András Kósa, a well-known Hungarian journalist, recently published The Speech of the Chief: Őszöd after Ten Years, a collection of interviews with Ferenc Gyurcsány, former and current politicians, and political commentators. Interest in Gyurcsány’s speech and its impact on subsequent political developments doesn’t seem to wane.
A reader and friend of Hungarian Spectrum, Steven N., who is also a friend of Kósa, translated the interview with Gyurcsány for publication here. Since the interview was lengthy, I posted it in installments. The first and second have already appeared. This is the final installment.
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András Kósa: You know Vladimir Putin personally, as you’ve met with him on several occasions. What is the secret of the surprisingly strong relationship between the Russian President and Viktor Orbán?
Ferenc Gyurcsány: To answer this, it has to be noted that in the mid-to-late 2000s, the European Union and the Obama administration viewed Putin as a leader who was democratizing cautiously. During his first visit to Berlin, the entire Bundestag gave him a standing ovation. Then, in the Russian parliamentary elections in the fall of 2011, he had to pilfer 17 percentage points to be able to win. In the spring 2012 Presidential election, he again needed to cheat to attain a “victory,” though less so this time. I think these things have changed Putin. He realized that the policies he had pursued up until then did not automatically expand his power, so he launched a campaign of harsh repression at home (including the killing of journalists and political rivals, remaking the Russian criminal code, and restricting the freedom of assembly), and again began to assert the conquering pursuits of Great Russia. I have not changed: I’m not critical of Putin because I’m in the opposition. My relationship towards him did not change until the summer of 2012. We even met in Moscow with our families then. But I don’t like this Putin now. Orbán, by comparison, has taken the opposite route: when the world trusted Putin more, he was very critical of our cooperation. Then when the world increasingly kept its distance from Putin because of what I said earlier, he became one of his main allies. I think the only thing that’s happened here was that Viktor Orbán was looking for partners for his foreign policy, and he found one in Putin. If I want to go against Brussels (which was Orbán’s big foreign policy shift after 2010), then – being the Prime Minister of a small-medium-sized country – I need partners to do this, and Putin is perfect for it at the moment. The current Polish leadership is also an excellent partner.
Is it “only” this?
The possibility that money and corruption are behind the good relations between Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin cannot be ruled out. Maybe it also greases their relationship. But it’s not the main reason.
As Prime Minister, you had insight into intelligence-related matters: would it be possible that the large intelligence agencies, for example Russian or American, could not find out pretty much anything about any kind of personal or perhaps business matter, or the financial situation, of the current Hungarian Prime Minister?
If they wanted to, they could find out pretty much anything. Of this, I have no doubt. If you’re asking whether these agencies are able to find out something that they could blackmail a Hungarian Prime Minister with, then I would say, yes, they could do that. Whether they’d use it or not, I wouldn’t be able to say. I didn’t come across these things during my own time in office. I did have very nasty disputes on energy issues with the American ambassador and with representatives of the government in Washington. They tried to talk me into this, that, and the other, but they didn’t venture beyond putting verbal pressure on me. Experts say that today around 600-800 people in Hungary are definitely working for the KGB in some capacity. This is not a small number. And their capacity is such that if they want to listen in on our phone calls, they can do it. If they want to know where we’re going and when, who we’re having dinner with and what we’re talking about, they can find out. I think that this coterie exerts a substantial influence on the world of Jobbik and Fidesz.
During your time in office, how big was this 600-800 number?
Roughly about half of that.
A two-speed Europe is forming right before our eyes, and for now we Hungarians seem to have a strong role on the periphery. In such a situation, in which we know that aid from the EU will be drastically reduced after 2020, how much can democratic ties loosen in Hungary, as well as in the region as a whole?
They won’t expel us from the European Union, but the processes can only really go in such a way that one group of countries will deepen its cooperation and head towards a federal Europe. While we remain on the periphery, as you said. Not only will they fund less and less of our finances, but also increasingly less attention will be paid to the social and general state of affairs here. Maybe I’m naive (since before 2010 I also didn’t expect that such a radical transformation would occur if Fidesz ever came into power), but I can’t really imagine what more the government could do in such a transformed EU. You can’t turn off the internet. There’s hardly any openness as it is. Under European circumstances, the police can still not just come into my apartment, and the authorities can’t take away my assets and businesses. I think that Fidesz has pretty much gone to the wall. It’s possible, of course that they’ve already figured this out, because what’s happening right before our eyes is a march towards a semi-authoritarian regime. János Kádár’s cloak stretches extremely far in this regard.
What do you mean?
