Tag Archives: illiberal democracy

Miklós Haraszti: I watched a populist leader rise in my country–That’s why I’m genuinely worried for America

Miklós Haraszti, author and director of research on human rights at the Center for European Neighborhood Studies of Central European University, is a familiar name to readers of  Hungarian Spectrum, both as an author and as a commentator. This opinion piece originally appeared in The Washington Post (December 28, 2016). I’m grateful for the opportunity to share it.

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Hungary, my country, has in the past half-decade morphed from an exemplary post-Cold War democracy into a populist autocracy. Here are a few eerie parallels that have made it easy for Hungarians to put Donald Trump on their political map: Prime Minister Viktor Orban has depicted migrants as rapists, job-stealers, terrorists and “poison” for the nation, and built a vast fence along Hungary’s southern border. The popularity of his nativist agitation has allowed him to easily debunk as unpatriotic or partisan any resistance to his self-styled “illiberal democracy,” which he said he modeled after “successful states” such as Russia and Turkey.

No wonder Orban feted Trump’s victory as ending the era of “liberal non-democracy,” “the dictatorship of political correctness” and “democracy export.” The two consummated their political kinship in a recent phone conversation; Orban is invited to Washington, where, they agreed, both had been treated as “black sheep.”

When friends encouraged me to share my views on the U.S. election, they may have looked for heartening insights from a member of the European generation that managed a successful transition from Communist autocracy to liberal constitutionalism. Alas, right now I find it hard to squeeze hope from our past experiences, because halting elected post-truthers in countries split by partisan fighting is much more difficult than achieving freedom where it is desired by virtually everyone.

But based on our current humiliating condition, I may observe what governing style to expect from the incoming populist in chief and what fallacies should be avoided in countering his ravages.

A first vital lesson from my Hungarian experience: Do not be distracted by a delusion of impending normalization. Do not ascribe a rectifying force to statutes, logic, necessities or fiascoes. Remember the frequently reset and always failed illusions attached to an eventual normalization of Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Orban.

Call me a typical Hungarian pessimist, but I think hope can be damaging when dealing with populists. For instance, hoping that unprincipled populism is unable to govern. Hoping that Trumpism is self-deceiving, or self-revealing, or self-defeating. Hoping to find out if the president-elect will have a line or a core, or if he is driven by beliefs or by interests. Or there’s the Kremlinology-type hope that Trump’s party, swept to out-and-out power by his charms, could turn against him. Or hope extracted, oddly, from the very fact that he often disavows his previous commitments.

Viktor Orbán (Thierry Charlier/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Populists govern by swapping issues, as opposed to resolving them. Purposeful randomness, constant ambush, relentless slaloming and red herrings dropped all around are the new normal. Their favorite means of communication is provoking conflict. They do not mind being hated. Their two basic postures of “defending” and “triumphing” are impossible to perform without picking enemies.

I was terrified to learn that pundits in the United States have started to elaborate on possible benefits of Trump’s stances toward Russia and China. Few developments are more frightening than the populist edition of George Orwell’s dystopia. The world is now dominated by three gigantic powers, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, a.k.a. the United States, Russia and China, and all three are governed by promises of making their realms “great again.”

Please do not forget that populists can turn into peaceniks or imperialists at any moment, depending on what they think could yield good spin that boosts their support. Remember how Putin and Erdogan had switched, within months this year, from warring to fraternity. Or how Orban in opposition had blasted any compromises with Russia, only to become Putin’s best friend upon his election.

I have plenty of gloomy don’t-dos, but few proven trump cards. There is perhaps one mighty exception, the issue of corruption, which the polite American media like to describe as “conflicts of interest.”

It is the public’s moral indignation over nepotism that has proved to be the nemesis of illiberal regimes. Personal and family greed, cronyism, thievery combined with hypocrisy are in the genes of illiberal autocracy; and in many countries betrayed expectations of a selfless strongman have led to a civic awakening.

It probably helps to be as watchful as possible on corruption, to assist investigative journalism at any price, and to defend the institutions that enforce transparency and justice. And it also helps to have leaders in the opposition who are not only impeccably clean in pecuniary matters, but also impress as such.

The world is looking at the United States now in a way that we never thought would be possible: fretting that the “deals” of its new president will make the world’s first democracy more similar to that of the others. I wish we onlookers could help the Americans in making the most out of their hard-to-change Constitution. We still are thankful for what they gave to the world, and we will be a bit envious if they can stop the fast-spreading plague of national populism.

January 2, 2017

Iván Fischer and the City of Budapest: Music and politics

The Budapest Festival Orchestra and its founder and conductor, Iván Fischer, need no introduction. BFO is one of the top orchestras in the world. It proudly carries the name of the Hungarian capital and is thus one of the cultural trademarks of the city. There are naturally other orchestras in Hungary, but none has such an international presence as the Budapest Festival Orchestra, due largely to the energetic and imaginative Iván Fischer.

