Hungary as of 2013 is different than it was a few years ago. The citizens have become withdrawn and distrustful. The language of public debate is dishonest and dominated by politics. Polarisation is seen everywhere.
I am looking at a country where I have spent years, I have been observing and visiting it for decades, and frankly speaking I have been following its fortunes throughout my adult life. This country is neither indifferent nor alien to me; by choice it is my second homeland . And just like the first one it can both delight and hurt. In recent times if it does not hurt it usually astounds. It seemed to me that I knew the country, the language and the people but I am surprised to discover serious changes—I do not recognise said country, language and people any more.
I am looking for a key allowing me to understand what is happening and what is loudly discussed across Europe or at least among its elites. I cannot find one single key. And this is why I am reaching for a whole set of tools, basic concepts for understanding the current Hungarian reality. Then a picture starts to come together. I am painting it although I know in advance that not everybody will like it, both in Hungary and abroad. The reason is simple: the matter is divisive, not unifying.
1. Orbán, in other words everything.
First he imposed his will and personality on the Civic Party (Fidesz), which would not have survived without him. After 2010, as a result of a “revolution at the polls,”the nation—longing for law and order, and a strong leader after eight years of “cold civil war”under the Socialists—allowed him to impose his will and personality on the whole country. He is a powerful, charismatic, aggressive politician. This former footballer feels best as a striker. When he regained power, he undermined a lot of group interests. Orbán is everywhere, but he divides. For some, his supporters and sometimes even mystics looking at him as if at a holy picture, he is the saviour of the Motherland, a prophet, a visionary. For equally zealous opponents he is a prestidigitator, populist and demagogue, with an archaic vision of sovereignty.
2. Centralisation, or a style of exercising power.
Since Fidesz took over, it has enjoyed a qualified majority. Having been given such prerogatives, it has changed the name of the country, the Constitution, the entire political system. Instead of Hungarian Republic we have Hungary, instead of liberal democracy based on the “Copenhagen criteria”we have a sham democracy, with the system of checks and balances leaning heavily towards the executive or simply the prime minister. Orbán’s people have taken over all the most important government institutions. Following the prime minister’s will and vision, they are changing the country, centralising and subordinating whatever they can. Under the liberals and socialists the state was weak and sold out to foreign capital and interests, now it is to be strong and subordinated to no one—this is the current prime minister’s mantra. Deprived of funds on the initiative of the Centre and often the prime minister himself, the sarcastic opposition defines the current situation as Orbanistan. And there is something to it. Without the powerful personality of Viktor Orbán, his will and energy, Hungary would be different. That much is certain.
3. Polarisation, or an effect of Orbán’s rule.
Hungary has always been divided: Into Budapest and the countryside, into urabánusok and népiesek, that is the more liberal and cosmopolitan intelligentsia from the capital and the thinkers and writers from the rest of the country, more nationalist and conservative. Orbán, himself a “commoner”—although born close to the capital—is supporting the latter group wherever he can. For the former have already governed— with well-known results. But completely new divisions are superimposed on the old ones: into supporters and opponents of Orbán. First the Hungarians themselves split along this axis and now the Poles are doing the same, as well as European elites. I am marking out the Poles not because they are my countrymen but because the Polish followers of Orbán have established a tradition that on 15 March, the national holiday commemorating the outbreak of the 1848 revolution, they travel to Budapest to support their Hungarian idol, the like of whom they long to see in Warsaw. Europeans, indifferent and worn out by the crisis, think that Hungary is just another case of an inefficient economy, like Greece, Cyprus or Portugal. But the Poles already know—because they experienced such an experiment at home in 2005–07—that the “Orbán system” means something more; that it is not only about the economy—although that too—but also about values, as well as about the future of the EU and the entire continent. Is it to be a federation, as liberals have wanted, or a confederation, as we hear from—the increasingly stronger and more vocal—forces opposed to integration in its current edition (Marie Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Alexis Tsipras, “true Fins,” the list is getting longer)? Or perhaps Europe today, in the era of globalisation and multiple interconnections, should be a pile of quicksand composed of small sovereign states? But how to be truly sovereign when, like Hungary, we offer to the world just 0.15% of the global GDP?
4. Opposition, or dispersal and helplessness.
The socialists were crushed in 2010. Earlier the liberals disappeared from the scene, and not very gracefully, come to speak of it. The brief “green” alternative (in all senses of the word) from the Politics Can Be Different party (LMP) went their separate ways without any outside pressure. Today, especially among the young—this theme makes the headlines from time to time—the most popular opposition party is the extreme nationalist and proto-Fascist Jobbik, with its calls for “chasing the Jew and the Gypsy.”The idea proposed by the former “technical” Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai to merge non-parliamentary opposition with parliamentary opposition (except for Jobbik) is an uphill struggle. Too many leaders, too little programme. And lack of charisma, particularly striking when set against the dynamic and omnipresent Orbán. While in 2014 it would be useful to win with a qualified majority, just a change of government would not be enough. Bajnai himself admits that the Constitution needs to be changed. With whom and how?
