Soon after he became Hungary’s Prime Minister for the first time, in 1998, Viktor Orbán visited Washington. On October 7th, at a luncheon organized by Freedom House, Mark Palmer, a former ambassador to Hungary who knew the guest well, and I jointly welcomed Orbán to Washington, calling him a young, promising leader of democratic Hungary. According to notes taken by a member of the audience, Orbán responded by praising both Palmer and me for the role we had played in hastening the collapse of communism in the 1980s. Then he added that “whatever I know about contemporary politics and history I’ve learned from Professor Gati.”
I re-read these words with considerable embarrassment after I watched on YouTube and then read the full text of Orbán’s 35-minute speech of July 26, 2014 about the terminal decline of liberal democracies and the bright future of five countries he held up as examples for Hungary to emulate: Singapore, China, India, Turkey, and Russia. (Why he included India, a functioning democracy, is unclear.) In any case, the speech affirmed what many Hungary-watchers have known since 2000-2001, or at least since Orbán’s second term that started in 2010 and his third term that started this year: that he is no democrat and he is neither a good friend nor a good ally of the West, including the United States. His speech is a surprising admission from the leader of a country in Central Europe that is a member of both NATO and the European Union, and from a politician who in the 1990s was deputy head of that deeply pro-Western group of political parties known as the Liberal International.
Orbán has now dropped his democratic mask. His speech confirms what his domestic and foreign critics have said for years about his managed democracy and what until now his propagandists and loyal followers have heatedly denied. For he has now publicly, and proudly, declared his preference for an “illiberal state.” “Breaking away from dogmas and ideologies recognized in Western Europe,” Orbán said the ideal state should be based instead on something he called “national foundations.” He made no mention of the separation of powers or checks and balances or freedom of the press or minority rights. Quoting a supposedly highly regarded (but unnamed) American analyst, he noted that liberal democracies, as in the U.S., were marked by corruption, lawlessness, sex, and drugs.
The analysis Orbán used to reach these conclusions was quite poor and confused, to say the least. One part of the presentation did not lead to or follow another. Some of the information he cited was inaccurate. And it was not a question of the quality of translation; the original Hungarian text was as unstructured and as rambling as the English version. If an American undergraduate had submitted such a long-winded and pretentious paper for an introductory course on international relations, his grade would have been an “F.”
However, the speech as a political demagoguery worked. The underlying themes almost certainly fell on fertile soil, for Orbán successfully reassured his domestic supporters that he remained ready to “stand up” against Hungary’s enemies, such as the European Union and Western banks. It echoed the same nationalist message his audiences regularly hear on government-dominated radio and television about Western conspiracies against Hungary’s independent existence: That in the aftermath of World War I the victorious Western powers, led by President Woodrow Wilson, robbed Hungary of two-thirds of its territory. That after World War II, at Yalta, Hungary was sold out to the communists. That in 1956, the West did not assist the Hungarians against their Soviet overlords. And that since the collapse of communism, the European Union and Western-financed non-governmental organizations have sought to deprive Hungary of its sovereignty. Thus, in this speech, Orbán offered his audience a simple message as he also promised an end to Hungary’s humiliation and victimhood.
The main reason Orbán believes Hungary should seek a new system of governance has to do with his interpretation of the 2008 financial crisis. “If we look around carefully and analyze the things happening around us,” he said, “[we find] a different world from the one we used to live six years ago.” He blames the United States and liberal values for the uniqueness and global consequences of the crisis. He maintains that Americans, including the President of the U.S., were so frightened by 2008 that they resorted to “ideas that were impossible to talk about only six years ago.” Orbán does not specify what these ideas are or were, but he argues that the defining issue of our time is “to invent a state that is most capable of making a nation successful.” Then he adds: This is why Hungary needs to adopt political and economic systems “that are not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies, maybe not even democracies, yet making nations successful.”
The speech includes an almost incoherent outpouring of primitive clichés about the United States. Americans, Orbán observes, live “in a society that is less and less capitalist and more and more feudal.” He asserts that, according to the U.S. president, “America has been engulfed by cynicism.” Alluding to the U.S. whose laws he does not seem to or want to understand, he mocks a “democratic” country where a president is impeached and yet he stays in power. Elsewhere in the speech he claims that the U.S. president “openly speaks about economic patriotism,” and he does so in a way that would have been “unimaginable six or eight years earlier.” Again, one wonders what Orbán had in mind. He makes no mention of America’s gradual if long and partial economic recovery, of unemployment dropping to the six percent level, of the unparalleled global reach of American technology, graduate education, culture, and so on. Unmentioned is that his friend and colleague who wrote Hungary’s new—very restricting and illiberal—basic law or constitution a few years ago did it on his iPad, a product of U.S. inventiveness.
