Tag Archives: Charles Gati

Two prominent Hungarians: Interviews with Charles Gati and Miklós Haraszti

Budapest Beacon, a bilingual online newspaper that reports on current events in Hungary, conducted a number of interviews with leading Hungarian analysts living or temporarily working in the United States. Herewith two of these: the first with Charles Gati, a renowned political scientist and senior research professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; the second with Miklós Haraszti, a writer, human rights advocate, and former OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media.

Professor Gati’s interview was conducted in English, Mr. Haraszti’s in Hungarian. Since Gati’s main interest is international affairs and foreign policy, his interview focuses on American-Hungarian relations that are such a hot topic of late. Mr. Haraszti currently teaches at Columbia University, but because in 2012 he was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Belarus, the interview took place in the United Nations headquarters where Mr. Haraszti was due to report on his findings.

The interviewer is Benjamin Novak, an American Hungarian who currently lives in Hungary and is senior correspondent of Budapest Beacon. 

Attacks on Charles Gati and the American media

Charles Gati’s article “The Mask is Off”appeared on August 7 in The American Interest and a day later in Hungarian Spectrum. I guess readers will not be surprised to hear that it created quite a storm in Hungary, especially in the right-wing press. And in a counterattack Válasz published a piece by an Italian politician assailing Gati and whitewashing Viktor Orbán’s ideas on the “illiberal state.”

Let’s start with the reception of Gati’s article, which was not translated word for word but was extensively summarized in Népszabadság on the very day of its appearance. Other left-of-center publications followed suit. Two days later Magyar Nemzet, the unofficial mouthpiece of Fidesz, published an unsigned piece that condemned the article and accused Charles Gati of willfully misinterpreting Viktor Orbán’s concepts and of meddling in the internal affairs of Hungary. His article, it argued, was intended as an instrument of political pressure.

Magyar Nemzet reported on Hungarian reactions to the article, starting with Fidesz’s official position. The answer the paper received emphasized that “Hungary is an independent, democratic state whose government and prime minister were chosen by the Hungarian people.”

Magyar Nemzet, Fidesz if you wish, received additional ammunition from András Schiffer of LMP. After paying lip-service to the importance of checks and balances, Schiffer declared that “Hungary must be governed from Hungary and no matter how serious a situation was created by the ‘system of national cynicism’ it can be remedied only at home as a result of the will of the Hungarian people…. Those from overseas who entertain visions of a cultural war don’t realize that with their pronouncements they hurt the self-esteem of the Hungarian people and unwittingly extend Viktor Orbán’s stay in power.”

Magyar Nemzet also asked a “political scientist” from the Nézőpont Intézet who is a committed supporter of Fidesz and the current government. Gati’s article struck him as “desperate” and, he said, the “foreign misgivings” repeated by Gati “have been ordered” by unnamed foes of the Hungarian government. So, it seems, the sin Charles Gati committed was to dare to “meddle” in Hungarian affairs by voicing his opinion about Viktor Orbán’s regime and by outlining options the United States could pursue under the circumstances. András Schiffer, whose position vis-à-vis the Orbán government is anything but clear, was perhaps the most explicit: foreigners shouldn’t have “visions” about the Hungarian situation, especially since such criticism damages the self-esteem of the Hungarian people. But even the somewhat meaningless Fidesz statement makes a sharp enough distinction between “Hungarians” who have a right to express their opinions and foreigners who don’t.

But then what can we do with Viktor Orbán’s “vision” of the Hungarian nation as a “world-nation” (világnemzet)? This concept is supposed to express the unity of the Hungarian nation regardless of where these Hungarians happen to live. Of course, we all know the reason behind this generous gesture, and we also know the efforts the Orbán government made to limit the number of possible voters from the West while actively recruiting voters from Romania and Serbia. But still, he can’t have it both ways. Either those who are Hungarian by birth are part of the nation and can have a say in the governance of the country or not. Once the Orbán government extended that privilege and made all of us members of this wonderful world-nation he has to take the bad with the good. He cannot pick and choose.

Right-wing Hungarian media is convinced that Viktor Orbán is an innocent political target

The right-wing Hungarian media is convinced that Viktor Orbán is an innocent political target

As for foreign powers “meddling” in another country’s internal affairs, it happens all the time. Viktor Orbán in his long political career openly sided with George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney during U.S. presidential campaigns. But others are not supposed to speak their mind about Hungary. Even non-Hungarian Europeans know this. The pro-government Válasz published an article by Luca Volontè, an Italian Christian Democratic politician who was at one time the whip of the European People’s Party in the Council of Europe. Válasz gave this title to Volontè’s polemic against Charles Gati: “Hands Off Hungary!”

Luca Volontè is the only outsider the Orbán government managed to recruit so far. His article sounds not a little suspicious. Almost as if he received some help from Budapest. He seems to be too familiar with the current Hungarian political scene, and the interpretation of Orbán’s speech bears a suspicious resemblance to some of the Hungarian right-wing media’s efforts at explaining Orbán’s message away. We will see whether Fidesz will be able to gather a few more supporters from Europe. The emphasis is on Europe because the current Hungarian line is that in Europe the speech did not make waves; that happened only in the “anti-Hungarian” United States. In fact, Válasz‘s byline made it clear that the anti-Gati voice came from Europe.

And finally, an illustration of the right-wing media’s efforts to control the damage caused by Viktor Orbán’s speech. Today a brief exchange was published, also in Válasz, between Harold Meyerson and Zoltán Laky. Meyerson wrote an opinion piece on August 6 entitled “Hungary’s prime minister a champion for illiberalism” in The Washington Post. Laky, a journalist who obviously thinks that The Washington Post is the mouthpiece of the U.S. government just as Válasz is of the Hungarian government, wanted to know whether Meyerson received instructions concerning Viktor Orbán’s crossing the Rubicon with this speech either from the U.S. government or from the editors of The Washington Post. Meyerson set his Hungarian colleague straight. He has no idea what the U.S. government thinks of Viktor Orbán’s speech and, as far as The Washington Post is concerned, he is not an employee of the paper; the editors don’t even know what he will write about. He is an independent journalist. Yet the title of the Válasz article was titillating: “Permission to target Orbán? The journalist of The Washington Post speaks.”

