Tag Archives: Austria

Austria as an ally of Orbán’s Hungary?

Viktor Orbán’s planned meeting yesterday with Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s youthful new chancellor, was made public almost a week ago which, given the secretiveness of the Orbán government, was quite unusual. As for the physical trip itself, the Hungarian prime minister opted for an ordinary train ride between Budapest and Vienna. But one of his Volkswagen minibuses was waiting for him in the Austrian capital. A strange arrangement.

There was something else that was out of the ordinary regarding this trip. During the train ride Viktor Orbán had a video made, on which he announced that “in Vienna he wants to sign an agreement on migration, the two countries’ joint defense, and mutual assistance.” This was certainly an ambitious agenda. If Orbán actually meant to say that he would like to return with concrete assurances from the Austrian government concerning those issues, he must be disappointed. What the talk produced was merely a reiteration of long-held views shared by the two governments. No, they don’t want to harbor “illegal migrants”; they want to strengthen the Schengen borders; they don’t think that the quota system is working.

As far as Austria’s joining the Visegrád 4 alliance is concerned, the Austrian right-wing coalition wants to be only “a bridge” between Brussels and the not-so-steady Visegrád 4, even though the far-right Austrian Freedom party said before the October 15 election that it wanted Austria to join the group. Their plans were obviously quashed during the coalition negotiations. What Orbán’s views are on Austria’s joining is not known, but I would be surprised if he didn’t covet such a development.

The Austrian and Hungarian papers, by and large, consider the meeting of little consequence, which might be the reason for the Hungarian party’s reluctance to have any contact with the media after the negotiations were over. According to Die Presse, a conservative Austrian daily, Orbán originally didn’t even want to hold a press conference after his meeting with Kurz. It took some cajoling by Kurz to convince him to allow four questions, two from each country. On the Hungarian side, only M1 TV and the new Fidesz favorite, Echo TV, got a chance to ask questions, which were safe from Orbán’s perspective. The Austrian journalists naturally were more forthcoming, and the Austrian public television’s reporter managed to squeeze in a question about Orbán’s ideas on “illiberal democracy.” The encounter that followed was “politely” left out of the Hungarian news agency’s report. According to Austrian sources, Orbán insisted that his political system is called “illiberal” simply because there are no liberals in his government. “We don’t accept the equation of democracy with liberalism. The only true democracy is democracy without any adjective.” Kurz diplomatically added that he is liberal and Christian and he is happy that the people of Austria live in a strong democratic political system. He added that democracy is the best form of government for any country.

The topic that interested Hungarians most was Austria’s decision to cut child benefits for non-Austrian workers from East European countries, the largest contingent coming from Hungary. Hungarian opposition parties expected Orbán to fight hard for equal rights for these guest workers, but the general impression they got was that Orbán had not done so. This is one of those occasions when I have to defend Orbán. It is the European Court of Justice that will rule on the constitutionality of the issue. Bilateral negotiations with Kurz and his government have no relevance here. The same is true about Austria’s suit against the construction of Paks II. This is a matter between Austria and the European Commission.

Although Austrian and Hungarian commentators might believe that the meeting was a flop, one English-language paper wrote about the two politicians who came away from the meeting “with a pledge for close cooperation in Europe if not a formal alliance.” Euobserver believes that “while Kurz might seem less friendly than his anti-immigration campaign perhaps suggested to Budapest, the Hungarian leader can count on one more ally in opposing the EU’s migrant relocation scheme.” This fear might be exaggerated. Because of the presence of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) in the coalition, Kurz is trying doubly hard to assure the European Union of his trustworthiness. He tweeted after his meeting with Orbán that “Austria can and wants to make a contribution to reinforce cohesion in the European Union and reduce tensions.”

The question is whether the young, relatively inexperienced Sebastian Kurz is capable of taming Viktor Orbán. Zsuzsanna Földvári, a journalist living in Vienna, gave a lengthy interview to the Független Hírügynökség (fuhu.hu) on the encounter, which I found most perceptive. Földvári attended the press conference and gained the impression that “Orbán played the role of the fatherly elder statesman to the young Austrian chancellor, who behaved like a scared schoolboy.” Apparently, Orbán’s experience was evident in the way he handled questions. “He was more informative, more active, and more interesting than Kurz.” Of course, Orbán has the advantage of having spent decades in the political arena. Also, I would not underestimate his charm, which he exhibits on certain occasions. For a while, Orbán most likely will have the advantage, although Kurz just today showed that he can be tough when he announced that “there will be political consequences” of an FPÖ member of parliament’s membership in a neo-Nazi fraternity.

In addition to Sebastian Kurz, Orbán also talked with Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right FPÖ. Western papers paid little attention to this meeting, although for Orbán this meeting was just as important as his conversation with Kurz. Maybe even more so. For years Orbán has been most eager to meet Strache, whom he considers “the man of the future.” In September 2015 a planned meeting between the two was reluctantly cancelled in the last minute. Although the Austrian and English-language papers didn’t say much about Orbán’s meeting with Strache, Origo devoted a detailed article to the meeting, which centered on “the closest, most professional, and friendliest relations” between the FPÖ minister of defense and minister for transport, innovation and technology and their Hungarian counterparts.

I don’t want to underestimate the importance of a right-wing government in neighboring Austria, especially after the strained relations that existed during the Social Democratic-People’s Party coalition. At the same time, I would be reluctant to call the Kurz government an absolute bonanza for Orbán, whose expectations, I believe, exceeded what he actually got in Vienna yesterday. He can only hope that with time he will be able to draw Austria closer to the Visegrád 4 Group, gaining tangible support when the Visegrád countries flex their muscles. However, if Poland’s intransigence continues, cooperation between Austria and the Visegrád Group might be out of the question. In fact, it might even threaten the continued existence of the Visegrád 4 alliance.

January 31, 2018

Johanna Laakso: Friends and foes of “freedom”

Johanna Laakso is a professor in the Finno-Ugric Department of the Institut für Europäische und Vergleichende Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft at the University of Vienna. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Helsinki, where she also taught until 2000, when she moved to the University of Vienna. Besides her native Finnish, she speaks English, German, Hungarian, Estonian, Swedish, Russian, and French. Professor Laakso is known to the readers of  Hungarian Spectrum as Sentrooppa-Santra and is one of our frequent contributors on linguistic topics as well as on politics.  In 2014, at my request, she wrote a post when the Orbán government established one of its newfangled institutes, the Magyar Nyelvstratégiai Intézet (Hungarian Language Strategy Institute). Her article, “Brave New Linguistics,” not only informed us about this institute but also summarized some of the most important developments in the study of linguistics in Hungary over the last couple of centuries.

The Finnish original of this article was published on Professor Laakso’s blog at http://sentrooppasantra.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/vapauden-ystavat-ja-viholliset/

♦ ♦ ♦

Mária Schmidt should already be known to the readers of this blog. She is a kind of a court historian of Viktor Orbán, and the general public will probably know her as the director of the “House of Terror” in Budapest, the museum which in a somewhat debated manner shows the Nazi and the Communist dictatorship as two parallel cases. She also played a very visible role in the official programme of the recent memorial year of the revolution of 1956. In her research career, she has worked with the history of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy and the fates of minorities in Hungary in the turmoils of 20th-century dictatorships. She also teaches at the Catholic Pázmány university in Piliscsaba. According to the Hungarian Wikipedia, she was ranked by the Napi.hu portal as the 30th most influential person in Hungary in 2017, which is probably due to her political connections rather than to her academic merits. In the years 1998–2002, Schmidt was officially the counsellor of the Prime Minister, and now she leads one of the new research institutes founded by the government: on its homepage, the XXI. Század Intézet (21st Century Institute) states that its tasks comprise “supporting research on politics and numerous other activities connected to the research of politics”.