A quick look at the orchestra’s program will give you an idea of BFO’s busy schedule. In the next few months they will perform in London, Bruges, Baden-Baden, Amsterdam, and San Sebastián. In October they will be going to China and South Korea. In between their international performances and concerts in Budapest they make time to give “cocoa concerts” for youngsters, free of charge, to introduce them to classical music. They keep in close touch with Hungarian elementary and high schools, and the orchestra regularly invites school children to attend rehearsals. They visit facilities for older citizens, and they go to very poor villages where they give concerts for people who most likely have never in their lives heard a live orchestra or classical music. Every year they give a large outdoor concert free of charge on Heroes’ Square in Budapest. In brief, Iván Fischer’s orchestra is a jewel of Hungarian musical culture.

Why am I writing about the Budapest Festival Orchestra today? Because Iván Fischer and his orchestra are being threatened by the bellicose mayor of Budapest, István Tarlós. What began, at least on the surface, as a financial dispute over the sum the City of Budapest contributes to the orchestra has by now, a week later, become a full-fledged political attack on Fischer. The reason? He made it clear on several occasions that he is not fond of Viktor Orbán’s regime.

Photo: Marco Borggreve / Washington Post

Photo: Marco Borggreve / Washington Post

Iván Fischer is well known in classical music circles (and beyond), but István Tarlós needs an introduction, although I’ve written about him a few times over the years. My first recollection of him goes back to 2006 when as mayor of Óbuda he got into a lengthy argument with an MDF member of the council, called him all sorts of names, and finally told him “Don’t play games because I will knock your glasses off and will even stomp on them.” Once he became mayor of Budapest he chose a politically extreme actor and an anti-Semitic politician-writer to transform the city’s New Theater into a stronghold of far-right and often anti-Semitic productions. This decision, which prompted several demonstrations, was reported in most major newspapers in Germany and the United States.

Tarlós is also a homophobe, who last summer wanted to expel the Pride Parade from Andrássy Street and move it to a wholesale marketplace in the outskirts of the city. During an interview he shared his “private opinion” that he finds homosexuality “unnatural” and gays “repulsive.” He has a real “soft” spot for the homeless. Led by Tarlós, the Fidesz majority of the city council passed a local ordinance that banned the homeless from public places. Offenders could be jailed or fined up to $650.

And finally, I think we may safely say that Tarlós is not free of anti-Semitic prejudices. In 2013 he gave an interview on HírTV where he complained that Erzsébet Gy. Nagy of the Demokratikus Koalíció “made a statement and began her declaration with ‘Blessed is he who considers the poor! The Lord delivers him in the day of trouble.’ She quoted from the Book of Psalms. Now it is one thing that when they open the Bible on such occasions it always opens to the Old Testament, but I don’t want to say anything about this here.” And a little later: “I believe in the Lord, although it is true that I read the New Testament more often.” In brief, we are dealing here with a real charmer.

Going back to the current controversy. On April 27 István Tarlós announced that the City of Budapest will give only 60 million forints (€191,000) instead of 260 million forints (€827,000) to the Budapest Festival Orchestra. The announcement came without any prior warning in the middle of the season when the orchestra’s schedule was already set. The immediate explanation from the deputy mayor in charge of culture was that the orchestra gets a large yearly contribution from the central government and therefore is not in need of such major support from the city. Iván Fischer’s answer was a video on which he explained the effect this reduced contribution will have on the offerings of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. They will have to cancel 30 school visits, ten children’s opera performances, three concerts in the Palace of Arts in Budapest, and there will be no free midnight concert in December. In addition, three Bach church concerts and three others in abandoned provincial synagogues will have to be dispensed with. A foreign trip to Ravenna, Vilnius, Riga, and Saint Petersburg must be scrapped.

Tarlós didn’t wait long to answer. He accused Fischer of “losing his self-control” and announced that if “Fischer doesn’t stop his peremptory hysterics, threats, and perturbation we will have to re-think the grant.” He added that “we can use this money on any of the equally internationally famous Hungarian orchestras that don’t kick into our extended hand.” (And no, this is not a mistranslation.) I for one don’t know of another Hungarian orchestra that is as internationally famous. On another occasion Tarlós accused the orchestra of not fulfilling its obligation to the city because “just three or four people visit the pensioners, and there they do a little music making [zenélgetnek]. This is a nice mission, but it is not a performance.”

To make the real motivation behind his action even more transparent Tarlós added that if the orchestra doesn’t get any money from the city then “[Herr] Conductor [actually karnagy úr] will use it as a pretext to talk about political motivation, to disparage the city’s leadership, and to provoke the public.”

That political considerations are at the root of the action of the Fidesz-controlled city council was noticed by The Times, which yesterday compared Tarlós’s attack on Fischer to Pravda’s denunciation of Shostakovich in the 1930s. The same article suggests, not without reason, that “there may be a more sinister reason than austerity” behind Tarlós’s action. “The outspoken Fischer has enemies in Hungarian circles.” The New York Times also came to the same conclusion. “Mr. Fischer has emerged as an outspoken figure in Hungary as the country has drifted rightward in recent years.” Indeed, Fischer has made no secret of his condemnation of Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” and the country’s dangerous slide toward autocratic rule. In several interviews he expressed his worries about the direction in which the country’s leadership is taking the country.

