Tag Archives: illiberal state

Hungarian NGOs embrace civil disobedience

I don’t think anyone was surprised when two days ago the Hungarian parliament with its overwhelming, almost two-thirds Fidesz majority passed a law imposing strict regulations on foreign-funded non-governmental organizations. The law bears a suspicious resemblance to the 2012 Russian law that required groups that received funds from abroad to identify themselves as “foreign agents.” The Hungarian version is somewhat more “lenient.” The targeted NGOs don’t have to call themselves “foreign agents,” but they must bear the label that they are the recipients of foreign funds, which can be considered a stigma.

Defenders of the bill insist that there is nothing “discriminatory” in this new “civic law,” but, of course, this is not the case. If it were, there wouldn’t be so many “exceptions” to the rule. For example, churches and sports clubs are exempt. Fidesz politicians feel confident in capitalizing on how the Hungarian everyman reacts to anything foreign, especially after a series of anti-migrant campaigns that, as we know from polls, greatly increased xenophobia in the country. Just imagine an interview with the managing director of TASZ, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, in which either she must introduce herself or the reporter must introduce her as “the leader of a foreign-funded organization.”

Fidesz’s pretext for enacting such a law is the government’s alleged striving for more transparency and for preventing money laundering and the financing of terrorism. Anyone at all familiar with the work of such organizations as TASZ, the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, or Amnesty International, three NGOs that are specifically targeted by the government, knows that it is not money laundering that is bothering the Orbán government. Over the years these NGOs have become increasing irritants as far as the Orbán government is concerned. Every time the lawyers working for these NGOs suspect illegality they immediately turn to the courts, and they almost always win. As far as Fidesz and the Orbán government are concerned, this is an intolerable situation.

The government’s position is that human rights activists are not elected officials and therefore they have no right to act as a quasi-political opposition to the elected government. Of course, this argument is unacceptable in a democratic society where people can freely organize political associations on pro- or anti-government platforms. Even political parties fall into the same category. They are voluntary organizations ruled by their own by-laws and their own boards of directors. All these groups have the right to function freely as long as they act in a lawful manner. Fidesz has pretty well succeeded in making the other political parties inconsequential. But the NGOs refuse to go away or kowtow to the government. And so it was time, somehow or other, to get rid of these pesky civil rights activists with their highly qualified lawyers who keep poking their noses into the Orbán government’s dirty business.

Viktor Orbán hates these organizations, whom he considers in large measure responsible for many of his problems with the European Union, the European Court of Justice, and the European Court of Human Rights. If these organizations hadn’t existed, he wouldn’t have had half the problems he has had over the years with the European Commission.

With the anti-NGO law, Orbán is most likely convinced that the small, cosmetic alterations the government made by incorporating some of changes recommended by the Venice Commission will satisfy the European Commission, as similar superficial modifications to Hungarian laws satisfied the commissioners in the past. For a few days foreign papers will be full of articles condemning the undemocratic, illiberal Hungarian state and a few foreign governments will publish official statements expressing their disapproval of Orbán’s latest move, but nothing of substance will happen. In fact, in a couple of days everybody will forget about the bill and its consequences. Then, sometime in the future, the Orbán government will make another move against the NGOs. Because few observers believe that this will be the last attempt to get rid of the NGOs that stand in the way of the present Hungarian government.

Only a few hours after the enactment of the “civic law,” TASZ announced that it will not obey the law, i.e. it will not register as the law demands because “this is the most effective way of combating this unconstitutional law.” According to TASZ, the law violates the freedoms of speech and association and unlawfully differentiates among civic organizations. TASZ’s lawyers are also convinced that it violates EU laws because the legislation violates the European Union’s internal market rules, in particular the free movement of capital. TASZ is prepared for the consequences of its action. Máté Szabó, professional director of TASZ, argued along the following lines: “Some of the enforcement possibilities will be open to us only if we don’t comply with the law. Since we do not want to relinquish a single law enforcement option, we will not comply with the requirements of the law.” Stefánia Kapronczay, executive director of TASZ, said: “We are aware of the fact that legal procedures will be initiated against us, but we are not afraid of them. Yearly we represent our clients in more than a hundred cases in the courts of Hungary, the Constitutional Court, and the Strasbourg court…. I’m convinced that after long procedures this law will have to be discarded.” The Hungarian Helsinki Commission joined TASZ in boycotting the new law on civic groups. “Unless and until the Hungarian Constitutional Court and/or the European Court of Human Rights hear the case and approve the law, we will not register.”

I think that the decision of these two civic organizations is the correct one, even if László Trócsányi, minister of justice, announced that “civil disobedience is not known to me, nor is it known in [our] legal system.” This was obviously meant not as an admission of ignorance but as a warning to TASZ and the Hungarian Helsinki Commission. However, I would like to remind Trócsányi that his lawyers don’t have a great track record against the lawyers of these two NGOs.

June 15, 2017

The political credo of László Botka, MSZP’s candidate for prime minister

The original article by László Botka, titled “Az igazságos Magyarországért,” appeared in 160 Óra on January 21, 2017. Thanks to the staff of The Budapest Sentinelit was translated into English and published today. I am grateful to the Sentinel‘s editors for permission to make the translation available to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Hungarian left has not been in such a storm battered state during the entire existence of the third republic, yet Hungary has never needed the left as much as it does now.