As for damage control in the United States, I believe the Hungarian government’s chances are slim to none. Budapest can send a new ambassador, as it will in September, and it can spend millions of dollars on lobbying efforts, but its quest is hopeless as long as Viktor Orbán is the prime minister of the country. When the conservative Washington Times publishes an opinion piece entitled “Democracy’s dangerous descent in Hungary,” then Hungary’s chances in Washington are close to hopeless. Viktor Orbán managed to alienate even the paper that in the past usually defended his government.

Charles Gati: “The Mask Is Off”

The following article appeared in the August 7 issue of  The American Interest and was summarized in Hungarian in Népszabadság. I should add that the Hungarian Telegraphic Agency (MTI), which in the past has always reported on Professor Gati’s analyses, ignored this article. In it Gati shares his thoughts on the possible steps U.S. policy makers could take in the wake of Viktor Orbán’s admission of his plans for an “illiberal democracy” in the center of Europe. The article has elicited a great deal of interest in Washington as well as in Budapest.

Today Professor Gati was interviewed on Klubrádió’s call-in program Megbeszéljük/Let’s Talk It Over. The approximately twenty-minute interview can be heard during the first and second segments of the program’s archives.

Charles Gati, Senior Research Professor, European and Eurasian Studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, is the author of Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt (2006) and editor of  Zbig: The Strategy and Statecraft of Zbigniew Brzezinski (2013).

* * *

Orban and putin5

Soon after he became Hungary’s Prime Minister for the first time, in 1998, Viktor Orbán visited Washington. On October 7th, at a luncheon organized by Freedom House, Mark Palmer, a former ambassador to Hungary who knew the guest well, and I jointly welcomed Orbán to Washington, calling him a young, promising leader of democratic Hungary. According to notes taken by a member of the audience, Orbán responded by praising both Palmer and me for the role we had played in hastening the collapse of communism in the 1980s. Then he added that “whatever I know about contemporary politics and history I’ve learned from Professor Gati.”

I re-read these words with considerable embarrassment after I watched on YouTube and then read the full text of Orbán’s 35-minute speech of July 26, 2014 about the terminal decline of liberal democracies and the bright future of five countries he held up as examples for Hungary to emulate: Singapore, China, India, Turkey, and Russia. (Why he included India, a functioning democracy, is unclear.) In any case, the speech affirmed what many Hungary-watchers have known since 2000-2001, or at least since Orbán’s second term that started in 2010 and his third term that started this year: that he is no democrat and he is neither a good friend nor a good ally of the West, including the United States. His speech is a surprising admission from the leader of a country in Central Europe that is a member of both NATO and the European Union, and from a politician who in the 1990s was deputy head of that deeply pro-Western group of political parties known as the Liberal International.

Orbán has now dropped his democratic mask. His speech confirms what his domestic and foreign critics have said for years about his managed democracy and what until now his propagandists and loyal followers have heatedly denied. For he has now publicly, and proudly, declared his preference for an “illiberal state.” “Breaking away from dogmas and ideologies recognized in Western Europe,” Orbán said the ideal state should be based instead on something he called “national foundations.” He made no mention of the separation of powers or checks and balances or freedom of the press or minority rights. Quoting a supposedly highly regarded (but unnamed) American analyst, he noted that liberal democracies, as in the U.S., were marked by corruption, lawlessness, sex, and drugs.

The analysis Orbán used to reach these conclusions was quite poor and confused, to say the least. One part of the presentation did not lead to or follow another. Some of the information he cited was inaccurate. And it was not a question of the quality of translation; the original Hungarian text was as unstructured and as rambling as the English version. If an American undergraduate had submitted such a long-winded and pretentious paper for an introductory course on international relations, his grade would have been an “F.”

However, the speech as a political demagoguery worked. The underlying themes almost certainly fell on fertile soil, for Orbán successfully reassured his domestic supporters that he remained ready to “stand up” against Hungary’s enemies, such as the European Union and Western banks. It echoed the same nationalist message his audiences regularly hear on government-dominated radio and television about Western conspiracies against Hungary’s independent existence: That in the aftermath of World War I the victorious Western powers, led by President Woodrow Wilson, robbed Hungary of two-thirds of its territory. That after World War II, at Yalta, Hungary was sold out to the communists. That in 1956, the West did not assist the Hungarians against their Soviet overlords. And that since the collapse of communism, the European Union and Western-financed non-governmental organizations have sought to deprive Hungary of its sovereignty. Thus, in this speech, Orbán offered his audience a simple message as he also promised an end to Hungary’s humiliation and victimhood.

The main reason Orbán believes Hungary should seek a new system of governance has to do with his interpretation of the 2008 financial crisis. “If we look around carefully and analyze the things happening around us,” he said, “[we find] a different world from the one we used to live six years ago.” He blames the United States and liberal values for the uniqueness and global consequences of the crisis. He maintains that Americans, including the President of the U.S., were so frightened by 2008 that they resorted to “ideas that were impossible to talk about only six years ago.” Orbán does not specify what these ideas are or were, but he argues that the defining issue of our time is “to invent a state that is most capable of making a nation successful.” Then he adds: This is why Hungary needs to adopt political and economic systems “that are not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies, maybe not even democracies, yet making nations successful.”

