The Cancer in the Middle of Europe

Posted June 4, 2013

Categories: Articles, Blog, Eastern Europe, Europe, Featured, Russia and Eastern Europe

There’s no goose-stepping in the streets. There are no curfews or explicit censorship or martial law. The cafes, in fact, are full of happy, laughing people. Tourists continue to flood the country.

If you don’t speak Hungarian and if you don’t speak to Hungarians, you could visit Budapest and believe that you’re in just another beautiful European city. Sure, there might seem to be an unusual number of homeless people. And you might run across a few protestors here and there. But on the surface everything about Hungary seems normal.

It’s not normal. Something is dreadfully wrong with Hungary. Worse, what’s wrong with Hungary is not unique in Europe. What’s eating away at a free society in Hungary has metastasized. This same cancer is present elsewhere on the continent, even if it hasn’t come to the attention of diagnosticians.

When I was in Hungary in 1990, the Alliance of Young Democrats (FIDESZ) was a feisty party that boasted of its “radical, liberal, and alternative” politics. At that time, membership was restricted to people under the age of 35. I remember playing soccer at the party’s summer camp at the lakeside and found the members to be, on the whole, a refreshing  bunch of exuberant political actors. Even if I didn’t agree with everything the party stood for, I definitely appreciated its style. The party’s campaign posters were especially eye-catching (if heteronormative). One of them showed two pictures of a kiss: between two Communist dinosaurs, Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker, and between two young, attractive Hungarians. “Make your choice,” read the inscription. FIDESZ captured nearly 9 percent of the vote in the elections that year.

Today, FIDESZ is no longer liberal or alternative. It’s no longer the party of young people. And it is far from irreverent. After a steady march to the Right, led by current Prime Minister Viktor Orban, it has become the party of orthodoxy. Drunk on power, FIDESZ is now in a lip lock with authoritarianism.

In the last national elections in 2010, it won more than 50 percent of the vote. The government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban controls two-thirds of the Hungarian parliament. It can pass any legislation it wants. It can even change the Hungarian constitution.

In fact, the Orban government introduced a new constitution shortly after it took office. It has subsequently pushed through four sets of amendments to that constitution. Essentially, when the country’s constitutional court has overturned key FIDESZ laws, the party has simply achieved its goal by changing the constitution.

Make no mistake: FIDESZ remains popular. It retains a large lead over a variety of opposition parties (though, with the next elections still a year away, that lead seems to be narrowing somewhat). Critics argue that the ruling party’s control over the media helps maintain its positive image. The government replaced the heads of Hungarian public radio, television, and news agency with its own yes men. A new media law allows anyone, even anonymously, to file complaints against a newspaper, website, or TV station, with potentially large fines assessed by a Media Council whose members all come from FIDESZ.

To bolster its support, and with the support of occasional allies like Jobbik, a party even further to the Right, FIDESZ plays up Hungarian nationalism. It has created a Day of National Unity to commemorate the Treaty of Trianon (which reduced Hungary’s territory by two-thirds in 1920) and begun rehabilitating the dictatorial regime of Admiral Horthy (whose signed picture Adolf Hitler kept on his desk as inspiration). The social agenda of FIDESZ veers rightward as well, with its attempt to declare homelessness illegal, redefine marriage as between only a man and a woman, and implement a “stand your ground” law to allow gun owners to use their firearms to protect their property.

The flip side of this nationalism is racism and xenophobia. “A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence,” FIDESZ cofounder Zsolt Bayer has written. “These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals…These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist.” Although Orban has personally declared zero tolerance for anti-Semitism, his Education Ministry made recommendations of anti-Semitic authors to school syllabuses. It is popular for Hungarian “patriots” to declare themselves “true Hungarians” – as opposed to all those who don’t meet their criteria of purity, namely foreigners, minorities, and European bureaucrats.