Viktor Orbán, in power since 2010, has thrust a country that served in the 1990s as a model for democracy in Eastern Central Europe into autocracy. Any democratic political force that defeats Orbán must return to constitutional democracy and the rule of law. However, the Orbán regime has not only dismantled the rule of law and democracy, but also spread a concept of society that is deeply unjust, runs counter to the basic interests of Hungarian people, and which all true left-wing forces must fight against.

The crisis of the left wing is not only a domestic issue. The rapid advance of national populism means progressive political forces around the world have found themselves on the defensive. Talk in recent years has been about nothing else: from the refugee crisis, via Brexit, to the US presidential election. Populists promised those parts of society that have been left behind, or are just holding on, that they can once again enjoy a secure livelihood – through the repression of other groups. Migrants, the homeless, the unemployed, the “undeserving” poor, ethnic minorities, intellectuals who express solidarity with them, and civic activists are all marked down as enemies of the nation. Hungary is at the forefront of all this: here the breakthrough for national populism came in 2010 with Orbán’s “ballot box revolution”.

Photo: Péter Komka

The left is now charged with a historic task: we must put a stop to this far-right national populism, and make our own vision of society attractive once again. Populists cannot solve the crisis that exists on many levels; they only make the problem worse. A populist is like a dentist who does not dare to tell a patient with toothache what the real cause of the problem is. Instead of treating it, he prescribes painkillers. The patient may well get temporary relief, but in reality his condition is getting ever worse. The left will not get anywhere with false remedies. We must be honest, because lying to a patient is dishonorable, the effects of a painkiller are only temporary, and the problem will only return in a more serious form. The Hungarian left must present a vision of a future Hungary that we would all like to live in, somewhere we can live well.

In this piece – which will be followed by more over the coming weeks – I have undertaken to present a vision of how our homeland could become a more just country. By aiming for this goal, the left could finally haul itself out of its deep crisis. We need a politics of equality that is far removed from that practiced by the left-wing in recent years and one that is diametrically opposed to Orbán’s vision of Hungary.

Orbán dreams of a “work-based” authoritarian state in which government representatives have the last word on every issue, even when they are wrong – one where the powers that be promise a well-functioning and developed economy can be built by ending democratic debate. Some observers of Orbán’s system say the prime minister’s aim is to set up an eastern European Singapore, where Orbán could lead the country for decades as father of the nation, and hurriedly join the developed world by cutting back on political debate. To put it more simply, Orbán is offering prosperity and security in exchange for freedom and democracy.

Hungary cannot accept this deal for two reasons. First of all, because this promise is a lie. Hungary will not be the next Singapore. There is not and never will be an Orbán miracle. Instead of building a developing, authoritarian Singapore, there has been a Putinization of the country, where the promise of prosperity only applies to those favored by Orbán. For the rest there is only poverty, hopelessness and abjection – and restricted freedom. We are talking about a system where, according to the Ministry of Human Resources, capable members of society are carrying Hungary “on their shoulders” while disadvantaged people such as the disabled and the Roma are merely a burden. That is, in its own dishonest way, the government is dividing society into those who “pull their weight” and the “carried”. Yet this “carrying on the shoulders” is another lie, because the government long ago abandoned the disadvantaged to their own problems and difficulties. Society under Fidesz is a cast system in which everyone has their own place and fate. Helping the lower casts is in no way an aim of the Orbán state. This cast system is held together by the power principle. Since 2010, Fidesz has built a new feudalism, and with this it keeps Hungary on the margins of the Western world.

Orbán believes in a labor market where workers are diligent producers and desire nothing but a secure place on the production line. This is the opposite of where the developed world is heading. The knowledge-based economies of the modern world can only take off with the work of creative people. The only route to creating a prosperous, dynamic economy is one where the education system sends students brimming with imagination and creativity out onto the path. It is significant that the education budget as a proportion of GDP has sunk to tragic depths under the Orbán regime. A new left-wing government must set out the goal of transforming Hungary into an innovative, knowledge-based economy by markedly increasing funding for, and radically raising, the level of education.

Equally significant is the fact that Orbán has come up with just one idea to tackle unemployment: workfare. But is not difficult to see that no start-up entrepreneurs are going to emerge from among those on public work schemes. Moreover, it is unfortunately clear that there is no path from the prison of workfare to a real job. Orbán’s work-based state is, for hundreds of thousands of people, nothing but a dead end.

Instead of the Orbán state, where social groups are set against one another and divided into winners and losers, we need a state that actively intervenes to help people achieve their goals and, where necessary, ensure a high level of leverage for this recovery. Hungary can only be successful if an ”only the fittest survive” mentality is replaced with one of “we are all in the same boat”.

It is not only because authoritarianism does not lead to prosperity that we must say no to Orbán’s system. Authoritarianism is unacceptable in and of itself. Orbán’s cast system is unjust to its core and its authoritarianism unacceptable. As one of the 20th century’s most influential egalitarian thinkers, John Rawls, put it: justice is more important than any other parameter for evaluating societies. Equally important is Rawls’ view that freedom, equality and prosperity are indispensable building blocks for a just society, so one cannot sacrifice basic human rights in the interests of material prosperity. Therefore, we cannot choose the route of authoritarianism, because there is a better and more moral path: that of freedom and prosperity. Prosperity for the large majority of society – as the example of Scandinavian society shows – can and should be ensured when freedom and prosperity reinforce one another.

