Even for Hungarians, let alone foreigners, the intricacies of political life in Hungary often defy simple explanation. According to a widely circulated if apocryphal story, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked an aide in the early months of World War II if Hungary, which had just declared war against the United States, was a kingdom or a republic. “A kingdom, Mr. President”, the aide replied. This dialogue followed:
FDR: What’s the King’s name?
Aide: Hungary doesn’t have a King.
FDR: Then who runs the kingdom?
Aide: A Regent by the name of Admiral
FDR: Admiral? Then Hungary must have a powerful navy.
Aide: Hungary has no navy; it doesn’t even have access to the sea.
FDR: Wars are often fought for religious reasons. What’s the main religion there?
Aide: Catholicism, Mr. President. But Admiral Horthy is Protestant.
FDR: Did this admiral declare war on us because of territorial claims then?
Aide: Hungary’s territorial claims are against Romania.
FDR: In that case, did Hungary declare war on Romania?
Aide: No, Hungary and Romania are allies.
FDR: Let me get this straight. Hungary is a kingdom run by a Regent who’s an admiral without a navy, and it is allied with Romania against which it has territorial claims but it has declared war on the U.S. against which it doesn’t.
Aide: That’s right, Mr. President.
Imagine a similar though not so funny dialogue in today’s White House:
BHO: Is Hungary a republic?
Aide: Up to December 31, 2011, definitely. Then the name was changed to just “Hungary”, not the “Republic of Hungary”, but the country remains a republic.
BHO: Are there no plans, then, to bring back the old kingdom?
Aide: No. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wants to appear as the Founding Father of his more than 1,000-year-old nation, but he doesn’t aspire to be king. The new constitution, or “basic law”, does, however, echo the values of the old kingdom: God, the Holy Crown of Saint Stephen, Christianity and the family.
BHO: Who’s this fellow Orbán?
Aide: In the 1990s he was a liberal anti-Communist, but three members of his current eight-man cabinet used to belong to the pre-1989 Communist Party. He was once an atheist, but he’s now a Calvinist. At times, however, he attends a Catholic church. Politically, he now defines himself as Christian, right-wing and nationalist.
BHO: Let me get this straight: Orbán was a liberal and an atheist but he is now a right-wing nationalist and a practicing Protestant who sometimes goes to a Catholic church. And he’s trying to found a political entity that’s already a millennium old.
Aide: Yes, sir, that’s right. You should also know that he endorsed John McCain in 2008.
BHO: He is not a smart politician.
Aide: Actually, sir, while he lost elections in 2002 and 2006, he got 52.7 percent of the vote in 2010. Through Hungarian electoral law this 52.7 percent turned into a two-thirds majority in parliament.
BHO: I should be so fortunate. So Orbán then reached out to the rest of the country from a position of political strength, right?
Aide: Well, sir, no. In the past 18 months or so, his majority passed a new media law, a new basic law, a new law on religion, a new electoral law under consideration and hundreds of other new laws to cement his rule. He has even deprived the Constitutional Court from ruling on taxation and property issues.
BHO: Did we tell him we didn’t like any of this?
Aide: Our ambassador in Budapest wants access to officials there and so she has gone easy on him. But Secretary Clinton told him in mid-2011 that we’re worried about these new laws destroying Hungary’s democratic system of checks and balances.
BHO: Did he listen to her?
Aide: No. He’s impervious to criticism. His followers adore him when he vows to defend Hungarians from foreign interference.
The latest story offering comic relief for the diplomatic community in Budapest has to do with improved ties between Hungary and the Pacific Island of Tonga. Although the population of the Kingdom of Tonga is only about 100,000, it has a vote in the United Nations. Early in 2011, when George Tupou V, King of Tonga, dropped by to accept the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit, his Hungarian hosts expected his majesty to be so grateful in return that he would support Hungary’s candidacy in October 2011 for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council. As it happened, the final, 17th round of balloting for “the East European seat” gave Azerbaijan 155 votes, Slovenia 13 votes, and Hungary one. The ballot is secret, so no one knows if Tonga actually delivered its vote. Hungarian Foreign Minister János Martonyi, a skilled and experienced diplomat, did the only thing he could: He blamed his predecessors, saying, “We began [preparations] with a deficit.”
