hu, a journalist is convinced that “the ice is cracking under our feet” and that Hungary’s relations with the West are shattered at their very foundations. Even in the pro-Fidesz Válasz an editorial warned that it is not a smart thing to irritate the lion. The writer found it outlandish that Tamás Deutsch, one of the veteran politicians of Fidesz and a member of the European Parliament, called André Goodfriend a fifth-rate CIA agent. The author also found Kovács’s tweets to the chargé unfortunate. Such a communication style might be acceptable in Syria and Iran, he said, but these countries do not claim to be allies and friends of the United States.
More about this topic tomorrow.