From 2018, the next left-wing government must build a successful and prosperous Hungary on a foundation of justice. To further this aim, I offer a vision of a successful left-wing state based on the ideal of equality for all as an alternative to Orbán’s authoritarian state. The three pillars of egalitarian politics are equality of opportunity, relative equality of wealth, and the principle of equal citizenship.

The ideal of equality of opportunity, a cornerstone of all western democracies since the Second World War is nothing other than the rejection of a cast system. The strong conviction is that social advancement cannot depend on others, only our own talents and endeavors, irrespective of whether we come from a rich or a poor family.

The idea of equality of opportunity cannot be reconciled with Fidesz’s politics. Under Orbán’s regime, the wealthy elite spend millions so their children can study in private schools or in Switzerland. For the poorer parts of society, an uncompetitive or downright segregated school is the first, and often the last, station.

With regard to this basic principle, the left should not shy away from self-criticism. The “third way” social democracy of the 1990s and 2000s – for which former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány was the standard bearer in Hungary – moved too far from the idea of equal opportunity. The third-way “New Labor” party that will forever be associated with the names of British prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and its successors, gave up on material equality and placed equality of opportunity as the exclusive guiding principle. The third way soon turned hollow: it became clear that it had been naive to think that equality of opportunity alone was enough. Even if it had succeeded in ensuring social mobility in education and the world of work, material inequality and social division would not have disappeared. The left believed, and its followers believed, that modernization would create no losers, only winners. The principle of equality of opportunity promised that everyone could find a place in knowledge industry based on high skill levels, but this remained an illusion. The fate of those left out of the modern knowledge economy became ever more hopeless. Nationalist, chauvinist and populist forces picked up on this, and disappointment gave them a way to reach the people.

Photo: Zoltán Balogh

Nor can a society of equals develop when half of the country is mobile, well trained and wealthy and the other is tied to the land, unskilled and owns nothing. We cannot describe such a country as just. Inequality of wealth today is tomorrow’s inequality of opportunity. This situation in Hungary in this regard is serious. A report by Tárki in 2016 showed that 44% of the population owns no property, and 60% are incapable of adopting a middle class way of life. The most absurd thing about all this is that it we find ourselves at this point under the leadership of a government that continually invokes the name of the middle classes.

Despite Fidesz’s chief economic ideologue saying that criticism of wealth disparities arises purely from jealousy, certain social risks can really only be averted by combating economic inequalities. Research has shown that a raft of new problems arise when wealth inequality gets out of control. In societies with high social inequality, life expectancy is shorter, education is of lower quality, social mobility is restricted, and there is a higher rate of mental illness, drug addiction and crime. Hungarians’ terrible state of health and its catastrophic results in the PISA survey are grimly related to the enrichment of Lőrinc Mészáros.

So the promise of equality of opportunity is not enough to improve the lot of the half of Hungarians that have been left behind. We must also strive for relative wealth equality – this is the second fundamental principle of egalitarian left-wing politics. Instead of sports stadiums and the enrichment of the “national” oligarchy, resources must be spent on citizens. Partly in the form of quality education, partly through social security packages that reduce the lack of food and adequate housing, and risks arising from illness of the loss of a job.

Besides all this there is a third pillar to equality that is less often mentioned: the principle of equal citizenship. In a society based on equal citizenship, the prime minister has to wait in line at the baker’s, the post office or the doctor’s surgery just like anyone else. This notion of equality must become the most important guiding principle for the Hungarian left.

The principal of equal citizenship is breached by the emergence of a new cast of powerful and gracious ladies and gentlemen who do not share public spaces with the common people, do not breathe the same air. It is enough to think of the minister in charge of propaganda, who flies to parties by helicopter, or the chief government minister who shoots hundreds of pheasants while hunting with his partners, and who believes that everybody deserves their lot in life. Meanwhile, the system they put in place locks entire masses into poverty and the world of workfare. This is how Viktor Orbán and Fidesz have corrupted Hungary: in place of a nation of fellow citizens, we have become a nation of lords and lackeys. Politicians of the governing party no longer represent the interests of the people, citizens or the nation in the Parliament, merely the private goals of their separate “elite” cast. It cannot go on like this!

I see the most important task of the left as precisely that of recreating the conditions for equal citizenship. We must become worthy of representing the principles and practicing egalitarianism. We must put an end to the era of unprincipled compromise, climb-downs and putting up with things – our political actions must have a moral basis. Egalitarian politics is just, and suitable for lifting Hungary to the level of the developed Western world.

It follows from this that the next left-wing government must also conduct a principled foreign policy. Viktor Orbán swapped a western orientation based on solid moral principles for opportunistic friendships with dictators. We cannot give up the ideal of an open and free Europe in favor of a new Iron Curtain era. A European partnership built on shared ideals is the right policy, and one that serves Hungary’s interests. However much Viktor Orbán might deny it, we belong to the free world.

In my political career to date, I have used the means at my disposal to work for a free and just Hungary and the politics of equality. If I am given the opportunity by the citizens, this is what I would also like to do as prime minister of Hungary.