I assume that what especially upset the Fidesz higher-ups was an e-mail that was found among Secretary State Hillary Clinton’s released documents. It referenced a letter that Iván Fischer had written to Vernon Jordan, former adviser to President Bill Clinton and a close friend of the Clintons. The letter was written on June 28, 2011, just before Hillary Clinton’s visit to Budapest. In it Fischer told Jordan that Mrs. Clinton “should be aware that Mr. Orban’s government is demolishing democracy in Hungary and is introducing a harsh system with disregard of human rights and freedom of speech.”

The Hungarian government would, of course, be much happier with a world-class orchestra whose music director’s political views are closer to its own, but they are stuck with Iván Fischer. Back in 2000 Viktor Orbán did try to promote another national orchestra, but it failed to come close to the stature of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. So he had to accept and reward the success of Fischer’s orchestra, however grudgingly. Currently the BFO receives 4.52 million euros from two sources: the central government and the city of Budapest. This amount is considered to be large by Hungarian standards, but in comparison to other world-class orchestras it is quite small. Well-known European orchestras are generously funded by their cities: Berlin 16.7 million, Munich 19.7 million, Zurich 18 million, etc.

After the initial upheaval there was a lull, but in the last two days the Fidesz media launched an attack against Iván Fischer personally as well as the business model of the BFO. The journalist who led the way was András Stumpf of mandiner.hu, who displayed complete ignorance about how modern, western-type orchestras survive financially. It is certainly not from ticket sales.

In Hungary, with the exception of the BFO, all orchestras are totally dependent on government grants, and they live from hand to mouth. Even a more generous, culturally conscious Hungarian government couldn’t properly fund its symphony orchestras. And so, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, in an act of self-preservation, opted for a mixed financial structure, one closer to the American model though without the benefit of a robust tradition of philanthropy.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra is structured as a foundation, with a board of directors and an endowment. The orchestra’s endowment, as is usual in western countries, is invested in stocks and bonds. This very idea baffled András Stumpf, who came to  the conclusion that if an orchestra has money stashed away, its music director shouldn’t complain about not receiving €827,000. Moreover, he added, in 2014 the orchestra actually made money. So, what do they want? I guess, for Stumpf and others in Hungary, BFO would deserve funding only if its coffers were completely empty. Fischer, on the other hand, knows full well that an endowment is not a checking account. Moreover, he thinks that the benefits that Hungary and Budapest derive from the very existence of the orchestra should be appreciated, and that this appreciation should be expressed, at least in part, in monetary terms.

It took about a couple of hours for the government mouthpiece, Magyar Idők, to list all of the orchestra’s “riches,” as well as Iván Fischer’s own, that András Stumpf had collected. A day later Ottó Gajdics, one of the worst examples of the right-wing media characters hovering around Viktor Orbán, wrote a vicious editorial “Ne dirigálj, vezényelj, Iván!” which is a play on words, indicating that Iván Fischer shouldn’t order people around but should stick with conducting. This particular editorial is a perfect example of the confusion rampant in certain Hungarian circles. Gajdics would like to force Fischer to resign. As if anyone, outside of the board of directors, had any right to remove the music director from his post. I guess Gajdics still lives in the Kádár regime, when the party leadership could decide who could or who couldn’t be the conductor of the Hungarian State Orchestra. The whole editorial is such a base and ugly piece that it is not worth dwelling on. But there are a couple of words at the end of the piece that merit comment. According to Gajdics, Fischer should stick with music. “But it looks as if instead he wants to meddle in politics. Or, what is possibly even worse, he is being used by sly characters working in the background for their own left-liberal political objectives. These are people who rattle on about the mafia state while they laugh up their sleeves that the regime after all paid [the orchestra] a billion.”

Iván Fischer organized a musical demonstration this afternoon, which was attended by thousands. In his speech he talked about a Budapest where there is more music, more joy, more love, and less hatred. He called attention to those who belong to minorities. Many in the audience brought their own instruments and played together with orchestra members. It was a moving scene.

May 7, 2016

The EU is playing hardball with Hungary over subsidies

Critics of the European Union, including many active participants on Hungarian Spectrum, argue that it is the Union’s generous subsidies that keep Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” alive. Economists repeatedly point out that the yearly amounts distributed as part of the convergence program constitute about 6% of the country’s GDP. Almost every investment sponsored by the Hungarian government is financed by the billions of euros Budapest receives from Brussels. And yet the results are meager. Currently, Hungarian economic growth is under 3%. Without the subsidies the Hungarian economy would be in recession. Not just this past year but most likely ever since 2010.

Of course, we all know on an intellectual level why the Union finds itself in the unenviable position of actively keeping an undemocratic, autocratic regime alive. Yet we find it difficult on an emotional level to accept this ugly reality. While supporters of Viktor Orbán, following their leader’s constant battle cries, accuse the European Union of wielding too much power and attacking national sovereignty, critics of the current Hungarian government would like to see more power given to the European Commission and the European Parliament–power that might more effectively curb the excesses of EU rogue states like Hungary and, lately, Poland.