The speech includes an almost incoherent outpouring of primitive clichés about the United States. Americans, Orbán observes, live “in a society that is less and less capitalist and more and more feudal.” He asserts that, according to the U.S. president, “America has been engulfed by cynicism.” Alluding to the U.S. whose laws he does not seem to or want to understand, he mocks a “democratic” country where a president is impeached and yet he stays in power. Elsewhere in the speech he claims that the U.S. president “openly speaks about economic patriotism,” and he does so in a way that would have been “unimaginable six or eight years earlier.” Again, one wonders what Orbán had in mind. He makes no mention of America’s gradual if long and partial economic recovery, of unemployment dropping to the six percent level, of the unparalleled global reach of American technology, graduate education, culture, and so on. Unmentioned is that his friend and colleague who wrote Hungary’s new—very restricting and illiberal—basic law or constitution a few years ago did it on his iPad, a product of U.S. inventiveness.

Orbán did not couple his negative commentary about the West by even a single word of criticism of the Russian and Chinese dictatorships, or of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, or of Putin’s ongoing destabilization of Ukraine. His motive, it seems, was to depict the world’s leading liberal democracy as hopelessly deadlocked—not because President Obama or someone else was a poor leader (Obama’s name was not mentioned by Orbán) but because all liberal democracies suffer from such built-in, systemic problems as their emphasis on individuals rather than the collective. For Orbán, this is the principal justification for Hungary’s present practice of centralized, nationalist authoritarianism.

Looking ahead, Orbán’s speech could anticipate a long-term strategy to introduce even harsher, more dictatorial measures on the pattern of Turkey or possibly Russia. Given past behavior, it is clear that he is capable of radically changing his stances. After all, he was a strong advocate of European integration back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, while he is now an equally strong defender of the inviolability of sovereignty. He once made a name for himself as an anti-communist and even anti-Russian, while he now admires Putin’s “efficient” state. He used to favor capitalism while he is now a foe of banks, foreign and domestic, that are not under his government’s control. He was once an atheist; nowadays he mentions Christianity as his guiding light as often as possible.

If the speech was meant to prepare the ground for another new—and radical—departure, what could it be?

The fact that the speech was delivered to ethnic Hungarians in Romania suggests the possibility that Orbán, thinking of some four to five million ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries, is fantasizing about a Greater Hungary. He looks at Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and sees continuing civil strife and war in Ukraine where—at the Hungarian border—almost 200,000 ethnic Hungarians live. Western analysts tend to dismiss the idea that Orbán could be so delusional as to follow Putin’s example by casting his eyes on Ukraine’s westernmost sub-Carpathian region. They are probably right; it is a far-fetched idea. After all, Hungary does not even have a real military; its yearly defense expenditure is around 0.8 percent of its GDP, one of the lowest in NATO. And yet, if Ukraine is destabilized, it is not unimaginable that Orbán’s Hungary would attempt to fish in troubled waters. There is no better way for him to enter Hungarian history books than to begin the reconstruction of Historic or Greater Hungary.

Whether he does so depends on three factors:

First, Orbán must centralize even more power in his own hands. He would have to rewrite the constitution again so that Hungary is transformed into a presidential system after, or perhaps even before, his current term as prime minister ends. Following Putin’s example, Orbán would then promote himself into the Hungarian presidency.

Second, he would have to deepen his friendship with Russia, the country with demonstrated interest in a weak and divided Ukraine. As Hungary is already almost fully dependent on Russian energy for the next three decades, the best way left for Orbán to please Putin is to echo the latter’s anti-American harangues and weaken the European Union from within.

Third, the European Union and the United States would have to ignore what Hungary is doing or might be planning to do. That would encourage Orbán to pursue his historic mission.

If he is indeed on a historic mission to enlarge the “Hungarian space” in Central Europe, Orbán would also need to be contemplating to withdraw his country from the European Union. For basic economic reasons, he probably is not doing so right now. He needs the almost $30 billion the European Union has allocated to finance Hungarian infrastructure projects in the 2014-2020 period. Even if one discounts an estimated 10-15 percent pocketed by corrupt Hungarian officials and their loyal business associates, this is still a vast contribution to the Hungarian economy. Moreover, trade with such EU countries as Germany, Italy, Austria and others sustains the country’s foreign-trade-oriented economy. For these reasons and others, even the current Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament—Orbán’s political gateway to Jobbik, the country’s neo-Nazi far right party—has shied away earlier this year from explicitly endorsing Jobbik’s call for leaving the European Union.

On the other hand, there is still a chance, however slim, that punitive measures undertaken by the European Union could prompt Hungary to respond by trading its full EU membership for a limited partnership. Orbán would surely enjoy being the first European leader to “stand up” to Brussels this way.

Would the EU give him such a chance? Would the EU go beyond verbal or written reproaches? In the aftermath of Orbán’s July 26 speech, a Wall Street Journal editorial called on Brussels to take the Hungarian case seriously, stating that “Mr. Orbán’s illiberal candor is a warning that free markets and free societies need more forceful defending.” A New York Times editorial on August 2, 2014 urged the European Commission to treat Hungary “with more than the usual admonitions and hand-wringing.” It urged the Commission to reduce the above-mentioned $30 billion infrastructure support set aside for Hungary. “It should also,” said the editorial, “begin proceedings to invoke Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which allows the suspension of voting rights of a member state that is at serious risk of breaching the values listed in Article 2, including the rule of law, freedom, democracy and respect for human rights.” In Europe, the Süddeutsche Zeitung voiced similar views.

While the EU, to repeat, is unlikely to implement such recommendations for the time being, its newly elected leaders could replace admonitions with sanctions in defense of “European values.” In the event, it is at least possible that—under such circumstances—Hungary would then “retaliate” in order to free itself from some or all of Brussel’s much-despised restraints. At that point, Orbán’s popularity would skyrocket. He would be widely admired for following in the footsteps of other legends in Hungary’s tumultuous history by pursuing a heroic and defiant act that may be briefly self-satisfying but ultimately self-defeating.

