Regime Change in Hungary

There’s something about white horses and strong leaders. A nation is in crisis, and no one knows what to do. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, a man appears astride a white horse. He takes the reins of the nation, just as he controls his horse, and leads the country to the promised land. The myth of the “man on the white horse,” which stretches from the Book of Revelations to the latest Lone Ranger movie, has had a profound influence on Western culture.

Most leaders associated with white horses — George Washington, for instance, or Napoleon — never actually rode them. But Admiral Miklos Horthy, the famous authoritarian leader of Hungary, made a point of riding his white horse at the head of the army that swept through Hungary in 1919 until it finally entered Budapest and put an end to the country’s brief experiment with a Soviet government. After presiding over a counter-revolutionary White Terror, Horthy established what has been called a “directed democracy” that grew less and less democratic as it moved closer to the Axis powers and policies supporting the Holocaust.

Horthy is enjoying a renaissance in Hungary today. Statues and plaques are going up to commemorate his life and rule. The current Hungarian government of Viktor Orban and FIDESZ has been careful to tread a fine line between supporting and condemning the new cult of Horthy, though some members of the ruling party are more open in their admiration for the admiral. Still, Orban definitely styles himself as a strong leader who has arrived on a white horse to save Hungary from the Left. And he too favors a directed democracy that veers in an authoritarian direction.

As Hungary expert Charles Gati points out, the Orban government has promoted not simply a particular agenda but an entire system change. “There isn’t any one thing that concerns me,” Gati told me in an interview in his office at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC in March. “This is a mistake to break it down to one thing. You have a general confrontation against pluralist, Western-style democracy in which the distribution of power is sacred. This is the essence. Or if you want to focus on any one thing, it is the lack of checks and balances. This is the key. Using the two-thirds majority as a justification for uprooting Western-style democracy.”

What is perhaps most intriguing about Orban is the distance he has travelled since the late 1980s when he identified as a liberal and mixed comfortably with civil society organizations. FIDESZ, Gati points out, was “a liberal party that was a member of the so-called Liberal International, together with the Free Democrats, but they were more dynamic, more energetic. Orban was a dynamo of a leader, and I understood even then that he had ambitions. He was a real politician—and I say that in the best sense of the word. Little did I anticipate then… that he would turn out to be a nationalist demagogue.”

We talked about the geopolitical implications of Hungary’s turn to the Right and to the East, the other authoritarian tendencies in the region, and the outreach by FIDESZ to the Hungarian diaspora in an effort to win support.

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

I very clearly remember. I was in New York when it happened. By then I wasn’t as surprised as everybody else because I had followed the developments very closely. For a few days actually I had meetings in Moscow. It was much more interesting how they responded to it there. But I was not really surprised because I knew two or three things. One was that East Germany was beginning to boil, particularly at the level of the elite. Honecker’s leadership was weakening when Gorbachev in effect dismissed him, informing him that he could not count on Soviet tanks to defend the German Democratic Republic. And I knew secondly that East German “tourists” were in Hungary, and the Hungarian government decided to open up the border to Austria and let them go if they wanted to go. Hungary was being flooded by East Germans wanting to go to West Germany via Austria. You cannot sustain that sort of thing. So Berlin had to also open up. I was obviously very much moved by what I witnessed, but it was not a great surprise.

 

Now to shift to Hungary. There, of course, was tremendous—at the beginning—response from the United States and the European Union toward the perceived power grab by FIDESZ and Viktor Orban. Over the last year it has somewhat faded. Do you think it was an overreaction to what Orban was doing? Or do you think the EU and the United States had justifiable concerns about what was taking place in Hungary?

 

I’m not sure that I really even agree with what you said. There was a reaction by parts of the EU—not all of the EU. One faction, the largest faction in the EU of the conservative parties and peoples’ parties, decided not to be very critical publicly, although supposedly some of those parties—like the German one—expressed displeasure at some of Orban’s policies behind the scenes. Yes, there were some expressions by the United States too. But last year Orban made some concessions, or seeming concessions on relatively small matters, but he did make them and I think that quieted Western criticism. On the other hand, when it recently turned out that Orban’s concessions were phony, and that in point of fact he is revising the constitution for the fourth time in one year, the pressure has again built up. Just yesterday, the State Department issued a criticism supporting the EU’s criticism. The Financial Times went so far as to suggest that some of the so-called cohesion funds that Hungary expects should be suspended.

You are right in saying there was a bit of silence, but it was just waiting for what Orban would do. Now it turns out that these so-called concessions were no concessions, and he wants to go ahead. We’ll find out if the Hungarian parliament for the fourth time in one year will alter the constitution. Given its two-thirds majority, FIDESZ can do that. If they do, the concessions of last year will turn out to be nothing. And I would think that continued expressions of concern would continue. [editors’ note: on March 11, the Hungarian did pass the constitutional amendments]

 

And of these, what concerns you most? I mean, there’s government control of university, there’s—

 

There isn’t any one thing that concerns me. This is a mistake to break it down to one thing. You have a general confrontation against pluralist, Western-style democracy in which the distribution of power is sacred. This is the essence. Or if you want to focus on any one thing, it is the lack of checks and balances. This is the key. Using the two-thirds majority as a justification for uprooting Western-style democracy.

 

Now, of course, there was pushback by the constitutional court and the ombudsman as well, demonstrating that despite these efforts, there was some strong pluralism remaining in Hungary.

 

This is exactly what the two-thirds majority in parliament now wants to counter, and the issue is whether Orban goes ahead or not with the amendment that would nullify the constitutional court’s authority on a variety of issues—not just the economy, which in itself is outrageous, but on a variety of other issues on which it did assert itself, as you correctly point out. I have the feeling that he is going to go ahead, but we’ll see. He may delay or postpone, or find some ways to water down the new amendments to the constitution, or “basic laws” as it is called.