Recently the EU administration has been flexing its (admittedly undersized) muscles. There is a growing concern in Brussels about the subsidies that keep the Hungarian economy alive, and this concern is being translated into withholding sizable amounts of money from the corrupt Budapest government. Naturally, we rarely hear about these cases because the Orbán government makes sure that they don’t become public knowledge. If they do become known, János Lázár and his “deputy,” the honey-tongued Nándor Csepreghy, explain everything away. They have no compunctions about resorting to outright lies when reporters dare ask them about the large sums of money being withheld by Brussels.

Here I would like to call attention to a few instances where the European Council withheld payment. János Lázár’s office, inside the prime minister’s office, is the central clearing house for all EU subsidies, a relatively new development. Earlier a separate office existed for this purpose but, as Lázár claimed, the prime minister’s office is the only guarantee of corruption-free transactions. Anyone who is familiar with Viktor Orbán’s self-enrichment can only laugh at the suggestion that his office is best qualified to be the guardian of EU subsidies. Of course, earlier the Orbán government tried to shift the blame for corrupt practices in the distribution of the subsidies to the previous government, but it turned out that all of the cases the EU found suspicious occurred after 2010.

The suspension of payment might not be as effective as a total rejection of claims, but it still hurts because, even when the Hungarian government doesn’t receive money from Brussels, it still has to pay for work completed. This “missing money” must be made up from somewhere, and it looks as if this “somewhere” is loans. And loans negatively affect the deficit.

How much money are we talking about? Apparently a lot. According to estimates, about 10% of allocated funds have been withheld, which is €2.5 billion or 775 billion forints. In 2015, in order to fulfill its obligations, the government had to borrow 560 billion forints. That is a tremendous amount of money, the cost of the very expensive M4 line of the Budapest metro.

Sometimes the Hungarian government bargains with the European Commission over what percentage of the total will be taken away. The government also has the option to fight the EU decision. In that case the dispute ends up at the European Court of Justice, which could mean a total loss if the court rules against Hungary.

forints3

One of the “problematic” cases is the business venture of Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law, which involves replacing lighting fixtures with more energy efficient ones. There have been so many irregularities in connection with this case that OLAF, the anti-corruption office of the European Commission, launched an investigation. At that point Orbán’s son-in-law immediately “sold” his business to one of Orbán’s favored oligarchs and, according to 444.hu, Hungary no longer submits bills for any public lighting projects.

Another investigation and suspension of payment occurred when it was discovered that for certain projects the government demanded “studies” that were useless or actually plagiarized but cost an inordinate amount of money. Here too, the Hungarian government decided not to press the issue. No bills are sent to Brussels for the worthless “studies.”

Ákos Hadházy, the “corruption sleuth,” discovered incredible overcharging for the modernization of high school chemistry labs. The overcharging must have been really egregious because even the Hungarian government decided to go to the police and ask for an investigation.

What the latest case is all about I have no idea because programs subsidized by the European Union usually have bureaucratic names that give us no clue as to what they actually do. This particular program is called “social infrastructure operative program” (in Hungarian the abbreviation is TIOP). Whatever it is, something must be very wrong with it because a few days ago one could read on the official website of the European Commission that the decision was made not to pay 120 million euros or 37.5 billion forints. This project was a leftover from the 2007-2013 budget, and apparently no money to fund it has reached Budapest for some time. This time we are not talking about a “suspension.” As 444.hu said, “the amount was frozen.” This may mean an outright refusal to subsidize the program.

The reason for the EU’s decision is simple. The Hungarian government was supposed to explain what it had done to correct the problems in the project by February 23. But it looks as if Viktor Orbán’s government, with all its problems with terrorism, forgot about the deadline. Of course, I’m just being sarcastic. Since no answer arrived by the deadline, it is likely that the European Commission will turn to the European Court of Justice where the Hungarian government loses practically all of its cases that end up there.

The latest loss stems from the complaint of former owners of casinos whose livelihood was taken away from them in three days back in 2012. It was announced today that these businessmen had won their case and thus the door is open for demands of compensation, which may be as high as 100 billion forints. The war with Brussels could turn out to be very expensive.

March 29, 2016

The last five years of the Orbán government, fact and fiction

It caught everybody by surprise, including some of the highest office holders of the government and Fidesz, that today “around noon” Viktor Orbán planned to give another speech on “the state of the nation” only three months after his last one. Even one of Orbán’s deputies, Lajos Kósa, learned about it only when he received his invitation a couple of days ago. The prime minister’s closest advisers must have convinced him that he has to deliver a major address to revive his and his party’s sagging popularity. They came up with a date that could serve the purpose well: it was five years ago, on May 29, that the second Orbán government was formed. The speech was supposed to call attention to the fantastic achievements of these five years and to point the way forward.