With its overwhelming political majority, FIDESZ has also attempted to use the state as a mechanism for enriching its members and friends. The latest scandal involves cigarettes. The government introduced a licensing system for tobacco sales that requires stores and individuals to apply to sell cigarettes. The overall number of vendors will be fall from 40,000 to 7,000. No surprise that many of these lucrative licenses have gone to FIDESZ members and supporters.

There have been protests against this democratic putsch: by students, homeless activists, journalists, parliamentarians. But there is also fear. FIDESZ fights dirty. The party intends to remain in power as long as possible, and it brooks no dissent.

All of the illiberal elements that have made Hungary a current bête noire are present elsewhere in Europe. State interference in the media has become commonplace in the Berlusconi era. Xenophobia and racism are essential elements of the far-right parties that have gained ground everywhere from Greece (Golden Dawn) to Sweden (Democratic Party), and even mainstream conservative parties have flirted with anti-immigrant sentiment. Corruption scandals have engulfed governments in Spain, Slovakia, Romania, and France, among others.

Nor is political authoritarianism unique to Hungary. The Kaczynski brothers brought Poland to the brink of authoritarianism, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski still hopes to return to power and implement the same program as FIDESZ. In Bulgaria, Boyko Borisov has a similar approach to politics though without the parliamentary majority to implement it. Robert Fico in Slovakia, Vaclav Klaus in the Czech Republic, and several leaders in the former Yugoslavia have also shown a tendency toward absolutism.

What makes Hungary different is that all of these elements have come together in a “perfect storm” of illiberalism.

Nor is the swing of Hungary to the Right simply the result of a few charismatic individuals. In Hungary, as in Europe more generally, liberalism has essentially dug its own grave. The liberal economic model has produced wealth for some, uncertainty for most, and extreme poverty for an increasing minority. The liberal political model has produced a rotating kleptocracy: each party that comes into power has sought to use the mechanism of the state to enrich its supporters. And the liberal social model has encouraged an individualism that has eaten away at the solidarity at the family, neighborhood, and community level that traditionally helped people through difficult times.

It’s no surprise, then, that “liberal” has become a dirty word, and movements like FIDESZ have swept into the vacuum created by the economic and political failures of an ideology that once promised so much for the region. European leaders should indeed worry about the spread of this cancer out from Budapest. They might think that their longstanding liberal institutions serve as a sufficiently strong immune system. But a continuing economic crisis and a declining faith in democracy provide all the right conditions for the growth of all manner of malignancies.

Hankyoreh, June 2, 2013



  1. Dear Mr. Feffer,

    … I am still surprising about why I am surprised about these articles; those are written about Hungary, about my country.

    If you think Hungary is a cancer in Europe and I would write this comments in your style, I would title this like ‘United States is than the asshole of the word’. Just to write in the same style, and have no doubt this is the least creative title I have figured out…

    But I would not do it, because here in Europe, in Hungary we know this more than impolite to do it. Even on an average Joe level…

    I know everyone can have opinion about everything, but let me have just one question: Can you specify when after the first election you were in Hungary last time, that makes you so enough updated to make opinion like above about Hungary.

    I suppose none, from then!

    Again, I know everyone can have opinion about everything, but we are fully feed up with the smartasses telling us what is wrong, and what is right, and identifying Hungary like a cancer.

    Further, I think it is funnier that it is done from the states… Let me remind you with quote from The Dictator move: Why are you guys so anti-dictators? Imagine if America was a dictatorship. You could let 1% of the people have all the nation’s wealth. You could help your rich friends get richer by cutting their taxes. And bailing them out when they gamble and lose. You could ignore the needs of the poor for health care and education. Your media would appear free, but would secretly be controlled by one person and his family. You could wiretap phones. You could torture foreign prisoners. You could have rigged elections. You could lie about why you go to war. You could fill your prisons with one particular racial group, and no one would complain. You could use the media to scare the people into supporting policies that are against their interests…

    So you do understand the irony, don’t you…!?