These numerous other activities, in turn, obviously include a fresh publication which appeared in early December: the book by Mária Schmidt, entitled Nyelv és szabadság (‘Language and Freedom’). Curious to know what Schmidt, a historian, has to say about language, I ordered the book for my holiday reading, despite certain forebodings. Sadly enough, the reality was even more terrible. In what follows, I’ll try to analyze my bewilderment at Schmidt’s book.

The Enemies: Muslim immigrants, left-wing liberal elite, Soros

The book is a compilation of Schmidt’s political columns and opinion pieces from the last couple of years. These texts do not form a logically ordered whole but mostly repeat the same things with slightly different words. Moreover, they do not attempt to argue or to give reasons. It seems that the goal is simply to hammer the basic ideas into the readers’ heads: who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, what is the real problem in today’s political situation. For the problems, three culprits are identified. First, the “migrants”, especially Muslim ones. Second, the left-wing liberal elites and decision-makers who invite and bring them to Europe, especially the German Chancellor Merkel and her associates. And third, behind all these, pulling the strings – ta-dah, George Soros!

Why “The Man in a Bowler Hat” by René Magritte was chosen as the cover illustration remains a mystery. True, Schmidt’s book does emanate a surreal atmosphere.

The immigrants who flooded Europe in 2015 are, of course, no real “refugees” (menekült), as the “left-wing liberal media” want to call them. In Schmidt’s opinion, they all, as a caste (no exceptions are mentioned), constitute a “mobile intifada”. The “migrants” are violent, they are murderers and rapists, they are men “of fighting age” (katonakorú), they come from “areas controlled by jihadists” (p. 139), they are “militant, combat-trained troops” (p. 132), and their “luggage most certainly is full of weapons, drugs and who knows what” (p. 134). They behave rudely and insolently, even towards the “patient and humane” Hungarian authorities, do not show gratitude for the help they are given, they expect a Western European standard of living without any duties. Their goal, and the goal of Islam in general, always and everywhere, is of course to conquer and repopulate Europe. For Schmidt, Islam is not a world religion with zillions of different interpretations and practices in different environments and traditions (as is the case with Christianity as well) but a monolithic system for terror and world domination. Accordingly, the Muslim invaders do not represent different nations, cultures, or political systems: a herdsboy from a tribal village in Afghanistan and a middle-class urban entrepreneur from Syria are both part of a homogeneous mass of “Muslims”, and behind all of them looms a mysterious power with oil and money.

The flood of immigrants is made possible by the fact that Europe, after losing its national values, has turned powerless, spineless, and unable to defend itself. The words in its languages have lost their meaning, due to the tyranny of political correctness, and the political organs of the EU are held captive by the Marxist elite. What is even worse, this elite has the nerve to criticize Hungary, for instance for harassing NGOs, for closing the archive museum of György Lukács (Schmidt: only because Lukács was a Communist!) or for terminating the newspaper Népszabadság.

As for Népszabadság, the paper of the state-holding party in the party state, it is a shame that even in 2017, there can be members of the European Parliament who dare to position themselves in support of a former Communist paper! As if some thirty years ago people had worried about the fate of the Völkischer Beobachter! (p. 197)

A particularly ferocious attack is directed at Angela Merkel (who, according to Smith, hates Europeans and especially Germans, because of their Nazi past…) and at Germany as a whole: Germany is not only burdened by its Nazi past, but Socialism as well was invented in Germany, Schmidt reminds. The EU, in turn, is in practice ruled by Germany, because Germany more than any other country profits from the EU. Schmidt also plays the Nazi card (“the dream of a unified Europe was already cherished by Hitler”, p. 130), as at the end of the following example, invoking an association to the concentration camp transports:

A normal man or boy will know his duties and defend his wife, daughter, mother, or sister. Only these Germans of today have turned so brain-washed and unmanly that they are not even capable of that. The Merkelian language has by now depoliticized and thus debilitated the whole public discourse in Germany. Not only because it is endlessly tedious and monotonous, but because it lacks any content, because it never says anything, it means just letting out hot air. Merkel let the flood of Muslim migrants invade Europe without showing any need to argue for her strategy or to make her strategy public. The German citizens are content with Wir schaffen das. As if they were merely facing a logistic challenge. These people will arrive here, be collected and selected here, divided into quotas there, and then transported to their goals. If only this logistically oriented mode of action were not so familiar already! (p. 29)

The reason for the weakness of German or, more generally, Western elites is that they have failed in their Vergangenheitsbewältigung, dealing with the past. Schmidt thinks that the Western upper class and intellectuals are clinging to their victim status and guilt. Because “only the victim deserves attention, recognition, and privilege” (p. 48), elites and privileged, well-to-do groups also want to be victims. This gives rise to #metoo campaigns, the collective self-castigation in the spirit of “collective guilt” which is continuously practised especially by Germans, or more generally, the mania of former colonial overlords to blame themselves for all possible wrongdoings the colonized peoples have experienced. (As Schmidt reminds, Hungary, in contrast, has never colonized any country. Of course, one might ask how the Magyarization policies of the Hungarian half of the dual monarchy towards its ethnic minorities in the late 19th century prepared ground for the ethnic conflicts which took place throughout the 20th century. But this is probably not the proper place to discuss these issues.)

This situation, then, creates new opportunities for those interested in “migrant business”. The immigrants are not invading Europe merely out of their own free will or driven by their Islamic ideology, but they are being invited, directed, and transported. This is done by fake NGOs “intertwined with human trafficking gangs”, by diverse human rights organizations and the European Court of Human Rights and other organs of justice, whose actions are causing disaster “like a loose cannon” (p. 133) – because “invoking the state of law means questioning the people’s representation”, it amounts to “juristocracy” (p. 202). For these organizations, human rights are a “rubber concept” which they can “extend and apply at will, depending on each current need” (p. 175). (What “extending human rights” in this respect might mean is not explained in more detail, nor are examples given.) The fake NGOs, in turn, are funded especially by George Soros, the super-villain as shown to the people of Hungary in recent hate propaganda campaigns; Schmidt quite seriously compares Soros with the mighty villains who aspire to world domination in James Bond films.

Both the left-wing liberal elites and the decision-making machinery of the EU are controlled by Soros, Schmidt claims. As evidence for this, she mentions the “gas pipe Socialists” who after or alongside their political career have turned into lobbyists of big enterprises, and – believe or not – the fact that Saturday Night Live once called Soros “the owner of the Democrat Party”. If even the authors of a political satire show “treat this like a fact”, it must be a fact…

Whatever motivates Soros and his buddies to do this (beyond the simple fact of being evil) is hardly taken into scrutiny, no explanations are sought. Is “migrant business” really that profitable? Schmidt does claim that the “migrant business” is based on Western enterprises’ need for cheap labour, but elsewhere (p. 139, for example) she states that the “migrants” are unwilling to work (and unable as well, being largely uneducated analphabets), especially for small wages: they merely expect a comfortable life on welfare.

In any case, alongside the Soros network or the Soros plan there exists even a “Sorosism” or a “Sorosist world view”, probably roughly the same thing as the ideology of the “left-wing liberal elite”. The Central European University was also founded to spread this Sorosist ideology, and there – as in Anglophone universities in general – nobody will be accepted or given the floor who does not agree with “militant Sorosists”… But of course, the 87-year-old Soros is not operating alone, but probably he is being used as a gallion figure by “groups behind him who represent a certain part [egy meghatározott rész] of international speculative capital” (p. 250). Who or what are the people who constitute this “certain part”? No answer is given, but I’m afraid that many readers will find one in no time.

