Tag Archives: Slovakia

A multi-speed Europe and the Visegrád Four

While Viktor Orbán is celebrating his “victory” in his fight with the European Commission over the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, politicians in the western half of the continent are busily working on laying the foundation for a new type of European Union, one that might be able to avoid the pitfalls that have besieged Brussels ever since the abrupt enlargement of the Union in 2004.

On March 1 the European Commission published a White Paper on the future of Europe, “Avenues for the EU at 27.” The White Paper sets out five scenarios, each offering a glimpse into the potential state of the Union by 2025 depending on the choices Europe makes. Scenario 1: Carrying On. Scenario 2: Nothing but the Single Market. Scenario 3: Those Who Want More Do More, which means that the 27 members proceed as today but willing member states can do more together in areas such as defense, internal security, or social matters. Thus one or several “coalitions of the willing” will emerge. What will that mean exactly? To give but one example, 15 member states set up a police and magistrates corps to tackle cross-border criminal activities; security information is exchanged as national databases are fully interconnected. Scenario 4: Doing Less More Efficiently, which means delivering more and faster in selected areas, while doing less in other areas. Scenario 5: Doing Much More Together, in other words something close to a real union.

Although Juncker tried to deliver these five options in a neutral tone, it soon became evident that he and the other policy makers preferred scenario 3. “This is the way we want to go,” said an EU official to Euroaktiv.

On March 25 the White Paper will be officially handed over to the 27 governments in Rome at the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which signaled the first step toward the idea of a united Europe. It is there that the Visegrád 4 countries were planning to propose amendments to the EU treaties, but their hopes are most likely misplaced. As an unnamed EU official said, “for treaty change, there is no market.”

The idea of a multi-speed Europe has been in the air for some time as an answer to the feared disintegration of the European Union after Brexit. But it was only on February 3, at the informal summit of the European Council in Malta, that Angela Merkel spoke of such a solution publicly. Since then behind the scenes preparations for the implementation of this solution have been progressing with spectacular speed.

Today the “Big Four” officially called for a new dynamic, multi-speed Europe. In the Palace of Versailles Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Mariano Rajoy, and Paolo Gentiloni announced their support for a newly revitalized multi-speed Europe. The leaders of Germany, France, Spain, and Italy want to do more than celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the EU. They want “to reaffirm [their] commitment to the future,” said Hollande. Merkel added that “we should have the courage to allow some countries to move ahead, to advance more quickly than others.” To translate these diplomatic words into less polite language, these four countries, most likely supported by a fair number of other western and perhaps also Baltic states, are sick and tired of countries like members of the Visegrád 4. If they don’t want deeper integration and a common policy on defense, the economy, security and immigration, so be it. They will be left behind.

European leaders at the Palace of Versailles / Euroactiv.fr

What is Viktor Orbán’s reaction to these plans? As we know, the Hungarian prime minister can change his positions quickly and frequently, and it looks as if in the last month his ideas on the subject have hardened. Bruxinfo received information from sources close to Orbán at the time of the Malta Summit that the Hungarian prime minister didn’t consider the formation of a multi-speed Europe a necessarily adverse development as far as Hungary is concerned.

On March 2, however, a day after Juncker’s White Paper came to light, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary issued a joint declaration to the effect that the Visegrád 4, strongly supported by Viktor Orbán, find the idea of a multi-speed Europe unacceptable. The declaration said that the Visegrád 4 countries want neither federalization nor a return to the single market. What they find most odious, however, is Scenario 3. They look upon a multi-speed Europe as a sign that they will be treated as poor relatives, second-class citizens. Unfortunately, the four Visegrád countries, besides not wanting to be left behind, can’t agree on the extent of integration they are ready to accept.

Slovakia and the Czech Republic, unlike Poland and Hungary, are ready to cooperate with Brussels in certain areas such as asylum, migration policy, and the digital agenda in the spirit of “Bratislava Plus” adopted in September 2016. You may recall that after the Bratislava Summit Viktor Orbán was the only political leader who announced that the summit was a failure. He was especially unhappy that his Visegrád 4 friends didn’t stick with him during the negotiations. It looks as if Poland and Hungary didn’t manage to force their rigid attitude on the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Because of their differences, the common denominator of the Visegrád 4’s declaration was merely a description of their gripes. As a result, their message was defensive and weak. The four countries “express their concerns about creating exclusive clubs, they demand the equality of member states, and they want to involve national parliaments more in the political process that would control the subnational institutions,” as Vit Dostál, editor-in-chief of Euroaktiv.cz, remarked in his op/ed piece. The news about the decision of the German, French, Spanish and Italian prime ministers yesterday had to come as very bad news for the Visegrád 4. A multi-speed Europe is a frightening prospect for these countries.