The issues that divide the U.S. and Hungary have little or nothing to do with security or economics. Hungary is not a particularly active member of NATO, though it sent troops to Afghanistan, and it has privately informed officials in Brussels about its willingness to increase its very modest defense budget every year for the next five years by 0.1 percent of its GDP. Unlike Poland, Romania, and the three Baltic states—and apparently the Czech Republic too—Hungary was initially reluctant to support sanctions against Russia, though once Germany changed its course so did the Hungarian government. (Typically, even the attentive Hungarian public is so engrossed in domestic politics that the government’s foreign policy gyrations are barely noticed.)

From Washington’s perspective, what matters most is the Hungarian government’s growing hostility to democratic values—freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom for civil groups to operate. Under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the U.S. issued several protests, including a confidential demarche that was leaked to a still-independent newspaper. From Budapest’s perspective, American protests constituted interference in Hungary’s internal affairs. The government unleashed a never-ending series of vitriolic attacks in the government-controlled press on Mrs. Clinton and the United States. The attacks on the U.S. have continued since John Kerry took over the Department of State, but the Secretary—quiet on Hungarian issues—has not been subjected to the “Clinton treatment.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Orbán seems eager to alter his government’s image in the United States. With a $15 million budget, he established a lobbying group called the Hungarian Initiatives Foundation in order to bring young Hungarians to Washington where they serve as interns in congressional offices and elsewhere and—more importantly—to influence discussions about Hungary in the city’s think tanks by flying pro-Orbán officials and fellow travelers to the U.S. The group has made grants to several prominent think tanks and plays an active role in shaping the programs it supports.

It was also instrumental in arranging Orbán’s upcoming visit to the United States in mid-October. He is expected to visit New York and Los Angeles, reaching out to Hungarian-Americans and business leaders, but he will not stop in Washington. Apparently, he could not get an appropriate appointment at either the White House or the State Department, and Georgetown University, which invited him for a lecture, insisted on holding an open forum after the lecture.

Whether the Hungarian Initiatives Foundation will be able to continue its activities after Orbán’s July speech is uncertain. Some of its trustees—among them George Pataki, the former Governor of New York and Kurt Volker, the Hungarian-speaking head of the McCain Institute—ought to have a difficult time reconciling their support for Orbán’s Hungary with the prime minister’s anti-American harangue. So should Katrina Lantos—another trustee, head of the Lantos Foundation and daughter of the late Congressman Tom Lantos—who has so far shied away from speaking out in support of her father’s deeply-held democratic values.

What could official Washington do?

  • It could actively encourage the European Union—which still vividly remembers its failure to deny a place for Joerg Haider’s extremist right-wing party in the Austrian government in 2000—to put the question of Hungarian membership in the EU firmly on the agenda.
  • It could let the U.S. Senate know that there is no urgency in giving final approval to the ambassador designate, Colleen Bell—a capable but not necessarily knowledgable enough political appointee. If necessary, the Obama administration could send a Hungarian-speaking professional diplomat in her stead.
  • It could downgrade diplomatic relations by reducing the size of the unnecessarily large U.S. Embassy in Budapest and by assigning a relatively low-level American diplomat to conduct business with the Hungarian ambassador in Washington and his staff.
  • It could proudly but politely continue to engage in a cultural war against the anti-American thugs who write and pontificate in the country’s official media. In the process it could reach out, even more than now, to America’s friends among intellectuals and the political elite.

Except for what the EU could do, these are but small, symbolic steps. Soon enough, however, most Hungarians will appreciate that we kept hope alive.

Charles Gati: Hungary before the election–Interview

An Interview with Charles Gati of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

[The interview, published in the January 2, 2014 issue of the weekly 168 Óra (168 Hours) and conducted by József Barát, was translated by Professor Gati for Hungarian Spectrum.]

József Baráth: Hungary is doing better. This is what we hear every day from Fidesz politicians. Some of them even demand better classification from global rating agencies and the resignation of the European Union’s finance commissioner. Looking at it from the United States: How’s Hungary doing these days?

Charles Gati: The Hungarian economy is at a standstill. It suffers from policies of re-centralization and re-nationalization. The global credit agencies issue their ratings on the basis of available numbers. Some presumably make mistakes – after all, human beings always do – but together they reflect a factual condition: that Hungary has come to occupy the last place among the Visegrad Four. The situation could change for the better only if the government no longer stood in the way of Western investments, recognized the advantages of European integration, and prepared the country for the introduction of the euro.

JB: The Hungarian government is no longer criticized so frequently in the United States as in the past. Does this mean that American officials and observers see positive changes? Or is it only that Washington has lost interest, perhaps accepting the view that Hungary belongs to that part of Europe where the values of democracy and the rule of law don’t matter so much and therefore outsiders can’t make a difference?

CG: As far as I know officials don’t see such “positive changes,” and no one has written off Hungary’s democratic potential. Yet, for now, they don’t expect to convince the current Hungarian government any more than they could convince the current government of Ukraine of the values and advantages of Western-style democracy. Given the ingrained optimism of Washington officials, you won’t hear them state it like this but their deeds reflect considerable skepticism. Far more important, however, is Washington’s preoccupation with the agonizing problems of the Middle East.

JB: Tamás Fellegi, a former member of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s cabinet, is conducting a public relations campaign in Washington to improve Hungary’s image in the United States. He’s reaching out to Hungarian-Americans. Does he have a chance to influence American public opinion?