 

And have there been any important fissures within FIDESZ to suggest that parliament is not entirely on Orban’s side?

 

The answer is no. I’ve been looking at that and anticipating some internal struggle. It is very clear that some members, even a few in the government, are pro-Western. And there are little leaks here and there of their less-than-enthusiastic support for either domestic or foreign policy moves by Orban. But they cave eventually. For example, the foreign minister is still in place, even though it’s very clear that he is a pro-Atlanticist and likes Western-style pluralism. The same with the deputy prime minister who was here, and unlike the others, looked me up. We had a long conversation—obviously, off the record. These people have some interest in maintaining Western support.

It’s not only domestic politics I’d like to emphasize to you. The issue is the so-called “Eastern opening,” the friendship with Vladimir Putin and with Russia, the plan to put some of Hungary’s reserves in the ruble, which is not even a fully convertibly currency, as opposed to the U.S. dollar and the Euro. Orban made a trip to Moscow, and now so did several of his most loyal supporters—not the foreign minister, however, who didn’t even accompany him on the trip. So there is a turn away from the West. Orban has said many times: “We will not be a Western colony.” He has turned against Western banks. He constantly attacks the EU. All in all, we have here a leader that in his foreign policy no longer wants Hungary to be a loyal member of the Western community.

 

And you don’t think that this is just hedging? I’m remembering back to the campaign FIDESZ conducted in 1990. One of the most prominent posters was of course the kiss between the two Communist leaders of Hungary and the Soviet Union contrasted with the kiss of two young Hungarians. The notion that Orban would genuinely seek out Russian patronage…

 

I don’t know how genuine it is. It doesn’t much matter how genuine it is. Obviously, the main purpose here is economic cooperation, more trade, so that the Russians can purchase Hungarian products that won’t sell in the West. But there is a price for this, and the price is siding with the Russians, for instance, on energy issues. When he was in opposition, Orban and FIDESZ strongly opposed this so-called South Stream energy pipeline that would bring Russian energy to Europe, and favored the Nabucco, the Western alternative pipeline idea. Now he has dropped support for the Nabucco and supports the Russian plan.

I can give you several illustrations of where the initial interest in trade has already led to cooperation. The Russian ambassador in Budapest has yet to visit the leaders of the opposition. Something is cooking there. Obviously a game is being played. It’s not that Orban wants to be a satellite of Russia, far from it. But he thinks he can outwit Putin and get the trade agreements and the economic benefits, so that he will not have to rely on the EU as much. This is very strange, because Hungary’s trade is overwhelmingly with the EU, and with Germany in particular, and it’s not going to lead to good results.

 

It’s a similar game to what other leaders in Serbia or Bulgaria have played in the past.

 

Correct.

 

For countries and economies that are of that size to imagine that they can outwit Putin seems unlikely. Regardless of Putin’s characteristics as a political leader, it’s a question of the size of the Soviet economy.

 

It’s very difficult for these countries to follow the examples of those who have already adopted the Euro — Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, and next year I believe Latvia and Lithuania. So five of the 10 countries by next year will have embraced the Euro. The Bulgarian currency is tied to the Euro. What’s left is Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania. Of these four, Poland just announced that it will make the necessary changes—and those are very difficult changes to make—to enter the Eurozone, because it doesn’t want to be a second-rate member of the EU. Hungary is not following suit. So there is a substantial difference here. This is not simply Euro-skepticism. This is a strategic realignment.

 

When I was in Slovakia, people talked about the response to Vladimir Meciar and the reinvigoration of the civic movement. In fact, Slovaks said that basically they felt that it was really only in 1998—not in 1989 or 1993—that they came into their own as civic actors. Are you seeing something similar take place in Hungary? There have been declarations by intellectuals, there have been marches, but are you seeing a substantial reawakening of the civil sector in Hungary?

 

No. On the contrary, I see the opposite: the oppression of civil society. Intimidation is there as well as the absence of financial support. For example, in the old days—well, five years ago—government advertisements in the press were divided in the following way: approximately 70% went to government press, 30% to opposition press. Today it’s 100% government. That gives you an illustration of how harsh this new regime is, how it moved away from the values of pluralism towards authoritarianism.

 

Do you think that FIDESZ has had this tendency from its beginning? When I was there in 1990 there was tension between the Orban half and the more social democratic side of FIDESZ. But I don’t think anybody anticipated when I was there that it had an authoritarian tendency beyond Orban himself.

 

Nobody did. I knew Mr. Orban very very well. FIDESZ had a publishing house established in 1988, and I was among the first authors. They translated two of my books. Mr. Orban edited the translation of one of my books, and Mr. Laszlo Kover, who is the speaker of the house in parliament and maybe the most explicitly right-wing leader within the FIDESZ circle today, edited the other. I knew them very well. We used to go out to have a beer. My wife met Orban’s wife when he was in New York in 1992. He was hanging out at my apartment on the Upper West Side, so I can say that I knew him well. He wanted me, even in 1994,to accompany him to his village for his election campaign. Only he and I were in the car, he was driving and I was the passenger. When he was prime minister for the first time in 1998 or 1999, he came here to Washington, and, obviously with his concurrence, I introduced him at a breakfast meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations. Our relationship by then was a little tense, but still reasonably good.

So the answer to your question is: no, you were not wrong. You saw a liberal party that was a member of the so-called Liberal International, together with the Free Democrats, but they were more dynamic, more energetic. Orban was a dynamo of a leader, and I understood even then that he had ambitions. He was a real politician—and I say that in the best sense of the word. Little did I anticipate then, as I guess you didn’t either, that he would turn out to be a nationalist demagogue.

 

And this evolution in Orban himself and in the party, do you think it is strategic, or do you think it reflects a deeper trend? When I say “strategic,” I mean a political decision based on a reading of the temperament of the electorate.