The Heroes: “Populists”, “Patriots” – and especially Viktor Orbán

The opposite to the opportunism and indifference of the “elite” and also the target of the elite’s implacable hate are those whom the elite dubs “populists”.

Populist is what they call a politician who is doing what the voters are expecting from him/her. In other words, a democrat. (p. 14; Schmidt presents this as a quotation from The Spectator, no more precise source is given)

Among those who are called “populists”, especially Eastern Europeans, those to whom Schmidt often refers with the pronouns (“we”, “us”) or inflection forms of the first person plural (“we know”), are particularly dangerous to the Western villains and importers of immigrants. The reason is that these “we” have already during Soviet times learnt to recognize the “Communist, Trotskyist, later Post-Communist or left-wing” (p. 93) method by which the innocent are made guilty and the hostile invaders glorified as heroes. These people, therefore, are immune to the propaganda of Soros and the arrogant Western cultural Marxists, because they still retain their national basic values and a self-respect based on them, which gives them courage.

Courage or audacity (bátorság), in turn, is the central characteristic which Schmidt in one of the last chapters of the book attributes to Viktor Orbán. Audacity is shown, for example, in the campaign to lower utility costs (rezsi), even called “the rezsi fight” (a trick by which especially elderly voters are made happy by seemingly smaller gas and electricity bills). To Schmidt, organizing “national consultations” also counts as an example of audacity, as they are based on the audacious idea that “outside of the elite, even other people can have an opinion which counts” (p. 217). (And this opinion can be expressed by checking a “yes” or “no” box following a suggestive and weighted question.) In general, audacity constitutes the core of Orbán’s political credo:

We should not wonder if these groups, lacking and not understanding any quality, are irritated by Orbán, the freedom fighter. The same Viktor Orbán who on the 16th of June in 1989, at the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs, on the Heroes’ Square in Budapest burst into the world of politics, being the first one in the whole region to publicly demand free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet occupation forces from the country. This required real audacity, as only twelve days earlier, on the Tiananmen square in Beijing students demanding democracy had been murdered in heaps.

This myth of young Orbán as the first one who dared to challenge the occupation forces of the collapsing empire has, in fact, already been debunked. Already in March 1989, an agreement with the Soviet Union about the withdrawal of the occupation forces had been made, that is, three months before Orbán’s speech, and in April the first Soviet soldiers had already left the country. The agreement was not yet public knowledge, but the committee in charge of the reburial ceremonies was informed, and they had also discussed the issue with Orbán. The reference to China is also somewhat baffling: basically the same regime which had freedom-loving students shot to death is still holding the power, and recently, Orbán has made demonstrative approaches to the decision-makers in China. But obviously Schmidt trusts her fearless and clear-sighted readers not to draw any further conclusions.

Time for confrontation

A major part of the bewilderment which Schmidt’s book can cause in a reader outside her target group is due to style. Although the text is written for a broad and general readership, an academic author, a university teacher, might be expected to base the credibility of her text on rational and logical argumentation. One would thus naïvely expect neutral formulations which strive to objectivity and avoid a heated, emotional tone. However, Schmidt writes in the style of an agitator in early 20th century. She is not afraid of vulgar and colloquial expressions such as komcsi ‘Commie’, migránssimogató (could be freely translated as ‘migrant hugger’), or mocskos bolsi ‘filthy Bolshie’.

Schmidt’s most essential rhetoric tool is confrontation and one-dimensional highlighting and exaggeration of opposites. Whoever fails to support us and our basic values, whoever dares to criticize something we have done or said is not just positioning herself/himself as the infallible supreme judge of all deeds, s/he is our adversary in all respects and the enemy of anything good and noble. There are no options and no nuances, there are only good guys and bad guys. In politics, the choice is only between unconditional loyalty, “adoration” and “implacable hatred”.

There is a remarkable connection in how, when the USA is led by a God-fearing, conservative and value-based government, the anti-Americanism of the left-wing elite in Europe knows no limits, but when a government representing the opposite values takes over, the same Europeans suddenly start adoring America. (p. 21)

If Western European left-wing politicians criticize the policies of Hungary, this means also implying that they alone are entitled to judge others’ actions. Voicing criticism of the actions of Hungarian authorities means denying the sovereignty of the Hungarian nation. Diversity of values and cultures, cultural tolerance, the usual blah-blah of Western liberals, means hating one’s own traditional culture or a “war on traditional values”: Schmidt seems to think that appreciating a foreign culture necessarily means despising one’s own. Acknowledging the value of third-world cultures or the wrongs which third-world nations have experienced means, in Schmidt’s interpretation, that these cultures are considered “more valuable”. Similarly, speaking of the universal human rights of refugees means demanding “privileges” for “invaders”, speaking of the crimes of colonial rulers means denying “that mass murders ever happened in other parts of the world”, and fostering religious freedom and diversity of religion is, of course, “an attack against Christianity”.

This continuous simplification of a diversity of issues into one-dimensional oppositions gives rise to an endless parade of straw men. The liberals of Europe, Schmidt claims, want to “delete the borders” and make “unlimited immigration” possible. They prohibit and censor: Schmidt has also found a reference to a statement given by the German journalist Claudia Zimmermann in a Dutch radio broadcast. Allegedly, Zimmermann claimed that the WDR channel had instructed its employees to report about the refugee crisis in a positive tone, in line with the German government (WDR has demented this claim, while Zimmermann has retracted her statement and apologized for the misunderstanding). Schmidt’s army of straw men also includes the popular allegation that Western liberals do not condemn violations of human rights or equality if committed by Muslims. No examples, of course, and no evidence.

Moreover: it is claimed that liberal elites want to delete gender roles and genders or sexes in general. A good old strawman is brought forward again: “men should no more be called men, women should not be called women”. Concerning political correctness, one of the last chapters presents a rich collection of urban legends and fake news. Schmidt, as we are informed, is well acquainted with Anglophone universities which now are devoted to the “self-realization” of narcissist individuals in the spirit of the post-truth era. Wishing somebody “merry Christmas” is now automatically considered a hate crime, says Schmidt. A Canadian professor of psychology is threatened by jail after he refused to use neologistic gender-neutral pronouns in referring to persons of trans- or non-binary gender. (Refusing to conform to the university code of conduct also as concerns the use of gendered vocabulary might in principle be a problem even in the light of the new Canadian criminal code, but nevertheless the claims of prison punishment are grossly exaggerated, jurists say). Schmidt also claims that at the SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies] in London, philosophers from Plato to Immanuel Kant have been included into the index of forbidden books because they were white and male; in fact, a demand of “decolonising the syllabus” was presented by students at some point but never taken seriously. And, as you may have heard, at university campuses in the English-speaking world normal relationships between men and women have become impossible, says Schmidt, because male students are so often terrorized by made-up charges of rape or sexual harassment…

Owls and sparrows

Already somewhere in the first part of the book, I found myself scribbling not only question and exclamation marks to its margins but also the letter combination BV as a note to myself. In my head, I kept hearing the Hungarian saying Bagoly mondja verébnek, hogy nagyfejű (‘The owl says to the sparrow that it has a big head’), the equivalent of “the pot calling the kettle black”. Take, for instance, the above-mentioned claim about how German journalists are instructed to report on the refugee crisis. How can Schmidt claim something like this while her own government has turned the state-controlled media channels into a propaganda tube of the Fidesz party and redistributed most of the existing traditional media outlets to certain circles close to the government? Or how does the alleged double standard of Merkel’s Germany, friendliness to the West and coldness towards Eastern Europe, differ from the political “peacock dance”, as Orbán himself has called his European policy?