Back in February, Orbán’s “state of the nation speech” was nothing like what was expected. One would have thought that after the political setbacks suffered by Fidesz, the prime minister would have realized that a change in tactics was in order. But at no point in his speech did he admit that any of his policies had been unsuccessful. The problem was, he claimed, that the activists didn’t work hard enough. The party and the government just have to work harder and all will be well. Also, despite Jobbik’s steady growth, Orbán said nothing about the dangers it posed for Fidesz and the country. Instead, he frightened his audience with the spectre of a “return of the socialists,” which would threaten the well-being of the country.

In comparison to that message in February, today’s speech seemed to be aimed, at least in part, at silencing his critics, both foreign and domestic. Of course, given the prime minister’s ideological meanderings and his total unreliability when it comes to translating words into action, the significance of this speech might be minimal. It is a bit naive of Szabolcs Dull of Index to take Viktor Orbán at his word and believe that from here on the Fidesz members of government and parliament will “consult” with the opposition parties or that they will prepare pieces of legislation early and submit them for discussion in ample time. Dull also found Orbán’s self-criticism refreshing, but the only mistake he admitted to was the internet tax, which was just one of the many decisions that prompted widespread dissatisfaction with the government. The man has real difficulty admitting to any missteps. All in all, it is difficult to imagine that, in place of their relentless war-like behavior, from now on Viktor Orbán and his government will pay the greatest attention to the everyday problems of ordinary Hungarians, as he promised today.

Viktor Orbán speaks on his achievement of the last five years

Viktor Orbán speaks about his achievements of the last five years

Orbán promised zero tolerance toward corruption and spoke out against “slanderers” who out of “sheer jealousy” attack brave and hardworking Hungarian businessmen. I guess these words need no translation. Everything will remain the same. Corruption will flourish and the “slanderers” might end up in jail.

Orbán used the occasion to make his first public attack on Jobbik and its euroskepticism. In this connection he talked about the European Union and NATO as “our family.” But how seriously can one take all this when in the same speech he said the following: “A lot can happen in twenty-five years, but the fact that we are for a free and independent Hungary must remain constant. For us the sovereignty of Hungary cannot be a bargaining chip.”

The bulk of the speech focused on the fantastic accomplishments of his five years in power. The message was, in essence, that when he came into power Hungary was in ruins. Thanks to his government’s efforts the country has been saved. Few people remember, especially after five years of brainwashing, that the worst fallout of the 2008 crisis in Hungary was in 2009 and that by 2010, thanks to the Bajnai government’s efforts, the economy was improving. In fact, the collapse of the forint, the downgrading of the Hungarian government’s bonds to junk status, and the decrease in foreign investment were not the products of the Gyurcsány-Bajnai governments. They all happened after Viktor Orbán became prime minister and his right-hand man, György Matolcsy, began his crazy experimentation with “unorthodox” economics.

Orbán set two priorities in 2010: to fight unemployment and to reduce the national debt. In March 2010 the debt was 83% of GDP. Five years later, in March 2015, it was 85% of GDP. And in the interim an incredible amount of money taken from the private pension funds of 3.5 million Hungarians went for debt reduction. As for unemployment, on paper the figures look impressive–a decrease from about 12% to 7%. But if we look at the situation a little closer, we realize that 250,000 people who were added to the workforce are employed by the public works program, which is a burden on the national economy. In addition, 300-400,000 Hungarians by now have moved to other countries of the European Union, which eased the unemployment situation. The government that promised to become smaller than ever before has grown enormously. In the last five years, out of the 120,000 net new jobs in the country, a whopping 104,000 were created in the government sector. Growth in the private sector, which is what really matters, was minuscule: less than 16,000.

Although Orbán is very proud of the 2014 GDP, which is indeed high by European standards, he certainly wouldn’t want to talk about the sad fact that between 2010 and 2014 there was no growth whatsoever. It was only in the last few months that economic growth reached a level last seen before 2008.

In 2010 60% of high school matriculants headed to college, but this figure is now 45%. In 2014 1.5 times more people moved abroad than in 2013 and six times more than in 2009. Most left for economic reasons, but 36% of them said that they were also escaping the regime introduced by the Orbán government.

And a final sign of Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy.” The following media outlets were denied access to the conference organized for the occasion: Népszava, Hócipő, 444.hu, KlubRádió, and the still right-of-center but not wholly uncritical Magyar Nemzet and LánchídRádió. Népszabadság, the leading Hungarian daily, was not barred, but out of sympathy for those excluded, the paper published only MTI’s report on the speeches delivered at the conference.

Viktor Orbán: The Hungarian people are by nature politically incorrect

In the last few days I have been mulling over a lot of topics that I wanted to make available on Hungarian Spectrum, among them key elements of Viktor Orbán’s speech on the “state of the nation” that I did not cover earlier. Specifically, his opinions on multiculturalism, immigration, and political correctness. A young political commentator, Zoltán Ceglédi of the Republikon Institute, believes that Orbán’s claim that “Hungarian people are politically incorrect by nature” is about the most egregious sentence he has ever uttered. In Ceglédi’s opinion, it is worse than his reference to “illiberal democracy.”