 

Since the key to their new approach has to do with the use and manipulation of nationalist symbols and nationalist rhetoric, I would have to say that this is a strategic realignment. In the mid-1990s—when the change began, though it was a gradual evolution—they came to understand that the country needed a nationalist, centrist-oriented, right-of-center kind of party. There was space there on the political spectrum, because on the other side there was the Free Democrats, which was liberal, city-oriented, very strongly Western-oriented, and there were the Socialists, who in West-European terminology should be called Social Democrats because they now embrace capitalism as much as or more than anybody else, certainly anybody on the right side. So FIDESZ found space there. Since then, they have moved from right-of-center to clearly right wing. Their symbolism, their economic policies — never mind their authoritarian trends — all put them on the right wing of the political spectrum. Did they understand what they were doing? Yes, I think so. And almost everybody—not everybody because some people left the party in 1993 or so—understood where they were going, and Orban’s persuasion and the promise of power prompted them to stay with him.

 

In many of the countries that I’ve been to there has been polling to demonstrate that people, generally speaking, discount whatever advantages they’ve acquired over the last 20 years and have become increasingly nostalgic for the pre-1989 period. Is that also the case in Hungary?

 

Yes, there is nostalgia. There is nostalgia for Ceausescu’s Romania, which boggles the mind. I can’t understand it at all. How could they? But I have to say that, contrary to your expectation and mine in 1989, Western-style democracy has not fallen on fertile soil in every country and among all parts of the population. By and large, in the cities you do have some continued interest, whether it is Prague or Warsaw or Budapest, in the Western ways. Elsewhere, it’s old-fashioned tradition that prevails.

It’s not necessarily nostalgia for communism at all. In fact, it’s not for that. It is for the mediocrity, the seeming equality, the meager benefits of the welfare state. And above all, I think, it is against the imperative of working hard that capitalism imposes on you. So there’s an element of laziness, an element of nostalgia for the welfare state—the two-week vacation guaranteed to everybody, a year off for maternity leave, and full employment.

I tell this story to my students. Because I have lots of kids and grandchildren too, I always wanted to buy toys in these countries as I traveled. Before 1989, you would go into a store in Warsaw or East Berlin, a little store that here would be a Mom and Pop store, but there it would be nine people “working.” And they would be standing there smoking their cigarettes, and they didn’t pay any attention to me whatsoever. They didn’t have any interest in doing so. They could not lose their job. They barely made any money, but it was an okay life for most of them, though not everybody. So I think we have vastly overestimated the appeal of Western-style democracy and capitalism when we visited these countries in 1989.

 

And that overestimation, do you think it led to specific policy decisions that, if they had been taken in a different direction in terms of economic reform, might have forestalled the rise, or the push, of FIDESZ to the right or the rise of populism? Or was this an inevitable pendulum swing given the political dynamics in the region?

 

This is very hard to answer. I do have, as you can tell, opinions about most everything. But I don’t know the answer to this one. All I know is that authoritarian, or semi-authoritarian, or different anti-Western types have shown up everywhere in the region. There was Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia: look how popular he was for a long period of time. There were the brothers in Poland, the Kaczynskis. Jaroslaw Kaczynski continues to be quite appealing and quite popular. The paranoid fantasies that he presents about different groups of people or countries, or others working against Poland, absolutely boggle the mind. They are not based on realities. These conspiracies exist only in the minds of people who follow them.

Then in the Czech Republic, which we normally used to think would be the best of the lot, the just-retiring president Vaclav Klaus also had these fantasies of conspiracy and turned against the EU big time. It went way beyond the kind of skepticism one associates with West European countries, where it’s good politics to talk against the Brussels bureaucrats. Klaus was far worse than that. His successor Milos Zeman is pro-EU, but we will see how that situation develops. And then of course in Hungary you have the right-wing reaction. I could go on with Bulgaria and so on. The interesting thing for you perhaps to consider is that there are four countries in the region—and maybe Slovenia too—that feel mistreated by Russia: the three Baltic states and Poland. And in different ways and to different extents, I believe that these are the countries that have had their detours but are on the Western track. I am not sure about the others.

 

What do you think will push back against this populism? I mean, what will it take? Are there things that the European Union can do?

 

Yes, there are things it could do. But it can’t do them. It could suspend this week the cohesion fund deliveries to Hungary, and it would create an economic mess. The Financial Times advocated that approach this week. I am not necessarily advocating that because it would have colossal consequences, and it’s a bit heartless. But if you care deeply about pluralism and democracy, then you have to break eggs to make that omelet, and there is no easy way to do that. Will that lead then to Orban’s demise? Possibly, in the next election. But he already has manipulated the electoral law in such a way that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to create a coalition prior to the election, to bring all these different ambitious people together to defeat him. Just keep in mind: Vladimir Meciar was an amateur compared to Mr. Orban. FIDESZ and Orban are the real professionals of this authoritarian trend.

 

Do you see anything on the horizon in Hungary that could possibly challenge that?

 

Yes, I do. I think that the Socialist Party of Attila Mesterhazy is competent. They have come back from horrendous scandals, and I think they were down in some polls—don’t quote me because I don’t remember—to 9%. Different polls show different things. They have moved up, but not enough. And then there’s the former prime minister, Mr. Bajnai, who will form a political party next week, and he appeals to center and even center-right voters, or tries to. On his own he cannot beat Orban either. The question is whether Mesterhazy and Bajnai will be able to get together, and at this time it’s just too early for me to tell.

 

You said that the EU could do something like suspending the cohesion fund deliveries. Is there any thing Washington could do at this point?

