There’s something about white horses and strong leaders. A nation is in crisis, and no one knows what to do. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, a man appears astride a white horse. He takes the reins of the nation, just as he controls his horse, and leads the country to the promised land. The myth of the “man on the white horse,” which stretches from the Book of Revelations to the latest Lone Ranger movie, has had a profound influence on Western culture.
Most leaders associated with white horses — George Washington, for instance, or Napoleon — never actually rode them. But Admiral Miklos Horthy, the famous authoritarian leader of Hungary, made a point of riding his white horse at the head of the army that swept through Hungary in 1919 until it finally entered Budapest and put an end to the country’s brief experiment with a Soviet government. After presiding over a counter-revolutionary White Terror, Horthy established what has been called a “directed democracy” that grew less and less democratic as it moved closer to the Axis powers and policies supporting the Holocaust.
Horthy is enjoying a renaissance in Hungary today. Statues and plaques are going up to commemorate his life and rule. The current Hungarian government of Viktor Orban and FIDESZ has been careful to tread a fine line between supporting and condemning the new cult of Horthy, though some members of the ruling party are more open in their admiration for the admiral. Still, Orban definitely styles himself as a strong leader who has arrived on a white horse to save Hungary from the Left. And he too favors a directed democracy that veers in an authoritarian direction.
As Hungary expert Charles Gati points out, the Orban government has promoted not simply a particular agenda but an entire system change. “There isn’t any one thing that concerns me,” Gati told me in an interview in his office at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC in March. “This is a mistake to break it down to one thing. You have a general confrontation against pluralist, Western-style democracy in which the distribution of power is sacred. This is the essence. Or if you want to focus on any one thing, it is the lack of checks and balances. This is the key. Using the two-thirds majority as a justification for uprooting Western-style democracy.”
What is perhaps most intriguing about Orban is the distance he has travelled since the late 1980s when he identified as a liberal and mixed comfortably with civil society organizations. FIDESZ, Gati points out, was “a liberal party that was a member of the so-called Liberal International, together with the Free Democrats, but they were more dynamic, more energetic. Orban was a dynamo of a leader, and I understood even then that he had ambitions. He was a real politician—and I say that in the best sense of the word. Little did I anticipate then… that he would turn out to be a nationalist demagogue.”
We talked about the geopolitical implications of Hungary’s turn to the Right and to the East, the other authoritarian tendencies in the region, and the outreach by FIDESZ to the Hungarian diaspora in an effort to win support.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I very clearly remember. I was in New York when it happened. By then I wasn’t as surprised as everybody else because I had followed the developments very closely. For a few days actually I had meetings in Moscow. It was much more interesting how they responded to it there. But I was not really surprised because I knew two or three things. One was that East Germany was beginning to boil, particularly at the level of the elite. Honecker’s leadership was weakening when Gorbachev in effect dismissed him, informing him that he could not count on Soviet tanks to defend the German Democratic Republic. And I knew secondly that East German “tourists” were in Hungary, and the Hungarian government decided to open up the border to Austria and let them go if they wanted to go. Hungary was being flooded by East Germans wanting to go to West Germany via Austria. You cannot sustain that sort of thing. So Berlin had to also open up. I was obviously very much moved by what I witnessed, but it was not a great surprise.
Now to shift to Hungary. There, of course, was tremendous—at the beginning—response from the United States and the European Union toward the perceived power grab by FIDESZ and Viktor Orban. Over the last year it has somewhat faded. Do you think it was an overreaction to what Orban was doing? Or do you think the EU and the United States had justifiable concerns about what was taking place in Hungary?
I’m not sure that I really even agree with what you said. There was a reaction by parts of the EU—not all of the EU. One faction, the largest faction in the EU of the conservative parties and peoples’ parties, decided not to be very critical publicly, although supposedly some of those parties—like the German one—expressed displeasure at some of Orban’s policies behind the scenes. Yes, there were some expressions by the United States too. But last year Orban made some concessions, or seeming concessions on relatively small matters, but he did make them and I think that quieted Western criticism. On the other hand, when it recently turned out that Orban’s concessions were phony, and that in point of fact he is revising the constitution for the fourth time in one year, the pressure has again built up. Just yesterday, the State Department issued a criticism supporting the EU’s criticism. The Financial Times went so far as to suggest that some of the so-called cohesion funds that Hungary expects should be suspended.