January 28, 2017

Richard Field: Fear and Loathing in Hungary

The author is the managing editor of the Budapest Beacon and chairman of the American House Foundation, which supplies food to the Hungarian Red Cross for distribution to poor Hungarians in Budapest and the countryside and to Migration Aid for distribution to refugees, asylum seekers, and economic migrants. This article first appeared in the October 9, 2015 issue of  The Budapest Sentinel.

* * *

fear and loathing

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán claims to be not only a good Christian but the savior of Christian Europe. And yet there is very little about his government’s policies that can be considered Christian. It lies. It steals. It bears false witness. It sows rancor and division among its friends. It sets convicted axe murderers free. It perpetrates unconscionable acts of political revenge. It distributes billions in EU and state subsidies to prominent Fidesz supporters even as it deprives millions of Hungarians of the means to feed their children. It prosecutes civil society and political opposition leaders on trumped-up charges, even as it turns a blind eye to ruling party politicians engaged in everything from influence peddling to prostitution to the systematic theft of state assets. And it spends billions of forints every year deliberately manipulating and distorting the truth. In short, there is very little about the current government that could be considered “Christian” and much that could be considered outright evil.

And yet the bulk of Hungarian society remains silent.  Why is that?  The answer is simple: fear.

Fear and loathing in the Carpathian basin

Hungarians fear losing their jobs. They fear being stripped of their pensions. They fear hostile government inspections resulting in draconian fines and business closures. They fear their personal and professional reputations being tried, condemned, and executed in the court of public opinion by state and pro-government media. They fear being denounced as “communists,” “internationalists” or “cosmopolitans” for daring to speak truth to power.

One would think that such an oppressive political climate combined with rising poverty levels would result in greater disaffection, if not open rebellion as it did in 1956. But EU membership serves as an enormous safety valve on Hungarian society. Anyone fed up with the “Christian nationalist” government of Viktor Orbán is at liberty to pack up and move to Germany or England, which is precisely what hundreds of thousands of Hungarians have done since Viktor Orbán and Fidesz returned to power in 2010.

For sure, the majority of those leaving Hungary today are economic migrants, for which the current government is not entirely to blame. East-Central Europe was one of the regions worst affected by the global financial crisis of 2008. But beyond the desire to make ends meet without having to resort to tax fraud or a life of crime is a desire to live in a “normal country” where one is not subjected to a continuous barrage of pro-government propaganda fundamentally at odds with Judeo-Christian values.

Building an “illiberal” state

Viktor Orbán’s government spends vast sums of taxpayer and EU money telling Hungarians what to think and how to feel. The government constantly seeks to justify otherwise irrational and immoral policies by claiming they are part and parcel of building an “illiberal” state, which it claims is necessary if Hungary and the Hungarians are not only to survive but prosper in a dog-eat-dog world of nation-states relentlessly competing with one another to control scarce resources. In fact, no consistent set of values–illiberal or otherwise–underlies the government’s contradictory and counterproductive policies.

In the absence of any moral absolutes, all decisions are taken on the basis of political expediency to which the government then seeks to ascribe a patina of moral legitimacy by invoking the necessity of building an “illiberal” state.

The “Christian nationalist” state

Viktor Orbán likes to remind people that his government is both “Christian” and “nationalist.” But how does that translate into actual government policies and programs?

In Hungary today the children of those unable to work are either taken away from their parents or left to starve. In the impoverished countryside, children unable to gain admission to parochial schools must settle for a second-rate education in run-down facilities that are literally falling apart. Families are stripped of their livelihoods and entire private industries destroyed in order to make it possible for the government to award lucrative concessions to Fidesz supporters. Even as legitimate refugees and asylum seekers are denied the right to enter Hungary, those prepared to purchase EUR 300,000 worth of government bonds (and pay a hefty commission to Antal Rogán’s business associates) are free to settle in Hungary.  Patients unable to afford private health care wait months, even years, for surgery for conditions deemed “non life-threatening” even as those admitted to hospital languish for weeks or months in decrepit, understaffed facilities, often without adequate medicine or food.

Viktor Orbán’s so-called “Christian nationalist” government is one where even fundamental considerations of right and wrong are subordinated to the overriding imperative of keeping Orbán and Fidesz in power. It doesn’t matter how many university educated Hungarians are forced to endure demeaning public work for starvation wages. It doesn’t matter how many underprivileged children go to bed hungry or drop out of school because their families cannot afford textbooks or proper clothing. It doesn’t matter how many people are stripped of their retirement savings or their livelihoods. All that matters is that no one be able to mount an effective political challenge to Viktor Orbán.

Elections that are “free but not fair”

The 2014 general elections, which OECD election monitors pronounced “free but not fair,” are an excellent case in point. In the run up to the election the second Orbán government used every means, fair and foul, to retain its two-thirds parliamentary majority. Beyond redistricting, it offered unprecedented financial inducements to parties enjoying no popular support to run candidates in order to further divide an already divided political opposition. It distributed over half a million Hungarian passports to people of Hungarian heritage living abroad in the belief they would all vote for Fidesz. Shockingly, it changed the method by which votes are tabulated so as to enable the Fidesz-KDNP political alliance to retain a two-thirds parliamentary majority with just 47 percent of the popular vote.