To be fair, Hungary did receive 52 votes in the first round of balloting, but it would have done even better if not for the fact that, despite its membership in both NATO and the European Union, Hungary’s illiberal, managed democracy has few genuine supporters anywhere. Yet open official criticism from abroad is rare. Last fall, Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter condemned Hungary’s new taxes against foreign banks, including leading Austrian ones, but stopped short of passing judgment on Hungary’s democracy. German Deputy Foreign Minister Werner Hoyer, as spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel, criticized Orbán’s media law early last year, but all European conservative parties have since decided not to chide Hungary directly within EU sancta. Fatalistically, they concluded that Orbán would ignore them anyway; so better not to try and be seen to fail.
By contrast, the European press has covered Hungarian developments extensively and critically. Led by the Economist, the Financial Times and Der Spiegel, the press has thoroughly exposed Hungary’s backsliding from its position as leader of the transitional pack to democracy in the 1990s to premier laggard now. In front-page editorials of the leading Polish daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, the inimitable Adam Michnik has depicted Orbán, his former friend and anti-Communist soulmate in the 1980s, as defiant, determined and above all dangerous—a threat to democracy not only in Hungary but elsewhere in Central Europe as well.
The official Hungarian response to this avalanche of criticism has been to claim that the foreign press doesn’t properly appreciate the traumas of Hungarian history, or that it has relied on information distributed by left-wing liberals and socialists in Budapest (and that some of the critics are or were Communists), or, most absurdly of all, that foreigners just hate Hungary and Hungarians. After a much-publicized debate with a prominent government supporter in Vienna this past October—in which I had spoken disapprovingly of the present Hungarian government—a cocky young reporter for the pro-government but otherwise far-right daily Magyar Hirlap shoved a microphone into my face and asked me why I hated Hungarians. In his article the next day, he used a series of code words, very familiar to his newspaper’s readers, intimating that foreigners, notably Jews, are “anti-Hungarian.” In the paper’s online edition, readers offered comments decidedly free of code words to describe how they felt about me. Obscene hate mail to my university address followed. None of this would have bothered me if the government had distanced itself from far-right extremists. But while the Orbán government does distance itself from the xenophobic anti-Roma and anti-Semitic Jobbik party, it often winks at Jobbik supporters. Their votes, you see, might come handy in 2014.
For the record: I certainly do not hate Hungarians. I grew up in Hungary and continue to care about what is going on there. Although I left that country 55 long years ago and have made a life in America, I love Hungarian music and cuisine and consider a Hungarian who lives in Budapest to be my best friend. I also follow water polo and root for the Hungarian national team. But in the eyes of Hungary’s new right-wing majority, I am an enemy, not a critic or a mere opponent. In their eyes, if you’re not with us, you’re against us, and I’m not with them in part because they—and to some extent all four political parties represented in the Hungarian Parliament today—support something I don’t: socialist economics. These are the four parties:
• The far-right Jobbik, which enjoys about 10 percent support among all voters, is fervently nationalist, racist and socialist. In short, it is exactly what before World War II was known as fascist. Jobbik, for which sovereignty is über alles, even wants Hungary to withdraw from the “neo-liberal” European Union.
• Fidesz, the government party whose support has declined to about 30 percent, is all over the economic map, but on most days it fumes against foreign capital and balks at reforming Hungary’s unaffordable welfare state. It has nationalized all private pension funds and favors a “strong” centralized government.
• Further to the center is LMP, a small green party that draws about 5 percent in the polls. No one has figured out what this party stands for, aside from speaking out for the environment. It prefers flora to fauna, even the human sort.
• Finally, there is the Socialist Party with close to 20 percent public support. Though it is difficult for Americans to understand, this party, despite its name and “average guy” rhetoric, has supported the free market since 1989 more than any of its right-wing competitors.
What Hungary lacks then is a Western-style, pro-market party, liberal or conservative.
A recent poll reflects the country’s socialist frame of mind and its persistent nostalgia for a paternalistic welfare state: 57 percent of Hungarians believe they lived better before 1989, under János Kádár’s Communist regime. In truth, some did, but most did not. Nevertheless, the majority claims to long for Kádár’s “goulash communism.” What they really want, I suspect, is to return to a time when Hungary was the envy of its neighbors, when it was freer and more prosperous (on borrowed money and Soviet subsidies) than any other Communist country. Hungary was, in the idiom of the day, the happiest barrack in the Soviet camp.