CG: I’m aware of the campaign run by Mr. Fellegi, but I’m not familiar with the specifics of  his outreach to Hungarian-Americans. I do know that several Washington think-tanks  received contributions from his so-called “Hungarian Initiative Foundation,” which is supported by a $15 million grant from Hungarian taxpayers. In exchange, I presume, Fellegi himself and various pro-Fidesz speakers have been invited to lecture or participate in panel discussions at various forums. I attended one such lecture by György Schöpflin, a Fidesz-member of the European parliament, that was quite successful. Of the twenty or so invited guests, about half were officials of the Hungarian Embassy in Washington. As for substance, these speakers often advance the same view as the one Fidesz promotes: that it’s [the far-right] Jobbik rather than the [right-wing] Fidesz government that opposes Hungarian democracy. They say or suggest that Fidesz, by defending national values against Western “colonialism,” weakens Jobbik’s base, and therefore the West should support rather than criticize Orbán’s Fidesz-led government. This is what one hears from Fellegi, Schöpflin, as well as from Katrina Lantos Swett (daughter of the late Tom Lantos who heads the Lantos Foundation in the US and the Lantos Institute in Budapest, and who sees his father’s legacy differently from me and for that matter from what I think his father’s view would be).  By focusing on Jobbik,  Anne Applebaum, a respected American journalist,  promotes this interpretation, too. To answer your question directly, then, I don’t believe this campaign by officials and fellow-travelers of the Orbán government falls on fertile soil here.

JB: Many are surprised that there isn’t greater resistance in Hungary to the government restricting the rule of law, curtailing the system of checks and balances, and even proceeding with the expansion of funding its clients from the state budget. How do you assess this tendency?

CG: Applebaum’s recent book, Iron Curtain, offers an account of the strategy employed after World War II by Hungarian [and other East-Central European] Communists and their Soviet advisers, a strategy aimed at the immediate capture of the press which at that time meant the Radio, above all. Leaders of Fidesz have learned from Lenin; after gaining power in 2010, they conquered key positions in the press, notably television and radio, so much so that lots of Hungarians didn’t and still don’t realize what’s going on around them. So while internet helps somewhat and there are still independent papers, freedom of the press no longer exists. Those who need information most – people in the countryside who hear and watch one-sided news accounts and one-sided opinions on government-controlled stations – don’t seem to take advantage of what’s available on the internet. Moreover, businessmen as a group appear to be afraid of supporting independent or opposition voices. All in all, the attack against [Western-style pluralist] democracy in 2010 was both sudden and devastating, and much of the public have yet to wake up to the new political environment.

JB: Viktor Orbán claims that European politics should be renewed on the basis of his prescriptions. Could he find followers in Europe? Is the process of European integration endangered by Hungarian government policies?

CG: He has no followers in Europe for now. The British, Lithuanian, and Polish governments — the latter primarily because of domestic circumstances — are somewhat “understanding” of Viktor Orbán, but on a variety of issues they don’t agree with him. As for integration, it isn’t in danger of being reversed. Some countries try to slow down the ongoing processes, partly to protect their sovereign existence, partly to protect their power, but the deepening if not the widening of European integration continues unabated.

JB: There will be election this year in Hungary. Do you think the divided opposition has a chance of winning?

CG: I gave 168 Óra an interview exactly two years ago. Looking back, I note with pleasure that the right-wing press chose one sentence from that interview and attacked me for it thousands of times since. In a long and hysterical editorial,  the government daily Magyar Nemzet went so far as to curse me and members of my family as well. I note this with pleasure because not only friends but people of common sense have responded to these attacks by sending me encouraging emails. The sentence in question was this: “I agree with Palmer [the late US Ambassador to Hungary Mark Palmer who served there from 1986 to 1990]: there are possibilities for the removal of this government by democratic means if possible, by other means if that’s not possible.” The meaning of the sentence is clear: If the government stands in the way of free election, the people have the right to protect their democratic rights, restore the well-tested system of checks and balances, as well as freedom of the press and religion. Two years later I can only repeat what I said in 2012.  But, with a view toward the approaching election, I can add that while the new electoral law that the Fidesz super-majority in parliament passed strongly favors Fidesz, I still hope the election will be free. I can’t tell how the opposition will do, but I note that the number of undecided voters is very high indeed.

JB: We keep hearing that Gordon Bajnai has influential American supporters — though, truth be told, we hear this primarily from Fidesz propagandists. Are there significant American interest groups that are prepared to help one or another side in Hungarian politics?

CG: Such “significant interest groups” exist only in minds suffering both from delusions of grandeur and a persecution complex. There are no conspiracies against Hungary if for no other reason but because America is otherwise preoccupied. The government press has claimed, for example, that I work with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on trying to overthrow the legitimate Hungarian government. Too bad I’ve never even met Mrs. Clinton. Never. As for Gordon Bajnai, he has made a very good impression during his visits to Washington and New York. Over the years I heard three or four of his lectures about European integration. I also know that he had a chance to meet with high officials and respected analysts. I can say the same about Attila Mesterházy’s valuable lectures and conversations as he also visits the US quite regularly. It’s too bad the Hungarian Press Agency and most of the Hungarian press seldom or perhaps never report on Bajnai’s and Mesterházy’s successful encounters in America.

JB: Could Fidesz win again with a two-third majority?

CG: It received 53 percent of the vote in 2010, which resulted in a two-third super-majority in parliament. I expect a tough match this year.

JB: According to some interpretations of the new electoral law, even 30 percent popular support might translate into a two-third parliamentary majority — if the opposition is divided.

CG: This is a possibility, but months before the [Spring 2014] election such pessimism is unwarranted. Don’t forget that I’ve lived in America for 57 years…

JB: What do you expect to happen if Fidesz wins? What’s more likely: will Orbán pursue policies of consolidation, or strengthen his one-man rule?

CG: Fidesz is Viktor Orbán’s party. Some of his colleagues may be grumpy, especially those who expected higher positions or greater influence, but there’s no principled opposition to him. His one-man rule could be influenced by economic trends and by the European Union.

JB: There are those who believe that it could take generations before Hungary returns to European values. Do you agree with them?

Gati-168

CG: I couldn’t disagree more. Permit me to mention only one example from Hungarian history. Who would have thought around, say, 1860 that a Ferenc Deák would soon emerge with the idea that a grand compromise [with Austria] had to be the nation’s primary goal and that the necessary political capital for such a goal was within reach? What followed at the turn of the 19th-20th century was the construction of Budapest’s most lasting, most beautiful buildings and boulevards. And what an extraordinary cultural boom took place at the same time! Deák also understood that the economy needed the talents of Jewish and German-speaking citizens, and he recognized their rights. It’s often said that he was “the nation’s wise man.” He was. And he held up the example of Hungary for all of Europe!