 

I think it would be useful for Washington to speak out at higher levels. Yesterday, for example, the press spokeswoman issued a three-sentence statement. It was very strong. It supported the EU’s concerns about next week’s vote concerning the fourth scheduled change in the constitution. It was helpful, and the Hungarian press agency did issue it — somewhat to my surprise because they have a near-monopoly now on Washington news. What else could the United States do? That’s a very difficult question. This is why most officials don’t even want to know much more, because there is so little that they could do. But I think they could support the EU on a higher level and, above all, try to persuade Chancellor Merkel to get off her ass and publicly criticize Orban. It is true that she made Orban wait for more than a year before seeing him, and it is true that Orban would like to come here and meet the president. I am told that he was turned down again last week, which is very important.

We could do lots of small things. We can send ambassadors there who are competent, which we have not done: different ambassadors who have open eyes and who don’t fall for “Hungarian charm.” There’s not that much the United States can do, but I am very encouraged by the president’s policy in the State of the Union to strengthen trans-Atlantic ties with a significant commercial deal that will have great significance, even for Hungary and for all the others.

I am floored by Poland’s unwillingness to go public in its criticism. Orban does not feel sufficiently isolated, and I would isolate the Hungarian government politically. I see no reason why it should be invited to any bilateral summit. But these are private hopes on my part, and they are not going to happen.

 

I want to ask you about the issue of minorities. Previously there had been some tensions with Slovakia and Romania. Will that play a significant role, as well as the issue of violence against Roma within Hungary?

 

As far as the neighboring countries and minorities are concerned, there’s relative calm now. A year ago they did some wild things in Romania, in Transylvania, which was really absurd. It’s not a big issue now, and politically of course Orban holds the cards, because few Americans understand the real significance of the Treaty of Trianon, after World War I, whereby Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory and population. We kind of laugh at it: “That was almost a century ago, what the hell?” This is wrong, because it’s a wound that continues to hurt, and to the extent that Orban can appeal to the sense of pain felt by most Hungarians about autonomy for ethnic Hungarians and so on he’s going to gain strength and validation. Orban does not want to understand that the EU is the answer to the question. FIDESZ is not going to change borders, but there are some in the party who do want to do this.

The Slovak relationship is reasonably good now. I think Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico found a way with Orban and calmed things down for the time being. But it can explode at any moment. Next year’s elections could be a problem, because ethnic Hungarians can vote, including in the United States. They’re sending somebody to New York with $15 million—$15 million!—for something called the Friends of Hungary Foundation. While they say this is all about strengthening “cultural affinity with the homeland,” that’s bullshit. They want to get their votes.

 

The diaspora, generally speaking, is more conservative?

 

Very conservative. Very nationalist, curiously enough. So they will vote for FIDESZ, or they will even vote for Jobbik. It’s a very small group that will not vote. I’m not even a Hungarian citizen, because I gave it up in the 1960s, so I can’t vote. I don’t know how many others are like that. Their secret hope is 200,000 votes, but I don’t think they’re going to get anything like it. But they are spending state funds to campaign in the United States.

In terms of the domestic situation, the Roma issue is huge. There are no easy solutions. But FIDESZ is exacerbating the problem. I wouldn’t know what the solution is, but certainly what they are doing is not right because they are not protecting the Roma. They don’t speak out. For example, they are allowing one of Orban’s closest friends, a founder of FIDESZ and columnist by the name of Zsolt Bayer, to call the Roma “animals” in a column. They did not condemn him for this, which is truly outrageous.

And you have a real issue of anti-Semitism, which is popular and widespread. I think there are problems with the methodology of the Anti-Defamation League, but among ten European countries in their 2012 survey, Hungary moved up to become the most anti-Semitic country in Europe. But more than that, the trend of anti-Semitic sentiment moved from 47% to 63%. American Jews are concerned, but they  don’t know how to deal with Orban.

 

Are Hungarian Jews leaving as a result of this?

 

I don’t know if Jews are specifically leaving. Probably, because city folks and young people are leaving. They finish university, and reportedly 50% want to leave the country. We’re talking about a huge number.

 

This is the reason why the government is trying to prevent students from leaving if they have scholarships.

 

Precisely. They want to make scholarships contingent on a commitment to stay in Hungary.

 

Washington, DC, March 8, 2013

 

 


18 Comments

  1. Zoltan

    ‘It’s not necessarily nostalgia for communism at all. In fact, it’s not for that. It is for the mediocrity, the seeming equality, the meager benefits of the welfare state. And above all, I think, it is against the imperative of working hard that capitalism imposes on you. So there’s an element of laziness, an element of nostalgia for the welfare state—the two-week vacation guaranteed to everybody, a year off for maternity leave, and full employment.’

    The above quotation shows that Mr. Gati does not understand the present economic grievances of Hungary. Hungary’s population heard two promises at the early ninties. A pronounced was: if you demolish your old communist industries the new investments will more tham counter-balance it and at a higher level of technology. An unpronounced was that employees would have higher incomes based on new technologies. Hungary allowed to close up enormous bunches of industries. New technologies were later imported but generating jobs at a much lesser scale than the previous. Around one third of the population is employed by theese new inwestments. Another third or a little more by local enterprises. The latter usually get a wage at minimum-level. These employees usually do not even get their vacations they are entitled for by law. They do not complain because of the last third of the population whom do not even have any jobs and for longer periods. There are no trade unions in most industries. The reason for so many left the country is purely economic for the vast majority. No jobs. Official unemployment rates would not highlight reality on the ground. A sound explanation of the current economic plight could save Mr. Gati coming to a misleading conclusion…

    • I would agree with you, Zoltan. And I will be publishing other interviews from my time in Hungary that will represent that position. My own view is that Hungary — and other countries in the region — were basically treated like a large company that experienced a hostile takeover, a restructuring, and a large-scale downsizing.