Under such circumstances, launching free-market reforms, including austerity measures, presents a genuine dilemma. If a Hungarian government were to announce cuts of just 25 percent to current subsidies for health care, higher education and the pension system over a five-year period, there would be riots, and the next election would clean house. On the other hand, if a government were to continue subsidies at their current levels, the state budget would collapse and the government would also go down in flames. Lasting structural reform is impossible under such circumstances. Many Hungarian politicians know what needs to be done; what they don’t know is how to get reelected after they do it.
As is often the case in Hungary, the problem is compounded by history both remote and recent. In 2008, Orbán compelled Ferenc Gyurcsány, one of his predecessors, to hold a popular referendum on whether the country’s public universities could charge tuition (the amount under consideration was nominal) and whether doctors and hospitals could also charge a small fee for their services. In each case, the people followed Orbán’s lead and voted down these necessary structural reforms. This is why, despite its two-thirds majority in parliament, the government cannot now turn around and ask students to contribute to the cost of their higher education or ask pensioners to make a modest co-payment for doctor or hospital visits. And this is why, as a short-term expedient, the government has instead imposed new taxes on mostly foreign-owned banks, the energy sector and chain stores. Additionally, it has not only nationalized private pension funds but also promised to cancel ex post facto the early retirement benefits of government employees such as policemen and firemen. More recently, the government set preferential exchange rates at which Swiss franc-denominated mortgages can be repaid at about 30 percent below market valuation, with the (foreign) banks required to assume responsibility for the losses.
The unstated goal of all these unorthodox economic policies is to avoid politically unpopular structural reforms. The result is that Hungary’s economy is now at very high risk of collapse. Toward the end of last year, Bloomberg rated Hungary the eighth-riskiest in the world, second only to Greece in the European Union as a candidate for bankruptcy. The forint was the weakest currency in Europe for a three-month period (August–October 2011). The Hungarian bonds found no takers in late October. Clearly, the government should turn to the IMF for help, but this option is not as easy as it sounds. In mid-2010, Orbán offended an IMF delegation that tried to shrink Hungary’s highly subsidized welfare state. He told the delegation to go home. Now the question is whether the Prime Minister, who has repeatedly vowed to defend Hungarian sovereignty against the IMF, is ready to swallow his considerable pride and accept IMF conditions for a loan.
As a first step to making peace with the IMF, Orbán would have to dismiss his Minister of National Economics, György Matolcsy, who sold him a large litter of harebrained schemes. Second, he would have to initiate long-term, painful structural reforms under IMF aegis. Third, he would need to regain the trust of Hungary’s major trading partners, especially Germany and Austria, in his government’s ability to deal with the outside world as it is, not as he would like it to be. Instead, Orbán announced in late November 2011 that he would turn to the IMF after all but would seek “an insurance-type agreement”, such as a Flexible Credit Line or a Precautionary Credit Line, rather than an immediate or stand-by loan. He also insisted that Hungary would not accept any form of IMF conditionality. “No one can limit Hungary’s economic independence”, he said. He seemed to be assuring his domestic audience that, in effect, beggars can be choosers.
If, however, Orbán is serious about a new relationship with the IMF, then he would have to go on a charm offensive both in the West and at home. The Hungarian public remains deeply polarized, torn not only between the government and the opposition but between two mindsets: the spirit of accommodation and the spirit of defiance. On the one hand, those who have public-sector jobs fear losing them and, accordingly, behave in a politically correct way, which means never criticizing Prime Minister Orbán and his policies. The mentality of accommodation extends to the private sector, too. At the Hotel Buda Mercure, where I stayed recently, I could get only the two pro-government, right-wing dailies with my breakfast, Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hirlap. When I asked the concierge at this French-owned but Hungarian-managed hotel about Népszabadság (which, though fighting for survival, is still the most informative daily), he said innocently: “We used to have it, but now we don’t. We may have it again, someday.” In other words, if the current government goes, he will order Népszabadság. For now, he prefers to please the government rather than the customer. (I learned later that not only do all government agencies subscribe to these two papers alone; all private firms that conduct government business do the same.)
On the other hand, there is growing disappointment with Orbán. He has alienated some of his supporters and has turned critics into enemies. Hundreds of reporters and editors have lost their jobs at public radio and television stations where political loyalty is now the main criterion for employment. The same is true at all government ministries and agencies, including the Foreign Ministry, which has witnessed an unusual turnover of personnel even below the ambassadorial level.