Judging from foreign press coverage, “political incorrectness” didn’t set off the shock waves that “illiberal democracy” did last summer and has ever since. Yes, English-language sites quoted it, but it was only the Associated Press that considered it important enough to include in its coverage of the speech. It was also AP that emphasized Orbán’s denunciation of multiculturalism and immigrants. Thus, Orbán’s words on these subjects reached only those foreign newspapers that subscribe to AP’s news service.

Let me quote the appropriate passage. I’m using the Budapest Beacon‘s translation.

We shouldered unworthy attacks and accusations and abandoned the dogma of political correctness. As I see it, the Hungarian people are by nature politically incorrect, or have not yet lost their commonsense. Nobody is interested in talk but rather deeds, results rather than theories, they want work and cheap utility costs (rezsi). They do not swallow the jimson weed that unemployment is a natural part of modern economies. They want to free themselves from the modern age’s servitude of debt created by the foreign exchange loans. They do not want to see masses of people of a different culture in their country who are incapable of adapting, who represent a threat to public order and their jobs and their survival.

“Political correctness” is, according to one definition, “an attitude or policy of being careful not to offend or upset any group of people in society who are believed to have a disadvantage.” Or, “politically correctness is concerned with promoting tolerance and avoiding offense in matters of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.” If we can substitute “proper” in this context for “correct,” as I believe we can, then “incorrect”means “improper” or, more loosely, “inappropriate.” Is this what Viktor Orbán had in mind? Indeed, one ought to be careful with words.

Orbán assumes the worst of immigrants. They “will never be willing to accept, they originally came with the intention of destroying, European culture.” In his eyes, Europeans have already lost their “collective European home.” He also added that if the Hungarian government had not acted against the immigrants, Hungary would have been “turned into a refugee camp.”

On the question of “illiberal democracy” he retreated somewhat when he told his audience that liberal principles after 1990 “brought many good things to Hungary for which we ourselves struggled.” But the world has changed and liberalism is no longer relevant. However, he added, “there are things which are worth retaining from a previous period, such as democracy, the one without an adjective.” Actually, I find this off-the-cuff remark about democracy being “worth retaining” a telling clue to Viktor Orbán’s attitude toward democratic values.

I discovered only one internet site that applauded Orbán’s endorsement of political incorrectness and his denunciation of multiculturalism, immigrants, and liberalism. It is a neo-Nazi site called The Daily Stormer, according to which “Orban is by no means a great hero, but by Western political standards, he is definitely a pretty cool guy.” After quoting the appropriate passages from the Associated Press’s summary of the speech, the author adds: “All he is really saying is something incredibly basic, which is: ‘come on, this is stupid.’ The idea that more leaders are not coming out and stating the obvious fact that it makes exactly zero sense to allow unlimited number of entirely useless and dangerous subhumans to invade our countries demonstrated just how deeply sick the West is.” Approval from neo-Nazis! Does Viktor Orbán realize the kinds of circles in which his ideas are being embraced?

The author of of The Daily Stormer liked Viktor Orbán's attack on immigation, multiculturalism, and liberalism

The author of of The Daily Stormer liked Viktor Orbán’s attack on immigration, multiculturalism, and liberalism

I don’t know what his audience and his constituency thought of his references to multiculturalism, immigration, liberalism, and political incorrectness, but by now we have a fairly good idea of what Fidesz voters thought of the speech in general. They are deeply disappointed because they were waiting for an announcement of a radical change in political strategy after the serious setback Viktor Orbán and Fidesz suffered in Veszprém. Instead, he simply announced that the Fidesz candidate lost badly. It looks as if he is convinced that the only reason for the debacle was a lack of hard work on the part of the Fidesz team on the spot. They didn’t mobilize Fidesz voters. But a large number of his followers think that the fault lies with Viktor Orbán and his government: its pro-Russian and anti-European Union policies, corruption, lack of communication with the general public, ostentatious behavior of members of the government and the people around Orbán, the growing poverty, ineptitude on every level of government, one could list the problems endlessly. But Orbán said not a word about any of these issues. He is not a man who is quick to face reality after a setback.

Magyar Nemzet, which in the past two weeks has become much more critical of the government, also found the speech wanting. An editorial titled “Reveille” expressed its doubt that Orbán’s “Good morning, Hungary!” will be enough to recapture the trust of his followers. Tamás Fricz, a so-called political scientist and one of the fiercest defenders of Viktor Orbán, tried to hang on to a single sentence in Orbán’s 45-minute speech: “Probably there is a need for more discussion and consultation.” Yes, said Fricz, this is the essence of the whole speech. And yes, what Hungary needs is people who believe in equality, “who don’t worship even Viktor Orbán, who don’t believe in the superiority of politicians.” Society must talk about what went wrong in “the national, conservative camp.” After three great wins, it is safe “to conduct these natural and necessary debates, to express differences of opinions, and talk straight with one another as befits us.” Unfortunately, Viktor Orbán does everything in his power to steer clear of debate and to tamp down differences of opinion. And he seems positively allergic to straight talk. The national, conservative camp will have to talk among themselves, without their leader.