    • Altansanaa

      Zoltan is correct when he says that promises made to workers in the 1990s were not kept, and it is rather unfair of Mr Gati to state that the nostalgia “is for the mediocrity, the seeming equality, the meager benefits of the welfare state.” Worker protections have always been traditionally weak in Hungary, and actually no government that came to power after 1989 did too much of anything to help them. The Socialists (belying their name), if anything, tended to be neo-liberal in economic policy. And there is nothing wrong with workers wanting decent protections like paid maternity leave: that is the definition of a decently functioning labour market.

      Having said that, however, the centralization of power in the hands of Orban and his cronies that Mr Gati describes is very real and deeply worrying. I know so many people who have already left or who are desperately trying to leave that already it has created a huge brain drain for the nation as a whole.

      Orban uses very Putin-like tactics in confronting criticism of the outside world and the EU. “They hate us, they don’t understand us, we are different [read: non-European, like the Russians, viz. the strongly held popular belief that the Magyar tribes are the true descendants of Attila the Hun]–we’ll show them they can’t boss us around!” And this goes over fantastically well with the vast majority of the domestic audience. In fact, the more the EU criticizes Hungary, the more fodder it is for Orban. Whatever his deep failings, he is a very clever man.

      Hungarians are watching countries like Greece being destroyed through punitive austerity just like the rest of us. I think the EU needs to try to think of different ways of reaching the Hungarian people, if they want to salvage something like a democratic Hungarian state. But frankly the EU also needs to look within. It has its own democratic deficit that must be dealt with.

      In the meantime, I fear nothing will really change until a majority of the Hungarian people themselves have decided they’ve had enough of the rampant clientalism and authoritarianism of the Orban regime. The only problem is, I just don’t see it happening any time too soon. I grieve for the possibilities of this potentially truly great nation–one that has punched well about its weight in so many fields, from the sciences to sports to the arts–that are being crushed.

  2. Gugyerakek

    “So there’s an element of laziness, an element of nostalgia for the welfare state—the two-week vacation guaranteed to everybody, a year off for maternity leave, and full employment.”

    You are aware, that right now the minimum of paid vacation guaranteed in Hungary is 21 days per year, which increases with age, and maternity leave lasts for two years, plus an additional third year with decreased benefits?

    • Altansanaa

      The minimum wage in Hungary is under 500 USD/month. A metro ticket–to take one example, is close to 300 HUF (1 euro or 1.30 USD). (You also need to get a new ticket for each transfer). That means–to take one example–that if someone is making the minimum wage has to take a bus and the metro to get to work, they are already spending over 60 USD just on transportation. Grocery prices are almost as high as in Western Europe. The working poor in Hungary have it really really rough.

      While the socialists never really did too much for this group of people, Orban merely exploits their anger very effectively and also does nothing for them.

    • Michael Roberts

      And *you* realize that that minimum paid vacation is a fiction, right? Because if your employer doesn’t actually give it to you, and you raise a fuss, you’ll be out on the street – there are plenty more Hungarians happy to get your $500/month job.

      My niece and her husband are in their mid-20′s. She’s a fashion designer, he’s an accountant for a (German-owned) company. They work *constantly* – including weekends – because even though between the two of them they earn about $18000 a year, they know if they don’t do whatever their employers say, they’ll be out.

      What would they do? Complain to the government? Do you think the Hungarian government is eager to cause problems with employers, however unethical? Especially if they’re German!

  3. Balazs

    One needs to take everything Mr Gati says with a pinch of salt because asking him about Orban is like asking Rush Limbaugh about Obama. Also, for people like him, bashing the current Hungarian administration is a godsend – they only have to say the usual magic words like “Antisemitism” and “nationalism” and the target audience will eagerly listen. Mr Gati, Mrs Scheppele, Mr Konrad and all the other self-appointed “progressive democrats” would kill for just a little bit of limelight and their addiction to being in the center of attention overrides any scruples about telling a lie – or at least half-truth – if need be. Bottom line, one must not believe everything they say. For many people Hungary-bashing is just an easy way to get more visibility.

    So far nothing at all has happened that would in fact endanger democracy in Hungary or the country’s political commitments to the West. To name an example: Hungary has contributed troops to the US-led war in Afghanistan way to the end, recalling our troops has never been a serious matter of debate (unlike in Germany or the UK, for instance); neither are there as strong anti-US sentiments in the public discourse as in some European states whose loyalty is never questioned, like Germany or France.

    What bothers me about Mr Gati’s views is that he completely ignores the points where criticism would be rightfully due: the cronyism, corruption and administrative incompetency of the Orbán regime as well as its unforgivably cynical foreign policies. Yet he prefers to talk in the language of clichés of antisemitism and nationalism, burying Hungarian democracy because it’s the only language he and his circles understand. It’s a shame that the HP didn’t dig any deeper than that.

    Just one last point – Mr Gati says, “I wouldn’t know what the solution is, but certainly what they are doing is not right because they are not protecting the Roma.” If he doesn’t know what the solution is then STFU. The sad truth is, it’s not the poor innocent Roma that needs to be protected from angry racist Hungarians but the other round, or let’s better say it’s their own inertia, criminal lifestyle and self-exclusion that the Roma need to be protected from.

    • I don’t think Rush Limbaugh and Barack Obama were ever friends or ideological allies. You could make the argument about the “pinch of salt,” but it would have to be couched in terms of a falling out among friends or a parting of ideological ways.

      This is only the first interview I’m posting related to Hungary. There will be 50 more conducted in Hungary — interviews with Roma, with Jobbik, with economists, with a wide range of people of different political persuasions and backgrounds (not to mention interviews with quite a few ethnic Hungarians in Romania as well).

    • Tacitus

      Mr. Gati is spot on. Congratulations.

      Re democracy – what’s left are the courts (under heavy pressure) and the yet unavoidable parliamentary election (already quite skewed by various laws and government practices).

