Longing for Greater Hungary

Jan-Werner Müller

In the 1980s Hungary was known as the ‘merriest barracks in the socialist camp’. After the suppression of the 1956 uprising by the Red Army, János Kádár instituted what became known as ‘goulash communism’, characterised by a policy of ‘little freedoms’: Hungarians could travel abroad, trade privately and say what they liked, so long as they didn’t attack the regime directly. Kádár, the illegitimate son of a half-Slovak chambermaid, managed to persuade the Hungarians to see him as a plain-spoken ‘father of the people’. He punished the revolutionaries, promoted his critics, encouraged consumerism and turned totalitarian logic upside down by claiming that ‘whoever is not against us is with us.’ The country’s exit from state socialism was among the smoothest in Eastern Europe. Hungary spent the 1990s as a model pupil of the West, finally joining the EU in 2004. Now, almost a decade on, it is led by the charismatic, self-declared ‘right-wing plebeian’ Viktor Orbán, a man whom critics charge with the ‘Putinisation’ of Hungary. Thanks to his government’s undermining of the rule of law, Hungary risks being the first EU member state to be sanctioned for violating ‘shared European values’. In central Budapest paramilitaries in black uniforms patrol the streets – they are supposedly ‘fighting Gypsy crime’ – and tourists emerging from the beautifully restored Fin de Siècle Kaffeehäuser are liable to find themselves facing an angry crowd burning the EU flag. What happened? And why in Hungary?

Some intellectuals in the country think the answer is straightforward: Hungarians never really became democrats. First under the Ottomans, then under the Habsburgs, and on through the 20th century’s experiments with right-wing and left-wing authoritarianism, they relied on informal arrangements that enabled them to bypass official structures. There’s still a large shadow economy and widespread tax evasion. The salient causes of the current crisis, however, are to be found in the history of the past two decades: the peculiar nature of the transition from communism, which Hungarians simply call ‘the changes’; the long decline and recent discrediting of both the social democrats and the liberals; and the paradoxical figure of Orbán, who has dominated Hungarian politics since the mid-1990s.

As elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc, the transition to liberal democracy was negotiated round a table; unlike elsewhere, however, the participants decided to leave the 1949 Stalinist constitution in place, merely amending it section by section – according to a contemporary joke, the only article left unchanged was the one that said ‘Budapest is the capital of Hungary.’ The first post-communist government, headed by the Christian Democrat historian József Antall, promised to rule with ‘calm authority’ and got on splendidly with the ex-communists. It did little to change the state apparatus or the economy, but kept itself busy by waging war on the media and debating whether to recognise the ‘knightly orders’ created during the authoritarian interwar regime of Miklós Horthy. It even made timid moves towards rehabilitating Horthy himself. But people weren’t interested in symbolic changes: they wanted Budapest to be more like Vienna (only three hours away by train and a place many Hungarians, availing themselves of their ‘little freedoms’, had been able to visit before 1989).

In 1994, they voted overwhelmingly for the ‘expertise’ promised by the Socialist Party. The ex-communists entered into a coalition with their former enemies, the liberal dissidents, whose Alliance of Free Democrats – led by a group of academics and intellectuals – had the support of around 20 per cent of the electorate. It was this nominally social-liberal government that got serious about introducing capitalism. Plagued by corruption scandals, it was kicked out in 1998, and Orbán took office.

Orbán comes from the provinces. In a country where there is a deeply entrenched split between rural communities and a capital which, like Vienna, is far too large in proportion to the rest of the country, people from the countryside sometimes refer to themselves as ‘deep Hungarians’, in contrast to the ‘shallow’ (code for left-wing, cosmopolitan or Jewish, or all three) residents of Budapest. In 1988, Orbán was one of the founders of a dissident group called the Alliance of Young Democrats (Fidesz). ‘Young’ was meant literally: nobody over 35 was allowed to join. Its members – mostly law students, mostly from the countryside – were libertarians who admired Margaret Thatcher. In 1989, Orbán, with long hair, stubble and an open white shirt, gave a rousing speech in Heroes’ Square at the reburial of Imre Nagy, the reform socialist who was condemned to death by a Soviet-backed ‘people’s court’ in 1958. What most people remember about the speech is that Orbán told the Russians to go home; what is often forgotten is that he also deviated from his script and accused the communists of having stolen the lives of every Hungarian generation since 1956.