If Viktor Orbán gets away with it domestically, it is largely because, in addition to state media, his party controls a large number of private media outlets whose owners are only too happy to toe the government line in exchange for advertising revenues and lucrative government contracts.

And if he gets away with it internationally, it is because Hungary’s cooperation is required in order for the European Union to implement urgent structural reforms necessary to prevent the whole experiment from imploding.

The closing of the Hungarian mind

Perhaps the most pernicious effect of the second and third Orbán governments is not the generations of Hungarians lost to emigration or condemned to a life of grinding poverty and unemployment. It is the closing of the Hungarian mind to the very principles on which the European Union is based.

With the help of fringe academic “guns for hire” of the likes of Mária Schmidt and Sándor Szakály, the Orbán regime is actively rewriting the past to suit the present. In addition to exonerating Hungary and the Hungarian people for their role in one of the worst crimes of the 20th century, the government reassures the Hungarian people that it is perfectly reasonable and acceptable to harbor feelings of resentment and ill-will towards others.

If one experiences a growing sense of national paranoia and xenophobia in Hungary today, it is largely due to the government’s habit of blaming its failures on the European Union, foreign governments, multinational corporations, and even international relief agencies.

A morally rudderless ship of state 

To live in Hungary today is to be forced to endure cognitive dissonance not known since the darkest days of Communism. Everyone is expected to follow the letter of the law—everyone, that is, except for Fidesz politicians and their supporters who are virtually immune from prosecution. New laws are adopted by the Fidesz controlled parliament in clear violation of existing laws and even the Basic Law bestowed on Hungary by Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz-KDNP alliance in 2011. The government announces one day that state ownership of banks is a good thing, only to announce the next day that it’s a bad thing. Viktor Orbán announces one day that his government is committed to combating racism, only to announce the following week that it was a mistake to allow Roma to settle in Hungary in the first place. Recently, the government lectured Hungarians on the importance of registering asylum seekers and keeping economic migrants out at any cost, only for the Hungarian people to learn the following week that the government had in the meantime allowed tens of thousands of migrants to pass through Hungary without registering them.

In such a topsy-turvy world, where fair is foul and foul is fair, Hungarians find themselves adrift in a morally rudderless ship of state. Without a moral compass to guide them or a leader prepared to point in the direction of true north, Hungarians are condemned to be tossed about on a sea of interminable fear and loathing until they drown in a vortex of self-pity and resentment.

Ignorance is bliss

Unlike US President Barack Obama or German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who endeavor to educate the citizenry about what is happening at home and abroad, Orbán deliberately keeps Hungarians in the dark in order to exploit their deepest, darkest fears.

Europe’s refugee crisis is an excellent case in point. Instead of explaining that the migrants are refugees fleeing overcrowded camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, Viktor Orbán told the Hungarian people they were “economic migrants” coming to take their jobs, disrespect their culture, violate their laws, vandalize public property, spread infectious diseases, and commit acts of terrorism.

Having spent over HUF 1 billion dehumanizing the “economic migrants” within the framework of the so-called “national consultation on immigration and terrorism,” the government felt at liberty to disregard its international obligations and do as it pleased. Instead of investing in infrastructure necessary to receive and temporarily shelter tens of thousands of refugees, it spent that money on xenophobic propaganda and building a fence along the Serbian border. It even forbade the Red Cross and other international and domestic aid organizations from aiding refugees outside of Hungary’s overcrowded, understaffed refugee camps. As a result, thousands of refugees were forced to wait for days out in the open in so-called collection areas without food, water, shelter, or services of any kind.

After playing a cruel game of cat and mouse with migrants—telling them one day they could board trains to Austria, and the next day they couldn’t—the government deliberately staged an act of premeditated violence for the sake of demonstrating to the Hungarian people just how determined their government was to save them from the ravages of the economic migrants/terrorists.

A crime against humanity

On September 16th a phalanx of heavily armored Hungarian riot police deployed at the Hungarian-Serbian border at Röszke, reacted to a few cast stones by spraying a crowd of otherwise peaceful asylum seekers with pepper spray and water cannon. Many were crushed as hundreds of men, women, and children, temporarily blinded, reeled back violently from the border crossing gate.

Not surprisingly, a dozen or so youth responded to this outright provocation by throwing rocks, bricks and just about anything they could get their hands on at the police on the other side of the border.

What followed was the worst violation of human rights to take place in Europe since the end of the Yugoslav civil war.

Withdrawing some 150 meters from the border, Hungarian riot police allowed thousands of refugees, including women and children to enter Hungary, only to launch an unprovoked, surprise attack on them by commandos wielding rubber batons who “hit and beat everybody they could get their hands on” including members of the international press.

Without proper spin, this unprovoked attack might have cast the Orbán government in a negative light. Fortunately, international government spokesman Zoltán Kovács was on hand with a MTI television crew. To the moans of the scores of people wounded in the attack Kovács proudly announced that the Hungarian police had “defended the country with their bodies.”

Bombarded that evening in their living rooms with images of angry Arab males throwing rocks at police, it is little wonder the majority of Hungarians agreed that police had somehow reacted in a “measured and proportionate manner” as announced that afternoon by the national police magistrate’s office.

Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány was the only opposition leader to denounce this unconscionable act for what it was: a crime against humanity. But even then, one suspects Gyurcsány did so primarily for personal political reasons, as he himself was accused by Fidesz of violating the human rights of anti-government demonstrators in 2006.

Apart from Gyurcsány’s press conference of Friday, September 18th, neither the former prime minister nor any other member of the political opposition has dared to criticize the government for what really happened at Röszke, despite appalling accounts of police brutality offered by Australian photographer Warren Richardson and other members of the international press.

Pandering to the radical right

Apart from not wanting to be burdened with caring for tens of thousands of refugees, the only plausible explanation for Viktor Orbán’s actions is the desire to win over supporters from Jobbik, Hungary’s radical right-wing party. From this point of view, Orbán’s position was a resounding success, but one secured at a very high price in terms of Hungary’s reputation abroad and its relations with its neighbors.

Instead of acting in a cooperative and concerted manner with other EU members, Hungary rejected an earlier EC proposal, electing instead to build fences, first along the Serbian border and then along the Romanian, Croatian and even Slovenian borders. In other words, instead of acting in a concerted manner with Hungary’s allies, Viktor Orbán decided to dump the problem on neighboring Croatia and Slovenia. What he did not count on was Croatia responding to this unneighborly act by bussing refugees en masse to the Hungarian border, where they were met with border guards and soldiers armed with semi-automatic machine guns. Fortunately, they didn’t shoot. This time.

Fair is foul and foul is fair

Even as the government tried to present its harsh treatment of refugees and asylum seekers as a virtuous defense of Christian Europe, it ignored and even discouraged genuinely virtuous, Christian behavior on the part of civil society.

In response to government inaction, the Hungarian people took it upon themselves to feed, clothe, and even shelter the tens of thousands of refugees passing through their country. Migration Aid volunteer Edit Frenyó recounts how anonymous donors provided a steady flow of food, clothing, shoes, bus and train tickets, sleeping bags, tents, and personal hygiene products to hundreds of volunteers across the country for distribution to the migrants.

At the main transit station at Budapest’s Keleti station, hot and cold food prepared by volunteers at nearby soup kitchens was distributed daily to the thousands of migrants arriving on trains from Szeged and Debrecen. Even pensioners living on fixed incomes brought bread and milk because, unlike the “Christian nationalist” government of Viktor Orbán, they could not bear the sight of hungry children.

The miracle at Herceghalom

On September 4th, the day thousands of migrants stranded in Budapest decided to walk to Austria, hundreds of volunteers lined the road to provide them with food and water. That night, as the exhausted migrants bedded down by the M1 motorway in the vicinity of Hegyeshalom, hundreds of volunteers appeared out of nowhere to distribute food, clothing, blankets, even push carts and baby strollers.

Perhaps it was this spontaneous demonstration of sympathy for the refugees that induced the government to send hundreds of busses to transport them to the Austrian border. In Hungary, however, Christian charity has its limits. Despite the pleas of Austrian authorities, the Hungarian bus drivers refused to cross into Austria, thereby leaving the exhausted refugees no choice but to walk the final few kilometers to safety in the pouring rain.

Perhaps not since the aftermath of the Second World War, when tens of thousands of Hungarians were driven from their homes in neighboring countries, has there been such a spontaneous demonstration of compassion and solidarity on the part of ordinary Hungarians. And yet not one word of praise or recognition had been bestowed on them by the government. Instead, jealous of anything that might detract from the great leader’s image as the sole wellspring of all that is good and just, the government of Viktor Orbán has sought to take credit for their actions.

Enough is enough

The time has come for Viktor Orbán and his fellow kleptocrats in the guise of illiberal Christian crusaders to make way for a new generation of leaders–one committed to the liberal values underpinning the European Union and to promoting the public weal instead of lining their own pockets. Unfortunately, given the extent to which Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz minions have completely taken over Hungary economically, socially and culturally—right down to when and where you can purchase groceries or cigarettes and what textbooks your children may study from—one wonders whether such changes will come about in Viktor Orbán’s lifetime.

Moderate Fidesz as a bulwark against the Hungarian extreme right?

It was years ago that Viktor Orbán revealed for the first time his vision of what he later labelled illiberal or managed democracy. In those days he called it “the concept of central power.”

On September 5, 2009, in Kötcse, a picturesque village near Lake Balaton where Fidesz holds its annual “civic [polgári] picnic,” Orbán expounded on his theory of one central power that would preclude any strong and meaningful opposition for a long time to come. The idea was to create a political structure in which there was only one strong party that could, without interference from the opposition, run the country. Such a structure could not called be a dictatorship or a one-party system because there would be several parties. The others, however, would be so weak that they couldn’t challenge the leading political party, or if you wish, the central power.

Since then, Viktor Orbán, with the help of the Hungarian voters who handed him practically unlimited power, managed to make his vision a reality. Today Hungary’s political landscape strongly resembles the setup that existed between the two world wars, which may have been the inspiration for Orbán when he came up with the idea of a central power. Throughout the Horthy period the “government party” faced only a handful of parliamentary members who represented the Social Democrats and the liberals. The liberal party existed only in Budapest, where there was a sizable Jewish population (25%). The Social Democratic party’s activities were confined to a few large towns in addition to the capital.

