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To Viktor Go the Spoils

Is Europe right to distrust Hungary’s prime minister?

Oct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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‘Probably the nation which is most difficult to govern is the Hungarians,” says the man who governs them. It is late on an unseasonably warm Friday in September. Sunlight is slanting through the windows of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s office, which looks onto the Danube from the crimson-domed nineteenth-century parliament building in Budapest. “Ten million freedom fighters,” Orbán says. “That has some advantages, but from the governmental side it’s difficult.” 

Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán in Brussels, January 24, 2012

Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán in Brussels, January 24, 2012

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Orbán, the youngest of Hungary’s Cold War heroes, ought to find it easier to govern Hungary than his predecessors. Still in his 40s, widely read, Calvinist (like many Hungarian politicians through the ages), tough when he has to be (and sometimes when he doesn’t), he has a vision of a proud and prosperous Hungary that his followers find stirring. Two years ago, his Fidesz party took two-thirds of the seats in parliament—enough to rewrite Hungary’s constitution and reorder its society. Orbán and Fidesz have done just that. With the opposition split between a discredited post-Communist party, a disreputable fascist party, and a new party called Politics Can Be Different that is green in every sense of the word, Hungary is unlikely to produce an alternative to Fidesz in the near term. Orbán, therefore, has more power than any conservative leader has had in the West since Margaret Thatcher ruled Britain in the mid-1980s. Hungary is the clearest example we have of how a 21st-century conservative government behaves when it rules untrammeled. 

Yet Orbán is running into trouble. His name is mud in much of the West. Fidesz may be the party of Hungary’s business class and its working class. But it is not the party of Hungary’s intellectuals, its artists, and most of its journalists—those with good English and contacts abroad. It has not been viewed favorably by the network of foundations around George Soros, the Hungarian-born investor—even if it was Soros who funded Orbán’s brief stint at Pembroke College, Oxford, in the late 1980s. 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dressed Orbán down on her last visit to Budapest. Freedom House altered Hungary’s “media freedom ranking” from “free” to “partly free.” The Franco-German Green politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit, speaking in the European parliament, accused Orbán of being anti-European. Orbán himself has a different explanation. “A chapter of European history is closed,” he says. “We are not competitive any more. We cannot live as we once lived. What we need is a deep transformation of European life. The only question is, which governments are strong enough, and have enough of a majority in parliament, to lead such a transformation, and which are not.” 

The Goulash Archipelago

Orbán became a political celebrity one day in the early summer of 1989. Then in his mid-twenties, he was invited to speak at a ceremony for the reburial of Imre Nagy, the Communist prime minister executed for permitting the 1956 uprising against Soviet rule. There were still tens of thousands of Soviet troops in Hungary. The Berlin Wall stood. Orbán was speaking as a representative of Hungary’s coming generations, and he looked the part. He had long hair and a Clark Gable mustache, and a weakness for loud, Wild-and-Crazy-Guy blazers, even if he didn’t wear one that day.

He had recently helped found Fidesz, which is a Hungarian acronym for “Alliance of Young Democrats,” and at the time it admitted no members over the age of 35. This was a group that saw no “good intentions” in communism, nor anything the past generation had contributed to Hungary except terror and corruption. Orbán’s speech was of a shocking brusqueness. He told the Soviets they should get out of Hungary, lock, stock, and barrel. Later, when Communists were negotiating a transition arrangement that would have allowed the party to maintain “workers’ combat groups” and party representatives in workplaces, Orbán was among those who blocked it. He has been the country’s top conservative politician for most of the intervening decades, serving a term as prime minister at the turn of the century.

Hungary has been among the least successful Eastern European countries emerging from the Cold War. It has resembled not so much Poland or the Czech Republic as Russia minus the mafia. Like Russia, Hungary has monopolies and alcoholism, and it has hemorrhaged jobs. In this country of 10 million, there are now a million fewer jobs than there were when the Berlin Wall came down. As the philosopher and former member of parliament G. M. Tamás put it recently, “What has happened is the failure of the democratic republic and of the liberal market régime to create a social order which is clearly superior to what preceded it.” 

In retrospect, Hungary had a couple of specific problems that made its transition out of communism tricky. If you look out the windows of Orbán’s offices you can see the Budapest Hilton across the Danube. Building began on it in 1972, in the depths of the Brezhnevian freeze in the Cold War. Joint ventures to bring in foreign expertise and hard currency were a Hungarian specialty. The uprising of 1956 had left the Soviet Union solicitous to keep conditions in Hungary as comfortable as possible. One result was a relative openness to business—for state bureaucrats at first, and then, by the 1980s, for entrepreneurs. There was more consumer choice here than elsewhere in the East Bloc. The novelist György Dalos referred sardonically to his country as the “Goulash Archipelago.” This not-quite-totally-Communist economy never really worked. The government of János Kádár borrowed, and overborrowed, to meet expectations. In 1982, Hungary negotiated a deal with the IMF.