Of course, they wouldn’t have to worry so much if they, especially Poland and Hungary, were more accommodating in their attitudes and would accept the fact that by joining the European Union they gave up some of their countries’ sovereignty. If they accepted the fact that the refugee problem is something that can be solved only together. As Merkel said in Versailles yesterday: “Cooperation can be kept open to those that have fallen behind.” We will see which road Orbán will choose, but cooperation is not Orbán’s strong suit.

March 7, 2017

Fidesz censorship in Transylvania

Today I am venturing into an area about which I know relatively little: the situation of the Hungarian media in Transylvania. Keeping track of the media within the country’s borders is hard enough. I have little time to browse Hungarian news sites outside of the country. I’m not alone, it seems. The Transylvanian-born Gáspár Miklós Tamás, or, as he is known in Hungary, TGM, noted lately that Hungarian-Hungarians are neither interested in nor knowledgeable enough about local affairs to be able to follow the Transylvanian Hungarian media.

I’ve written several posts in the past about Viktor Orbán’s determination to have control over Hungarian political parties in the neighboring countries. As early as 2010 Fidesz refused to finance or even recognize parties that had in any way cooperated with the political majority. In Slovakia the successful Most-Híd party was not even accepted as a Hungarian party because its membership included Slovaks as well as Hungarians. Instead, the Orbán government poured money into the Party of the Hungarian Coalition, which since 2010 has never been represented in the Slovak parliament. Most-Híd, on the other hand, has been an active participant in Slovak politics and is currently a coalition partner in the third Fico government.

Something similar was going on in Transylvania as well. Ever since 1989 Romanian-Hungarian voters have been exclusively represented by the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania or RMDSZ. The Orbán government, however, was anything but satisfied with the party because RMDSZ off and on participated in Romanian coalition governments. Relations between the Budapest government and RMDSZ deteriorated to the point that Orbán opted to support a right-wing party in Romania called Magyar Polgári Párt (MPP). The hope was that MPP would be strengthened to the point that it could assume the leading role in Romanian-Hungarian politics. By 2014, however, when it became clear that MPP would not be able to compete successfully against RMDSZ, Orbán had to change tactics. Hungarian politicians were dispatched to patch up the political division between the two Transylvanian parties to ensure that Hungarians would have representation in the Romanian parliament. Viktor Orbán even went to Transylvania to campaign on behalf of RMDSZ. But although the Orbán government had to give up its original idea, it didn’t leave Romania empty-handed. In exchange for its support, it seems, the RMDSZ leadership had to agree to some major concessions.

With this lengthy introduction, we have arrived at the “compromise” between the party of Transylvanian Hungarians and the Budapest government. In return for the generous support Budapest is now providing to RMDSZ, Fidesz demands obedience and total ideological identification with the Orbán government’s far-right political orientation. RMDSZ until now had given money to publications that were somewhat critical of the Orbán government. No longer. Viktor Orbán demanded the cleansing of all “objectionable” publications.

The first victim was Erdélyi Riport published in Kolozsvár/Cluj. RMDSZ was financing the publication through a foundation which is apparently quite well endowed. The Erdélyi Riport had been in existence for 14 years, but the foundation recently informed the editors that due to a lack of money the publication “will be suspended for an indefinite period of time.”

An internet news site called maszol.ro has also run into difficulties with RMDSZ and its foundation. At the beginning of December the editors of maszol.ro, successor to Új Magyar Szó, refused to publish an article that criticized Péter Szijjártó’s “instructions” to Hungarian diplomats to boycott Romania’s national holiday. The author of the article was immediately fired. The same thing happened a few days ago to Hugó Ágoston, the editor responsible for maszol.ru‘s op-ed page. Ágoston, a well-respected journalist in Transylvania, believes that the reason for his dismissal was his “criticism of the Hungarian government’s anti-democratic policies, especially its poisonous hate campaign and its treatment of the media, in particular the elimination of Népszabadság.