      Mr. Balazs here is highly speculative and improbable about “Mr Gati, Mrs Scheppele, Mr Konrad … would kill for just a little bit of limelight and their addiction to being in the center of attention overrides any scruples about telling a lie – or at least half-truth – if need be…. For many people Hungary-bashing is just an easy way to get more visibility.”
      (Also note the discreet, but suggestive listing of only Jewish origin persons, the use of “kill”, “override any scruples”. Typical.)
      In this vein, Mr. Orban and his parliament recently accused the whole European Parliament, 600+ MPs, of corrupt action in support of big industry interest against Hungary. Greens, Left and Communists included !!!

      What about the long reports of the Venice Committee and L. Tavares (but also of Freedom House) which contain a number of findings re the fading of democracy ?

      What about the opinions of e.g. former constitutional judge L. Solyom, economist A. Sikan, politician Tölgyessy, etc. all one-time Fidesz people or members.

      All wrong, but Mr. Orban ? Please …

      As a Hungarian speaking expat following closely the politics in Budapest I would summarize the situation as a 2/3 ready a fascist state (e.g. def. by Prof. Robert Paxton) being built by a 100% fascist of the classical, Italian kind, i.e. Mr. Orban.

      If any “bashing” it is and should be Orban bashing and a good thing.

  4. Let us concentrate on the main points of Gati:
    1.The incompetent European rightwing parties are too tolerant with the totalitarian fidesz.
    2. In this light, the government dishes out favors uninhibitedly, and most of the EU funds to the corrupt vendors around fidesz.
    3. To cover the sins, fidesz pours horthy style antisemitism in the public. Bayer, Szeles, Bencsik….are producing goebelsian material. Lies.
    Let us see these sins clearly. Let us not dilute them with irrelevant concerns.

  5. Seawolf

    Interesting interview, I have a few comments however:

    But Admiral Miklos Horthy, the famous authoritarian leader of Hungary, made a point of riding his white horse at the head of the army that swept through Hungary in 1919 until it finally entered Budapest and put an end to the country’s brief experiment with a Soviet government.

    The Soviet Republic has been put down by the invading Romanian army. Horthy just rode in (heading the country’s only remaining armed force) after the Romanians had left.

    Or if you want to focus on any one thing, it is the lack of checks and balances. This is the key. Using the two-thirds majority as a justification for uprooting Western-style democracy.

    I don’t want to be nitpicking, but the whole concept of “checks and balances” is contrary to the principle of democracy. I know they were considered important – especially in Europe – in order to stop a potential nazi-style takeower, but I have my doubts when people argue that the position of a central bank president, responsible to no-one, still pursuing neo-liberal economic policies that have proven their failure, is more important than what a democratically elected government having a two-thirds majority wants to do.

    The issue is the so-called “Eastern opening,” the friendship with Vladimir Putin and with Russia, the plan to put some of Hungary’s reserves in the ruble, which is not even a fully convertibly currency, as opposed to the U.S. dollar and the Euro. […] So there is a turn away from the West. Orban has said many times: “We will not be a Western colony.” He has turned against Western banks. He constantly attacks the EU. All in all, we have here a leader that in his foreign policy no longer wants Hungary to be a loyal member of the Western community.

    The U.S. dollar might be a fully convertible currency, but it’s still fiat money. Its worth is only guaranteed by the economical and military power of the U.S. So why is it a problem that Hungary wants to diversify her monetary reserves? Because it calls into question the hegemony of the West? And since joining the EU – which is essentially a free trade area – Hungarians do have a feeling that they have indeed become a colony. The Hungarian industry, which was not good enough to compete with the West (apart from the Soviet bloc, it could only sell its products in third world countries) has all but vanished, and the handout known as “cohesion funds” cannot compensate for a jobless, disintegrating society whose only purpose is to consume Western goods, mainly using borrowed money. How loyality would fit into this I sincerely don’t know.

    But there is a price for this, and the price is siding with the Russians, for instance, on energy issues. When he was in opposition, Orban and FIDESZ strongly opposed this so-called South Stream energy pipeline that would bring Russian energy to Europe, and favored the Nabucco, the Western alternative pipeline idea. Now he has dropped support for the Nabucco and supports the Russian plan.

    Mr. Gati is wrong to say that Orban has dropped Nabucco to make up with the Russians. Every Hungarian government had supported Nabucco for obvious strategic reasons, as no Eastern European country would like to be dependent on Russian gas alone. However, the EU “greats” let the project slide into oblivion as they’ve pursued their own private solutions to their energy needs. For example, Germany has made her own separate agreement with Russia about a pipleine in the Baltic Sea. This is more of a symptom of the inefectiveness of the EU, unable to jointly pursue common goals.

    Their symbolism, their economic policies — never mind their authoritarian trends — all put them on the right wing of the political spectrum.

    The economic policies of the FIDESZ are every much leftist compared to the previous government (with taxes on banks, multinational companies). It was the Socialist Party, in coalition with the Free Democrats which pursued a rightist, neo-liberal economic policy (as among the ex-socialists were the first oligarchs, who using their connections from the communist era became the winners of the laissez-faire capitalism of the ’90s).

    There is nostalgia for Ceausescu’s Romania, which boggles the mind. I can’t understand it at all. […] It’s not necessarily nostalgia for communism at all. In fact, it’s not for that. It is for the mediocrity, the seeming equality, the meager benefits of the welfare state. And above all, I think, it is against the imperative of working hard that capitalism imposes on you. So there’s an element of laziness, an element of nostalgia for the welfare state—the two-week vacation guaranteed to everybody, a year off for maternity leave, and full employment.