But Goulash communism had an important political consequence when the Wall came down. In the 1990s, there was not, as happened elsewhere, a purge of Communists by new elites with ties to international business. In Hungary, Communists were the elites with ties to international business. That gave the country an economic jump on its neighbors—in the early 1990s it was getting more direct foreign investment than the rest of the East Bloc countries combined—but this proved a political liability. That is why, when you ask Orbán what strain of anti-communism he belongs to, he likens himself to Lech Walesa rather than Solzhenitsyn or Havel. “Okay, I’m a guy from university,” he says, “but I belong to the plebeian tradition of Hungarian politics.” He is not of the nomenklatura.

In this sense, Orbán’s “revolution at the ballot box” has something in common with what Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his twin brother, the late Lech Kaczynski, did over the past decade in Poland. Tardily, quixotically, and sometimes unreasonably, he aims to deprive post-Communist elites of every legacy advantage they carried away from authoritarian rule. As in Kaczynski-era Poland, political rhetoric has taken a turn for the divisive and denunciatory. Fidesz has carried out a wave of renamings. Ferihegy Airport is now named after Ferenc (Franz) Liszt. Moscow Square has been renamed for turn-of-the-century prime minister Kálmán Széll. A square named after Franklin Delano Roosevelt has also been renamed, although a Ronald Reagan monument went up in Freedom Square last year.

Hungarians have chosen the MSzP, successor party to the Communists, to lead them (in coalition) for most of the period since the Cold War. Voters never took the party to their hearts, but they trusted it to do something about those million jobs that had gone missing. The MSzP, alas, showed a gift for running the economy into the ground. The Soviet-educated Gyula Horn, a backer of the Russians in the 1956 uprising, was forced to accept a grinding austerity package as prime minister in 1995. After 2002, Péter Medgyessy, a lover of Cuba who was revealed during his term to have been a high-level intelligence operative under communism, raised public salaries 50 percent and added a “thirteenth month” to pensions. 

But it was in 2006 that politics in Hungary really fell to pieces. By then, the Hungarian economy was hurtling towards disaster. The charismatic socialist Ferenc Gyurcsány (pronounced roughly “Dear-join”), a millionaire businessman married to a Politburo member’s granddaughter, defeated Orbán in a close-fought race. A few weeks later he gave a speech to a closed meeting of MSzP leaders. It was secretly recorded, and the bits leaked to the press over the coming days changed the course of Hungarian history. On the tape, Gyurcsány confides to his colleagues:

We did whatever was possible to do in secret in the preceding months, making sure that papers on what we were preparing for would not surface in the last weeks of the election campaign. .  .  . We have screwed up. Not a little but a lot. No country in Europe has screwed up as much as we have. It can be explained. We have obviously lied throughout the past 18 to 24 months. It was perfectly clear that what we were saying was not true. .  .  . And in the meantime we did not actually do anything for four years. Nothing. .  .  . I almost perished because I had to pretend for 18 months that we were governing. Instead, we lied morning, noon, and night. I do not want to carry on with this. 

Neither Gyurcsány nor his fans realized why the admission of lying drove the public into a fury—and they do not fully understand it even today. Paul Lendvai, a Hungarian-born Austrian journalist particularly smitten with Gyurcsány and his circle, wrote in a recent book, “Before we turn to the frenzied consequences of the revelations, we have to raise the question of who leaked the damaging extracts.” (Really? Why?) I spent half an hour with Gyurcsány in front of the Lajos Kossuth monument next to the parliament, where he was staging a fast to protest Fidesz’s new election laws. “I understand,” he said. “In the hands of my rivals, this speech became a nuclear weapon. They used it.” It is true that Gyurcsány spoke to propose reforms, but Hungarian voters can hardly be faulted for considering an admission of lying more important than an exhortation to stop it. 

Gyurcsány rejected calls for his resignation. Orbán rallied a movement against the government and organized demonstrations. On the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 rising, police—many wearing masks and not wearing the badges that bore their identification numbers—attacked crowds in Budapest. These demonstrations were not wholly peaceful—one group tried to burn down a radio station. But neutral observers have criticized police conduct. “They did not beat the violent demonstrators but the ones they could catch,” says Tamás Bodoky, the publisher of an investigative blog, who wrote a book on the subject.