“Owls and sparrows” together with diverse logical somersaults of similar character can be found on almost each and every page of the book. For example, Schmidt sneers at the Western elites who whine about their sufferings, without seeing the central role of ritualized self-pity (“boo hoo, our nation has suffered more than any other people in the world”) in Hungarian patriotism ever since the 16th century. The Western Marxist elite (?!) is accused of still concealing and downplaying the crimes of Socialist systems – but this is also done by the Orbán government, which still refuses to publish all the names of collaborator agents in the Kádár era. (According to the historian Krisztián Ungváry, this is already a tradition in post-transition Hungary; different governments have chosen to keep the names secret in order to be able to use the data for political blackmailing.)

The Western Marxist elite, says Schmidt, “will not tolerate debate, open discussion, arguments” (p. 182). Instead of critical thinking, they will repeat mantras and readymade formulations sent in from Berlin (as from Moscow in olden times), because “it is much easier to incite hatred and excommunicate all those who ask and argue than to invest effort into tinkering with the answers” (p. 74). Does it ever occur to Schmidt that this excellently applies to the campaigns against immigration and George Soros as orchestrated by the Hungarian government in the last few years, or to the way in which Orbán and his government avoid all questions and criticism from the opposition? In analysing the programme speech of the rector of the CEU (or “Soros University”), Schmidt points out that Rector Ignatieff will not bother to investigate the flaws of Communism separately but bundles it together with Stalinism – the same accusation, although in the other direction, has also been presented to Schmidt’s own “House of Terror”. And if Merkel’s Wir schaffen das! is an empty and void slogan, not saying anything about what and why (p. 248), in what respect is Orbán’s Magyarország jobban teljesít (‘Hungary performs better’) any better?

Moreover: in criticizing the “immigration business” Schmidt wonders what will happen to the migrants’ countries of origin, as they lose their educated young people to Europe. (Elsewhere in the book, she states that contrary to the expectations of Western liberals, most refugees are illiterate barbarians unable to get integrated.) Now this is a question we could ask of Hungary as well, considering the current exodus of educated and young people which has already led to shortage of trained labour in many areas, not only in the health care system. Schmidt can, of course, make sarcastic allegations to the behaviour of Jean-Claude Juncker, “the leader of Europe who is in a very good mood already before noon”, and the notorious unclarities around his taxation. But take Viktor Orbán, who is also known for seldom refusing a good drink, with his rumoured mental health issues and with the dense cloud of suspicions of corruption surrounding him, his family and friends – is he any better?

In Austria, the decades of “red-black” (Social-Democrats and Conservatives) coalitions did lead to stagnation and “pillarization” of society on the basis of opportunistic party membership, but how can Schmidt criticize the role of party membership in recruitment or allocation of state funding in Austria, considering how critical media in Hungary has been almost completely silenced and the holders of numerous positions and offices owe maximal loyalty (and silence) to the ruling party? And when Schmidt writes about the Western elites who have ended up “lightyears away from those who do not belong to their circles, so that they will not understand each other any more” (p. 103), I must think of the strange charity action by Zoltán Balog, the minister for human resources, four years ago: Balog took 40 poor children to a posh restaurant to eat a fancy meal including, among other things, goose breast in calvados sauce.

And in general – Schmidt, as populist politicians and speakers in general, can rage against “elites” or the “upper class” without noticing that she herself, as holder of high academic and political positions, as a protegée of decision-makers, a businesswoman who a year ago bought the weekly paper Figyelő for 240 million forints, is irrefutably a member of the elite as well. Schmidt also confidently condemns the style and behaviour of today’s “left-wing elites” (“they lack good manners and refined style, they do not offer a model”, p. 154), obviously without asking herself how this relates to her own writing style.

The worse for the facts

Schmidt not only exaggerates and sets up strawmen, she also brazenly presents some completely untrue statements. In general, her pamphlet texts seldom argue, present facts or source references, but where there are references to facts or figures, these are sometimes modified or do not correspond to truth at all. For example, in Sweden, she claims, the Muslim immigration has led to a dramatic increase of rape and violence (in fact, the high rape rates in Sweden are due to the high readiness of victims to report these crimes – in contrast to many other countries – and very wide criteria of “rape”) and more than 15% (p. 59) – or “close to ten per cent” (p. 140) – of the population are Muslims. I don’t know where her figures come from, but this looks like a decimal error. According to the statistics of the central organ of religious communities in Sweden, the membership of all Islamic communities in sum amounts to some 140,000 people (less than 1.5% of the population). The Swedish Wikipedia gives inofficial estimates up to 400,000 but notes that these are based on the country of origin or on personal names and will not help to exclude secularized ex-Muslims or people of other affiliations (for instance, Christian immigrants from the Near East).

Some statements arouse the suspicion that Schmidt is relying on extreme right-wing alternative media with their alternative facts. (As for the so-called mainstream media in Germany at least, Schmidt claims that it has by now deserved the Nazi term Lügenpresse, ‘press of lies’.) At least one such source is mentioned by name: the German Udo Ulfkotte (1960–2017), a political journalist who after the turn of the millennium increasingly published on the alternative fora of extreme right-wing and racist circles. Similar sources are probably behind Schmidt’s statement (which I find difficult not to call a brazen lie) that Alexander Van der Bellen’s victory in the Austrian presidential elections of 2016 was “rigged” (p. 152). In fact, there is a vast body of research and reporting on this issue.

The second round of the Austrian presidential elections in 2016, which Van der Bellen narrowly won against the right-wing populist (FPÖ) candidate Norbert Hofer, had to be repeated due to “irregularities” or what some would call typical Austrian sloppiness. In some electoral districts, postal vote envelopes had been opened too early, unauthorized people had been present at the counting of votes or observers had signed protocols without reading them. However, these were mostly electoral districts in the countryside where Hofer had won the vote, so that election fraud in the sense of really manipulating the votes would have required an incredibly cunning precision work. In fact, no evidence of manipulation of votes was ever presented, nor did the mathematical analysis conducted at the University of Michigan find any indications of fraud. Hofer and other FPÖ functionaries never presented any official and explicit accusations, but with continuous insinuations, they maintained suspicions of fraud among their supporters. Although Hofer admitted his defeat after the repeated election, the belief in electoral fraud continues to live on some right-wing populist fora, and Schmidt presents it as follows (this is also a nice example of her style):

Also in the Austrian election of 2016, they [= the left-wing elite] made fools of themselves. With organized fraud, although by a very narrow margin, they managed to get a typical Western politician elected, a representative of everything that we find impossible to accept or digest. A man with a Commie past [Van der Bellen has publicly admitted having voted for a Communist candidate back in his youth, at a local election – J.L.], a freemason, who later tried his luck among the Greens, now an “independent” candidate gathered to his supporters, perfectly naturally, all public figures from the past of Austria, to testify to the hopeless stagnation of the country’s political life. The left-wing liberal elite of Austria, which used to seize and still seizes every opportunity to lecture us, is still trying to hide the fact that the election had to be repeated due to organized and massive frauds and irregularities and international observers were invited for the new election round. This was an unprecedented election scandal in Europe. I hereby declare myself available as an observer, and if needs be, I can also give a short informative lecture on the importance of the integrity of free elections.

Language, freedom, and democracy?

The closing chapter is authored by Márton Békés, research director of the 21st Century Institute, a young historian already well known on certain right-wing fora. The chapter starts with these words (italics as in the original):

This book creates a home in the language. It deals with political freedom as an extension of freedom of language, and it restores the original meaning of words. While reinstantiating the meanings of concepts which already seemed to be disappearing, it will realize a conservative revolution and restore their origins. (…) The author joins Orwell in declaring: one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.