    So rather clean up in your house before you tell how to do it in other countries…

    1. Thank you for your comment, since it allows me to clear up some misconceptions.

      I never said that Hungary is a cancer. The article is very clear: I wrote that there is a cancer in Hungary, and you can find that same cancer elsewhere in Europe (and indeed elsewhere in the world).

      I was in Hungary last month, interviewing 50 people over a two-week period of time.

      If you look at other articles on this website, you will find that 90 percent of them critique the United States. Some of them focus on U.S. domestic policy but most of them focus on the deficiencies of U.S. foreign policy. I welcome people in other country to criticize the United States. I think it is essential. And, given the negative impact of U.S. policies overseas from drones to economic policy, you are welcome to use impolite words.

      1. Well, to be fair, the title is “The Cancer in the Middle of Europe” and then you talk about Hungary. I was taken aback myself, although I soon saw what you meant.

  2. … redefine marriage as between only a man and a woman …

    This is thousand years and still valid definition, only gays want to redefine it.

    1. I’m not gay and I’m in favor of gay marriage. There are millions of people around the world who believe that marriage is about two people in love, full stop. It was once illegal for Blacks and Whites in the United States to get married. Fortunately, those laws were overturned. But obviously there’s still a ways to go — in changing laws and in changing minds.

  3. I haven’t seen so much nonsense in one article – so here we go:
    1. Gay marriage, certainly “progressive” agenda promotes this very much. I would only ask, why you will stick with just 2 people in marriage, perhaps 3,4,5 maybe even whole collective can love each other. Isn’t your view a little fascistic?
    2. Of course any average “progressive” has to define Nazis as the extreme right. For your information, Hitler’s party was named National Socialist German Work Party – so they must have been obviously “right wing” socialists. It is documented that tovarysch (comrade) Stalin offered help to Genosse (comrade) Hitler in fight against United Kingdom – of course before the second invaded the first. Then, all “progressives” (comrades) supporting USSR started to call Nazis the extreme right wing.
    3. Unfortunately for “progressives”, people in Europe start to see, what are their true intentions. And while they try to eek their living, they are not interested anymore to support the parasites, living off the largesse of a socialist state. So the cancer, which you “progressives” truly are, may be removed before it is too late.

    1. Thank you for your comments. Your first comment, if it were serious, would raise an interesting question. But of course you’re only interested in dismissing a serious civil rights campaign. I never though I would see in my lifetime the transformation of American attitudes toward gays and lesbians, but it has happened in a generation. And it has happening in other countries, too, such as Romania where a generation ago homosexuality was still illegal. Such a rapid change in social mores inevitably produces a backlash. Alas, a fair share of that backlash is happening in other countries, like Hungary.

      There was, of course, a lively debate among the German Nazis about where they fell on the political spectrum. But that debate ended with the night of the long knives and the defeat of the Strasser faction in 1934. Regardless of their appropriation of the word “socialist,” the Nazis under Hitler after 1934 placed themselves on the far fight — in the tradition of Admiral Horthy.

      As for your last comment, well, I’m not sure which people of Europe you are referring to. With only a few exceptions, Europeans support their social-welfare states.

      1. In my experience, small business owners in Europe chafe at the social welfare laws – generally because they literally have no idea how much crappier America is in so many ways. Hollywood very rarely sets foot in the Rust Belt.

  4. Sir,

    I was reading the translation of your article regarding Hungary on the webpage of Hospodarske noviny in Slovakia. Being a Slovak Hungarian the title made me curios about how you perceive the situation in Hungary. I also travel a lot there and have information from first hand. And I must say that contrary to the gentleman, I presume from FIDESZ, I must agree with all your statements made in the article. There is something else that concerns me. And this is not as criticism just of your article, but I found this by many others. The in depth description of the problem is excellent, but there are no proposal for the next steps. I agree with you that liberalism has disappointed many individuals living in central Europe. Though I still believe in it. But if this idea failed, which is the one that wfollow? Shall we go back and introduce again socialism or be traditional conservatives? I miss your opinion in the article.
    By the way the other day I red an excellent article about Orban’s political life, how he turned from a liberal, “naïve” politician to an authoritative one who does not take any criticism and punishes them immediately, arguably after FIDESZ lost the elections in 2002.