Hugó Ágoston

Although the Hungarian media in Transylvania was never entirely independent since it always relied on RMDSZ for funding, for a long time there was an understanding that RMDSZ wouldn’t foist any ideology on the publications it financed. That changed over the last year or so when Orbán reached an “understanding” with RMDSZ. Ágoston in his letter to kettosmerce.blog emphasized the necessity of returning to the pluralism that existed before 2014. I’m sure that Ágoston doesn’t really believe that this is going to happen any time soon. The fired journalist’s farewell article can be read here.

TGM in his article rightly points out that the Orbán government’s meddling in the affairs of a foreign country is worrisome and legally questionable. The Romanian government also supports Hungarian publications, and therefore it might be troubling to Bucharest that “the Hungarian publications in Romania are being edited, censored, directed, or banned either from the private residence of Viktor Orbán or from the Prime Minister’s Office.” It is truly amazing that Orbán refuses to tolerate even the very small liberal community that exists in Transylvania where the overwhelming majority of Hungarians are loyal supporters of Fidesz. His goal is total control at home as well as abroad.

January 4, 2017

The collapse of the united front of the Visegrád 4 in Bratislava

The Hungarian media hasn’t paid much attention to Viktor Orbán’s Friday morning interview on Magyar Rádió, which was aired on September 16 around 8:00 a.m. but was recorded the evening before. In it, the prime minster talked a great deal about the common agenda of the Visegrád 4 countries, on which their representatives were working furiously, even overnight. He proudly announced that while “the bureaucrats in Brussels” will most likely not be able to produce a document at the end of their negotiations in Bratislava, the Visegrád 4 will present a common set of proposals. As he said, “this is an important moment in the history of the Visegrád 4.” He added that “the Visegrád 4 are in perfect agreement on these questions.”

So, let’s see the demands of this joint statement, which Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło presented to the leaders of EU27. Its most important “ultimatum,” as some journalists called it, was “the strengthening of the role of national parliaments underlining respect for the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality.” The Visegrád 4 accused Germany and France of making key decisions alone and disregarding the opinions of the eastern European states. “European integration is a common project and all negotiations should therefore be inclusive and open to all member states.” They demanded that “efforts should be channeled to fully implement the already undertaken commitments aiming at strengthening security in the Schengen area as well as the protection of EU’s external borders.” Linked to the security issue was the question of migration, which is considered to be the key issue for the group. The solution of the Visegrád 4 to the problem of the millions of migrants is what they call “flexible solidarity,” “a concept [which would] enable Member States to decide on specific forms of contribution taking into account their experience and potential. Furthermore any distribution mechanism should be voluntary.”

If we take a look at “The Bratislava Declaration,” we can safely assume that very few of these demands were discussed or even considered. The only exception is that the Bratislava road map includes “full control of our external borders…. Before the end of the year, full capacity for rapid reaction of the European Border and Coast Guard.” The goal of the Bratislava summit was to demonstrate unity, not to argue endlessly about the Visegrád 4’s grievances. The European Union is facing difficult challenges for which the member states must find common solutions. Donald Tusk made it crystal clear to Beata Szydło that this is not the time for a public debate of these issues. He even visited Budapest ahead of the summit to try to convince Viktor Orbán to let sleeping dogs lie. It seems that Tusk failed to restrain Orbán from open criticism, although in his interview on Magyar Rádió the prime minister did say that “in the name of fairness there is improvement on this issue,” adding that Tusk is one of the people in Brussels who places “defense” as the top priority. Of course, he credited himself for the evolving change in thinking on the issue.

If Orbán found the joint document of the Visegrád 4 so significant, why didn’t he complain that the summit passed over most of the demands outlined in it? Why did he object instead merely to the European Union’s immigration policies? On this issue “The Bratislava Declaration” said only that “work to be continued to broaden EU consensus in terms of long term migration policy, including on how to apply the principles of responsibility and solidarity in the future.”

First of all, knowing Viktor Orbán, who cannot imagine life without dissent, discord, and constant battling about one thing or the other, we could expect that he, unlike his comrades in arms in the Visegrád 4, would not come out of the meeting smiling and telling the world how happy he is with the outcome. He would have to complain about something. The most obvious target was immigration, or rather sharing the burden of the newly arrived asylum seekers. He could not return home and tell the Hungarian people that all’s well with the European Union and that from here on the remaining 27 member states will try to solve their problems together. After all, the Hungarian referendum on the refugees will be held on October 2, a referendum that he deems of vital importance to his political career. So, the choice of his complaint was a given.