Orbán went to Oxford on a Soros scholarship later that year – according to his website he ‘studied the history of British liberal political philosophy’. He soon realised that Fidesz’s programme was not a vote-winner. When a political space opened up on the right, as Antall’s party became less popular, he reinvented himself as a nationalist and a committed Christian, who would protect the Hungarian economy from the evils of global capitalism. During his first four years in office he destroyed and then absorbed the other parties on the right. Churches were restored, a bombastic national theatre was built on the banks of the Danube, corruption was rife – and despite occasional protectionist noises, foreign capital flowed into the country. It came as a genuine shock to Orbán when, in 2002, the socialists, headed by the former finance minister and banker Péter Medgyessy, defeated him at the polls. His response was to set up ‘civic committees’ across the country, which served almost as rivals to the institutions of the state. It was a quasi-dissident strategy, unusual in a functioning liberal democracy, and it was backed up with populist rhetoric: the nation itself, Orbán declared, could not be in opposition.

But in opposition it stayed, even after Medgyessy – gentlemanly, but lacking political nous – was replaced in 2004 by the charismatic Ferenc Gyurcsány, the son of a working-class single mother, a former leader in the communist youth organisation and, it’s said, the 60th richest man in the country. Medgyessy had recklessly expanded the welfare state; Gyurcsány tried to balance the books. In a speech to a party meeting behind closed doors in May 2006, not long after his coalition’s election victory, he admonished his fellow socialists: they had been lying to the country about the state of the economy – ‘no country in Europe has screwed up as much as we have.’ It was time to tell people to tighten their belts, even at the risk of losing seats in the upcoming local elections. He predicted that the socialists would see their support decline, but eventually win it back.

Clockwise from top left: Vona, Medgyessy, Antall, Orbán, Gyurcsány
Clockwise from top left: Vona, Medgyessy, Antall, Orbán, Gyurcsány

He was right about the first part. His speech was leaked around the time of the 50th anniversary of the 1956 uprising – it is still unclear by whom. People took to the streets in protest. Some wanted to re-enact 1956, and waved national flags with a circle cut out in the middle, just as the symbols of state socialism had been cut out of banners fifty years earlier. A pensioner commandeered a tank from a 1956 commemorative exhibition and drove it at a police cordon but ran out of fuel. The police were not used to demonstrations like this – after 1956, street violence was taboo – and overreacted. Orbán encouraged the protesters and demanded Gyurcsány’s resignation, calling him a ‘pathological liar’. Gyurcsány limped on for another two and a half years, before handing over to a technocrat. He had wanted to be the Blair or Schröder of Eastern Europe, but his failed modernisation project – supposedly inspired by Anthony Giddens – and bribery scandals involving both socialists and liberals, led people instead to equate the left with capitalism and corruption. Every Saturday, menacing groups of men, young and old, dressed in black would gather outside parliament to blast out nationalist rock music and wave red and white Arpád flags (named after one of Hungary’s founding fathers but by now associated with the Arrow Cross, a homegrown fascist party that formed a Nazi puppet government after Hitler pushed Horthy aside, and gave Eichmann free rein to deport the Jews). Inside parliament, Orbán and his followers would ostentatiously get up and leave every time Gyurcsány was about to speak.

In the 2010 elections Fidesz won 53 per cent of the vote, which, under Hungary’s highly disproportionate voting system, resulted in a two-thirds majority in parliament. The socialists came second, with just under 20 per cent, closely followed by Gábor Vona’s Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary, an extreme right-wing party with its own militia, the Hungarian Guard. The party of the left-liberal intelligentsia was wiped out, along with Antall’s old party. Orbán was quick to declare the election a ‘revolution at the ballot box’ and claimed it gave him a mandate to create a ‘system of national co-operation’, the principles of which – ‘work, home, family, health and order’ – were listed on a sheet of paper to be displayed prominently in every government office.