Since 2010 it has been clear to everybody what “central power” meant in Fidesz’s vocabulary, but lately I have been noticing a transformation of the term. I guess “political products”–to use Gábor G. Fodor’s by now infamous phrase–must be adjusted to new circumstances. Although the left is fragmented and seems incapable of gaining ground, the same is not true about the right. Especially in the last three or four months the extreme right-wing Jobbik party has been attracting new supporters. The growth of a neo-Nazi party has frightened not only the Hungarian democratic forces but also the West. It is enough to glance at the major newspapers of Europe and North America to sense the concern over Jobbik’s robustness. Mind you, Fidesz’s reputation has not been soaring either, especially after Viktor Orbán described his ideal of an illiberal state. His friendship with Putin’s Russia further aroused suspicion. And now we come to the metamorphosis of the concept of “central power.”

As I heard from Gergely Gulyás a few days ago, it no longer means what it once did. Now “central power” simply means that Fidesz stands in the middle of the political spectrum, facing opposition from both the extreme left and the extreme right. Fidesz politicians are trying to sell their party as a moderate political formation that can keep Hungary in the democratic camp.

No one is especially worried about the so-called “extreme left,” because the parties that make up the democratic opposition can hardly be described as extreme. Moreover, they have never recovered from their devastating defeat in 2010. The extreme right is a different cup of tea. Both at home and abroad politicians as well as the democratic public are worried about Jobbik.

Under these circumstances it makes eminent sense to transform “the central power” into a bulwark against the extreme right. The message to the European Union and the United States runs along the following lines: “Stop attacking Fidesz and Viktor Orbán because they are the only ones who can save Hungary from Jobbik, which is a racist Nazi party in the true meaning of the word.” This is, of course, a ruse concocted by the Fidesz leadership, which is under considerable political pressure, and not just from Jobbik.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Chairman Vona Gábor of Jobbik

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Chairman Vona Gábor of Jobbik

Already back in 2009, before Viktor Orbán could carry out his plans, I considered both Fidesz and Jobbik to be extreme, anti-democratic parties, the only significant difference being that Jobbik is also racist and anti-Semitic. Between the two parties there is a “continuum.” One doesn’t know where Fidesz ends and Jobbik begins. At a conference held that year I said that “there are just too many signs that the messages of Jobbik and Fidesz are not radically different from one other. It is also becoming increasingly clear that supporters of the two parties overlap. It seems to me that on most fronts Fidesz says the same things as Jobbik but in a slightly more civilized manner.”

The recent development of a significant movement of former Fidesz voters to Jobbik illustrates this point rather eloquently. Polls have confirmed that the second choice of 30% of Fidesz voters would be Jobbik. Fidesz voters don’t consider Jobbik to be an extremist party. Therefore Viktor Orbán himself has never condemned Jobbik. In fact, back in 2003 he “looked upon the [youngsters] with encouraging love.” At that point he wouldn’t have advised them to organize a party, but he admitted that “it is possible that time will prove them right.” Yes, Jobbik began as a youth organization of Fidesz, and ever since on the local level the two parties have worked hand in hand.

Since then Fidesz has moved farther to the right. Expecting Fidesz to combat the extremism of Jobbik is at best a naive idea. There are some people, however, even on the domestic left, who fall for this kind of Fidesz propaganda. Perhaps the best example is Gáspár Miklós Tamás, a political philosopher whose ideological meanderings are hard to follow. He was a liberal, then a conservative, and currently is a Marxist who believes in a Utopian paradise. He got so frightened by the latest Ipsos poll that he wrote the following sentence in a long essay that appeared in today’s HVG: “Jobbik is quietly getting ready. And yes, in comparison to perdition Fidesz is still the lesser evil.” A totally wrong assessment of the situation.

Without Fidesz there would be no Jobbik in its present configuration. Expecting Fidesz to eradicate the noxious ideology of Jobbik and its followers, who freely move back and forth between the two parties, is foolish. If western democracies throw their weight behind Fidesz in the false belief that Fidesz is a moderate party, it is only Viktor Orbán who will emerge victorious from such an alliance. Such a policy would not only strengthen Fidesz but also weaken the democratic opposition. Surely, no one wants to do that. Especially since Jobbik would in the meantime happily cooperate behind the scenes with Fidesz in the Hungarian parliament, just as Professor Kim Scheppele outlined in The New York Times a couple of days ago.

U.S.-Hungarian rapprochement? I doubt it

Ever since the arrival of Colleen Bell, the new U.S. ambassador to Hungary, and the departure of M. André Goodfriend from Budapest, hopes have been high in government circles that U.S.-Hungarian relations will be on the mend. The general impression is that the United States has realized that Viktor Orbán is here to stay and the Americans better make peace with him. Orbán himself is convinced of this, and therefore it is unlikely that he is planning to change his policy toward the United States. The new ambassador’s considerable charm only supports this interpretation. Lots of smiles, lots of appearances, lots of flattering remarks about the greatness of Hungarian culture and the beauty of the country.