For the time being, accommodation is more widespread than disappointment or defiance. Orbán still enjoys considerable, if no longer commanding, political support. One reason for this is that most people, and most foreign governments, too, believe the propaganda repeated day in and day out—that Orbán’s party gained a two-thirds mandate in last year’s elections. This is, of course, untrue. Even if you discount all those millions who were eligible to vote but didn’t, 52.7 percent of those who did vote opposed the socialist-liberal coalitions of the previous years as much they favored what Fidesz promised in vague terms to do. The misleading “fact” of a two-thirds victory has been used to justify all the radical laws and regulations Orbán and his parliamentary majority have introduced since mid-2010—even though during the campaign Fidesz uttered not one word about a new constitution, media law, electoral law or religion law.
The list of such radical political changes is truly astounding. Parliament passed a law that allows ethnic Hungarians living abroad—in Romania, Slovakia, Serbia and elsewhere—to vote in Hungarian elections, so that they now enjoy representation without taxation. Prepared in haste, the new “basic law” draws on a golden age of Hungarian history that never was, requiring all citizens to behave according to some lofty but unenforceable moral standards (for example, children must take care of their parents) and vaguely defined Christian values. In the judicial realm, parliament has curtailed the power of Hungary’s Constitutional Court, but it has has created various councils and committees—packed with acolytes whose service extends to as many as nine years—that could override parliament should Fidesz ever lose its supermajority. The proposed electoral law, which wisely reduces the size of parliament, throws up myriad obstacles to any Fidesz opponent coalescing and credibly challenging the government. Another law restricts the number of accepted religions to 13. (Why 13, you ask? Why not?)
Besides the new laws, there are new practices. The arrest of a former official at 6 a.m. who was then dragged to the police station with his hands shackled (all while television cameras recorded the “message” for viewers everywhere) indicates that there are few limits on politically motivated prosecutors. Current attempts to charge three former Prime Ministers with criminal economic mismanagement (because state debt soared while two of the three were in office) are not only vengeful; they could start a neverending process of punishing former government officials for policies that did not work out. (Inconveniently, Hungary’s state debt actually began to grow during the last two years of Orbán’s first premiership, in 2000–01.)
Some of the new restrictions and limitations are as silly as they are serious. One of the features of the new media law is the requirement that all radio stations play a certain amount of Hungarian music, but it is not clear what counts as Hungarian music. Even though Franz (for Hungarians, Ferenc) Liszt lived almost all of his life outside Hungary, he counts; you can hear his wonderful Hungarian Rhapsodies any time of the day or night. Johannes Brahms, however, does not count, as his Hungarian Dances are presumably not Hungarian enough. Joseph Haydn counts, if one is speaking of the compositions he wrote while living at the Esterházy Castle in Hungary. More ominously, the new media council is unlikely to renew the license of the very independent Klubrádió, the country’s only talk radio critical of the government, using the pretext that the station doesn’t play enough Hungarian music.
The current Hungarian domestic scene is best summed up by what Václav Havel said about Russia in 2009. His words apply to the illiberal, managed democracy that Hungary has come to be:
Everything seems to follow the rules of democracy. There are parliaments, there are elections, and there are political parties. But there are also highly worrisome and unnaturally close ties between elected officials, the judiciary, the police, and the secret services.
I was reminded of this observation when a friend came to say goodbye just before I checked out of Hotel Buda Mercure. To my astonishment, he removed the battery from his cell phone. He said that this way “they”—the authorities—might not know where he is or what he says. On three other occasions friends changed the subject on the phone when I wanted to discuss a political issue: “Nem telefon téma (Not a topic for the phone)”, they said. I remember that phrase from the 1980s. More than two decades after the collapse of communism here, fear—not pervasive, not insidious, not omnipresent, but fear all the same—has made a return appearance.
In the United States, where the press has seldom reported or commented on Hungary’s backsliding, it is difficult for people to absorb such negative news. First, preoccupied with dramas playing out in other regions, Americans have come to pay little attention to Central or Eastern Europe. Second, the U.S. worldview acknowledges only certain temporary “setbacks” on the road to a democratic world; indeed, Americans cannot easily understand so deep an erosion of Hungary’s once promising democratic experiment.1 Third, American politicians and diplomats tend to overlook unhelpful domestic developments if a country in Central or Eastern Europe agrees to send its soldiers to Iraq or Afghanistan. Finally, there is a widely shared view that the United States has done all it could do for this region’s Western-style evolution. Isn’t it time for locals to fight for their own free-market democracies?