5. Trianon, or legitimisation of the regime.
This is perhaps the deepest among the Hungarian divisions. After World War I Hungary lost its status of a strong European power and became a small state. The whole interwar period, the era of Admiral Miklós Horthy, today idealised by the regime, was marked by the policy of “revising Trianon”, that is questioning the place and decisions curtailing and dividing Hungary. True, it did produce results and the return of most of the lost lands but at a horrible cost—alliances with Hitler and Mussolini, which brought about a repeat of Trianon in Paris after World War II. Today’s government in Budapest is again playing this powerful and painful card. It changed the name of the country, sending a clear message: Hungary is where Hungarians live and not necessarily just within the borders forcibly imposed by foreigners.
6. The West, or foreign diktat.
Prime Minister Orbán said during the celebrations of 15th of March: “There was a time when it was old officers in well-tailored uniforms who governed in Hungary: and now bureaucrats in well-tailored suits are imposing their conditions on us,” and then he shouted: “We will not be a colony!” The message to the crowd listening to him—with pride and heads held high—in front of the Parliament building was clear: Hungarians have bowed to the diktat of foreign powers twice but now they say “no more.”
7. The East, or unfulfilled hope.
Viktor Orbán, and he is not alone in that, sees the future of the European project and integration within the EU in pessimistic terms. It has to be admitted that he had been speaking about that even before the crisis in the eurozone and the spectacular events in the Mediterranean countries. He was and remained not only a eurosceptic. The whole ordeal of the negotiations with the IMF, which, as we know, were not concluded by taking another loan from international financial institutions (let us recall that in 2008 Hungary borrowed $25 billion) is glaring proof of a great distrust towards the West. But a simple switch to the East has so far not brought the expected result, despite the prime minister’s visits in China, Russia, Kazakhstan or Saudi Arabia and the rather shady deal with Azerbaijan regarding the “axe murderer,” which immediately froze the relations with Armenia. How to reconcile alliances within EU and NATO with a policy of undisguised undermining of credibility and competence of the West?
8. Apathy, or the social response.
Viktor Orbán had been the prime minister before, in 1998–2002. Hungarians had an opportunity to develop an opinion about him. Therefore, worn with the crisis and the constant “cold civil war,” they offered him power on a platter. At first they reacted enthusiastically, for he taxed foreign banks, large shopping centres, and transnational corporations. The citizens liked it. Counting on government promises to be fulfilled, they did not protest even when private retirement funds were taken over by the state. At least some sobered up when the VAT rate was raised to 27%, the highest level in the EU. When the various taxes were imposed not just on foreigners, when the citizens were forced to pay per metre of a water or gas pipe, for every banking and credit card operation, they partly withdrew their support for the regime, but they are equally distrustful of the dishevelled opposition. They are confused or discouraged. Instead of the promised manna from heaven and the bright prospects still promoted by the government, the country slid into a recession in 2012. That gave the people something to think about too. Even some of the Fidesz followers—not the “hard core,” profiting from the new circumstances—became withdrawn, retreated into privacy, fell into apathy. Only the young, naturally enough, react more vigorously. The polls confirm it and paint a clear picture: dynamic and efficient, which is a new development, young Hungarians started to leave the country and those who remain are getting more radical and vote for Jobbik. This is why there were demonstrations against both the changes in the curriculum, also centralised and subordinated to the “patriotic” line of the government, and the government’s financial takeover of the education sector, especially the clause stipulating that university graduates have to “temporarily” (the precise period was not specified) stay in Hungary and earn their education back.
9. Anxiety, or a look into the future.
There are various often contradictory, signals. The government propaganda of success and the constant, probably genuine optimism of the prime minister contrasts with, for example, the criticism of the amendments to the constitution voiced by the former President and before that head of the Constitutional Tribunal—nominated by Fidesz at that—Laszló Solyom, who is not beating about the bush and speaks about the “end of the system of division of powers.” And very remarkable— for everyone—is the fact that György Matolcsy, previously the minister of the economy and one of prime minister’s most trusted people, was nominated for president of the National Bank, despite of his lack of experience—theoretical or practical— with banking. European institutions and organisations speak about “appropriating the state,” the opposition is screaming about a “republic of cronies” and the group of supporters of the ruling party is shrinking, although at the time of writing this, support is still high enough for Orbán’s party to win the next elections planned for the spring of 2014. But it would be hard to meet an optimist in the Hungarian streets. If there are any, they can be found in the power rooms of the elite and in the media, almost completely subservient to the regime, above all in radio and television, tellingly called “royal” by the people. A symbolic example is the ordeal of the only opposition radio station “Klubrádio,” which had its license revoked several times by the government-dominated Media Council, but luckily the courts intervened each time.
10. Hungary, in other words a problem.
Hungary is not a PIIGS group case. It is not an issue of just the economy. What is at stake is the future of our continent, its values, institutions and models of governance. It is a test for future European integration. Instead of the planned supranational identity are we perhaps headed towards the reality of the Caucasus or Central Asia, for such are the associations invoked by the Hungarian opposition calling the country Orbanistan? Or perhaps we will see the fulfilment of the will of Viktor Orbán, expressed during his lecture at the Warsaw University: let us integrate within the Visegrád Group, but outside the European Union? Where is Hungary headed? And what does the European Union have to say about this “separate way”? There are more questions than answers and the problem is genuine.
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