We Hungarians signed on to what we thought was a highly successful, but nevertheless dishonest, historic compromise. Hungary was the only place in Eastern Europe where (in our so-called “soft dictatorship”) there wasn’t open repression that affected the masses. The “happiest barracks” was built on an immoral pact in which the authorities said: there are three things that you can’t touch. There’s a one-party system, 1956 was a counter-revolution, and the Soviet troops in Hungary protect the peace. Otherwise, you are more or less free to live your life, you can travel somewhat, the shoe stores have shoes, the meat shops have meat, and you can even tell political jokes too. This somewhat conflated the oppressor with the oppressed, which is why the majority of the country now reacts so permissively to political tyranny. Viktor Orbán correctly senses that it’s not the lack of democracy that will crush his regime. This issue has remained a cause only for the upper segment of the political class. Poor governance of the country leads to poor performance: healthcare, the educational situation, and a lack of prospects, shockingly low wages, and increasing vulnerability in the workplace – these are much more dangerous to Orbán than the fact that public television has become the television station of the ruling party. They’ll change the channel to something else.
Why is it that in Hungary charges of corruption don’t harm the government?
One reason is that Byzantine culture has maintained itself right up until the present time: if the powers-that-be dip into the common goods but some of it still occasionally comes my way, then I won’t be so strict with the rules all the time on my own level – this itself is in the tradition of Byzantine culture, which can still be found here. Moreover, the entire political class is considered corrupt – so what’s the difference? But there’s a much more tangible reason as well: the public prosecutor here has a monopoly on prosecuting cases. Péter Polt essentially refuses to launch any kind of investigation, so every initiative comes to naught. The system today is itself built upon corruption; it doesn’t have just a speck of corruption, but is its very essence. Everyone in Fidesz knows about it, everyone knows who is corrupt and in what way, but they condone each other’s actions. Finally, it’s because the opposition has not been very successful with these matters. In any case, Péter Juhász, the representative of the Együtt Party, has done more in this area in the past few years than the rest of us put together.
Will you be Prime Minister of Hungary again?
I won’t rule it out.
Would you want it?
I don’t have such a strong desire for it right now. I did have it in 2004, no question. I am grateful to fate for letting me be Hungary’s Prime Minister, but it now also has a strong desire for this democratic and civic alternative which I represent to gain a large base of support. It has a stronger desire for this now than it does to make me Prime Minister once more. I can feel good about imagining my life in a way that I remain a Member of Parliament and not have any higher power than this. But it’s devilishly hard to predict what fate will bring in 2022 or 2026. I’ll be 66 years old in 2026: this is still an active age as a politician. I am fortunate because my ambitions and opportunities are just now coming together.
You were once considered one of the most promising politicians in Hungary after the regime change of 1989, and then your name became associated with one of its biggest scandals. What was this experience like for you?
If I could be objective, I’d say: it’s my personal misfortune. But there’s no anger inside me towards anyone. For those who go into this career, it doesn’t hurt to be aware that such things can happen to you. Looking back, I don’t lament about how much of what happened to me was fair or not. Or how much was my fault, or how much was due to chance or a malicious conspiracy by others.
What was your responsibility?
To start with, I took over the government at the head of a party that I was not compatible with, neither culturally or in terms of mentality. This was encoded into what happened later.
When did you realize this? That you weren’t compatible with your own party.
When things started to go bad for us after 2006. And when I saw that Fidesz owed its success, among other things, to being able to fight its battles as a large singular unit, which we were not capable of. When Orbán gave his ultimatum after the Őszöd speech was leaked, that if they do not remove me as Prime Minister within 72 hours then he would put so much pressure on MSZP that we couldn’t hope to be able to bear it, I naturally called together the leaders of the Socialist Party. And I had to admit that there were some in the leadership who wanted to comply with Orbán’s demand purely out of fear. In that regard, of course, they were honest enough to indicate as much – and so the decision was made for me to ask for a vote of confidence against myself in Parliament. But after this, I felt that the party had completely changed: not standing up for introducing the doctor’s visit fee, not arguing for it or explaining it, but fleeing from it. This showed me that the party could not handle the struggles that I urged them to fight for in the Őszöd speech. I had convinced them right then and there. I got their votes, but I couldn’t get their hearts. If you don’t believe in the story, in the hellish debates, in the struggle – then what is it in politics that you do believe in?
We do love conspiracy theories, so since you’ve already brought up the 72-hour ultimatum of October 2006: many contend that with this step Orbán truly brought you back into the game from a losing position. If he had been slower and more patient then and there, he could even have succeeded with the ruling coalition ridding itself of Ferenc Gyurcsány. But after such an ultimatum, MSZP could not have done anything else but reinforce your position three days later in a Parliamentary vote of confidence.
I prefer to believe in the truth contained in a non-public poetic treatise by Orbán that we learned about from the Wikileaks cables, stating, “If you can kill your adversary, and don’t put it off.” I don’t think that today’s Prime Minster, who was the leader of the opposition at the time, delivered this ultimatum in order to keep me in office. He did it because he had assessed the courage of the Socialists pretty well, and he saw a chance that they would back away from me.
There is also an interpretation that you two need each other mutually in a political sense, as a clearly tangible image of each other’s enemy.