Deák’s wisdom is missing from Hungarian politics today. This is so because the emphasis all too often is on “heroism,” not on prudence. But heroism in 21st century Europe is old hat, an outworn value, since there’s no immediate enemy.  Hungary has never enjoyed such a favorable international environment.

JB: There are critics.

CG: There are critics, of course. Their criticism shouldn’t be met with vindictive, ad hominem attacks, but with serious adjustments in the realms of both domestic and foreign policies. That’s when Hungary’s image would begin to improve.  In this connection, let me recall the memory of Nelson Mandela. Once a most radical, uncompromising  leader, Mandela emerged from 27 years in jail promoting tolerance. He sought coexistence between whites and blacks. Let’s also remember than the political prisoner and his jailer received — together — the Nobel Peace Prize. Hungary will do well when wise leaders appear on the political scene who will not only respect their opponents but are able to lift the country from its last place to Europe’s premier class — even if it means that they must shelve their own political past, even if it means painful compromises.

 

 

Hungarian Octopus: The Post-Communist Mafia State

An important new book was published the other day in Hungary by Noran Libro: Hungarian Octopus: The Post-Communist Mafia State, ed. Bálint Magyar and Júlia Vásárhelyi. The idea of the Hungarian mafia state should be familiar to readers of this blog. Back in June I gave a detailed description over three consecutive days (June 18-20) of Bálint Magyar’s conceptual framework that describes the nature and functioning of the Orbán regime.

Magyar’s contention is that Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is an entirely new political phenomenon that cannot be compared to the authoritarian Horthy regime of the interwar period or to Mussolini’s corporative state, or even to Putin’s Russia. It functions the way any mafia does, but its job is made easy since “the family” has the power of the state behind it. We cannot combat this new formation unless we fully comprehend its inner workings. Most foreign observers don’t really understand the nature of Orbán’s regime, and therefore European politicians are on the wrong track when dealing with the problems Viktor Orbán creates within the European Union.

The Hungarian Octopus: The Post-Communist Mafia State

Hungarian Octopus: The Post-Communist Mafia State

The book’s contributors naturally approach their topics from the point of view of Magyar’s theory of the post-communist mafia state. Twenty-two scholars altogether, the cream of Hungary’s intellectual elite, contributed to the volume, which looks at all aspects of the mafia state, from law to economics to culture.

Since I’m planning to write about some of the studies in this volume at a later date, I will not go into details here. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. The book is 426 pages long and Magyar’s introductory essay is about 70 pages. So, instead let me quote the opinions of some of the advance readers. Charles Gati, historian, political scientist, and professor at Johns Hopkins University, is certain that “after this book, the West can never look at Central-Eastern Europe the same way as before.” Imre Vörös, former Supreme Court justice, calls it “a masterpiece cut with the laser blade of a brain surgeon, describing Hungarian society and its conditions at large in the autumn of 2013.” Pál Závada, writer, said that “this volume names the new political predator, the post-communist Hungarian octopus, and the privatized form of the parasite state with an air of linguistic sophistication.” According to Ferenc Pataki, social psychologist, “this volume is more than gripping: it is illuminating.” György Konrád, writer, called the authors of the book “the Budapest School of intellectuals” who “can invigorate thinking in the social sciences.” Mihály Andor, sociologist, described it as “the most important sociology volume of the last two decades.”

I will most likely be unable to write about all the essays in this volume, but let me here give a brief description of its contents. After Bálint Magyar’s introductory essay, the book is divided into four parts. The first deals with the “Systemic Structure of the Mafia State and Its Historical Specificity.” In this part Iván Szelényi writes about the different “capitalisms” that developed after communism in the region. Attila Ara-Kovács in “Prefigurations and Nightmares” compares Viktor Orbán to Silvio Berlusconi, the Kazyński brothers, and Vladimir Putin. Zsolt Pétervári analyzes the network of unlimited power, and finally György Csepeli in “The Mafia State’s Second-Hand Clothes” focuses on earlier attempts at identifying the nature of Orbán’s Hungary.

The second part is devoted to the legal aspects of the mafia state under the title “Legal Government in the Grip of the Octopus.” Four legal scholars–Zoltán Fleck (“Laws of the Mafia State”), Péter Bárándy and István Bihari (“State-Organized Crime”), and Tamás Lattmann (“Europe’s Impotence to Eliminate Deviations of Post-Communist States”)–and a sociologist, Ferenc Krémer (“Private Bodyguards at the Head of Power-Enforcement Bodies”), cover the field.

In the third part eight scholars write about “The Economic and Social Policy of the Mafia State: Mihály Laki, “The Weakness of the Strong,” Károly Attila Soós, “Plundering with Super-Taxation: Revenues, Populism and the Exclusion of ‘Aliens,'” István Csillag, “Mission: Getting Rich,” András Becker, “Orbán Ltd.,” Éva Várhegyi, “Banks in the Mafia State,” Iván Major, “Utility Cost Reductions and Super-Taxation in Networked Sectors,” Pál Juhász, “Historicizing Nonsense in Hungarian Agriculture,” and Balázs Krémer, “Social Picture and Social Politics in the Mafia State.”

And finally in the fourth part we can read about “The Symbolic and Cultural Context of the Mafia State.” This part includes four essays: György Gábor’s “Appropriation of God’s Country,” András Bozóki’s “Family Nest–Culture and Symbolic Political Captivity,” Mária Vásárhelyi’s “Functioning of the Media-Octopus–Brainwashing and Money Laundering,” and finally Márton Kozák’s ” Godfather’s Football.”