But, in addition to immigration policy, he could have complained that the summit ignored one of his demands: strengthening the nation states at the expense of the center. Why didn’t he? Because, as far as I can see, he lost the support of his allies: Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. They joined the rest and declared the Bratislava summit a success. Even Beata Szydło realized that in the package presented to the members there were substantial incentives to stand by the others.

The roses were not enough

The roses were not enough

From the very beginning dissension was noticeable among the four countries. Poland and Hungary were the most vocal critics of Brussels. Slovakia and the Czech Republic wanted closer relations with Germany. Of course, it is not at all to Hungary’s advantage to have a pro-government media empire that revels in anti-Merkel rhetoric, but Orbán’s political moves are not always rational. While Orbán was advocating a counter-revolution against the existing order in Europe, Ivan Korčok, the Slovak undersecretary for European Affairs, talked to Politico about “a deeper reflection process, [fearing] trenches between West and East.” Moreover, he said that “migration is a phenomenon we have to see with a long term view,” which to my mind means a realization that migration will be part of the lives of the people of the EU, from which there is no escape for individual states.

Even between Poland and Hungary, despite their close ideological ties, there is the troubling issue of Russia. Poland, fearing Russia, supports a permanent NATO force in the region while Orbán would like to see the end of EU sanctions against Russia. The Poles also don’t approve of his cozy relations with Vladimir Putin.

These four countries, in spite of their geographical proximity, are different in many ways and have different national interests. As Korčok said of the upcoming summit, “I don’t think we can surge forward together.” Well, they didn’t.

It seems that Orbán’s revitalization of the Visegrád 4 pretty well collapsed in Bratislava. This diplomatic defeat should trouble him a lot more than the European Union’s immigration policy, over which he has no control. For the sake of winning a useless referendum for domestic political purposes he might have to give up his dream of being the leader of the East European countries and ultimately a major player on the European stage.

September 17, 2016

Fidesz exports its ideology and methods to the neighbors: Serbia and Slovakia

I have the feeling that most Hungarians living within the country’s borders would be appalled if they knew how much financial support ethnic Hungarian parties receive from the government in Budapest. Here I will write about the Hungarian government’s reach into Serbia and briefly cover its failure in the ethnic politics of Slovakia.

The area of the Autonomous Province of Voivodina has a population of about 2 million people, most of whom (66.76%) are Serbs.The next largest ethnic group is Hungarian (13%). The area has autonomous status, and the Hungarians have their own national council (Magyar Nemzeti Tanács). The Hungarian government supports the Voivodina Hungarian Association (Vajdasági Magyar Szövetség / VMSZ). István Pásztor, who became chairman of the VMSZ in 2007, has developed a close relationship with Viktor Orbán, with all the benefits that it entails.

To the surprise of everybody, including the leadership of VMSZ, in November 2015 Levente Magyar, undersecretary in the ministry of foreign affairs and trade, announced a 50 billion forint package for the improvement of agriculture and tourism in the Hungarian-inhabited areas of Voivodina. Thirty billion will be given in long-term low-interest loans, and the rest will be an outright grant. This grant is supposed to put an end to, or at least slow, the emigration of Hungarian youth to western Europe. VMSZ will decide how this money will be distributed.

All three Orbán governments have meddled in the political life of the Hungarian communities in the neighboring countries. The financial assistance they extend to the Hungarian minorities is based on ideological considerations: only those parties receive assistance that are close to the right-wing nationalist worldview of Fidesz. Viktor Orbán prefers monolithic parties, the kind he himself built at home. Apparently, István Pásztor is that kind of a leader but, unlike in Fidesz, some people in VMSZ objected to Pásztor’s style. Orbán noticed the rebellion that was brewing in the party and warned that “it is not in the interest of Hungarian national policy that the unity that has been achieved in the Southern Territories (Délvidék) in any way be damaged.” He indicated that his government will not assist any such deviance from the party line. Fidesz hoped that this incredible amount of money would strengthen Pásztor’s leadership, but this doesn’t seem to have been the case.

István Pásztor and VMSZ received the money in November 2015, and by February 2016 Népszava reported that eighty persons had been expelled from the party just before the April national election. Considering that the party has 11,000 members, this number doesn’t sound large enough to do much damage. However, some of those who were expelled are important personages in Voivodina politics. For example, Jenő Maglai, the only Hungarian mayor of a large Serbian city, Subotica/Szabadka.