You are right in saying there was a bit of silence, but it was just waiting for what Orban would do. Now it turns out that these so-called concessions were no concessions, and he wants to go ahead. We’ll find out if the Hungarian parliament for the fourth time in one year will alter the constitution. Given its two-thirds majority, FIDESZ can do that. If they do, the concessions of last year will turn out to be nothing. And I would think that continued expressions of concern would continue. [editors’ note: on March 11, the Hungarian did pass the constitutional amendments]
And of these, what concerns you most? I mean, there’s government control of university, there’s—
There isn’t any one thing that concerns me. This is a mistake to break it down to one thing. You have a general confrontation against pluralist, Western-style democracy in which the distribution of power is sacred. This is the essence. Or if you want to focus on any one thing, it is the lack of checks and balances. This is the key. Using the two-thirds majority as a justification for uprooting Western-style democracy.
Now, of course, there was pushback by the constitutional court and the ombudsman as well, demonstrating that despite these efforts, there was some strong pluralism remaining in Hungary.
This is exactly what the two-thirds majority in parliament now wants to counter, and the issue is whether Orban goes ahead or not with the amendment that would nullify the constitutional court’s authority on a variety of issues—not just the economy, which in itself is outrageous, but on a variety of other issues on which it did assert itself, as you correctly point out. I have the feeling that he is going to go ahead, but we’ll see. He may delay or postpone, or find some ways to water down the new amendments to the constitution, or “basic laws” as it is called.
And have there been any important fissures within FIDESZ to suggest that parliament is not entirely on Orban’s side?
The answer is no. I’ve been looking at that and anticipating some internal struggle. It is very clear that some members, even a few in the government, are pro-Western. And there are little leaks here and there of their less-than-enthusiastic support for either domestic or foreign policy moves by Orban. But they cave eventually. For example, the foreign minister is still in place, even though it’s very clear that he is a pro-Atlanticist and likes Western-style pluralism. The same with the deputy prime minister who was here, and unlike the others, looked me up. We had a long conversation—obviously, off the record. These people have some interest in maintaining Western support.
It’s not only domestic politics I’d like to emphasize to you. The issue is the so-called “Eastern opening,” the friendship with Vladimir Putin and with Russia, the plan to put some of Hungary’s reserves in the ruble, which is not even a fully convertibly currency, as opposed to the U.S. dollar and the Euro. Orban made a trip to Moscow, and now so did several of his most loyal supporters—not the foreign minister, however, who didn’t even accompany him on the trip. So there is a turn away from the West. Orban has said many times: “We will not be a Western colony.” He has turned against Western banks. He constantly attacks the EU. All in all, we have here a leader that in his foreign policy no longer wants Hungary to be a loyal member of the Western community.
And you don’t think that this is just hedging? I’m remembering back to the campaign FIDESZ conducted in 1990. One of the most prominent posters was of course the kiss between the two Communist leaders of Hungary and the Soviet Union contrasted with the kiss of two young Hungarians. The notion that Orban would genuinely seek out Russian patronage…
I don’t know how genuine it is. It doesn’t much matter how genuine it is. Obviously, the main purpose here is economic cooperation, more trade, so that the Russians can purchase Hungarian products that won’t sell in the West. But there is a price for this, and the price is siding with the Russians, for instance, on energy issues. When he was in opposition, Orban and FIDESZ strongly opposed this so-called South Stream energy pipeline that would bring Russian energy to Europe, and favored the Nabucco, the Western alternative pipeline idea. Now he has dropped support for the Nabucco and supports the Russian plan.
I can give you several illustrations of where the initial interest in trade has already led to cooperation. The Russian ambassador in Budapest has yet to visit the leaders of the opposition. Something is cooking there. Obviously a game is being played. It’s not that Orban wants to be a satellite of Russia, far from it. But he thinks he can outwit Putin and get the trade agreements and the economic benefits, so that he will not have to rely on the EU as much. This is very strange, because Hungary’s trade is overwhelmingly with the EU, and with Germany in particular, and it’s not going to lead to good results.
It’s a similar game to what other leaders in Serbia or Bulgaria have played in the past.