Viktor Orbán figures that the United States, for lack of a better alternative, is forced to cooperate with him. Of course, he tries to sweeten the bitter pill by leaking information about alleged business offers for American companies, from Sikorsky helicopters to Westinghouse’s participation in the Paks project. The government even suggested that they would be willing to join anti-ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria. How serious that offer was is questionable. The government pulled back on it because of “the opposition parties’ objections.” But since when has Fidesz ever cared about the opinion of the opposition parties? Meanwhile, the courting of the new ambassador began, which Népszabadság described as a “charm offensive.”

Colleen Bell in Budapest

Colleen Bell in Budapest

In any case, the government is optimistic while domestic critics of the government are deeply worried. They believe the government’s propaganda about the greatly improved relations between the United States and Hungary, which they interpret as the American abandonment of Hungarian democracy. They are certain that Goodfriend’s departure was the first step toward U.S.-Hungarian rapprochement, which will be followed by, if not a a full-blown friendship, American tolerance of Orbán’s anti-democratic policies.

Hungarian comments on articles about U.S.-Hungarian relations accuse Washington of trading Hungarian democracy for business interests. They compare Colleen Bell to her predecessor, whom they considered a clueless woman who was charmed off her feet by the cunning Viktor Orbán. Orbán, who already met Bell at a private party, will meet her officially on the 17th. I’m sure that the U.S. ambassador will be gracious, and I predict the anti-Orbán forces will interpret her words as a sign that the United States is caving in to Viktor Orbán. As they usually say: “You see, he always wins. Western politicians are easily fooled. They are naive.”

Most likely I’m among the few who are much more cautious when passing judgment on the current state of affairs between Washington and Budapest. Clearly, it is to the advantage of the Hungarian government to give the impression that the only reason for the strained relations between the two countries was the way Goodfriend handled his job. But as Thomas Melia, deputy assistant secretary of state, reiterated when he visited Budapest a few days ago, Goodfriend was simply following the policies of the State Department, to everybody’s satisfaction. And although Bell may smile a lot more often than Goodfriend did, Bell herself, between friendly gestures, also delivers Washington’s message. She announced that she will follow Goodfriend’s practice of meeting a wide variety of people, including the opposition leaders. She made it clear that in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Hungary’s place should be with the West and not Russia. She talked about the rule of law, independent democratic institutions, checks and balances, free elections, and an active civil society.

There are signs, as we learned from Gábor Horváth’s editorial in Népszabadág, that the Orbán government is retreating on several fronts. László Szabó, undersecretary of the ministry of foreign relations and trade, told Melia that Hungary wants to diversify its energy supply and stressed Hungary’s commitment to the territorial integrity of Ukraine. A few weeks ago another undersecretary of the ministry, István Mikola, categorically announced that Hungary will veto the transatlantic free trade agreement. But the Orbán government changed its mind and most likely will sign the agreement, in whatever form it is eventually passed.

The question is whether American officials can be convinced that the Hungarian promises are credible or whether they will be remain suspicious that the present moves are just part of the same old peacock dance. I think that by now very few American or European politicians believe that Viktor Orbán will change, and therefore I doubt that throwing a few bones to state department officials will convince the Obama administration to radically alter its attitude toward Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state.

Attila Ara-Kovács, DK’s foreign policy expert, wrote a few days ago that the Orbán regime is “a closed system” in which foreign policy is an integral part of the whole. In his opinion, no fundamental change in foreign policy orientation is possible because otherwise the whole system would collapse. I’m inclined to agree with Ara-Kovács and therefore find Zsolt Németh’s hopes for a drastic reorientation of foreign policy illusory. Zsolt Németh, one of the founders of Fidesz who served Viktor Orbán as undersecretary of foreign affairs between 1998 and 2002 and again between 2010 and 2014, as an insider is unable to see that the disagreement between Washington and Budapest is not the result of “a misunderstanding” that can be ironed out. No, the differences are fundamental, and Viktor Orbán will never follow Németh’s suggestions for the very reasons Ara-Kovács outlined in his opinion piece.

Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, will visit Budapest at the end of March. She was described by one of the Hungarian internet sites as “Orbán’s American bogey.” We’ll see how successful one of the undersecretaries of the Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs and trade will be in convincing Nuland, who is known as a tough cookie.

As for the Hungarian government’s overwhelmingly positive assessment of Colleen Bell, just today I saw the first signs of disapproval from Zsolt Bayer, the notorious journalist working for Magyar Hírlap. Colleen Bell asked for suggestions from Hungarians about the best way to learn about Hungary and Hungarians. According to Bayer, there was an excellent opportunity to learn something about the country but Bell missed it. On February 25 Hungary remembers the “victims of communism,” and for that day the House of Terror invited her to take a look at the exhibit. She would have had the opportunity to receive a guided tour of “one of the best museums in Europe.” But the ambassador didn’t even respond to the invitation.

That was bad enough, but she committed an unforgivable sin. On the very day of the victims of communism, she paid a visit to the Holocaust Museum where, with the top leaders of the museum, “she discussed the timely questions and fields of possible cooperation” between the United States and the Holocaust Museum. “On that day the ambassador shouldn’t have gone there. There are thousands and thousands of reasons for that, but let’s not talk about them now.” Bayer expressed his hope that Bell will visit the House of Terror next year on that day “in order to learn something about an era about which she knows nothing.”

There’s plenty of time for history lessons. For now, Bell has enough on her plate representing American interests and not becoming a victim herself, of the charm offensive.