If political unity in Voivodina comes to an end and if different Hungarian parties compete against one another, the strength of the Hungarian parties will dissipate. This is what happened almost everywhere Fidesz politicos interfered. Romania is perhaps the best example, where at one point two new Fidesz-favored parties tried to weaken the Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség (RMDSZ), with little success. Fidesz managed to split the Hungarian parties both in Ukraine and Slovakia. The same situation is developing in Voivodina. A civic movement called Magyar Mozgalom (Hungarian Movement) has been formed, which has attacked VMSZ as “being totally subordinated to the Hungarian government.”

The Voivodina Gallop

The Voivodina Gallop

This was not the first time that VMSZ received substantial amounts of money from Budapest. Back in 2013 Pásztor received 11.3 billion forints or 27.8 million euros (at the 2015 exchange rate), which “to the last penny” went to friends and family of VMSZ leaders. The list of beneficiaries was acquired by the media and published in Gépnarancs in June 2015. Three million euros went to Olivér Bunford, who owns a horse farm and runs the Vajdasági Vágta (Voivodina Gallop) and who happens to be the son of Tivadar Bunford, member of the executive board of VMSZ. The older Bunford also received 4.5 million euros. Those who didn’t like the new ways of doing business within the party and dared to say something were forced to resign, like Deputy Chairman László Varga who bitterly complained about Pásztor’s autocratic ways. Not only did Fidesz export its penchant for using public funds for private purposes but VMSZ also follows the cultural policies of Fidesz. The party leaders have attacked the program and spirit of the Hungarian theater in Subotica/Szabadka.

The Slovak situation is somewhat different. There three smaller Hungarian parties formed a new party called Magyar Koalíció Pártja (MKP) in 1998, which became the coalition partner in the Dzurinda government (1998-2006). When Pál Csáky, a friend of Viktor Orbán and a Fidesz loyalist, was chosen to be the new chairman in 2009, however, several politicians, including Béla Bugár, the former chairman, left the party and established a party named Most—Híd, meaning “bridge” in Slovak and Hungarian. As its name indicates, it is an inter-ethnic party. It seeks to represent the interests of Hungarians while working together with the majority Slovaks. To everybody’s surprise, Most—Híd won 8.12% of the votes in 2010 while the Fidesz-supported MKP didn’t reach the cut-off point of 5% of the votes. Since then MKP has dwindled and found itself without representation in 2012 as well as in 2016. Most—Híd, on the other hand, managed to win 6.89% of votes in 2012, and 6.7% in 2016. Given Fico’s poor showing, Most—Híd might have a role to play in the forthcoming coalition negotiations.

The latest chairman of MKP has resigned. Despite strong Fidesz support, or perhaps because of it, Viktor Orbán’s favorite party has bombed. Yet the Budapest government refuses to do anything with Béla Bugár’s party because it is not a “purely Hungarian” party.

I think one can safely say that the money that is being spent by the Budapest government to bolster the chosen Hungarian ethnic political parties does more harm than good. Moreover, a great deal of the assistance ends up in the pockets of Fidesz loyalists. All in all, not a wise use of the Hungarian taxpayers’ money.

March 11, 2016

Viktor Orbán in Brussels: Success or failure?

There is huge confusion in the Hungarian media over Viktor Orbán’s success or lack thereof at the EU summit yesterday.

The Hungarian prime minister arrived in Brussels with a plan which, in his opinion, could have solved the unchecked influx of refugees coming mainly from Turkey and entering the European Union via Greece. He made sure that the world knew about the details of his plan, which he revealed while visiting Bavaria’s ultra-conservative prime minister, Horst Seehofer, ahead of the summit.

Orbán tried to portray the summit as a gathering of the leaders of the EU member states to discuss his proposals. After the marathon meeting ended, he triumphantly announced that, with the exception of his idea of a pan-European defense of Greece’s borders, all his proposals had received a favorable reception.

Yes, the idea of a common defense of Greece’s borders was vetoed, but that was not the only one that received a less than sympathetic reception. Orbán’s suggestion to set up “hot spots” outside of the EU borders also fell on deaf ears: there will be hot spots in Greece and Italy.

We heard nothing about the reaction to Orbán’s suggestion for “special partnership arrangements” with Turkey and Russia. I’m not sure what kind of a special partnership Orbán had in mind, but at the moment Turkey is alarmed over the Russian military buildup in Syria and I doubt that the European Union would want to get involved in that quagmire.