For countries and economies that are of that size to imagine that they can outwit Putin seems unlikely. Regardless of Putin’s characteristics as a political leader, it’s a question of the size of the Soviet economy.
It’s very difficult for these countries to follow the examples of those who have already adopted the Euro — Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, and next year I believe Latvia and Lithuania. So five of the 10 countries by next year will have embraced the Euro. The Bulgarian currency is tied to the Euro. What’s left is Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania. Of these four, Poland just announced that it will make the necessary changes—and those are very difficult changes to make—to enter the Eurozone, because it doesn’t want to be a second-rate member of the EU. Hungary is not following suit. So there is a substantial difference here. This is not simply Euro-skepticism. This is a strategic realignment.
When I was in Slovakia, people talked about the response to Vladimir Meciar and the reinvigoration of the civic movement. In fact, Slovaks said that basically they felt that it was really only in 1998—not in 1989 or 1993—that they came into their own as civic actors. Are you seeing something similar take place in Hungary? There have been declarations by intellectuals, there have been marches, but are you seeing a substantial reawakening of the civil sector in Hungary?
No. On the contrary, I see the opposite: the oppression of civil society. Intimidation is there as well as the absence of financial support. For example, in the old days—well, five years ago—government advertisements in the press were divided in the following way: approximately 70% went to government press, 30% to opposition press. Today it’s 100% government. That gives you an illustration of how harsh this new regime is, how it moved away from the values of pluralism towards authoritarianism.
Do you think that FIDESZ has had this tendency from its beginning? When I was there in 1990 there was tension between the Orban half and the more social democratic side of FIDESZ. But I don’t think anybody anticipated when I was there that it had an authoritarian tendency beyond Orban himself.
Nobody did. I knew Mr. Orban very very well. FIDESZ had a publishing house established in 1988, and I was among the first authors. They translated two of my books. Mr. Orban edited the translation of one of my books, and Mr. Laszlo Kover, who is the speaker of the house in parliament and maybe the most explicitly right-wing leader within the FIDESZ circle today, edited the other. I knew them very well. We used to go out to have a beer. My wife met Orban’s wife when he was in New York in 1992. He was hanging out at my apartment on the Upper West Side, so I can say that I knew him well. He wanted me, even in 1994,to accompany him to his village for his election campaign. Only he and I were in the car, he was driving and I was the passenger. When he was prime minister for the first time in 1998 or 1999, he came here to Washington, and, obviously with his concurrence, I introduced him at a breakfast meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations. Our relationship by then was a little tense, but still reasonably good.
So the answer to your question is: no, you were not wrong. You saw a liberal party that was a member of the so-called Liberal International, together with the Free Democrats, but they were more dynamic, more energetic. Orban was a dynamo of a leader, and I understood even then that he had ambitions. He was a real politician—and I say that in the best sense of the word. Little did I anticipate then, as I guess you didn’t either, that he would turn out to be a nationalist demagogue.
And this evolution in Orban himself and in the party, do you think it is strategic, or do you think it reflects a deeper trend? When I say “strategic,” I mean a political decision based on a reading of the temperament of the electorate.
Since the key to their new approach has to do with the use and manipulation of nationalist symbols and nationalist rhetoric, I would have to say that this is a strategic realignment. In the mid-1990s—when the change began, though it was a gradual evolution—they came to understand that the country needed a nationalist, centrist-oriented, right-of-center kind of party. There was space there on the political spectrum, because on the other side there was the Free Democrats, which was liberal, city-oriented, very strongly Western-oriented, and there were the Socialists, who in West-European terminology should be called Social Democrats because they now embrace capitalism as much as or more than anybody else, certainly anybody on the right side. So FIDESZ found space there. Since then, they have moved from right-of-center to clearly right wing. Their symbolism, their economic policies — never mind their authoritarian trends — all put them on the right wing of the political spectrum. Did they understand what they were doing? Yes, I think so. And almost everybody—not everybody because some people left the party in 1993 or so—understood where they were going, and Orban’s persuasion and the promise of power prompted them to stay with him.
In many of the countries that I’ve been to there has been polling to demonstrate that people, generally speaking, discount whatever advantages they’ve acquired over the last 20 years and have become increasingly nostalgic for the pre-1989 period. Is that also the case in Hungary?