Nevertheless, I don’t really understand what Schmidt’s book has to do with language. To me, it doesn’t seem very probable that Schmidt or his afterword author Békés have even read George Orwell’s famous “Politics and the English language” (1946), from which they quote. In his essay, Orwell chastises the stupidities of political language use of his times: pretentious diction, vague and meaningless formulations, stale or crippled metaphors… He also gives insightfully chosen examples of different types of stupid texts – and the fourth of them, an excerpt from a contemporary Communist pamphlet, shows a haunting resemblance to Mária Schmidt’s writing. Similar pathetically serious attempts at sarcasm with scare quotes (“the best people”), similar exaggeratedly emotional, yet worn-out attributes, similar political or quasi-religious lingo which, in effect, serves to alienate anybody not devoted to the author’s cause. Just read the following example and compare it with the excerpts from Schmidt’s book given above.

All the ‘best people’ from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.

Schmidt and Békés are not attempting to bring about “some improvement”; they are merely seeking the “right” language. Like many non-linguists they naïvely believe that each word has its “true” meaning, that is, the meaning that “we” use (and that who belongs to “us” and who doesn’t is a similarly self-evident issue). “Freedom” means freedom in our sense of the word, “corruption” is something that “they” have but “we” haven’t. And the political credo of our leader is based on “courage”, because we have decided to see things that way. This has nothing to do with the facts that this “courageous” leader has already long ago stopped giving interviews to other than his own trusted journalists (not to speak of risking a public debate with a political adversary), that he will answer an opposition politician’s unpleasant question by simply wishing her merry Christmas, or that he can have the protocols of debated political decisions declared secret (as in the case of the Paks nuclear power plant deal).

Freedom is an often-used decoy for freeing a people of its freedom, as the Finnish humorist Olli (Väinö Nuorteva) wrote already decades ago. There is nothing new in questionable uses of the word “freedom”. More interesting questions arise in connection with the concept of democracy or – this term surfaces a few times in this book – “majority democracy” (többségi demokrácia), which Márton Békés in his afterword connects with the concept of majority-rule democracy in the sense of the American right-wing politologist and philosopher Willmoore Kendall (1909–1967). But I will rather leave this to politologists. As a linguist, I’ll return to my own business, silently wondering how a university teacher and a professional scholar can produce – even in a book written for a general readership – such shallow text which seems to shun all rational argumentation.

December 28, 2017

What awaits the Visegrád Four?

A couple of weeks ago an excellent article appeared in Atlatszo.hu with the striking title “Visegrád is dead—An anti-Orbán alliance is in the making in Central Europe.” The alliance the author, Botond Bőtös, is referring to is the so-called Slavkov Triangle, comprising Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Slavkov is better known to most of us as Austerlitz, where the Battle of the Three Emperors (Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I, and Emperor Francis II) was fought in 1805.

Actually, the Slavkov Triangle is not new. It was in January 2015, in the middle of the Ukrainian crisis, that on the initiative of the Czech Republic the three prime ministers–Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico–signed a declaration that envisaged close cooperation in areas of infrastructure development, traffic, energy safety, and, most important, joint consultations prior to European Union summits. At the time quite a few Polish and Czech analyses appeared, but in Hungarian I found only one, in HVG, by Csaba Tóth of the Republikon Institute, which was subsequently translated into English and published by the Budapest Sentinel under the title “Slavkov Triangle threatens to isolate Hungary from its European allies.” The Slavkov Declaration, as Tóth noted,“betrays such a level of cooperation … as to suggest that if this plan is executed, the Visegrád Cooperation will become an empty structure.”

Not much happened in the intervening months. But at the end of June Bohuslav Sobotka, Robert Fico, and the new Austrian chancellor Christian Kern sat down again to continue their project and talk about the “convergence of old and new Europe.” According to Botond Bőtös, in the last couple of years the Czech Republic in particular has become concerned that the Visegrád 4 countries are being labelled intransigent opponents of everything the European Union stands for. Czech politicians began asking whether it was in the best interests of the Czech Republic to be identified with the Polish-Hungarian dominated group.

Bőtös is convinced that Orbán was always something of an irritant to the others, but after the 2015 Polish election that brought the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) to power, “the foreign policy of Orbán became the official strategy of the Visegrád Group.” That was too much for the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Especially after the September 2016 V4-meeting in Bratislava, it became increasingly apparent that the Czechs and Slovaks held different views from their Polish and Hungarian colleagues. They differ on European integration, and they are not happy with the authoritarian turn of events in Poland and Hungary. They came to the conclusion that the V4 has no common, positive message for the rest of Europe. And the outside political world has a very negative opinion of the V4 countries. These are the considerations underpinning the revival of the Slavkov Triangle.

Christian Kern, Bohuslav Sobotka, and Robert Fico in front of the Austerlitz Palace

A couple of days ago Austrian chancellor Christian Kern gave an interview to the German paper Handelsblatt in which he talked at some length about the Visegrád 4 Group. He began by saying that there is a visible split in the group between Poland and Hungary on one side and the Czech Republic and Slovakia on the other. Kern pointed out that the EU often reproached the Polish and Hungarian governments, to no avail, but “now this conflict must have a resolution.” If necessary, through financial retribution.

Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian foreign minister, reacted by saying that the Hungarian government has been aware for some time that certain Western European politicians are attempting to divide the Visegrád Group. “But we have bad news for them. It will not work. The Visegrád Group is the closest and most effective alliance within the European Union.”

Yesterday Viktor Orbán himself spoke about the Austrian chancellor’s reference to Hungary and the fractured Visegrád 4 in his Kossuth Rádió interview. Let me translate the passage verbatim because it says a lot about him and his interaction with the rest of the world.

It is never fortunate in politics when someone confuses his desires with reality. I understand that the Austrians are hurt because they are not part of the Visegrád Group. Austria is a lonely country anyway, and thus we don’t even know exactly where it is trying to find its strategic interests. Since the collapse of the monarchy it has been the historical question of Central Europe where Austria belongs. Until now Austria has been a very successful country. Therefore we can tip our hats because between the end of World War II and now it has achieved the highest standard of living and the greatest economic development. So, it is a talented country, but in a foreign policy sense it is at a loss because it is not a member of NATO yet a member of the European Union, not a member of V4 although it belongs to Central Europe. So there are many uncertainties here. It is not worthwhile for our friends to hope that they can break the unity of the Visegrád 4. The basic principle of V4 is simple: one for all and all for one.

Orbán at his best. Condescending, contemptuous, and arrogant when, by the look of it, it is he and his country who seem to be in some trouble on the international stage.

July 8, 2017

Viktor Orbán turns his back on the Polish government

Although Viktor Orbán’s press conference this morning was anything but upbeat, a few hours later both the Polish left and right in addition to the Hungarian government media were full of praise for the prime minister’s superb diplomatic talents. In a Polish conservative opinion piece he was called the Talleyrand of our times who has been winning every major battle with “raging liberals and the Left in Europe.” He is a man who knows what Realpolitik is all about. Why this praise? Orbán had the good sense not to support the Szydło government in its hopeless fight against the reelection of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council.

Donald Tusk, who served as prime minister of Poland between 2007 and 2014, is the bête-noire of Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the Law and Justice party. Kaczyński’s enmity toward Tusk has a long history. First of all, at one point the two men were political rivals. Second, Kaczyński, who is convinced that the Russians were responsible for the death of his twin brother, President Lech Kaczyński, in 2010 when his plane went down in Russia, considers Tusk “politically responsible” for his brother’s death by allowing the Russians to investigate the case ahead of the Poles. But perhaps what is even more important, the far-right Polish government accuses Tusk, as president of the European Council, of wanting to bring down the right-wing Szydło government. The current Polish leadership decided to resist the reelection of the man who dared to criticize the present government in defense of democracy. Mind you, Tusk is not a “flaming liberal.” His party, the Civic Platform, is right of center.