Anyone who is interested in the functioning of this monstrous system will find something in which he is particularly interested. But reading the book through gives the whole frightening picture. As Charles Gati suggested, this “pioneering work” should be translated into English and also into German. It should be a reference book for everyone whose work demands a thorough knowledge of Viktor Orbán’s system. Without this knowledge officials, politicians, and scholars will flounder and will arrive at a flawed assessment of the nature of this regime.

So, let us hope that this brilliantly cohesive volume will soon be available to a wider international public. Its translation really is a must because there is the danger that the mafia state dreamed up by Viktor Orbán and his college friends may spread throughout the post-communist world. Such an outcome would be a disaster for Europe.

Attila Mesterházy’s official visit to Washington

Surprisingly little appeared in the Hungarian media about Attila Mesterházy’s official visit to Washington. I found mention of it only in Népszava a few days ago, and today a short article appeared in Népszabadság that summarized the seven-member MSZP delegation’s week in the United States.

On the other hand, Magyar Nemzet is always vigilant. On January 24 it picked up MTI’s interview with Mesterházy and described the trip this way: “Attila Mesterházy again ran to Washington.” Gabriella Selmeczi, the Fidesz spokeswoman, woke up a bit late, only after Attila Mesterházy’s interview had appeared in The Wall Street Journal the day before. Her comments were predictable: Mesterházy is again trying to discredit  Hungary abroad. In addition, according to her, the socialists favor banks over their own citizens and foreign companies over Hungarian ones. Such accusations almost always resonate with the nationalist Hungarian right.

Interestingly enough, I could find no other mention of this trip to Washington and New York although the available information indicates that it was a very successful visit for MSZP’s party leader.

On the first day, January 22, the Hungarian delegation, made up of younger socialists in their thirties, had a meeting with Madeleine Albright, U.S. secretary of state between 1993 and 1997, and two ranking members of the National Democratic Institute. NDI is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that has supported democratic institutions  all over the world in the last twenty-five years. Specifically, they want to strengthen political and civic organizations, safeguard elections, and promote citizen participation, openness and accountability in government. Albright is the chair of NDI. Kenneth D. Wollack, president, and Robert Benjamin, senior associate and regional director of Central and East European programs, were also present at the meeting that lasted more than an hour.

The next day Mesterházy gave a lecture in the headquarters of the German Marshall Fund. According to the MSZP press release (a biased source, naturally) there was great interest in what Mesterházy had to say. Among those who attended were members of the diplomatic corps, representatives of various U.S. government departments, businessmen, university professors, and Hungarian Americans. Mesterházy concentrated on MSZP’s plans for the future. There were many questions about the economy and the new electoral law. One of the members of the delegation was Csaba Kákosy, former minister of economics and transportation, who was actually nominated for the job in 2007 by SZDSZ but who is now economic adviser to MSZP. The title of the MSZP press release was “Washington is looking forward to a new beginning.” Surely, an optimistic reaction to a couple of days that the participants felt were a success.

Attila Mesterházy's lecture in the headquarters of the German Marshall Fund

Attila Mesterházy’s lecture in the headquarters of the German Marshall Fund

On the day of the American inauguration, the socialists had extensive discussions with some campaign advisers to the Democratic Party. MTI reported this piece of news, but I found no broader coverage of  it in the Hungarian media. The discussions centered around Internet communication, data-base building, opinion polls, and mobilization of the electorate. The release indicates that the socialists will not rely exclusively on Ron Werber but most likely will also hire advisers who were active in the Obama campaign.

In addition, Mesterházy and his fellow socialists met with the staff of the State Department who have a special interest in Hungary and the region in general, including Tomicah Tillemann, special adviser to the secretary of state, who is the grandson of the late Tom Lantos. Mesterházy also had a long conversation with Charles Gati, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. And the delegation had talks with the appropriate officials of the United States Holocaust Museum.

After leaving Washington, the socialist delegation visited New York where they had a meeting with the top officials of Freedom House, which was set up to support human rights and democracy, promote open government, defend human rights, strengthen civil society, and facilitate the free flow of information and ideas. Hungarians know Freedom House best for its yearly reports on media freedom.

After all of the official meetings, the socialist delegation “kicked back” with a group of about twenty Hungarian-Americans who have been getting together for dinner and conversation in the same restaurant for the past twenty-five years. The place used to serve Hungarian food but by now it is a Chinese restaurant. Included in the group were university professors, researchers, and managers. For more than two hours they discussed the economy, the student demonstrations, and the electoral law. The hosts were especially interested in the renewal of MSZP.

And now a few words about Mesterházy’s interview with The Wall Street Journal. From it we can glean more details of the socialist party chief’s conversations with officials in Washington and New York. Mesterházy apparently told the Americans that the socialists want to bring “the country back to a path of sustainable development.” He emphasized that “the party wants to clarify the separation of powers among the legislature, executive and judicial branches; restore authority removed from the Constitutional Court; ensure the independence of the central bank; expand press freedoms; and strengthen the country’s budget watchdog agency.” He pledged while in the United States that the socialists would “act swiftly and decisively to restore international trust in [Hungary’s] economy.” He also emphasized his intention to work together with former Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai as well as other “democratic” opposition groups. “I now see an almost 100% chance for an alliance to be formed.”

Mesterházy also pledged that the socialists would reduce the heavy banking-sector taxes levied by the Orbán government and thus free banks from their onerous financial burden so they could lend more readily. He also stated that “the war against foreign-owned companies must cease.” These are the remarks that prompted Gabriella Selmeczi to accuse the socialists of putting the interests of banks above those of ordinary citizens.

From what I heard from friends who met the socialists in Washington and New York, Mesterházy’s trip to the United States was a great success. Too bad that so little was said about it in the Hungarian media.

Conference in Washington: “Hungary: A second change of the system?”

