More than a million people have looked at the YouTube clip of the by now infamous scene where Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, greets Viktor Orbán with “The dictator is coming” and raises his right hand in a quasi-Nazi salute. The news spread like wildfire. I found well over fifty articles in the Hungarian media describing this 26-second video. I’ve seen an unusually large number of references to it in American papers, in addition to the usual German and Austrian avalanche of Hungarian news items. Those commentators who are critical of the Orbán government found it hilarious, while the two pro-government organs, Napi Gazdaság and Magyar Hírlap, decided to remain quiet on the subject. Orbán’s press secretary explained that there is nothing new in this exchange. Juncker always greets Orbán this way and, in return, Orbán calls Juncker Grand Duke. How jolly.
A commentator from the right Dávid Lakner didn’t find the scene at all funny. Instead, it struck him as embarrassing, especially at a time that more and more people view the European Union itself as a joke. Lakner called Juncker “an imprudent clown.” He suspects that the president was inebriated. (Juncker has been accused of heavy drinking by some of his critics.) On the other hand, journalists of Luxembourger Wort, who ought to know Juncker very well, were not not shocked, nor did they accuse him of drunkenness. They simply noted that “Juncker lived up to his reputation for straight talking … when he hailed Hungarian Premier Viktor Orbán as ‘dictator’ on his arrival at an EU summit in Riga.”
I have also have objections to Juncker’s joking mood, but on very different grounds from Lakner’s. Hungary’s sinking into a one-man dictatorship is no laughing matter. It is not a joke. It is a deadly serious business. Merriment over what Orbán is doing in Hungary is an inappropriate reaction from the president of the European Union.
And this brings me to an op/ed piece by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman in yesterday’s New York Times titled “The New Dictators Rule By Velvet Fist.” Their short article is based on an earlier longer study, “How Modern Dictators Survive,” prepared for the Centre of Economic Policy Research in London. Their argument is that modern dictatorship no longer needs to have totalitarian systems and tyrants like Stalin, Hitler or Mao. Instead, “in recent decades, a new brand of authoritarian government has evolved that is better adapted to an era of global media, economic interdependence and information technology.” These new dictators achieve a high level of control over society by stifling opposition and eliminating checks and balances–and they achieve this without any violence at all.
Among “these illiberal leaders” we find Viktor Orbán alongside of Alberto K. Fujimori of Peru, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, Mahatir Mohamad of Malasyia, and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. What illustrious company! But at least the others are not being financed by European democracies the way Viktor Orbán’s dictatorship is being subsidized by the EU. I wonder how the taxpayers of Western European countries would feel if they fully realized to what end Viktor Orbán is using their hard-earned money. I doubt that they would find it a joking matter.
According to Guriev and Treisman, “the West needs to address its own role in enabling these autocrats.” This is certainly true about the European Union vis-à-vis Hungary. But the authors also talk about lobbying efforts on behalf of these dictators. We know from earlier posts what an incredible amount of money is being spent by the Orbán government on foreign propaganda just in the United States. The four-year contract Connie Mack and Századvég signed was for $5 million.
The authors suggest, and I fully agree with them, that “lobbying for dictators should be considered a serious breach of business ethics.” Although Representative Dana Rohrabacher, speaking to Kriszta Bombera of ATV, denied that he was coached by the Hungarian government through Connie Mack and said that holding the hearing was his own idea, the director of Századvég made no secret of Connie Mack’s usefulness as a top lobbyist in Washington in getting a hearing on U.S.-Hungarian relations during which the chairman and his Republican colleagues defended the Orbán government with full force. “It was a breakthrough,” said Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky of Századvég.
And finally, let me talk about other enablers, specifically the two Hungarian-American associations whose leaders claim that for years they have been tirelessly promoting better understanding between the two countries. They are the Hungarian American Coalition and the American Hungarian Federation. Although they claim to be politically neutral, in fact they are conservative lobbying groups which support right-wing Hungarian governments. I know from personal experience that the Coalition at least moves into high gear only when a right-wing government is in power. After Fidesz lost the election in 2002, the Coalition paid for a group of Fidesz members of parliament to spend two or three weeks in Washington to learn something about American democracy. When I asked why only Fidesz politicians were invited, I was told that the socialists were simply not interested in spending time in Washington. I found the explanation improbable. So I wrote to Ildikó Lendvai, who was the whip of the socialist parliamentary delegation at the time, and it turned out that the socialists had never received any such invitation. That should give you some sense of the true nature of these organizations.
I was therefore somewhat surprised when I heard that the presidents of these two organizations decided not to attend Rohrabacher’s hearing. I thought that perhaps they realized that something was very wrong in Orbán’s Hungary. Perhaps they decided that they would no longer stand by the Hungarian dictator with a velvet fist. I was hoping that the statement Maximilian Teleki, president of the Coalition, released on May 22 would explain his reasons for not participating in the hearing. Instead, we learned only about the dangers of Jobbik and the great achievements of the Orbán government, which in 2010 “faced a Greece-like economic and financial crisis” and which by now has achieved “a respectable economic growth.” As for Jobbik’s anti-Roma and anti-Semitic propaganda, the only thing Teleki could say is that “the Hungarian government has taken a zero-tolerance policy,” adding that much still remains to be done.
In his opinion, the United States “has done little to assist Hungary in developing a long-term [energy] strategy and implementing an effective action plan.” He mentioned “Russia’s aim of reestablishing Cold War-era borders and spheres of influence in the region” but had nothing to say about the close Russian-Hungarian relations and Paks II. What should the United States do to improve the “bilateral relationship” between the two countries? The U.S. should offer more opportunities for Hungarian decision makers to visit the United States; more U.S. officials and decision-makers should obtain first-hand experience by visiting Hungary frequently; and the U.S. should “make possible meetings at the highest political levels: it has been more than 10 years since Hungary’s Prime Minister was received in the White House.” And yes, the United State should support educational and cultural programs sponsored by NGOs. In brief, the dictator with a velvet fist should be rewarded for degrading Hungarian democracy into a modern-style dictatorship.