Warsaw put up a counter-candidate–Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, like Tusk a Civic Platform member of the European People’s Party. To understand the dynamics of the situation we must keep in mind that the EP members of Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), basically a Euroskeptic lot. ECR doesn’t have the gravitas of EPP, to which Fidesz EP representatives also belong.

The Polish plan to block Tusk’s reelection didn’t go as planned. As soon as Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination was announced, he was removed from Civic Platform. And EPP removed him from all responsibilities within the party.

After this somewhat lengthy introduction let me turn to Viktor Orbán’s role in this ill-fated Polish political maneuver. Apparently, Warsaw was counting on Great Britain and the Visegrád Four for support. But it became apparent soon enough that neither Slovakia nor the Czech Republic would support Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination. The Polish government still hoped that Viktor Orbán would stand by their side, especially since, as we learned this morning from Viktor Orbán himself, at one point he promised that he would vote against Tusk. Orbán didn’t keep that promise.

As Orbán explained at his press conference in Brussels, since EPP’s only candidate was Tusk and since Fidesz is a constituent part of EPP, he had no choice. This is how the European Parliament functions, he explained. Otherwise, he claimed that he had tried his best to broker a deal but, unfortunately, he failed. He added that a couple of days ago he had informed the Polish government of his decision to vote for Tusk because circumstances didn’t allow him to do anything else.

Well, as usual, Viktor Orbán didn’t tell the whole truth. It wasn’t party protocol that forced him to vote as he did since there was another important European Council vote where he did not support the EPP candidate. I’m talking about the election of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission in June 2014. Juncker was EPP’s candidate for the post. At that time David Cameron and Viktor Orbán voted against Juncker, which didn’t prevent him from getting the job. Then, perhaps feeling safe under the protective wing of Cameron, Orbán had no trouble voting against the favored candidate. So his decision had nothing to do with party obligations. Moreover, he could have voted against Tusk as a gesture to his Polish friends because his “no” vote wouldn’t have made any difference: Tusk would have been elected anyway. But, for reasons known only to him, he decided to go with the flow. He even went so far in his press conference as to laud the European Union as the best place to live in the whole wide world. It is a place where people can be truly happy and satisfied with life. A rather amusing comment considering all his earlier talk about the EU being in decline with the attendant miseries for the people.

I don’t want to dwell on the foolish behavior of the Polish government, but I’m afraid the Polish media’s unanimous condemnation of their government’s incompetence is well deserved. The Polish government should be only too well aware of the misfortunes that have befallen the country as a result of the territorial ambitions of its neighbors. Poland is rightfully worried about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But then common sense would dictate good relations with the countries of Western Europe, especially with Germany. Yet the current Polish government treats Germany like its enemy. Perhaps this disastrous defeat will be a wake-up call, but the mindset of the present Polish political leadership doesn’t inspire confidence that it will happen any time soon.

In addition to the Polish fiasco, Orbán covered two other topics at some length in his press conference. One was the “migrant issue,” which had elicited widespread condemnation in the media and in international organizations involved with the refugee crisis and human rights. It turned out that the matter of the amendment to the Asylum Law came up during the summit. As Orbán described it, he “informed the prime ministers about the new [asylum] law, who didn’t raise any objections and did not protest.” He took this as a good sign, adding that the real fight will be with the bureaucrats of the European Union. Whether this silence was a sign of approval or an indication of a reluctance to get into a discussion of the issue we don’t know.

Orbán then explained the real meaning of the detention centers, which he compared to airports as transit zones. He was again quite explicit about the differences between the attitudes of the Hungarian government and the European Union when it comes to the refugee crisis. Hungary’s goal is not to handle the issue “humanely,” which the EU insists on, but to make sure that the refugees are stopped.

The other topic was the most recent conflict between Austria and Hungary. As is well known, an incredible number of Hungarians work in Austria. In 2016 more than 63,500 Hungarians lived in Austria, in addition to those who live in Hungary but cross the border daily to work on the other side. The Austrians recently floated the idea that Romanian, Hungarian and Czech employees would not receive extra family benefits. The Hungarians claim that as a result of such a new law Hungarian workers would receive 50% less than native Austrians for the same work. This is unacceptable for Hungary. Sophie Karmasin, the Austrian minister responsible for family affairs, visited Hungary only yesterday, and Viktor Orbán set up a meeting with Chancellor Christian Kern while in Brussels. On this topic, Orbán was forceful. He called the issue “a serious conflict” which he will take all the way to the top, meaning the European Commission and even the European Court of Justice. Hungarians cannot be discriminated against. If the Austrians discriminate against Hungarians, “we will respond in kind.” That is, if the Austrians proceed with this cut in family benefits, the Hungarian government will make certain that opportunities for Austrian businesses in Hungary will be curtailed. So, if I understand it correctly, Orbán fights against the European Commission at every turn, but once he feels that Hungarian citizens are being slighted he is ready to appeal for protection from the European Union.

March 10, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s vision of a new world order is fading

I was all set to ignore Viktor Orbán’s nineteenth yearly “assessment,” to skip the whole rigmarole. After all, there is absolutely nothing new to be found in his ramblings sprinkled with archaic and pious phrases mixed with affected folksiness. We have heard him speak countless times about his clairvoyant powers, predicting the coming of a new illiberal world which is partly his own creation. And this latest speech is no different from any of the others he has delivered lately. But as I was going through my early morning perusal of news in the United States and Europe, I decided that in light of the latest developments in world affairs it might be useful to spend a little time on Orbán’s latest pronouncements.

Although critics complain that the speech, which was supposed to be about the government’s achievements in the past year, was mostly about foreign affairs, I found a fair amount of bragging about the great accomplishments, economic and otherwise, of the third Orbán government. Nonetheless, I was much more interested in his “vision” of the present and the future, not of Hungary but of the world.

According to Viktor Orbán, 2017 “promises to be an exhilarating year.” There will be “surprises, scratching of heads, raising of eyebrows, rubbing of eyes.” People will ask each other: “Is everything that is coming undone and taking shape in front of our eyes really possible?” The existing world order is coming to an end. History beckons the prophets of liberal politics, the beneficiaries and defenders of the present international order, the globalists, the liberals, the influential talking heads in their ivory towers and television studios. A new world is coming, a world where populists like Viktor Orbán , Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Recep Erdoğan, Marine Le Pen, and other right-wing populists elsewhere in Europe will decide the fate of the western world.

Perhaps I have been inattentive, but this is the first time that I noticed a recurring adjective in an Orbán speech: “open world, “open world order,” “open society.” Orbán is “paying homage” to his nemesis, George Soros. He very much hopes that with the “exhilarating” 2017 the “open world order” will come to an end. As far as he is concerned, the beginning of his new world looks promising: Brexit, the American presidential election, “booting out” the Italian government, the “successful” Hungarian referendum on the migrants, all of these take us closer to the promising new world.

Orbán’s next sentence can be fully understood only if I provide its poetic backdrop. Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849) was a political radical who, in December 1848, wrote a poem titled “Hang the Kings!” The poem begins “Knife in Lamberg’s heart and rope around the neck of Latour and after them perhaps others will follow. At last, you people are becoming great!” Lamberg and Latour were high government officials who were killed in Pest and Vienna by angry mobs. So, Orbán, of course without mentioning the two murdered gentlemen, sums up the happy events of late in Great Britain, Italy, the United States, and Hungary: “after them perhaps more will follow. At last, you people are becoming great.” So, Orbán is in a revolutionary mood, no doubt about it. And he is also full of hope, although given the fate of the 1848 revolutions in the Habsburg Empire, I wouldn’t be so sanguine in his place.