Orbán did not couple his negative commentary about the West by even a single word of criticism of the Russian and Chinese dictatorships, or of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, or of Putin’s ongoing destabilization of Ukraine. His motive, it seems, was to depict the world’s leading liberal democracy as hopelessly deadlocked—not because President Obama or someone else was a poor leader (Obama’s name was not mentioned by Orbán) but because all liberal democracies suffer from such built-in, systemic problems as their emphasis on individuals rather than the collective. For Orbán, this is the principal justification for Hungary’s present practice of centralized, nationalist authoritarianism.
Looking ahead, Orbán’s speech could anticipate a long-term strategy to introduce even harsher, more dictatorial measures on the pattern of Turkey or possibly Russia. Given past behavior, it is clear that he is capable of radically changing his stances. After all, he was a strong advocate of European integration back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, while he is now an equally strong defender of the inviolability of sovereignty. He once made a name for himself as an anti-communist and even anti-Russian, while he now admires Putin’s “efficient” state. He used to favor capitalism while he is now a foe of banks, foreign and domestic, that are not under his government’s control. He was once an atheist; nowadays he mentions Christianity as his guiding light as often as possible.
If the speech was meant to prepare the ground for another new—and radical—departure, what could it be?
The fact that the speech was delivered to ethnic Hungarians in Romania suggests the possibility that Orbán, thinking of some four to five million ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries, is fantasizing about a Greater Hungary. He looks at Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and sees continuing civil strife and war in Ukraine where—at the Hungarian border—almost 200,000 ethnic Hungarians live. Western analysts tend to dismiss the idea that Orbán could be so delusional as to follow Putin’s example by casting his eyes on Ukraine’s westernmost sub-Carpathian region. They are probably right; it is a far-fetched idea. After all, Hungary does not even have a real military; its yearly defense expenditure is around 0.8 percent of its GDP, one of the lowest in NATO. And yet, if Ukraine is destabilized, it is not unimaginable that Orbán’s Hungary would attempt to fish in troubled waters. There is no better way for him to enter Hungarian history books than to begin the reconstruction of Historic or Greater Hungary.
Whether he does so depends on three factors:
First, Orbán must centralize even more power in his own hands. He would have to rewrite the constitution again so that Hungary is transformed into a presidential system after, or perhaps even before, his current term as prime minister ends. Following Putin’s example, Orbán would then promote himself into the Hungarian presidency.
Second, he would have to deepen his friendship with Russia, the country with demonstrated interest in a weak and divided Ukraine. As Hungary is already almost fully dependent on Russian energy for the next three decades, the best way left for Orbán to please Putin is to echo the latter’s anti-American harangues and weaken the European Union from within.
Third, the European Union and the United States would have to ignore what Hungary is doing or might be planning to do. That would encourage Orbán to pursue his historic mission.
If he is indeed on a historic mission to enlarge the “Hungarian space” in Central Europe, Orbán would also need to be contemplating to withdraw his country from the European Union. For basic economic reasons, he probably is not doing so right now. He needs the almost $30 billion the European Union has allocated to finance Hungarian infrastructure projects in the 2014-2020 period. Even if one discounts an estimated 10-15 percent pocketed by corrupt Hungarian officials and their loyal business associates, this is still a vast contribution to the Hungarian economy. Moreover, trade with such EU countries as Germany, Italy, Austria and others sustains the country’s foreign-trade-oriented economy. For these reasons and others, even the current Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament—Orbán’s political gateway to Jobbik, the country’s neo-Nazi far right party—has shied away earlier this year from explicitly endorsing Jobbik’s call for leaving the European Union.
On the other hand, there is still a chance, however slim, that punitive measures undertaken by the European Union could prompt Hungary to respond by trading its full EU membership for a limited partnership. Orbán would surely enjoy being the first European leader to “stand up” to Brussels this way.