The rage against Gyurcsány kept building. In 2008, Orbán forced a referendum on Gyurcsány’s (rather sensible) proposals to institute school tuition fees and copayments for doctors’ visits. The drubbing Gyurcsány received destroyed his government. In 2009 the MSzP businessman Gordon Bajnai agreed to head a technocratic government, just to stave off bankruptcy, and promised not to run again. Bajnai raised taxes, cut subsidies, froze government hiring, and negotiated a $25 billion IMF credit. It was impressive. Many Hungarians, moderates as well as leftists, hope he will run again. I met a sociologist at a rally Gyurcsány held on Batthyány Square in mid-September, who said of Bajnai’s year in power: “Of the last 22 years, it was the only rational one.”

Bajnai’s success did not make Hungarians forget Gyurcsány, and in 2010 Orbán picked up practically every vote that was not riveted, chained, welded, and super-glued to the Socialist party. In an American- or English-style vote he would have picked up not 68 percent but 98 percent of the seats. Hungary has always had a tendency to patronage politics, and suddenly, for the first time since the 1940s, its Socialists found themselves without a single scrap to offer their supporters. The upshot was panic. 

Although there are few politicians in the West less like Barack Obama than Viktor Orbán, the two have a situational resemblance. Both became symbols of opposition at a time when voters wanted to send a message of contempt to a party they had grown sick of. But so unanimous was the swing against the incumbents that voters wound up doing far more than blowing a raspberry at the old crowd. They wound up creating a new government with no effective checks on it. In the United States, the result was Obamacare. In Hungary, the result was a new constitution. 

Orbán’s ideology and constitution

Unlike other Central and Eastern European countries, Hungary did not start from constitutional scratch after the end of communism in 1989. Until this year, society was being guided in large part by a constitution written in 1949. The new constitution, which came into force in January, defines marriage as between a man and a woman and declares that life begins at conception (although abortion remains legal and easily available). It changes the country’s name from the old Soviet-era “Republic of Hungary” to just “Hungary,” but it explicitly states that the form of government shall be a republic. It makes the chief prosecutor responsible to the legislative, not the executive, branch. The constitution also tips its hat to the role of Christianity in Hungary’s history—but no more than the Portuguese constitution does to the role of socialism, Orbán’s supporters insist. If you back Orbán, you will note that there is nothing in the constitution that does not follow established practice in some other Western country. If you oppose him, you will say that the whole can be less free than the sum of its parts.

In the constitution and in various new laws, Orbán’s opponents see a gradually tightening vise of authoritarianism. When Orbán said a few months ago that Hungary needed “an Eastern wind in our Western sail,” he meant to allude to the economic dynamism of the Asian countries. Gordon Bajnai cited a familiar line of the poet Endre Ady, that Hungary is a “ferryboat” that travels between east and west, and implied that Orbán intended to moor his ship in the same port as such eastern authoritarians as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko. 

Orbán believes his opponents’ real problem with the constitution is that it runs counter to the ideology of the last generation of European leaders. “That is the reason why, in Europe, the constitution is so fiercely attacked, especially by the generation of 1968,” he told me in his office. “It is not just a constitution, it is the antithesis of their understanding of European history.” 

There are points to be made on both sides, but on balance, Orbán has the stronger case. His opponents are right to worry about the concentration of regulatory power—but Orbán freely admits this is intended to make the country’s system of government more “presidential.” His opponents are right to oppose his new laws regulating media—but wrong to impute widespread journalistic layoffs to political meddling rather than the worldwide collapse of the journalism industry. His opponents are right to see Orbán as motivated by a desire to remove those bureaucrats he views as Communist-era deadwood—but wrong to say there is no check on his power to do so. (His law that judges must retire at 62, like other civil servants, was overturned by Hungary’s high court.) The Hungarian opposition has done a poor job of distinguishing between their own policy preferences of the moment and the Western constitutional tradition. Their case for worrying about the new Hungarian constitution would be stronger if they were willing to admit that there were any such thing as a legitimate constitution that did not include abortion and gay marriage. 

Last winter Orbán went to Strasbourg to defend his constitution before the European Union’s parliament, which had considered censuring him for it. “I went there and I defended the constitution,” he recalls. “Successfully—as I understood it, anyway. I said I understand that in European intellectual circles there is an understanding of European history, that there is a trend from religious to secular, from nations to internationalism, and from the family to the individual. That is what you call progress. I don’t know whether you are right or not. But I don’t think this is the only possible interpretation of European history. I think God and religion, family and nation, do not belong only to the past. They belong to the future as well. So I’m ready to start the discussion. It’s a believer-based, family-based, nation-based constitution. What is the problem with that?”