Advanced Yesterday a discussion about the Hungarian political situation took place at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of International Studies (SAIS) in Washington. First, an explanation of the title. During the 2010 election campaign Viktor Orbán, leader of Fidesz, called for “a second change of the system.” The implication was that the regime change that took place in 1989-1990 wasn’t complete. The last twenty years were only a “muddled” period. If Fidesz wins the elections, the argument went, the political change will be completed.

As it turned out, Orbán wasn’t thinking of further democratization but rather the establishment of a semi-autocratic state that strongly resembles the successive governments of the Horthy regime. Since the elections, Orbán has changed the constitution innumerable times, introduced a controversial media law that prompted international indignation, enacted retroactive taxation, and curtailed the constitutional court’s authority. Fear is spreading in the country from top to bottom. Nobody can be sure of his or her job. If someone occupied an important government position in the last eight years he can be happy if he escapes a jail sentence on trumped-up charges. But little people are afraid too. The first monthly checks arrived, and people with already miserably low salaries in many cases received even less money than before. When asked what these people say, the answer was that they don’t dare to say anything because they are afraid of losing their jobs.

It was in these circumstances that Ambassador Kurt Volker, senior fellow and managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS, organized the conference. The participants were Pamela Quanrud, deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe; György Szapáry, the newly appointed ambassador of Hungary to the United States, and Charles Gati, interim director of the Russian and Eurasian Studies Program at SAIS. Two Hungarian journalists were present: László Szőcs, correspondent of Népszabadság, and Demeter Pogár, correspondent of MTI.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend. As regular readers of this blog know, I’m snowbound in Connecticut. However, I read three different descriptions of the proceedings and a friend of mine who was in the audience phoned me immediately after the event. Thus I think I will be able to give a fair summary of the proceedings.

Pamela Quanrud’s speech, though diplomatic, was described by a Hungarian online paper (www.hir24.hu) as a “warning” and her message as “unambiguous.”

Pamela Quanrud is anything but a frightening person, but when an American diplomat says that “we are watching Hungary” it might sound a bit worrisome to those in power in Budapest. After some diplomatic niceties, she came to the core of the problem. “Although the desire for order may tempt a powerful governing party to dispense with seemingly endless political discussions, … in our system of government … we must continue the dialogue even with those with whom we don’t see eye to eye.” That is clear enough, I think. Even the deaf Hungarian politicians must understand the meaning of these words. She “urged our Hungarian friends to create an atmosphere in which there is place for open and rational exchange of ideas.”

Quanrud expressed her hope that the new constitution will be based on consensus and will reflect universal values and the will of the people, i.e., that it will not be a party document. But even here there was a warning: “Constitutions by their nature are supposed to be lasting documents but at the same time there ought to be an pportunity for the people and their representatives to make rational changes later on the basis of a new consensus.” In simple words: Don’t try to do what you threatened to do. Don’t try to enact laws that will prevent any change whatsoever in the constitution for decades if not for centuries.

György Szapáry, the new Hungarian ambassador, came next. I have written about Szapáry often enough, the last time when the Orbán government changed a law in order for Szapáry to become ambassador to Washington. The rule was that no one over the age of seventy can be appointed to a foreign post, and Szapáry was born in 1938. Szapáry, who spent twenty-seven years with the IMF, has been an economic advisor to Viktor Orbán, and his appointment to the post in Washington therefore seemed a bit odd. We don’t know of course what Szapáry thinks of György Matolcsy’s “revolutionary” ideas on economics, but I suspect that he doesn’t quite approve of them. Perhaps Szapáry was hoping for some high position where his background in economics could be used. Instead, he was sent to Washington. Surely, he knows his way around Washington, but I can’t help feeling that his appointment falls under the category of “out of sight, out of mind.”

According to the report in Népszabadság Szapáry “gave a lengthy description of the priorities of the Hungarian rotating presidency of the European Union, talked about the handling of the economic crisis and about the history of the change of regime” in 1990 when he returned to Hungary as IMF representative. In brief, he decided to ignore most of the topics that were subject to criticism in Quanrud’s speech. As for the media law, he said that “every law can be misused, even the speed limit at 50 miles, and yet people don’t do it.” Well, first of all that is not true. People break laws right and left, and one cannot just hope that the people in power will not misuse their law-given opportunities.

And finally came Charles Gati, professor at Johns Hopkins University. Gati was born in Hungary and left in 1956. He was very critical of the Orbán government. He seemed especially worried about the new Hungarian government’s systematic reorganization of the governmental structure that resulted in the practical elimination of checks and balances. Gati considered Orbán a “true democrat” in the 1990s but today he has to conclude that Orbán is no longer devoted to the idea of democracy. His “anticommunist rhetoric is Orwellian.” Hungary is “not a dictatorship, at least not at the moment.” In his opinion, we can talk about “centrally controlled democracy” in domestic terms while in foreign policy Hungary is alienating all her western friends.

There were a few questions from the audience. The first came from MTI’s correspondent who inquired from Pamela Quanrud about Hillary Clinton’s possible visit to Hungary in May. Quanrud confirmed that the secretary of state had received an invitation but because of Clinton’s busy schedule and other obligations she will decide only at a later date whether she can participate in the summit. I have a very strong suspicion that Hillary Clinton will be otherwise occupied.

And finally, an attendee called attention to the rising Hungarian antisemitism and talked about the antisemitic outbursts in newspapers and the electronic media supporting Orbán’s party. She specifically mentioned Magyar Hírlap and EchoTV. The loudest anti-Semite is Zsolt Bayer, one of the founders of Fidesz and still a very close friend of Viktor Orbán. Her complaint was that Orbán and Fidesz refuse to condemn these anti-Semites in the party. In fact, it was a Fidesz local politician who recommended Bayer for a literary prize. In her question to Szapáry, she also mentioned the witch hunt against Ágnes Heller and her fellow philosophers.

All in all, I don’t think that the new Hungarian ambassador will have an easy time in Washington.

February 10, 2011