As I look around the world, however, Orbán’s dream world may not come into being as fast, if at all, as he thinks. Let’s start with Austria’s presidential election last year. Orbán and the government media kept fingers crossed for Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, yet Alexander Van der Bellen, a member of the Austrian Greens, won the election by a fairly large margin. The first effort of a self-described far-right party in Europe to win high office failed.

Orbán’s next hope is for a huge victory by Marine Le Pen in France. But the centrist Emmanuel Macron’s chances of beating Le Pen look good. At least the Elabe poll shows Le Pen losing the run-off 37% to 63%. Another poll, Ifop Fiducial, predicts 36% to 64%. Two different polls, very similar results.

Then there is Germany. Former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a social democrat, was elected Germany’s president. He won 931 of the 1,239 valid votes cast by members of the Bundestag and representatives of the 14 federal states. When the result was announced by Norbert Lammert, president of the Bundestag, there was a standing ovation. Even more importantly, Angela Merkel’s solid lead a few months ago is beginning to fade. The reason is the socialist Martin Schulz’s appearance on the German political scene. According to the latest polls, the two candidates are neck to neck. One also should mention the latest developments in the nationalist Alternative for Germany Party (AfD), which would certainly be Orbán’s choice. According to the German media, since Schulz announced his candidacy for the chancellorship, “the number of people who did not vote in 2013 and are now planning to vote for the SPD has risen by roughly 70 percent in the last 14 days.” And what is more important from Orbán’s point of view, “AfD—which brought the most non-voters to the polls in several state elections last year—also lost support dramatically. Forty percent fewer former non-voters expressed their support for the party.”

One ought to keep in mind that the Hungarian government propaganda has succeeded in making Angela Merkel generally despised by the Hungarian public. Vladimir Putin is more popular in Hungary than Merkel. But given the choice between Merkel and Schulz, Orbán should actually campaign for Merkel’s reelection because Schulz, who until now was the president of the European Parliament, is one of the loudest critics of Orbán and his illiberal populism.

Finally, let’s talk about the situation in the United States. What has been going in Washington since Donald Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States has surpassed people’s worst fears. Total chaos, a non-functioning government, and very strong suspicions about the Trump team’s questionable relations with Russian intelligence. Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice to be his national security adviser, was forced to resign because of his direct contact with the Russian ambassador to Washington. A few minutes ago, we learned that Andy Puzder withdrew as labor secretary nominee in order to avoid a pretty hopeless confirmation hearing.

Donald Trump on the phone with Vladimir Putin / Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The list of incredible happenings in Washington is so long that one could spend days trying to cover them. What I would like to stress here is that I’m almost certain that Trump’s original friendly overtures to Putin’s Russia have been derailed. The Russians did their best to bolster Trump’s chances, but by now Putin must realize that the new American president cannot deliver.

Now let’s return to Viktor Orbán, who was an early admirer of Donald Trump. His admiration of Trump was based on the presidential hopeful’s anti-migration policies, his disregard of political correctness, and his anti-establishment rhetoric. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, Orbán found Trump’s pro-Russian views and his promise to “make a deal” with Russia and lift the sanctions against Moscow especially appealing. In such an event, Orbán believed he would play a more important role than he as the prime minister of a small country could otherwise have expected.

Now these hopes are vanishing with the tough stand both Democrats and Republicans have taken on Russia’s military occupation of Crimea and its efforts to stoke a civil war in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, given the investigation into Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election and the ties of members of the Trump team to Russian intelligence, Trump is not in a position to hand out favors to Russia. So Putin won’t be best friends with the American president. And Europe seems disinclined to follow the U.S. into political chaos. Orbán, if he has any sense, should tone down his rhetoric about a new, exhilarating future where the old establishment sinks into oblivion.

February 15, 2017

The Orbán regime and the Austrian presidential election

A few hours ago newspapers all over the world announced that Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate for the Austrian presidency, had lost the election. Pre-election polls indicated that the election was too close to call, but the final result gave a healthy majority to Alexander Van der Bellen, a professor of economics and former head of the Greens. Hofer readily conceded, while Van der Bellen called the result a vote for a “pro-European Austria based on freedom, equality, and solidarity.”

Although the post of the president in Austria is mostly ceremonial, the Austrian election had acquired special significance in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory. Democrats all over Europe fear the spread of populism and looked upon a Hofer win as an event that might have a domino effect, first in France and later in other European countries where elections will be held in the near future. Now these people are relieved.

Just as a reminder, this is the second time that Van der Bellen and Hofer faced each other in this presidential contest. In May Van der Bellen won the election with a margin of about 30,000 votes, but because of some technical irregularities Austria’s Constitutional Court annulled the result and ordered a new round of voting.

The Hungarian right followed the race between the two men closely because it finds in the politicians of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) kindred spirits. Viktor Orbán certainly didn’t hide his preference for Norbert Hofer and the party’s chairman Heinz-Christian Strache, whom he considers “a man of the future.”

The Hungarian right-wing, pro-government press was already full of praise of Hofer in May before and during the election. Two days before the election Magyar Idők published a glowing editorial claiming that while the left symbolizes failure, the Freedom party is “the depository of success.” The same pro-government newspaper was looking forward to “a political earthquake,” which was likely since polls indicated that Hofer would get at least 52-53% of the votes. When this didn’t materialize, they cried foul. They questioned the results and talked about electoral fraud. Zsolt Bayer in his usual style enthused over all those votes cast for Hofer: the peasants of Burgenland, the people of Carinthia, the Alpine graziers, the yodelers of Tyrol. With the exception of Vienna and Vorarlberg, everyone voted for Hofer. Red Vienna, what can one expect? And Vorarlberg, it is “not really Austria.”

The decision of the Austrian Constitutional Court was warmly received in Hungary. The pro-government papers were again hopeful, reflecting the Hungarian government’s wishes and expectations. Hofer was critical of the European Union, which he wanted to reform alongside Viktor Orbán and his allies. He talked about his desire for Austria to join the Visegrád 4 Group. A step toward the far right in Austria nicely fit into Viktor Orbán’s plans. Therefore, a new round of optimistic and encouraging articles appeared in the Hungarian right-wing press.

At the beginning of the second campaign, the pro-government media again talked about the “historic vote” and predicted Hofer’s victory. As Magyar Idők pointed out, “FPÖ may draw strength from the victory of Trump.” Hungarian right-wing commentators were convinced that somebody who doesn’t espouse an anti-migrant stance can’t possible win, and Van der Bellen had supported Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policies during the refugee crisis and after. Mariann Őry, one of Magyar Hírlap’s interpreters of foreign news, elaborated on this theme, practically calling Van der Bellen stupid for telling the Austrians to support Angela Merkel’s policies. He is no better than the Hungarian liberals who are patronizing at home and opportunistic bootlickers abroad.

The Hungarian right's clear choice was Norbert Hofer on the right

The Hungarian right’s clear choice was Norbert Hofer, on the right

Closer to the actual election Magyar Idők reported a story from Kronen Zeitung: that a conspiracy is underway on the part of the European Parliament and Germany to influence the Austrian presidential election. The story was based on a conversation in a restaurant among Martin Schulz, the social democratic president of the European Parliament, Sigmar Gabriel, deputy chancellor of Germany who is also a social democrat, and Werner Faymann, Austria’s rejected (bukott) chancellor. Considering that the three happily consented to a photo of their meeting, claims of a conspiracy were obviously highly exaggerated.