A Hungary man is an angry man

Certain peculiarities of Hungarian history leave Europeans uneasy about Hungary’s desire to go it alone, constitutionally or otherwise. One is that Hungarians’ idea of Hungarian-ness extends to their ethnic brethren in other countries. Hungary was on the wrong side of both world wars. In 1920, at the Treaty of Trianon, it lost two-thirds of its territory and 3 million of its citizens. Today there are Hungarian-speaking enclaves in Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic. Their fate is the most passionate foreign-policy preoccupation of Hungarians of all political stripes.

Orbán has made June 4, the day of the Trianon treaty, a Day of National Unity and established a fast track to Hungarian citizenship for Hungarians abroad. Again, this is no fringe enthusiasm. When the citizenship bill came before parliament, out of 386 members only 3 (all Socialists, including Gyurcsány) voted against it. Orbán insists that there is no nationalism, revanchism, or ethnic exclusivity in such moves. On the contrary, he says during our interview, the ability to make contact with their cousins after years of being cut off from them leads Hungarians to value their integration into wider Europe. “This is the reason why a majority of Hungarians”—84 percent at the referendum—“supported EU membership. The EU means no borders.” Orbán may be right, but this is very hard for non-Hungarians to grasp.

And it gets harder when they consider with alarm that Hungary’s third-largest party, known as Jobbik, has nationalism, and even fascism, at its heart. (Ferenc Gyurcsány interrupted our conversation when Jobbik came up, to say: “I want to be clear—it is a neo-Nazi party.”) The right-wing ambit in Hungary has been large for quite some time. The playwright István Csurka, who died earlier this year, used to rant about Jewish conspiracies. Zsolt Bayer, a founder of Fidesz in the 1980s, wrote a notorious anti-Semitic article in 2008. Given the gory efficiency with which Hungary’s government helped the Nazis eliminate almost the entire rural Jewish population of the country in World War II, a hair-trigger sensitivity to such gestures is not out of place.

Jobbik took 17 percent of the vote in the last election, and almost a quarter of votes cast by those under 29. It devotes a great deal of its mental energy to Hungary’s roughly 700,000 gypsies (or Roma, as they are also called), who account for much of the country’s poverty and crime, and to Israel. Jobbik’s leader is 34-year-old Gábor Vona, a founder of the so-called Magyar Gárda, a group of young men given to marching, uniformed and unarmed but in massive numbers, into gypsy neighborhoods. Authorities have banned the Gárda, but a year ago a similar mob attacked gypsies in the small town of Gyöngyöspata. This past summer, the alleged murder of a 26-year-old woman, Katá Bándy, in Pecs by a gypsy man caused an outpouring of anti-Roma fury there. 

Jobbik wants to establish literacy tests for voters, a measure that would disenfranchise gypsies, many of whom are illiterate. Websites close to the party assert that Israelis are “buying up” Hungary. This view is shared by Márton Gyöngyösi, an affable and well-read Jobbik member of parliament. On the question of whether he believed there were Jewish plans to buy up Hungary, he referred me to a YouTube video, evidently much visited by Hungarians, in which Shimon Peres appeared to be cracking jokes (in Hebrew) on a podium. “Shimon Peres is a serious person,” Gyöngyösi says, adding, “He said that there is a plan to colonize through financial means and business countries like my country. And if I see Salamon Berkowitz, Yoav Blum, and some other Jewish businessmen doing their business in Hungary, this is the first quotation that comes to my mind.”

Gyöngyösi views Viktor Orbán as part of a “handpicked group of people who were educated by the Soros Foundation, who were educated in the West under communism.” Still, Jobbik has become a problem not just for Hungary in general but for Orbán and Fidesz in particular. Orbán has said that he has “zero tolerance for anti-Semitism and racism.” Not even his political enemies accuse him of those things. Fidesz has several Roma members of parliament. Orbán’s first Fidesz government, in 2000, established a National Memorial Day for the Holocaust. His present one has just devoted a year to commemorating the centenary of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust. Fidesz’s Roma programs are run by Zoltán Balog, a Calvinist pastor and minister of human resources in the Orbán government. Balog’s background is in human rights (as opposed to law enforcement). His ministry has introduced affirmative action programs for Roma. 