Angela Merkel in Budapest

Yesterday I sketched out a number of hypotheses about Angela Merkel’s objective in visiting Budapest. Almost all Hungarian foreign policy experts were certain that Merkel would not touch on Hungarian domestic issues. Her only concerns would be Viktor Orbán’s compliance with the common EU policy regarding Russia and his treatment of German businesses in Hungary. Since the Hungarian prime minister accommodated on both fronts just prior to her visit, she would have little to complain about. The consensus was that she would remain silent on the state of democracy in Hungary.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine that Merkel could ignore this issue. The German press has been full of stories about Orbán’s authoritarian regime. It has given extensive coverage to Hungary’s anti-government, pro-democracy demonstrations. So there was some homegrown pressure on the German chancellor to stick her neck out and talk openly about the issue. Many people comment on Merkel’s low-key, sometimes vapid style. Those who know her better, however, assure us that in private she can be a tiger. Well, today, we caught a glimpse of that side of her character.

This morning Gregor Peter Schmitz in Der Spiegel demanded “plain talk” from Merkel in Budapest. “The whole of Europe is terrified of extremists, Angela Merkel is meeting one,” he said. It is time to speak out. If Schmitz watched the press conference after a short luncheon meeting between Angela Merkel and the Hungarian prime minister, he was most likely disappointed, at least initially. She did talk about issues that democrats at home and abroad find important: the role of civil society and the importance of the opposition, but her critique was pretty bland. She said, for instance, that “even if you have a broad majority, as the Hungarian prime minister does, it’s very important in a democracy to appreciate the role of the opposition, civil society, and the media.” Merkel had said the same thing many times before.

The real surprise, “the plain talk” Schmitz demanded, came at the end when Stephan Löweinstein of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung asked Merkel her opinion about Orbán’s “illiberal democracy.” After explaining that liberalism is part and parcel of the ideology of her own party, she added: “I personally don’t know what to do with the term.” In her opinion there is no such animal. Orbán did not back down. He repeated his belief that not all democracies are liberal and that liberalism cannot have a privileged position in the political landscape. I should add that the Hungarian state television station omitted this exchange in its broadcast of the press conference.

Source: HVG / Photo: Gergely Túry

Source: HVG / Photo: Gergely Túry

Viktor Orbán was not a happy man. I’m certain that he expected concessions from Merkel after he was so “generous” on the RTL Klub case. It seems that Merkel did not appreciate his efforts to the extent hoped for in Budapest.

During the press conference Orbán talked mostly about German-Hungarian economic relations and thanked Germany for its investment, which resulted in 300,000 jobs in Hungary. But he became more insistent and strident as time went on, especially when Merkel began talking about a common European energy policy. He indicated that in his opinion the European Union doesn’t appreciate Hungary’s utter dependence on Russian gas. He stressed, in a raised voice, that the Russian-Hungarian long-term gas supply contract will be expiring soon and that Hungary must have a new agreement with the Russians. Hence the forthcoming Putin-Orbán meeting in Budapest.

An opposition politician called my attention to the fact that Merkel referred to Orbán as “ein Kollege” instead of the customary designation “friend.” An American acquaintance noted that the new American ambassador also talks about Hungary as an “ally” and no longer as a friend.

The German papers are already full of articles about the trip, and I’m sure that in the next few days there will be dozens of articles and op/ed pieces analyzing Merkel’s day in Budapest. I’m also certain that I will spend more than one post on this visit. Here are a few initial observations.

Merkel spent very little time with Viktor Orbán. Just a little over an hour, including a meal. With János Áder no more than 15-20 minutes. On the other hand, the event at the German-language Andrássy University was quite long where differences of opinion between the two politicians became evident. The introductory remarks by the president of Andrássy University were lengthy as was the speech by the president of the University of Szeged, which bestowed an honorary degree on Angela Merkel. Her own speech was not short either. What was most surprising was the number of questions allowed. Some of the questions were not political but personal. Perhaps the students didn’t have the guts to ask politically risky questions. Her answers showed her to be quite an open person, very different from what I expected. One brave soul did bring up the topic of terrorism and immigration, indicating that Orbán inflames prejudice against people from different cultural backgrounds. Merkel stood by her guns, stressing the need for tolerance, openness, and diversity. Another question was about Russian aggression. Here she used strong words against aggression and condemned Putin’s use of force.

Finally, a few words about Merkel’s final destination, the synagogue on Dohány utca, where she talked to Hungarian Jewish religious leaders. Apparently, the Hungarians first suggested that Viktor Orbán accompany Merkel. The Germans turned that kind offer down. I find it significant that Merkel’s visit to the synagogue was longer than planned. Her plane left Budapest half an hour later than scheduled.

All in all, those people who were afraid that by going to Budapest Angela Merkel would give her stamp of approval to Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” can breathe a sigh of relief. Nothing of the sort happened.

Viktor Orbán and László Kövér on the warpath against Washington

While we were snooping around in Felcsút and downtown Budapest over the weekend, Viktor Orbán and his old pal from college days, László Kövér, were working hard to make American-Hungarian relations even worse than they already are.