    Looking forward to your answer.

    1. Thank you, Tamas, for your post. You ask what we call in English the “million-dollar question.” I don’t have very good answers. Or, rather, I have a number of answers that might not combine to form a coherent political platform.

      I’ll start with foreign policy. it’s essential that Hungary work with its neighbors to ensure the protection and, indeed, the cultivation of minority rights throughout the region. All too often, FIDESZ has been interested in simply getting votes from overseas Hungarians. For instance, it directly intervened in Romanian politics by attempting to split RMDSz. If ethnic Hungarians want to come to Hungary to live and work, that’s fine. But, as you know better than I do, there are vibrant ethnic Hungarian communities outside of Hungary — and lots of very mixed ethnic communities — that play an essential role in strengthening the diversity and democracy of Middle Europe. The Hungarian government must play a key role in maintaining the integrity of those communities (and, of course, raising an alarm in the case of abuses).

      On governance issues, the next party to take over in Hungary really has to demonstrate that “politics can be different.” Most Hungarians were disgusted with the corruption of the coalition government prior to FIDESZ. And I don’t think they feel that much different about what FIDESZ is doing in this regard. This is not a Left or Right issue. The checks and balances within the Hungarian system have to be strengthened, and watchdog organizations must play a role in ensuring that ruling parties don’t simply use the state as a redistribution mechanism to enrich themselves and their supporters.

      But now let’s turn to the core of your question, which is economics. I’m a firm believe that the state can play a positive role in the economy. But that state has to be a democratically elected, democratically supervised, and sufficiently transparent. The economy should be mixed, with incentives for small and medium-sized private enterprises and a role for strategic planning at the highest level (as in successful Asian countries). Taxation should be progressive, the social welfare provisions robust, and the regulatory mechanisms strong enough to prevent graft and environmental degradation.

      What would I call such a system? It has elements of liberalism (both classical liberalism in its preference for private enterprise with small and medium-sized enterprises and social liberalism in its support for social welfare mechanisms). It has elements of socialism (in terms of the state’s role in the economy both in terms of ownership of utilities and a few strategic industries but also industrial planning, i.e., strategic subsidization). I would add some libertarian elements (aside from punishing legal infractions, the state should not be involved in the lives of individuals). And I also believe strongly in the importance of politics at a local level (which would be a communitarian element).

      Those are some general thoughts. But I would also want to avoid the mistake the IMF makes of assuming that one size fits all. What would work in the United States might not work in Hungary and vice versa.

  5. Nowhere are you addressing (sorry, that’s sweeping – I haven’t read *everything* on this site and you’re obviously far better informed than I even though I live here in Budapest)…

    You don’t *seem* to be addressing the elephant in the room, which is that Hungarians are sour on liberalism because, to them, liberalism has meant predatory Austrian, Swiss, German, French corporatism that has come in, taken over everything, put up malls, and allowed them to look at all the expensive clothing they still can’t afford on their $500 monthly salaries. Except for the few who can. Income inequity is rampant, Swiss predatory loans ubiquitous, foreclosures rising, and still that whole “sell us your factories and in return you’ll live like Western Europeans” is failing to materialize.

    Among Orbán’s many other actions, 99% of which are to shore up his own power, he *has* actually taken a stand against predatory European corporates, or at least talked about it. Note I’m not supporting him – I think he’s odious, although I don’t think he’s as dangerous as you seem to (I’m probably wrong) – but I think this is how he is appealing to a lot of people, and you don’t seem to be addressing it.

    Nationalism proceeds from economics. The EU was set up to secure markets for the big nations, at the expense of the peripheral nations, and the seams are a little more obvious than they used to be. I think this, too, shall pass – but in the meantime, that inequity is driving an awful lot of near-fascism.