Yes, there is nostalgia. There is nostalgia for Ceausescu’s Romania, which boggles the mind. I can’t understand it at all. How could they? But I have to say that, contrary to your expectation and mine in 1989, Western-style democracy has not fallen on fertile soil in every country and among all parts of the population. By and large, in the cities you do have some continued interest, whether it is Prague or Warsaw or Budapest, in the Western ways. Elsewhere, it’s old-fashioned tradition that prevails.
It’s not necessarily nostalgia for communism at all. In fact, it’s not for that. It is for the mediocrity, the seeming equality, the meager benefits of the welfare state. And above all, I think, it is against the imperative of working hard that capitalism imposes on you. So there’s an element of laziness, an element of nostalgia for the welfare state—the two-week vacation guaranteed to everybody, a year off for maternity leave, and full employment.
I tell this story to my students. Because I have lots of kids and grandchildren too, I always wanted to buy toys in these countries as I traveled. Before 1989, you would go into a store in Warsaw or East Berlin, a little store that here would be a Mom and Pop store, but there it would be nine people “working.” And they would be standing there smoking their cigarettes, and they didn’t pay any attention to me whatsoever. They didn’t have any interest in doing so. They could not lose their job. They barely made any money, but it was an okay life for most of them, though not everybody. So I think we have vastly overestimated the appeal of Western-style democracy and capitalism when we visited these countries in 1989.
And that overestimation, do you think it led to specific policy decisions that, if they had been taken in a different direction in terms of economic reform, might have forestalled the rise, or the push, of FIDESZ to the right or the rise of populism? Or was this an inevitable pendulum swing given the political dynamics in the region?
This is very hard to answer. I do have, as you can tell, opinions about most everything. But I don’t know the answer to this one. All I know is that authoritarian, or semi-authoritarian, or different anti-Western types have shown up everywhere in the region. There was Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia: look how popular he was for a long period of time. There were the brothers in Poland, the Kaczynskis. Jaroslaw Kaczynski continues to be quite appealing and quite popular. The paranoid fantasies that he presents about different groups of people or countries, or others working against Poland, absolutely boggle the mind. They are not based on realities. These conspiracies exist only in the minds of people who follow them.
Then in the Czech Republic, which we normally used to think would be the best of the lot, the just-retiring president Vaclav Klaus also had these fantasies of conspiracy and turned against the EU big time. It went way beyond the kind of skepticism one associates with West European countries, where it’s good politics to talk against the Brussels bureaucrats. Klaus was far worse than that. His successor Milos Zeman is pro-EU, but we will see how that situation develops. And then of course in Hungary you have the right-wing reaction. I could go on with Bulgaria and so on. The interesting thing for you perhaps to consider is that there are four countries in the region—and maybe Slovenia too—that feel mistreated by Russia: the three Baltic states and Poland. And in different ways and to different extents, I believe that these are the countries that have had their detours but are on the Western track. I am not sure about the others.
What do you think will push back against this populism? I mean, what will it take? Are there things that the European Union can do?
Yes, there are things it could do. But it can’t do them. It could suspend this week the cohesion fund deliveries to Hungary, and it would create an economic mess. The Financial Times advocated that approach this week. I am not necessarily advocating that because it would have colossal consequences, and it’s a bit heartless. But if you care deeply about pluralism and democracy, then you have to break eggs to make that omelet, and there is no easy way to do that. Will that lead then to Orban’s demise? Possibly, in the next election. But he already has manipulated the electoral law in such a way that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to create a coalition prior to the election, to bring all these different ambitious people together to defeat him. Just keep in mind: Vladimir Meciar was an amateur compared to Mr. Orban. FIDESZ and Orban are the real professionals of this authoritarian trend.
Do you see anything on the horizon in Hungary that could possibly challenge that?
Yes, I do. I think that the Socialist Party of Attila Mesterhazy is competent. They have come back from horrendous scandals, and I think they were down in some polls—don’t quote me because I don’t remember—to 9%. Different polls show different things. They have moved up, but not enough. And then there’s the former prime minister, Mr. Bajnai, who will form a political party next week, and he appeals to center and even center-right voters, or tries to. On his own he cannot beat Orban either. The question is whether Mesterhazy and Bajnai will be able to get together, and at this time it’s just too early for me to tell.
You said that the EU could do something like suspending the cohesion fund deliveries. Is there any thing Washington could do at this point?