Fidesz is not Jobbik. But non-Hungarians grasp that only with difficulty—“despite the Fidesz leadership stating practically every day for eight years that they will have nothing to do with Jobbik,” as the Anglo-Hungarian writer Tibor Fischer puts it. The philosopher and Fidesz member of the European parliament György Schöpflin complains that certain Hungarians blur the distinctions between the parties as well. “The Hungarian left,” according to Schöpflin, “appears to have no theory of the democratic center-right and, hence, to assume that they and they alone own democracy.”

A test case

Orbán’s constitutional experiment remains on a respectable part of the spectrum of historical Western constitutionalism. But that does not mean he is assured of being able to carry it out. The economy remains in tough shape. The average worker earns under $13,700 a year. Unemployment is around 10 percent. The employment rate is an abysmal 55 percent, well below the 65 percent of the Czech Republic. A legacy of governmental profligacy (for which the first Orbán government is not blameless) has left Hungary deep in debt and beholden to those who can bail it out.

Whether or not it taps its funds, Hungary cannot afford to alienate the IMF, and European Union rules make it necessary for Hungary to negotiate such funding through the EU. The EU is using this economic vulnerability to pressure Orbán on various noneconomic matters. His government feels unfairly singled out by Western leaders, especially the ones in the EU who have imposed themselves as intermediaries between Hungary and the IMF. Spain was granted permission to run deficits over 5 percent; Hungary had the book thrown at it for deficits under 4 percent.

“Orbán is the sort of person of whom the Heritage Foundation deeply disapproves,” says one of his Fidesz colleagues, referring to the conservative Washington-based think tank. Orbán admits, “What Hungary is doing is not in accordance with what has been, up to now, the mainstream in the international finance world.” 

Actually, there is a good deal of Hungarian economic policy that the international finance world would approve of. Orbán has, like Germany, pushed through a draconian budget-balancing mechanism, even if the national budget has not yet returned to balance. Hungary has the highest value-added tax in Europe—27 percent. (A good sign, since it taxes consumption, not job creation.) Hungary, like its neighbors in Slovakia and Romania, has a flat tax on income (set at 16 percent), but with a wrinkle that Orbán is particularly proud of: big, off-the-top deductions for families with children. Fidesz has made the tax code more generous to families with children. This is a “conservative flat tax,” as Orbán calls it. Having children is important to Orbán. “Demography is the key factor. If you are not able to maintain yourself biologically, how do you expect to maintain yourself economically, politically, and militarily?” he asks. “It’s impossible. The answer of letting people from other countries come in … that could be an economic solution, but it’s not a solution of your real sickness, that you are not able to maintain your own civilization.”

Orbán is, however, more skeptical about free markets than conservatives of even five years ago. After 2008, any thinking conservative would be, but Orbán has been an especially capricious regulator of Western multinationals, in particular of banks, springing sudden new taxes on them. He also favors bans on genetically modified organisms. (“Even foods?” I ask. “Especially foods,” he replies.) 

If you ask Orbán where he gets his economic ideas, he points to Ludwig Erhard and the “social market economy” that Germany’s Christian Democrats introduced in the 1950s and 1960s. He wants common people to have money to spend. That is why he is throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the problem of low disposable income. When it became evident that many Hungarians had taken out home loans in fast-strengthening Swiss francs, he made them payable in Hungarian forints at considerable cost to both the state and the banks that made the loans. “We are looking for some kind of equitable burden-sharing,” he said at the opening session of parliament in early September, “trying to involve others besides normal taxpayers.” He raised the minimum wage. Controversially, he nationalized part of the public pension system in order to spare Hungary from being subjected to an IMF austerity program. Whether you consider this mix of programs an admirable syncretism or a contemptible amateurism, it is unconventional. “We cannot get out of this crisis with the same policies that led us into the crisis,” Orbán says.

Last spring in Washington, I heard one of Orbán’s oldest Fidesz associates, member of the European parliament József Szájer, plead for a bit more understanding and a bit more time for Hungary. “Hungary is a test case,” Szájer said. “We are dealing with problems everyone is dealing with, and we are giving some answers. Let this be a debate between equals. Even the United States can learn from us.” It is a good point, one that may be at the heart of the clash between Orbán and his neighbors. The financial crisis has revealed Western countries as fiscally irresponsible, intellectually exhausted, and out of economic-policy tricks, yet the scope for giving different programs a try keeps narrowing. The West has much to gain from letting nations follow any peaceful inclination that would allow them to serve as laboratories of policy. To judge from their reaction to Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, never have Western leaders been less willing to countenance any such thing.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

*Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the party in power at the time of the German occupation and the Holocaust in Hungary.


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