Such questions provide the essential background to the contradictory signals that Washington sent to Budapest in 2011. Consider that the State Department began the year by transmitting a modest but clear message about Orbán’s newly enacted media law. Washington also criticized the lack of checks and balances in the newly passed “basic law.” In June 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself spoke politely but firmly in Budapest: “As friends of Hungary we expressed our concern. In particular, we called for real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, a free press, and governmental transparency.”
Since mid-August, it has become more difficult to sort out what Washington is doing. Reflecting the traditional dilemma of how to convey messages of disapproval to an ally, what officials have said behind closed doors has come to significantly differ from what they have said publicly.
Behind closed doors, the main feature of U.S. policy has been a démarche prepared in Washington in August, which U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis was instructed to deliver to Prime Minister Orbán. The démarche summarized America’s complaints about the quality of Hungarian democracy. In late October, State Department officials also explored the possibility of joint action with about ten EU member-states to see what they might do together to engage the Hungarians—to make them more responsive. At an unannounced meeting initiated by Marie Yovanovitch, the State Department’s lead official on Central Europe, there was agreement that Hungary was backsliding, but there was no agreement about what Western nations should do. Worse yet, no European ambassador accepted the invitation to discuss Western options, and Germany did not represent itself at all. Inevitably, Hungarian officials learned of this rather inconclusive gathering from one or more of the European participants, and they were upset by this attempt to “gang up” on them. Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs Zsolt Németh showed up in Washington the next week to protest the U.S. initiative.
A week before Németh’s visit, another high-level Foreign Ministry official, Gerg? Pr?hle, held private meetings at the Department of State. As reported in a Hungarian weekly, he wanted to see what could be done to improve relations.2 The officials he met—notably Thomas O. Melia, State’s human rights and democracy specialist—gave him a hard time about the media law, the electoral law then under consideration, and especially the new religion law. Melia told him bluntly that American patience with Orbán was fading and that Washington was ready to “double its efforts.” Pr?hle quoted the U.S. official as saying that “if the Hungarian government doesn’t appreciate the seriousness of the démarche, [we are] prepated to repeat it without delay.” In the language of diplomacy, this was a “candid” encounter.
In their public comments, however, several U.S. officials drew an altogether different picture of Hungarian politics. On October 14, Deputy Assistant Secretary Yovanovitch spoke at a conference held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. After her formal presentation, the moderator asked her a pointed question about the quality of Hungarian democracy. Her reply was that the United States and Hungary have “shared interests and shared values” and that Hungary was “a thriving democracy.”
Four days later, on October 18, Prime Minister Orbán overcame “scheduling difficulties” and granted Ambassador Kounalakis a ninety-minute audience (so that she could finally deliver the démarche seven weeks late). After they met, the Prime Minister’s spokesman denied the very existence of a démarche and the Ambassador herself declined comment. But then, lo and behold—three weeks after their meeting and only hours after a Hungarian weekly, cited above, revealed the existence of the démarche—the Ambassador finally did admit that she had discussed “a verbal démarche” with the Prime Minister. One wonders: Wouldn’t it have made more sense to treat Orbán realistically all along, keeping firmly in mind that he has consistently ignored the United States over the years? Even in the aftermath of 9/11, to cite but one example, he did not bother to reply to a White House memorandum.
Of course, the United States cannot compel Hungary to become, once again, a Western-style democracy. America could make a difference, however, if Washington and the U.S. Embassy in Budapest would speak with one voice, and if the gap between our concerns expressed privately and our hypocritical public stance would disappear, or at least narrow. As it is, we give America’s real friends in Hungary the impression that our diplomacy is disoriented—and that our red, white and blue backbone has gone missing.
1Only Freedom House, in its yearly ratings, has called attention to disobliging trends in recent years. The title of its 2011 summary, “The Authoritarian Challenge to Democracy”, says it all.
2Paula Tamási, “Mégis volt tiltakozó jegyzék az Orbán-Kounalakis találkozón” [“The Démarche Did Come Up at the Orbán-Kounalakis Meeting After All”], Magyar Narancs, November 10, 2011.