A day before the election Mariann Őry again expressed her disdain of Van der Bellen as an inept candidate who doesn’t know what to say when. Her example is telling. According to Hofer, those Austrians who went to Syria to become terrorists should be stripped of their citizenship. Van der Bellen retorted that no valid citizenship can be revoked in Austria. “Surely, it is hard not to think that the western liberals have completely lost their minds. What kind of an Austrian is Van der Bellen” who considers these terrorists Austrians? “If for no other reason than statements like this, the Austrians should realize what is in their best interest. We will find out Sunday night.” She did. Perhaps Van der Bellen wasn’t that stupid after all.

The most detailed account of the Hungarian right’s thinking on the Austrian election came from a government-employed talking head, Zoltán Kiszelly. He gave a lengthy interview to 888.hu yesterday. I believe that the scenario he outlined here, assuming Norbert Hofer’s victory, accurately reflected the hopes of Viktor Orbán. First of all, the new president will initiate an early national election. In fact, all Austrian parties have been anticipating such an outcome. Today the FPÖ is the strongest party and as such would be the dominant party in a future coalition. The logical coalition partner would be the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), which is part of the present coalition. Sebastian Kurz, foreign minister represent ÖVP and a great pal of Péter Szijjártó, “has already adjusted his program to that of the Freedom Party.” The political changes in Austria would significantly weaken the European Union’s migration policies as represented by Jean-Claude Juncker and Angela Merkel. The Austrian move toward the right would also have an influence on German politics. Another benefit would be that the new government would support the Visegrád 4’s policies, which would force Brussels and Berlin to retreat from their current migration policies.

The journalist of 888.hu at this point reminded Kiszelly of what happened in 1999 when Wolfgang Schüssel, the leader of ÖVP, opted for a coalition with PFÖ, resulting in a long, acrimonious dispute with the European Union. Kiszelly said he was certain that nothing of the sort would happen today because “this time the PFÖ wouldn’t have to cede the chancellorship to the People’s Party just because it is a ‘moderate’ party. There have been significant changes in western politics, like the political climate in the Netherlands and Denmark, Great Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and, for that matter, the election of Donald Trump. After these events, the world that existed sixteen years ago can never return.” Finally, he added that a victory of the far right in Austria would be an event that “certainly could stir up European politics because, following the Austrian example, other countries would also opt for early elections.” So, an avalanche would follow Hofer’s win, which could result in a sharp turn to the right, perhaps sooner than we think.

If I’m correct and Kiszelly was articulating views he shared with Viktor Orbán, the loss today had to be a real blow to the Hungarian prime minister, especially since only three days ago he announced that “it is just a question of time before [real] democracy is restored because in Europe there is no democratic equilibrium now. …We just have to prevail and, in the end, we will predominate.”

Of course, one shouldn’t be unduly optimistic. This is not the end of the spread of populism, but apparently with the victory of François Fillon in the French conservative primaries, Marine Le Pen’s National Front will have a much harder time than she had anticipated. Most commentators are convinced that Fillon will be the next president of France.

December 4, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s favorite party failed to gain the Austrian presidency

On Tuesday Viktor Orbán, who seems to have an iron constitution, took the day off because, as his office announced, he was sick. Yesterday a humorous little piece appeared in Sztarklikk with the title: “That’s why Orbán fell ill.” Surely, the author said, Orbán needed to be revived with smelling salts after learning that Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), had narrowly lost the Austrian presidential election. Well, smelling salts might be a bit of an exaggeration, but Orbán’s disappointment had to be great because it is a well-known fact that Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of FPÖ, and Viktor Orbán greatly admire one another.

At the end of September when Viktor Orbán visited the Austrian chancellor, Werner Faymann (SPÖ), and his deputy, Reinhold Mitterlehner, in order to temper months of quarreling between the two countries, the Hungarian prime minister was also planning to meet Strache. Unfortunately, apparently to the great sorrow of Orbán, the planned meeting had to be cancelled in the last minute. The reason was straightforward enough. Strache is persona non grata in mainstream Austrian political circles, and when the Austrians found out about Orbán’s plans they expressed their strong disapproval. In fact, Deputy Chancellor Mitterlehner, whose party, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), just like Fidesz, belongs to the EU’s European People’s Party, refused to meet with Orbán if he insisted on going through with his original plan. Reluctantly, Orbán cancelled the meeting.

Apparently Orbán is convinced that Strache is a man of the future. Strache’s threat to build a fence between Austria and Hungary to keep Hungarian workers out of his country didn’t seem to dampen his enthusiasm for the man. Strache might not like Hungarians working in Austria, but several times he expressed his admiration for Orbán, who is “one of the few honest politicians who don’t want to sell out or destroy Europe.” He added that Orbán is the only European politician who has any brains when it comes to the migrant issue.

The Hungarian government has had strained relations with Austrian politicians of the two governing parties, SPÖ and ÖVP. Even a cursory look at the political news of the last few months reveals repeated insults being exchanged between Werner Faymann and Péter Szijjártó. Although Faymann resigned as chancellor on May 9 of this year, most likely to the great relief of Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó, it looks as if his successor, Christian Kern, will be no better from the Hungarian point of view. In fact, I suspect that the new Austrian chancellor will be an even more severe critic of the Hungarian prime minister, whose views are practically identical to those of Heinz-Christian Strache.

A few days ago Kern announced that “it is an illusion to think that the refugee problem can be solved by European countries adopting authoritarian systems as the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has done.” Szijjártó, as is his wont, responded immediately and rashly. According to him, what is an illusion is any hope that with a change in the Austrian chancellorship insults from Austria will cease. Kern’s statement, he said, compared Hungary to Hitler’s Germany. “It is unacceptable for anyone to use expressions in connection with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán that are in any way attached to the most monstrous and darkest dictatorship of the last century.” Not the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Magyar Idők, the government’s fervent supporter and often unofficial spokesman, followed the Austrian presidential race with great interest, keeping fingers crossed for Norbert Hofer. A day before the second round of the presidential election, Magyar Idők was pretty certain that Hofer would win. The paper also noted that The New York Times compared FPÖ to the Hungarian, Polish, and Slovak government parties. (I don’t know whether the author of the article considered this an insult or not.) An opinion piece that appeared on the morning of the presidential election ran under the headline: “The Freedom Party is the symbol of success while the left is that of failure.”

Heinz -Christian Strache and Norbert Hofer before the presidential elections / Photo APA / Hans Klaus

Heinz -Christian Strache and Norbert Hofer before the presidential election / Photo APA / Hans Klaus

After the election Mária Schmidt, a historian who has great influence over Viktor Orbán, bemoaned the fact that public discourse in Austria is now dominated by baby boomer leftist politicians of the pro-German tradition. She recalled that Orbán in his first term was the first foreign leader to receive Chancellor Wolfgang Schlüssel of Austria, who was at that time considered a pariah in the West because he included the Freedom Party of Jörg Haider in his coalition government back in 1999.

Viktor Orbán’s friend Zsolt Bayer is also disappointed, but he is optimistic that “a new healthy young Europe is coming” that will replace the 70-year-old dying Europe that is full of bedsores. This youthful new Europe will come “from the mountains of the Alps, the fields of Burgenland, from Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland.” For Bayer, the Freedom Party of Strache and Hofer is not the depository of far-right views but, on the contrary, the embodiment of “normalcy.” So it’s no wonder that Viktor Orbán and his fellow “normal” far-right friends were disappointed by the election results.

May 26, 2016