    The nostalgia is obviously not for the dictatorship, but for the social order and security. Now some people took advantage of the situation, as everyone was guaranteed a workplace wether competent or not, but they are not the only ones who look back with nostalgia. And in Ceausescu’s Romania Saturday was a working day too, with less vacation, food being rationed etc., so in this respect it was not really a welfare state. Explaining all this with lazyness versus “working hard” in capitalism is very misleading. Capitalism is not just about working hard, but also about capital (duh), having the necessary skills to compete, knowing how to build up a business, making plans, managing a company and so on. These are things you don’t learn overnight. So the inherent disadvantage compared to the Western economies and the subsequent meltdown of the domestic economy is the reason of the distrust towards Western capitalism and democracy.

    Just keep in mind: Vladimir Meciar was an amateur compared to Mr. Orban. FIDESZ and Orban are the real professionals of this authoritarian trend.

    Well Orban has figured out how a mass democracy works. If you want to lead the country, you need to win the elections. In order to do that, you need to know what the majority is like, and be like them. It is not enough just to tell what they want to hear, and then do something completely different when getting power. So if the majority likes an authoritarian regime where there’s “order”, is conservative, nationalistic etc., then he will become the embodiment of all these things. The consequence is that now you can have a democratic system, or a system following Western values, but not both. It’s not hard to realise that if you institute a system reflecting the people’s will in a country where there’s nostalgia both for the communist regime and Horthy’s authoritarian half-democracy, you will end up with a similar regime sooner or later. Now Mr. Gati wants to institute sanctions against a democratically elected government. This is like saying that democracy is OK, as long as you elect a leader who accepts Western values. What is the difference between this view, and the so-called elections under communism (because they also called themselves democracies, “peoples’ democracy”), where you could choose between the various candidates of the single communist party?

    And talking about the competence of the Socialist Party is laughable. They can only talk about reversing the authoritarian policies of the current government, but have no real answers to the economic problems, only repeating their previously failed methods. To be fair, it would be really nice to reverse the current political trend, but why would people care about institutions that were deeply corrupt, or systems that were flawed anyway? Democracy here has been a form without content so far, and it’s not the form which creates the content…

    As far as the neighboring countries and minorities are concerned, there’s relative calm now. A year ago they did some wild things in Romania, in Transylvania, which was really absurd. It’s not a big issue now, and politically of course Orban holds the cards, because few Americans understand the real significance of the Treaty of Trianon, after World War I, whereby Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory and population. We kind of laugh at it: “That was almost a century ago, what the hell?” This is wrong, because it’s a wound that continues to hurt, and to the extent that Orban can appeal to the sense of pain felt by most Hungarians about autonomy for ethnic Hungarians and so on he’s going to gain strength and validation. Orban does not want to understand that the EU is the answer to the question.

    I think what needs to be understood is that the real problem of Trianon is not the loss of territory itself, but that areas with ethnic Hungarian majority were also annexed to the successor states. These declare themselves nation-states, and treat their Hungarians as second-class citizens. This is not a problem of the past, but a problem of the present. There were high hopes that the EU membership of Slovakia and Romania would change things, but it did not. The EU might be the answer to something, but definitely not to this question.

    In terms of the domestic situation, the Roma issue is huge. There are no easy solutions. But FIDESZ is exacerbating the problem. I wouldn’t know what the solution is, but certainly what they are doing is not right because they are not protecting the Roma.

    The sad thing is that large segments of the Roma population make a living from illegal and criminal activities. They were the biggest losers of the transition to capitalism, as they made up the underclass even during communism. The concept of “roma criminality” propagated by the far right has became widely accepted after the economic downturn, giving a distinctly ethnic tint to the problem. I don’t know what “protecting the Roma” would mean in this case, but the liberal policy of excusing any morally dubious acts perpetrated by Roma does not work anymore.

    …among ten European countries in their 2012 survey, Hungary moved up to become the most anti-Semitic country in Europe

    This gives the false impression that somehow people became anti-semitic overnight. I think in Hungary the prevalence of anti-semitism is the same as in other Eastern-European countries, being also proportional to the number of Jews living here. Because after World War II Hungary became the only country with a still sizeable Jewish population, anti-semitism is somewhat higher here than in the neighbouring countries. What happened is that the voice of the anti-semitic crowd has become louder with the far right gaining ground in the country. It does not really correlate with Orban being in power, as polls show that a significant percentage of the leftist voters are also pretty xenofobic too.

    • Tacitus

      Cudos for the long and elegant comments.

      However, they are in essence apologies for the Orban regime.
      While many of your points are theoretically plausible and seem neutral on own, put together these bits paint a stark and dark picture:
      The ruins of a democracy upon which an authoritarian regime is busy building, patching and rebuilding its own political system, a very different one.

      While Orban has a lot of followers, this should not preclude every democrat and every decent person to actively oppose this and like regimes. Why not consider how the Allies basically forced democracy upon defeated nations and what a good outcome this had already in the medium term.

      Orban delenta est.
      Why not fight and defeat the power usurping Orban regime?

      • Seawolf

        Indeed the picture is dark. I was trying to be objective, not apologetic.

        The problem with fighting Orban is that there is no political force with sizeable popular backing (so forget LMP) which would have remotely sensible ideas about how to tackle the country’s problems.

        Mr. Gati might think otherwise, but he is wrong on many counts, and he has a tendency to view and explain everything through the prism of an ideological worldview. Which is understandable, given his connection with the Council on Foreign Relations – an organization which leverages the ideology of liberal democracy in the service of the U.S. establishment, just as the communist ideology had been used by the Soviet Union to further its own imperialism.