    Isn’t it time that the richer nations shoulder a little responsibility here? Maybe rein in their banks (haha, like that’s going to happen – if they don’t rein in the banks to save Americans, they’re certainly not going to do it to save Hungarians, are they?)

    Anyway, food for thought. I like what you’re doing. I see you’re going to be (or have?) interviewed a whole lot of Hungarians – will those be accessible in some form? I’d love to get more insight into what’s going on. I’ll probably be getting my own (dual) citizenship this year, and I’m looking forward to voting against Fidesz myself.

    1. Hi Michael
      Thanks for the replies. Yes, I’ll be posting the interviews I did in Hungary shortly. I conducted about 50, but I’m a bit backlogged at the moment. One of the interviews was with a Jobbik representative, and he was quite intelligent (though I disagreed with some of his assessments). By the way, I agree with you about the responsibility of foreign banks and the palpable failures of liberal economic reform for much of the population. If you subscribe to my newsletter, you’ll get notification of when the Hungarian interviews are up on the site.

      1. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about Hungarians, it’s that so many of them are *really smart*. Totally wrong about a lot of things, but not for lack of intelligence.

        Anyway, I find it the height of hypocrisy to criticize Hungarians for a situation that is manifestly not their fault. Germany should be ashamed of themselves for some of the things I’ve seen in their press about the current Hungarian situation.

    2. I mean (thinking further about this) – Hungary has been the economic vassal of other countries since the 1500’s. They were nothing but a breadbasket for the Turks, the Austrians, the Russians – and then they were led to expect that under liberal capitalism that would change.

      It hasn’t changed.

      Specifically on the topic of Orbán’s own personal evolution, I had an insight here. Back in the 80’s, he was a student who knew that Hungary should be treated better. He fought for that, gained independence, was a True Believer in liberal capitalism. (I think I can understand a lot of how he thought, because my wife is Hungarian and we’re just a couple years younger than Orbán and his crowd.)

      Then he actually met the people in charge in America and in Germany, etc. He discovered that despite our history, and despite our VoA propaganda, that power rules supreme, and that money is power – and I think it powerfully disillusioned him.

      He’s not a stupid man. From all reports, he’s quite capable. I think he realized that nobody gives a shit about Hungary, any more than anybody gives a shit about the American working class – so he decided he was going to take whatever he could get. Just like the government he replaced – which stole $500 billion dollars, two *years* of the Hungarian GDP, in the few years in which the handwriting was on the wall in the 80’s. Just like the management of all the state-owned companies who sold those companies to the Germans and the French and pocketed the money for it, leaving the workers, who nominally *owned* those companies, with nothing. Just like, in fact, the German and French investors who had bought those factories – bought companies that had been nationalized from Hungarians, then moved production out to Slovakia where it’s cheaper.

      This country has been hollowed out more effectively by liberal capitalism than by any ruling force that has ever conquered it by force of arms. People don’t even *know* it’s happened, and yet we wonder why they might not be too thrilled to lick America’s spittle?

      There’s reason for anger. The fact that it’s all to easy to redirect that to its historical targets of the Jews and the Roma is not a reflection on the cancerous nature of Hungary – it’s a reflection on the cancer that infects the entire world. Hungary’s just a canary in the coal mine.

      1. Take Györi Keksz, the cookie company that was based in Györ. It was bought by Kraft Foods, and Györi Keksz are now made in Slovakia, while the people in Györ don’t have enough work.

        Take Szerencsi chocolates. The company was founded in Hungary in the 1800’s, nationalized, sold to Austrians in the 90’s. Take, essentially, EVERYTHING ELSE THE HUNGARIANS HAVE EVER DONE. It’s all foreign-owned now.

        And here in Mátyásföld, and up on the Rószadomb, a few people have some really, really nice houses and drive nice cars, while everybody has a car on a loan and they’re working really, really hard to be just about as well off in real terms as they were in the 70’s with a lot less work.

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