As 2015 winds down, Hungarian politicians feel compelled to give fairly lengthy interviews. I already devoted a post to János Kövér’s interview in Pesti Srácok, a right-wing publication allegedly heavily subsidized by the government. Today I’m going to concentrate on an interview of János Lázár which, miracle of miracles, he decided to grant to the social democratic daily, Népszava.
Why is this interview unique? Because the unwritten rule, handed down by Viktor Orbán himself, is that important politicians, especially cabinet members, never have anything to do with opposition papers. Even second-string politicians are reluctant to engage with the left-of-center media, with only a few notable exceptions. Nándor Csepreghy, the newly appointed deputy to Lázár, is a fairly regular visitor to ATV and Klubrádió. So is Gergely Gulyás, the recently elected deputy chairman of Fidesz.
A lot of speculation surrounds the person of János Lázár, who occasionally makes comments unflattering to the Fidesz leadership. In his short speech to the Fidesz Congress held on December 13 he pretty well indicated that party loyalty doesn’t replace talent, hard work, and professional knowledge. He also openly admitted that the Young Democrats (fiatal demokraták = Fidesz) are not so young anymore and their followers are also aging. This is the kind of thing Fidesz politicians on the whole don’t talk about.
Anyone who follows Hungarian politics knows that Viktor Orbán and his team hate press conferences where reporters can actually ask questions. Q&A periods are cut short, and reporters from the opposition media usually aren’t called on.
That’s why Lázár’s “innovation” of having weekly free-wheeling press conferences called “kormányinfó” (government info) is something of a revolution in government communication in the Orbán era. Between March 26 and December 16 35 sessions were held, during which Lázár was ready to answer questions from reporters of government-critical media, including Népszava. In fact, at the very beginning of the interview Lázár made it a point to thank Népszava for its participation in these sessions and added: “I cut myself free of my colleagues’ media fight.”
One should not conclude, however, from some of Lázár’s bravado that he does not share the fundamental beliefs of Viktor Orbán. It turns out that even the weekly “government info” was Viktor Orbán’s idea, despite the fact that he is the last person who would answer questions for two hours.
When it comes to important things, Lázár is 100% behind Viktor Orbán. For example, he doesn’t seem to realize how Orbán’s policies divide the nation; he doesn’t want to see how the prime minister incites people against each other and against the refugees. Perhaps from the inside it is not as obvious as it is for those of us who watch political events from the outside. He sounded genuine when he expressed his belief that the kind of political hatred we see day in and day out is restricted to election campaigns. He believes, or pretends to believe, that the “national consultations” are a legitimate way of finding out people’s opinions. He denies that the “refugee question” has anything to do with party politics. He insists that the overwhelming majority of refugees are “economic migrants.” And one could continue. He seems to believe in the righteousness and correctness of his government’s policies.
One gets the impression that there is a sharp distinction between the original Fidesz team, formed during their college days, and the newcomers, like Lázár. As he put it, “among the founders of Fidesz there is very strong solidarity. They can indeed finish each other’s sentences. They are like that. They think alike.” Still, on the surface at least, Lázár seems to genuinely admire these people: Orbán, Kövér, Áder, Szájer. They are “the grand masters of politics” in Hungary. And he seems to have a very low opinion of some of those who have shown up lately around Fidesz and the Orbán government.
Because Lázár is a loquacious sort, he often expresses himself more clearly on certain subjects than does Viktor Orbán, who is a master of double talk. Here is a typical honest comment:
We don’t want to deepen integration any further. From our point of view the EU is first and foremost an economic community of interests and values and not a political one. And now they want to force political values on us. … Hungarian society cannot and will not accept these values as its own…. Brussels wants to shove down our throats the deepening of integration, and to that end it uses the migrants. We don’t want to give up more of our sovereignty. The most important question of the next ten years from Hungary’s point view is how it will be able to preserve its independence. This is the essence of Fidesz’s politics, we look at everything through this lens. We want more Hungary and less Brussels.
Lázár also seems to accept most of Orbán’s misconceptions about the state of the European Union and Hungary’s place in it. One such misconception is that the engine of Europe’s economy is Eastern Europe. Indeed, in the last few years economic growth in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania has been very strong. Hungary had one good year in 2014, but because of Orbán’s mistaken economic policies it is only now that Hungary has managed to get back to where it was in 2008. Moreover, in large measure economic growth in Eastern Europe is the result of the incredible amount of money these countries receive from Brussels. In Hungary’s case, in the last two years 5-6% of the GDP came from convergence funds.
Yet there were statements in this interview that reflect a man who is somewhat different from the ordinary, run-of-the-mill Fidesz “aparatchik.” I think he is honest when he tells us that being an ordinary member of parliament elected by his district was something that he found most fulfilling, and if it turned out that he has to go back to such a position, he wouldn’t be heartbroken. He speaks equally fondly of his time as mayor of Hódmezővásárhely where he apparently managed to desegregate schools to everybody’s satisfaction. He still regularly visits his district where he takes care of people’s problems. Long lines wait for him. He also talks fondly of his time as the head of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, leaving me at least with the impression that he enjoyed his previous jobs more than his current one.
Finally, one more difference between Lázár and the people who can be seen around Orbán in the VIP section of the newly-built football stadiums. Orbán is an avid player of ulti or ultimó, a Hungarian card game, which according to Orbán is excellent preparation for becoming a successful politician. Lázár doesn’t play ulti and he cannot be seen in the VIP section eating sunflower seeds. As he said, “I’m not a member of the club.” He added, “While they watch football I work. This way everybody benefits.”