Orbán had outlined his vision in a speech in 2009: Hungary was suffering from a crippling political polarisation and a Kulturkampf that had consumed the nation’s energies; it needed a ‘central force’ that would keep left-wing and right-wing extremists under control and steer the country for the next twenty years. But the first thing Fidesz did on entering office was to unleash a new culture war: a national holiday was declared to commemorate the Trianon Treaty of 1920, which took away two-thirds of Hungary’s former territory; a proper reckoning with the communist past was called for (even though Fidesz itself is partly responsible for the fact that Hungary is the only post-communist country where the archives remain closed); the square in front of parliament is being cleared of undesirable monuments, including the statue of the ‘Red Count’ Mihály Károlyi, who had declared Hungary a republic in 1918 and pushed for land reform; government control over secondary schools is being centralised; an openly anti-semitic intellectual has been appointed director of one of Budapest’s most famous theatres; Agnes Heller and a number of other philosophers have been accused of defrauding the state; and Gyurcsány has been threatened with prosecution for irresponsible financial behaviour while in office. The government has proposed new media regulations: coverage should be ‘balanced’ and protect majorities as well as minorities; a body effectively appointed by Fidesz will punish newspapers, and radio and TV stations, that don’t comply, with fines big enough to put them out of business.

Fidesz also announced its determination to bury Stalinism by drafting a new constitution, and last spring the government sent out questionnaires to find out what the people wanted from it. It’s not clear how many responded or what they said, but by Easter the constitution had been drawn up and signed by the president and was ready to come into effect on 1 January this year. Some called it the ‘Easter constitution’, but the name that stuck was the ‘iPad constitution’: the document had allegedly been drafted by a Fidesz MEP on a tablet.

No other party was involved in drafting the constitution, and several European institutions have found fault with it. The new Fundamental Law and its ‘cardinal laws’ undermine the independence of the judiciary and prevent economic decisions from being reviewed either by parliament or by the constitutional court. The bombastic new preamble, or National Avowal of Faith, defines the nation in terms of ethnicity: it highlights the ‘nation-preserving’ role of Christianity (though fewer than 20 per cent of Hungarians go to church); and it asserts that the entire period from March 1944 to 1990 was one of foreign occupation. Not only does this equate fascism and communism, it also ignores the fact that anti-semitic legislation predated the German occupation and that Horthy remained in office until October 1944.

Fidesz’s defence of the constitution has been consistent: every element in it, they claim, has an equivalent in a liberal democracy that is above suspicion. But the parts add up to a deeply illiberal whole: even if Fidesz loses an election, it will never lose power. The party has appointed its followers to serve unusually long terms on nominally independent boards that can constrain elected politicians (by vetoing the budget, for instance, or controlling judicial appointments). The wife of the man who drafted the Fundamental Law on his iPad (an Orbán family friend) has been made head of the National Court Office: she is empowered to assign cases to any court in the country and hire judges without being accountable to anyone. Her tenure is for nine years.

Meanwhile, the country remains, whatever Fidesz’s claims, on the verge of bankruptcy and in desperate need of support from the EU and IMF, but negotiations stalled after Fidesz increased state control of the central bank. The Hungarian Guard has been officially outlawed, but members of the Civil Guard Association for a Better Future – the same organisation under a different name – parade openly in the streets. Fidesz has been playing a dangerous game with the extreme right: internationally, the party presents itself as the only force capable of holding Jobbik at bay; domestically, its own Kulturkampf vindicates Jobbik’s nationalist grievances. Many Hungarians, even among the middle classes, remain obsessed with the Trianon Treaty, which is sometimes blamed on a Jewish conspiracy, or on Clemenceau’s hatred for his Hungarian daughter-in-law, or on Károlyi’s cowardice, but never on the policy of forced Magyarisation to which minorities were subjected under the Habsburgs. According to some estimates, every twentieth car in Hungary sports a sticker in the shape of Greater Hungary – Hungary before Trianon. Liberal Hungarians point out that this doesn’t necessarily mean the driver wants to annex Croatia, but such symbols have proliferated in recent years, and the outline of Greater Hungary has appeared on T-shirts, trinkets and jewellery.