Would the EU give him such a chance? Would the EU go beyond verbal or written reproaches? In the aftermath of Orbán’s July 26 speech, a Wall Street Journal editorial called on Brussels to take the Hungarian case seriously, stating that “Mr. Orbán’s illiberal candor is a warning that free markets and free societies need more forceful defending.” A New York Times editorial on August 2, 2014 urged the European Commission to treat Hungary “with more than the usual admonitions and hand-wringing.” It urged the Commission to reduce the above-mentioned $30 billion infrastructure support set aside for Hungary. “It should also,” said the editorial, “begin proceedings to invoke Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which allows the suspension of voting rights of a member state that is at serious risk of breaching the values listed in Article 2, including the rule of law, freedom, democracy and respect for human rights.” In Europe, the Süddeutsche Zeitung voiced similar views.
While the EU, to repeat, is unlikely to implement such recommendations for the time being, its newly elected leaders could replace admonitions with sanctions in defense of “European values.” In the event, it is at least possible that—under such circumstances—Hungary would then “retaliate” in order to free itself from some or all of Brussel’s much-despised restraints. At that point, Orbán’s popularity would skyrocket. He would be widely admired for following in the footsteps of other legends in Hungary’s tumultuous history by pursuing a heroic and defiant act that may be briefly self-satisfying but ultimately self-defeating.
The issues that divide the U.S. and Hungary have little or nothing to do with security or economics. Hungary is not a particularly active member of NATO, though it sent troops to Afghanistan, and it has privately informed officials in Brussels about its willingness to increase its very modest defense budget every year for the next five years by 0.1 percent of its GDP. Unlike Poland, Romania, and the three Baltic states—and apparently the Czech Republic too—Hungary was initially reluctant to support sanctions against Russia, though once Germany changed its course so did the Hungarian government. (Typically, even the attentive Hungarian public is so engrossed in domestic politics that the government’s foreign policy gyrations are barely noticed.)
From Washington’s perspective, what matters most is the Hungarian government’s growing hostility to democratic values—freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom for civil groups to operate. Under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the U.S. issued several protests, including a confidential demarche that was leaked to a still-independent newspaper. From Budapest’s perspective, American protests constituted interference in Hungary’s internal affairs. The government unleashed a never-ending series of vitriolic attacks in the government-controlled press on Mrs. Clinton and the United States. The attacks on the U.S. have continued since John Kerry took over the Department of State, but the Secretary—quiet on Hungarian issues—has not been subjected to the “Clinton treatment.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Orbán seems eager to alter his government’s image in the United States. With a $15 million budget, he established a lobbying group called the Hungarian Initiatives Foundation in order to bring young Hungarians to Washington where they serve as interns in congressional offices and elsewhere and—more importantly—to influence discussions about Hungary in the city’s think tanks by flying pro-Orbán officials and fellow travelers to the U.S. The group has made grants to several prominent think tanks and plays an active role in shaping the programs it supports.
It was also instrumental in arranging Orbán’s upcoming visit to the United States in mid-October. He is expected to visit New York and Los Angeles, reaching out to Hungarian-Americans and business leaders, but he will not stop in Washington. Apparently, he could not get an appropriate appointment at either the White House or the State Department, and Georgetown University, which invited him for a lecture, insisted on holding an open forum after the lecture.
Whether the Hungarian Initiatives Foundation will be able to continue its activities after Orbán’s July speech is uncertain. Some of its trustees—among them George Pataki, the former Governor of New York and Kurt Volker, the Hungarian-speaking head of the McCain Institute—ought to have a difficult time reconciling their support for Orbán’s Hungary with the prime minister’s anti-American harangue. So should Katrina Lantos—another trustee, head of the Lantos Foundation and daughter of the late Congressman Tom Lantos—who has so far shied away from speaking out in support of her father’s deeply-held democratic values.
What could official Washington do?
- It could actively encourage the European Union—which still vividly remembers its failure to deny a place for Joerg Haider’s extremist right-wing party in the Austrian government in 2000—to put the question of Hungarian membership in the EU firmly on the agenda.
- It could let the U.S. Senate know that there is no urgency in giving final approval to the ambassador designate, Colleen Bell—a capable but not necessarily knowledgable enough political appointee. If necessary, the Obama administration could send a Hungarian-speaking professional diplomat in her stead.
- It could downgrade diplomatic relations by reducing the size of the unnecessarily large U.S. Embassy in Budapest and by assigning a relatively low-level American diplomat to conduct business with the Hungarian ambassador in Washington and his staff.
- It could proudly but politely continue to engage in a cultural war against the anti-American thugs who write and pontificate in the country’s official media. In the process it could reach out, even more than now, to America’s friends among intellectuals and the political elite.
Except for what the EU could do, these are but small, symbolic steps. Soon enough, however, most Hungarians will appreciate that we kept hope alive.