The offensive started with a letter that László Kövér addressed to American Vice President Joe Biden. In it he complained about Senator John McCain’s speech in the Senate, in which McCain called Viktor Orbán “a neo-fascist dictator.” McCain with this unfounded statement “violated the sovereignty of Hungary.” The lack of respect McCain showed toward one of the leaders of the trans-atlantic alliance is unacceptable, said Kövér. But, he continued, McCain’s outburst is not just the single misstep of an ill-informed senator but “a brutal manifestation of a process which is becoming evident by the statements, gestures, behavior of government officials and persons who are in contact with the Hungarian government.” Kövér in the letter asked Biden to use his influence to temper the statements of government officials. In plain English, Kövér demanded a change in U.S. policy toward Hungary.

Kövér’s letter to Biden was followed by a Sunday interview with an MTI reporter in which Kövér expressed the same opinion, but even more forcefully than in his letter. From the Hungarian government’s perspective, American-Hungarian relations can be improved only by a change in U.S. policy. Hungary is an innocent victim, and therefore its government has no intention of changing its current posture in either foreign or domestic affairs. In this interview he actually accused the United States of playing a concerted “geopolitical game”  in which the U.S. “is using us, the Czechs, the Romanians, and the Slovaks for their plans ‘to make order’ in the immediate hinterland of the front line.” In his opinion, the situation is worse than it seems on the surface because “on the intermediate level of the State Department there are people who have been the opponents and enemies not only of Hungary but also of Fidesz-KDNP.” Fidesz politicians are absolutely convinced that Hungary’s bad reputation at the moment is due solely to antagonistic liberal critics of the Orbán regime who influence the middle stratum of government officials in the State Department. His final word on the subject was: “The key to the normalization of the bilateral relations is not in our hands.”

Today, echoing Kövér’s tirade, Viktor Orbán delivered a speech in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences at a conference commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Timișoara/Temesvár events in December 1989 which eventually led to the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. I must say one needs quite a fertile imagination to smuggle an attack on the United States into a speech on such an occasion, but Orbán managed. He quoted László Tőkés, the Calvinist minister who was the hero of the Romanian revolution, who apparently said on some occasion that “words uttered at the right time and place equal in value the Word of the Creator.” From here, with a sharp turn, he got to those “words uttered not at the right place” which produce destruction. Because calling another country a dictatorship, especially when uttered by those who have never in their lives lived in anything resembling a dictatorship, is wanton destruction. “Yet they think they are in possession of a description of a phantom picture of dictatorship, when they don’t see, they don’t know its essence.”

warfare

From here he moved easily to Yalta and Potsdam where “the representatives of the western world were not too worried about checks and balances” and “offered the people of Eastern Europe tyranny on a platter.” In 1989 each of those countries alone had to get rid of the shackles that were put on them in 1944-1945.

Checks and balances had to be on the Hungarian prime minister’s mind throughout the weekend because earlier he gave a very lengthy interview to Zoltán Simon of Bloomberg. Here I will summarize only those parts that have a direct bearing on U.S.-Hungarian relations. According to Orbán,”the U.S. in response to the geopolitical situation, has come up with an action plan, which they recently announced publicly, and it involves two dozen countries. This is fundamentally trying to influence alleged corruption in these two dozen countries.”

I suspect that the interview was conducted in English, a language in which the prime minister is no wordsmith, because these two sentences make no sense to me.  Perhaps what he wanted to say was that the United States is using the “fight against corruption” as an excuse to influence other countries’ foreign policies. But “this is the land of freedom fighters. And there’s public feeling in Hungary that sees a sovereignty problem in all of this. It feels that this is an attempt to influence from the outside the sovereign decisions of a freely elected parliament.”

Moving on to the U.S. criticism of Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy,” he delivered the following history lesson to ignorant Americans:

Checks and balances only have meaning in the United States, or in presidential systems, where there are two identical sovereigns, that is a directly elected president and legislature. In Europe, this isn’t the case, there’s only one sovereign, there’s nowhere to “checks it or balance it,” because all of the power is delegated by parliament. In these instances it’s much more appropriate to talk about cooperation rather than checks and balances. Checks and balances is a U.S. invention that for some reason of intellectual mediocrity Europe decided to adopt and use in European politics.

Poor Montesquieu, who coined the term “checks and balances.” Or the ancient Greeks, who are generally credited with having introduced the first system of checks and balances in political life.

As for the American and European criticism of the illiberal state, Orbán’s answer is: “Hungarians welcomed illiberal democracy, the fact that in English it means something else is not my problem.”

Finally, an update on Ildikó Vida, who filed a complaint against an unnamed person who just happens to be M. André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Budapest. Everything is proceeding apace. She filed the complaint on Friday, December 12 and by today the prosecutors are already investigating. Magyar Nemzet speculates that the investigators will call in “witnesses,” but the paper admits that it is possible that “Goodfriend will easily get off.” The Hungarian judicial system, which is normally slow as molasses, can be very speedy when Viktor Orbán wants to expedite matters.