        However it’s not the ideology or the political system which makes a successful society, but educated and well-informed people with a strong work ethic and a political elite which is dedicated to good government. Hungary has neither. The West has also forced democracy on Iraq and Afghanistan, and the outcome has been anything but good. Why did not work that out as in Germany and Japan? Because Germany and Japan had been succesful societies even before – the Italian fascism was more boasting than real action with a joke of an army, the German one was deadly serious and effective. After the Second World War, with the conservative Prussians ending up in East Germany, it was easier for West Germany to build a democractic system, and having to “get in line” in front of the Soviet threat, they made up with France and gave up their imperial ambitions. I would not compare this case with the states of Eastern Europe which lack some essential requisites of a democratic system and in fact instituting such a system has ended up in a farce with a corrupt and manipulative elite rising to power. The result of this can be seen on the economic front as well – just compare the two former Soviet states of Belarus and Ukraine. The former is dubbed “the last dictatorship in Europe”, the latter is a democracy, at least on paper. Both states have slavic culture, and in the past there were no big differences in development between them. But Belarus now has a GDP per capita value that is double of that of Ukraine! People who think that the edifice (the political system) is more important than the foundation (the social and economic system) should think twice about this.

        So previously we had a government which mismanaged the economy, and now we have a government which makes a mockery of the rule of law and the ethics needed for good administration of the state. Which one is the lesser evil?

        My own line of thought is – and I’m not claiming that I’m right – that it’s the one which doesn’t result in the far right getting stronger. They are the real danger, and not the Fidesz. The resurgence of the rightist radicalism is the result of the 8 year government of the Social-Liberal coalition, the liberal policies too excessive for a post-communist state, the disregard of the national feelings of the population, the mismanagement of the economy and finally losing all credibility through the many scandals. They do not seem to have any regrets about these. If we think Orban is the devil who must be removed at all price, that the end justifies the means, on the long run we might end up a lot worse than we are now. Again, my aim is not to make up apologies, or to morally relativise the Orban regime – I just think there are no good choices here.

        • Altansanaa

          The problem is, there is a force far worse than Orban waiting in the wings. They are Jobbik, and as one political commentator has pointed out, they are not Neo-Nazis, they are Nazis, plain and simple. They are very dangerous and have a certain amount of genuine support, as well as members in Parliament. (It was a Jobbik member who suggested in Parliament that a special list should be compiled of all Jewish members of parliament, because as a terrorist nation,Israel represents a threat to world peace.) Orban uses them as the bogeyman with which to scare the EU (“kick me out and this is what you’ll get”).

          Iraq has show that democracy can not be imported with guns. There are no good choices here. In fact the only choice might be to let Hungary drive itself to rack and ruin (already happening), with the best and brightest immigrating abroad, until a future generation awakens to the reality of the situation. It sounds horrible, I know, but given that even EU sanctions only strengthen Orban’s hand, I don’t know what anyone can do. Believe me a lot of people are incredibly despondent about this both inside and outside of Hungary.

          • Michael Roberts

            Jobbik are not Nazis. Jeez. I’m not going to apologize for them because they *are* a little stupid when it comes to their nationalism (I guess that’s redundant), but seriously, this idea that they’re a “far worse force waiting in the wings” is exactly what Fidesz says to scare the low-information voter.

            Jobbik will *never* gain serious power; they’re just too marginal. At most they may form a coalition with somebody, and will be forced to learn how to govern.

            As to the list of Jewish Parliamentarians, you’ve got that story wrong, at least not the way I heard it – he wanted a list of *dual citizens* (Israeli/Hungarian dual citizens) because they were voting against Hungary’s interests in support of Israel – and certainly not because Israel is a terrorist nation!

            And he didn’t get his request anyway.

            My favorite Jobbik story, though, is the Jobbik guy who found out he himself was Jewish. They’re clowns – certainly not a scary bugaboo monster.

            My feeling is any vote that takes down the 2/3 supermajority of Fidesz is a vote well-cast. You should support Jobbik as a spoiler party, not fear them. Fidesz is still going to take a majority in 2014. Let’s not preserve that supermajority, though, huh?

  6. from Karoly:

    > I don’t know if Jews are specifically leaving.

    Sure as hell we do! When rabbis get beaten up on the street, then jews run like hell. What did you expect?

  7. I will make some allowances for someone who didn’t live in Hungary for extended period of time and prehaps is not a native speaker. But; one should be careful about confusing “nationalism” with “national identity”. Just as once new States have yoined the Union in the United States, many countries have joined the European Union. While in the US States proud of their identity and independence we a;; speak the same language and use the same currency. Not so in Europe! While Hungary is member of the EU they are not permitted to use the Euro as a currency because they are economically not ready for it. I played some role in getting Hungary ready for NATO membership but since 1993-1994 many things have NOT changed. It is prehaps not “politics” but “burocracy” that is literally chocking Hungary. Many over the age of 60 see the EU, America and the Jewis State as trying to do “harm” to Hungary. I have not figured out why that is but prehaps articles/analysis like this interview DO NOT help in the matter. As for Mr.Orban, I do not know him personally but give him credit of trying to be “He made some hard choices (some of which I do not agree with) but paid off the “debt” generated by his Communist/Socialist predecessors. Incidentally Mr. Gyurcsany in his infamous “Ösodi beszed” which was recorded and leaked stated to his fellow party members “I must honestly tell you we didn’t do anything in the past 4 years…”. So I say; fixing must be done and we can be critical how is being done…!

    • Charles Gati is certainly a native speaker and travels back and forth to Hungary regularly. It’s important to distinguish between “nationalism” and “national identity.” Preserving the Hungarian language and culture is part of the latter. Fostering attacks against Roma and Jews is part of the former. The interview criticizes this kind of nationalism. As for Mr. Orban paying back the debt of previous governments, the same could be said of Ceausescu. It is not by itself a worthy act: the question is how the debt is repaid and who shoulders most of the sacrifices. And if “we can be critical” about how the fixing that takes place, then why isn’t an interview like this useful? Is Mr. Orban above such criticism?

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