Jobbik is peculiar even by the standards of Europe’s extreme right-wing parties: one of its politicians recently gave a speech in parliament requesting that a 19th-century anti-semitic blood libel be reinvestigated as the case hadn’t been resolved; many of its members believe that Hungary took a wrong turn in the year 1000, when King Stephen established Christianity in the country; many of them subscribe to the ideology of Turanism, which celebrates the Hungarians’ ethnic origins in the steppes of Central Asia. The party invited Iran to send Revolutionary Guards to Hungary in 2010 as election observers. Its most prominent deputy in the European Parliament – a former law professor and women’s rights activist who taught in America and sat on a UN committee – told Hungarian Jews to shut up and play with their little circumcised dicks instead of criticising her.

In 2010, Orbán won the votes of pensioners and people on benefits who had recoiled from the socialists’ austerity programmes. He slapped ‘crisis taxes’ on foreign companies and nationalised private pensions (originally a socialist initiative). But he also made savage cuts to the welfare state, which means that even people uninterested in the finer details of Turanism might well turn to Jobbik as the loudest voice of protest. The mainstream opposition parties are a shambles: the socialists have split and Gyurcsány has formed a new party, the Democratic Coalition, which he hopes will carry through his modernisation project. Gyurcsány has real political talent, but like Clinton and Blair will always seem untrustworthy. A new, Greenish party called Politics Can Be Different has yet to decide what it wants: to remain untainted and refuse to be part of a coalition, or to join in. The opposition’s most plausible leader might be Gordon Bajnai, the technocrat who took over from Gyurcsány, but he doesn’t have a party.

Left-liberal political discourse can’t be revived as though nothing had happened. The former dissident G.M. Tamás – once a liberal, then a Burkean conservative and now a Marxist – has pointed out that the dissidents’ human-rights-centred liberalism of the early 1990s ignored the plight of the victims of post-communism: ‘We, the froth at the top of it, were celebrating the triumph of freedom and openness and plurality and fantasy and pleasure and all that. It was frivolous, and I am deeply ashamed.’

Even if a broad anti-Fidesz alliance – which few people think could include Jobbik – were to win the next election in 2014, it is unlikely to muster the two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution. A left-wing government would find itself in a Fidesz-designed straitjacket, obstructed by the ‘independent’ boards. Orbán retains an iron grip: he is rumoured to have a signed resignation letter from each of his potential rivals for the leadership. But he is also a pragmatist, willing to reshape his ideology for the sake of power, as he did in the 1990s. He is not bent on resurrecting the Horthy regime, as some foreign commentators have claimed, nor is he an anti-semite. He might be susceptible to outside pressure, if it’s intelligently applied.

Brussels was slow to comment on events in Hungary. The European Commission eventually criticised Fidesz’s media law and has threatened to cut cohesion funds – infrastructure subsidies for poorer member states. But the EU is ill-equipped to meet the political challenge presented by Orbán. Even worse, some of the EU’s recent actions have reinforced the impression that Europe acts only if the rights of multinationals and banks are at stake: Brussels gave the green light to negotiations over new IMF loans only after central bank independence had been assured. Concerns over the independence of the judiciary will be dealt with by the European Court, which usually takes for ever. Suspicion of Brussels has been encouraged by Orbán, who compares the EU to previous occupiers, from the Ottomans to the Russians, and complains that ‘they are trying to tell us how to live.’

Some of the pronouncements from Brussels and Strasbourg have, it’s true, sounded patronising. Europeanisation has not been an unmixed blessing. By the time Hungary acceded to the EU, many European companies were looking to find ever cheaper labour further east. Hungary’s high streets have been taken over by assorted German and Austrian chain stores. Goods sold in Budapest are indistinguishable from those sold in Berlin or Vienna, and often have prices to match, though Hungarian incomes are very much lower.

If the challenge is essentially political, what should Europe’s politicians be doing? The European People’s Party, the umbrella organisation for centre-right parties (of which Orbán is a vice-president) has been reluctant to speak out against one of its own. Merkel is said to have been critical behind closed doors, but some of her closest allies – the minister-president of Bavaria in particular – keep praising the plucky Hungarian prime minister. UKIP meanwhile has posted a video of a confrontation between Fidesz and some MEPs on YouTube and captioned it with a football score: Hungary 1, EU 0.