Orbán also demanded an official EU list of “safe” countries since the question of whether Serbia is a safe country in terms of being able to handle the registration and maintenance of large numbers of refugees is not immaterial from the Hungarian point of view. It is, of course, possible that such a list is in the works, but for the time being no decision has been made. As things stand, Serbia, as far as the EU is concerned, is not a safe country.

Finally, Orbán demanded worldwide quotas, which was also discarded by the representatives of the member states. For a man who furiously rejects quotas for his own country to suggest quotas for extra-EU countries is quite something. In fact, no quotas are necessary because countries are already offering to take in refugees. The United States has said it will take 25,000 Syrians. Canada has a commitment to resettle 10,000 Syrians by September 2016. This is in addition to 23,000 Iraqis. Australia will take 12,000 Syrians and Brazil 5,000. One could go on. I’m also certain that the United States will provide financial assistance to the United Nations for the aid of refugees staying in camps in the countries neighboring Syria.

A determined Viktor Orbán in Brussels / MTI / EPA Photo: Stephanie Lecocq

A determined Viktor Orbán in Brussels / MTI / EPA Photo: Stephanie Lecocq

In any case, despite his declaration of victory in Brussels, after the summit ended Orbán seemed by turns downtrodden and defiant. Because of the EU’s reluctance to defend Greece’s borders, Hungary has only two choices, he said. Either it continues to build the fence to keep refugees out of Hungary or it simply lets the refugees go to Austria. Although recent news from Hungary indicates that the fence building is continuing, not just along the Schengen border between Croatia and Hungary but also along the Slovenian-Hungarian border, I would be reluctant to predict the final move in this “fencing game” between Hungary and the EU. Tomorrow Viktor Orbán is paying a visit to his arch-enemy, Werner Faymann, chancellor of Austria, who is the greatest opponent of fences and who said that he is ready to take any number of refugees from Hungary.

If Orbán goes ahead with his current plans and orders the construction of a fence between Slovenia and Hungary, his rationale for building the fence in the first place evaporates. Until now he has piously claimed that the erection of the fence is for the sole purpose of defending the borders of Europe. Surely, a fence between Slovenia and Hungary serves only one purpose: to save Hungary from the immigrants. If Orbán decides to extend his fence northward between two Schengen countries he will be revealing his true intentions. I’m not sure he is ready to go that far.

On the other hand, János Lázár just announced that the Hungarian government is contemplating joining Slovakia in mounting a legal challenge to the refugee quotas agreed upon at the meeting of the ministers of interior despite the protestation of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania. So, it seems that Viktor Orbán returned from Brussels with a renewed determination to fight any attempt to develop a common EU policy.

Meanwhile he is playing with fire just south of Hungary. It wasn’t so long ago that the Serbs and Croats were at war with one another, and now under the pressure created by Orbán’s fence the two countries are at loggerheads. Border controls have been introduced between the two countries, and they are engaged in a full-fledged trade war. Some people with Serbian passports were turned back at the border by Croat officials. It would be advisable for Orbán to stop his war of independence because it could have serious repercussions not just within the European Union but also in the Balkans, the powder keg of Europe.

Viktor Orbán seems to be endangering the stability of the region and sowing discord among the member states of the European Union for one reason only: to bolster the popularity of his party and ensure his desire for a perpetual premiership. At the moment he is ready to pay any price for that political victory at home. Unless someone stops him.

The shadow of János Kádár’s happiest barrack

In November 2009 the Pew Research Center conducted a survey in nine former communist countries. Twenty years had passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and researchers wanted to know how public sentiment had changed in the intervening years.

The countries selected were East Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Bulgaria, and Ukraine. The results can be found on the Internet. A quick look at the interactive public opinion poll on some of the more important political questions reveals a lot about the mood of the people in these countries in 2009. The most startling finding was that Hungarians were the most dissatisfied and most disappointed people in the area. I believe that if a similar survey were conducted today, the divergence between the Hungarian figures and those of the other countries would be even greater than it was five years ago. Since then the lot of most of the neighbors has improved, while the Hungarian economic and political situation has worsened.

Here are some selected data from 2009. While in 1999 80% of Hungarians were looking forward to the coming of the market economy, by 2009 only 46% had any trust in the capitalist system. The only other country with similar results was Ukraine. Hungarian’s satisfaction with democracy was the lowest (21%), compared to Poland’s 53%, the Czech Republic’s 49%, and Slovakia’s 50%. But perhaps the most interesting finding was that it was in Hungary where most people (72%) thought they were better off during the communist period than in 2009. Compare that to 35% of the Poles, 39% of the Czechs, and 48% of the Slovaks.

Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project / November 2009

Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project / November 2009

Political analysts have been trying to find an explanation for this discrepancy between Hungary and her closest neighbors (the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia) in attitudes toward the regime change and what followed. Clearly, there were heightened expectations everywhere, but while, for example, in Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic there was only a slight drop in the population’s positive attitude toward the market economy, in Hungary the drop was huge–from 80% to 46%.

What makes the Hungarian situation so different from that of the other countries? From repeated surveys we know that there is something in Hungarian culture that makes Hungarians consistently dissatisfied with their lot. That by itself, however, is not enough to account for the incredible disappointment reflected in these numbers. It is also unlikely that Hungarian politicians who were responsible for the introduction of democracy and a market economy in Hungary were totally unfit for their jobs. Or that they were significantly worse than their colleagues in the neighboring countries. All countries had their own political upheavals, and they also made bigger or smaller political mistakes. So, I don’t think that the key to the puzzle of Hungarians’ dissatisfaction with their political and economic situation can be found in either the national psyche or the political leadership.

There has to be some other fundamental difference between Hungary and the other countries that accounts for the huge divergence in attitudes and outlook. The answer, I believe, lies in the unique nature of the Hungarian version of the socialist system. Ironically, Hungary’s troubles today most likely stem from the fact that the Hungarian people had it too good under János Kádár. If they had had to live in the kind of dictatorship that existed in Czechoslovakia under Gustáv Husák or in Romania under Nicolae Ceaușescu, today they would have a much greater appreciation of democracy. If Hungarians had had to face empty shelves in the stores as the Poles did or to suffer as much economic hardship as the Romanians, they would have a much more positive view of the market economy.

But the Kádár regime, especially in its last ten years, was a benign one-party system, what Hungarians call a “soft dictatorship.” The great majority of people wouldn’t have had any reason to complain about their limited freedom since their demands were modest in the first place. Most people were satisfied with their lot because they noticed a steady growth in their living standards year after year, almost to the very end. It’s no wonder that with the exception of a very small group of “dissidents,” really a handful of people, there was no serious opposition to the regime.

The lives of Hungarians in economic terms have not changed for the better since 1990. Yes, there are people who have become very rich, but in Hungary in 2009 77% of the people believed that “the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer,” as opposed to around 50% in the neighboring countries. I’d bet that if we had a similar poll today, even more Hungarians would think that in the last five or six years the situation has deteriorated further. Today poverty is widespread. All in all, there are very good reasons for economic dissatisfaction, which cannot be counterbalanced by positive feelings about the introduction of democracy, especially since Viktor Orbán’s system is a far cry from democracy as most people understand it.

The relatively good economic situation of the population during the Kádár regime, the fact that slowly but surely people became satisfied with their lot might also be responsible for some of the failures of the new political elite. Many of the economic ills of Hungary in the last twenty-five years stemmed from a fear of moving in a direction that might lead to a severe drop in living standards, to which Hungarians, given their relative well-being under the Kádár regime, would react very negatively. Much more negatively than the populations of other post-communist countries who were accustomed to hardship and privation. Therefore, a restructuring of the economy was postponed time and again because of fear of a backlash. Over the years, governments overspent in order to satisfy economic demands only to be forced later to introduce austerity measures when the deficit spiked. No one dared to bite the bullet and make the Hungarian system a fully functioning market economy in the western sense. The irony of it all is that the economic system that more than half of Hungarians hate is not really a market economy in the classical sense. As someone rightly put it, Hungarian capitalism has all of the negative features of the market economy without any of its benefits. János Kádár’s system continues to cast a dark shadow over today’s Hungary.

Hungary as a “field of operation”

Paranoia seems to have swept through the Hungarian government. Fidesz politicians are convinced that the United States wants to remove Viktor Orbán and cause his government’s fall. All this is to be achieved by means of the “phony” charge of corruption.

Recently a journalist working for Hetek, a publication of Hitgyülekezet (Assembly of Faith), managed to induce some high-ranking members of the government to speak about the general mood in Fidesz circles. The very fact that these people spoke, even about sensitive topics, to a reporter of a liberal paper points to tactical shifts that must have occurred within the party.