I know that to this day there exists this Orbán-Gyurcsány parallel, which really does hold up in two respects. With respect to our origin, we both came from a provincial town and from poverty, and were both first generation intellectuals. But more importantly, we have taken completely opposite routes since coming to Budapest: Orbán became jealous of the downtown elite – he felt that they had taken something from him. Even to this day, he views the metropolitan intellectual elite with contempt. But I admired them. The way I saw it, it was like, “Damn, you can live this way too! Then why would I do it any other way?” We’re also alike in that both of us are strong characters who live for politics. This is true. But there are no similarities between our respective visions. Nor between the systems that we want to build. I think that Viktor Orbán started as a very promising European-minded democrat, and I even saw very many things in him to admire. But from then on he has become an increasingly authoritarian figure who left behind everything about him that was respectable. I came from the youth organization of the state party, so there’s no doubt that he could label me a “communist” (while even before the regime change we had said that we wanted a multi-party system, just more cautiously and slowly, unlike Fidesz at the time), but on this basis I became a wholehearted democrat.
It is said that the reason why Viktor Orbán and Robert Fico understand each other so well (though they have different ideologies within their party’s family structure) is because both are opportunistic, populist politicians who always view a particular situation in terms of the techniques of power, and analyze how to exploit it to their benefit. After Fico was elected as Prime Minister for the second time (freeing himself from the nationalist Slovak National Party), he was able to “turn towards Europe” after 2012 and develop good relations with Brussels. Do you think Viktor Orbán would also be capable of the same in a particular situation?
I wouldn’t rule it out. The turnabout he did in Hungarian-Russian relations in connection with expanding the capacity of the Paks nuclear power plant, in a very short time and managed so successfully (the right-wing voting base, having previously been extremely suspicious towards the Russians, adopted a basically pro-Russian stance two months later, according to polling) speaks for itself. I do absolve Orbán on a very small point, and can self-critically say: it is of course important to be principally and morally committed in politics (which I think I still represent to this day), but it should not be taken too far. I took it too far. It’s perfectly normal for a politician to think about what his voters give him a mandate to do and not to do, no matter how correct he may be. When Orbán said to the Christian Democrats, “However right you are in regards to banning abortion, no matter how much it may be your fundamental position as a principled Christian, if we do this we’ll lose the elections,” I think he was completely right to say it. It wasn’t that I thought: “These Hungarians have become accustomed to free health care while they hand out gratuity money to doctors. I have to convince them to do things differently.” But before that point I should have thought about whether I could convince them, and if not, what good would it do if I lost and then they change it back? Because then I didn’t do anything. I was proud that I fought to justify myself even against the will of the majority. Viktor Orbán pushes terribly hard for the other half of this matter: he is capable of nearly any compromise on principle for the stabilization and extension of his power. Of course, he doesn’t rely on the discretion of the people, so he dismantles institutions that provide a check on democracy: even if they wanted to they wouldn’t be able to stop his intentions.
However, as a wealthy businessman, you sometimes say things like you know what it’s like to live on minimum wage, which it’s better to live poorly but honestly…
Why wouldn’t I able to know? A doctor doesn’t have to have a backache to be able to feel his patient’s pain. A teacher doesn’t have to be an idiot to be able to feel the suffering that his weakest student goes through studying for the next day’s lesson. A politician doesn’t have to live in misery to understand that public goods should be distributed on the basis of social justice. And I haven’t even spoken about coming from an apartment with a kitchenette, where our toilet was in the outer corridor, or a Christmas when we didn’t even have a donut to eat. And I don’t even have to add that a large part of my family still lives a life that is not even lower-middle class, but one beneath that. People I regularly get together with. I consider this comment a cheap intellectual slur if I ever happen to see it.
Do you have any personal relationships with right-wing politicians or opinion makers?
Do you think this is normal?
Of course not. But this is because of a deliberate division of the country into two on Orbán’s behalf. We go along hearing phrases (from Orbán) like “the homeland cannot be in opposition,” while these are the most severe words you can say. This statement means that you do not consider another’s political existence as natural. You consider the other political side as an error that must be eliminated, and with their elimination you have less and less moral compunction. This is the endpoint of this process. And in turn, Viktor Orbán’s responsibility for making this concept more and more acceptable to the country cannot be overstated.
How do you think this final/fatal mutual distrust can be overcome? And would this generation be at all capable of doing it?
Certainly not with Orbán. The preamble to the current Hungarian constitution condemns the entire Hungarian left. Which is absurd. But I also do not think that a majority of Fidesz supporters and some of its leaders would not want a world that is much more relaxed than the one we have now.
Where do you think the country is now, ten years after Őszöd?
In its moral state ten years before Őszöd – I mean that it is in worse shape than before 2006. But Őszöd is not the primary cause of the moral deterioration. It’s a different issue whether it helped open up the way to letting what the authorities are now doing to the country hide in the cloak of legality. There is now a terrible atmosphere in the country, without any large, shared positive experiences or successes.