I think it would be useful for Washington to speak out at higher levels. Yesterday, for example, the press spokeswoman issued a three-sentence statement. It was very strong. It supported the EU’s concerns about next week’s vote concerning the fourth scheduled change in the constitution. It was helpful, and the Hungarian press agency did issue it — somewhat to my surprise because they have a near-monopoly now on Washington news. What else could the United States do? That’s a very difficult question. This is why most officials don’t even want to know much more, because there is so little that they could do. But I think they could support the EU on a higher level and, above all, try to persuade Chancellor Merkel to get off her ass and publicly criticize Orban. It is true that she made Orban wait for more than a year before seeing him, and it is true that Orban would like to come here and meet the president. I am told that he was turned down again last week, which is very important.
We could do lots of small things. We can send ambassadors there who are competent, which we have not done: different ambassadors who have open eyes and who don’t fall for “Hungarian charm.” There’s not that much the United States can do, but I am very encouraged by the president’s policy in the State of the Union to strengthen trans-Atlantic ties with a significant commercial deal that will have great significance, even for Hungary and for all the others.
I am floored by Poland’s unwillingness to go public in its criticism. Orban does not feel sufficiently isolated, and I would isolate the Hungarian government politically. I see no reason why it should be invited to any bilateral summit. But these are private hopes on my part, and they are not going to happen.
I want to ask you about the issue of minorities. Previously there had been some tensions with Slovakia and Romania. Will that play a significant role, as well as the issue of violence against Roma within Hungary?
As far as the neighboring countries and minorities are concerned, there’s relative calm now. A year ago they did some wild things in Romania, in Transylvania, which was really absurd. It’s not a big issue now, and politically of course Orban holds the cards, because few Americans understand the real significance of the Treaty of Trianon, after World War I, whereby Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory and population. We kind of laugh at it: “That was almost a century ago, what the hell?” This is wrong, because it’s a wound that continues to hurt, and to the extent that Orban can appeal to the sense of pain felt by most Hungarians about autonomy for ethnic Hungarians and so on he’s going to gain strength and validation. Orban does not want to understand that the EU is the answer to the question. FIDESZ is not going to change borders, but there are some in the party who do want to do this.
The Slovak relationship is reasonably good now. I think Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico found a way with Orban and calmed things down for the time being. But it can explode at any moment. Next year’s elections could be a problem, because ethnic Hungarians can vote, including in the United States. They’re sending somebody to New York with $15 million—$15 million!—for something called the Friends of Hungary Foundation. While they say this is all about strengthening “cultural affinity with the homeland,” that’s bullshit. They want to get their votes.
The diaspora, generally speaking, is more conservative?
Very conservative. Very nationalist, curiously enough. So they will vote for FIDESZ, or they will even vote for Jobbik. It’s a very small group that will not vote. I’m not even a Hungarian citizen, because I gave it up in the 1960s, so I can’t vote. I don’t know how many others are like that. Their secret hope is 200,000 votes, but I don’t think they’re going to get anything like it. But they are spending state funds to campaign in the United States.
In terms of the domestic situation, the Roma issue is huge. There are no easy solutions. But FIDESZ is exacerbating the problem. I wouldn’t know what the solution is, but certainly what they are doing is not right because they are not protecting the Roma. They don’t speak out. For example, they are allowing one of Orban’s closest friends, a founder of FIDESZ and columnist by the name of Zsolt Bayer, to call the Roma “animals” in a column. They did not condemn him for this, which is truly outrageous.
And you have a real issue of anti-Semitism, which is popular and widespread. I think there are problems with the methodology of the Anti-Defamation League, but among ten European countries in their 2012 survey, Hungary moved up to become the most anti-Semitic country in Europe. But more than that, the trend of anti-Semitic sentiment moved from 47% to 63%. American Jews are concerned, but they don’t know how to deal with Orban.
Are Hungarian Jews leaving as a result of this?
I don’t know if Jews are specifically leaving. Probably, because city folks and young people are leaving. They finish university, and reportedly 50% want to leave the country. We’re talking about a huge number.
This is the reason why the government is trying to prevent students from leaving if they have scholarships.
Precisely. They want to make scholarships contingent on a commitment to stay in Hungary.
Washington, DC, March 8, 2013