Their argument runs along the following lines. Until now the Obama administration paid little attention to the region, but this past summer the decision was made to “create a defensive curtain” in Central Europe between Russia and the West. The pretext is the alleged fight against corruption. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are the targets. Fidesz politicians point to recent Slovak demonstrations against corruption which were “publicly supported” by the U.S. ambassador in Bratislava. Or, they claim, the Americans practically forced the Romanian government to take seriously the widespread corruption in the country. They are certain that the resignation of Petr Nečas, the former Czech prime minister, “under very strange circumstances” was also the work of the CIA.

In its fight against the targeted Central European governments Washington relies heavily on NGOs and investigative journalists specializing in unveiling corruption cases. George Soros’s name must always be invoked in such conspiracy theories. And indeed, Átlátszó.hu, sponsored in part by the Soros Foundation, was specifically mentioned as a tool of American political designs.

To these Fidesz politicians’ way of thinking, all of troubles recently encountered by the government are due solely to American interference. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the government itself has given plenty of reason for public disenchantment. In fact, the first demonstrations were organized only against the internet tax. Admittedly, over the course of weeks new demands were added, and by now the demonstrators want to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s whole regime.

The Fidesz politicians who expressed an opinion think, I am sure incorrectly, that the Americans have no real evidence against Ildikó Vida and, if they do, they received it illegally. Vida got into the picture only because of the new “cold war” that broke out between the United States and Russia. Hungarian corruption is only an excuse for putting pressure on the Hungarian government because of its Russian policy and Paks.  As for Hungary’s “democracy deficit” and American misgivings about Orbán’s “illiberal state,” Fidesz politicians said that if the United States does not accept Orbán’s system of government as “democratic” and if they want Fidesz to return to the status quo ante, this is a hopeless demand. “Not one Hungarian right-wing politician would lend his name to such ‘retrogression.'”

The latest American “enemy” of the Orbán government is the State Department’s Sarah Sewall, Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, who a week ago gave a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in which she said that “we [recently] denied visas to six Hungarian officials and their cronies due to their corruption. This action also bolstered public concern, and on November 9th, the streets of Budapest filled with 10,000 protesters who called for the resignation of corrupt public officials.” As soon as Hungarian officials discovered the text of that speech, André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé in Budapest, was once again called into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I think it would be a mistake to characterize the American fight against corruption simply as a smokescreen for exerting political pressure on foreign governments. Sewall in that speech explains the potentially dangerous political ramifications of corruption.

Corruption alienates and angers citizens, which can cause them to lose faith in the state, or, worse, fuel insurgencies and violent extremism…. Ukraine …provides [an] illustration of how corruption can both increase instability risks and cripple the state’s ability to respond to those risks. The Maidan Movement was driven in part by resentment of a kleptocratic regime parading around in democratic trappings.

All this makes sense to me, and what Sewall says about Ukraine is to some extent also true about Hungary. But the Fidesz leadership sees no merit in the American argument. In fact, today both Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó used very strong words to accuse the United States of interfering in Hungary’s internal affairs.

"We can't pay as much in taxes as you steal"

“We can’t pay as much in taxes as you steal”

Viktor Orbán sent a message from Belgrade. The prime minister does not know why the United States put aside 100 million dollars for “the preparation of an action plan against two dozen Central- and East-European countries in order to put pressure on their governments.” The United States declared Hungary to be a “field of operation,” along with others. Referring to Sewall’s speech, he expressed his dissatisfaction that he has to learn about such plans from a public lecture. “If someone wants to work together with Hungary or with any Central-European government for a good cause, we are open. We don’t have to be pressured, there is no need to spend money behind our backs, there is no necessity of organizing anything against us because we are rational human beings and we are always ready to work for a good cause.” It is better, he continued, to be on the up and up because Hungarians are irritated by slyness, trickery, and diplomatic cunning. They are accustomed to straightforward talk. (He presumably said this with a straight face.)

Viktor Orbán’s reference to the military term “field of operation” captured the imagination of László Földi, a former intelligence officer during the Kádár regime as well as for a while after 1990, who announced that in secret service parlance “field of operation” means that every instrument in the intelligence service can be used to undermine the stability of a country. The Americans’ goal, as Orbán sees it, is the removal of his government.

Meanwhile the staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade who were brought in by Péter Szijjártó are solidly anti-American. They consider the diplomats who served under János Martonyi to be “American agents” because of their alleged trans-atlantic sentiments. So I don’t foresee any improvement in American-Hungarian relations in the near future, unless the economic and political troubles of Putin’s Russia become so crippling that Orbán will have to change his foreign policy orientation. But given the ever shriller condemnations and accusations, it will be difficult to change course.