Translation of interview with Hungarian sociologist István Hegedűs appearing in daily online index.hu on April 9th, 2017 under the title “In Orbán’s head CEU embodies everything against which one must fight.”
Regardless of the government’s various talking points concerning its reasons for cracking down on Central European University, the real question here is why Viktor Orbán decided to attack the university right now. There are very few people who have insight into the Prime Minister’s thought-process, but even then, they can only discuss it as outsiders because they are neither fans nor employees of the Prime Minister. We sat down to talk about this with sociologist István Hegedűs, Orbán’s former man-at-arms.
The 59-year-old sociologist is currently the chairman of the Hungarian Europe Society. He served as a Fidesz MP after Hungary’s first free elections (1990-1994), but left the party in 1994. Since then, he has kept busy teaching and publishing. His prime area of expertise is the study of political parties, media, and the European Union.
We’ve heard a variety of plausible explanations regarding the government’s problem with CEU. The attacks on CEU aren’t just targeted, they also appear to lead to pointless international confrontations. Why did the Prime Minister feel that now was the time to attack CEU?
The fight against real or imagined adversaries always played a very important role in Viktor Orbán’s mind. Similarly, a negative identity also plays a significant role in Fidesz’s own self-image. Orbán keeps track of who his enemies are, who has done him harm, and who he hates, just as he keeps track of those who – in his mind – have tried to destroy him. This group changes and expands, but Orbán will always treat the leftist European elite, the liberal intellectuals, and media as his own enemies. This worldview has been with him since 1993, which is when he believes everyone turned against him.
In other words, the aforementioned groups are responsible for his failures and lost elections?
Orbán is convinced of this and treats it as a fact — not as a possible interpretation of events. Psychologically, he always explained failures and defeats from this perspective. Pushing personal responsibility onto others: scapegoating, looking for enemies, and conspiracy theories. In the 1990s, Viktor Orbán and László Kövér would feed off each other in this respect and many in the party followed their ideological shift.
So, action must be taken against the enemies?
Yes, and often with brutal methods. It’s all permissible because these enemies — be they liberals, communists, and the media – never show restraint, therefore the logic is that Fidesz can do whatever it wants. Orbán went through this very unique learning process in the 1990s when he swiftly gave up on respecting the opinions of others. He eventually came to the conclusion that we must not be naive and that politics is a dirty and aggressive thing, and that any gesture suggesting otherwise is a sign of weakness. At most, he practices a lordly gesture, which is completely different because it does not recognize the autonomy of others.
Did Orbán’s group of enemies expand with the refugees and George Soros?
The hatred of refugees is a new thing for him. In the beginning, it seemed to be a tactic to increase his popularity. Orbán either knew the refugees would be coming, or he coincidentally started sounding the “migrant” alarm before they even started in this direction. Pragmatic decisions and mission-awareness do mix, but the two often converge in Orbán’s mind. After the “Habony media workshop,”or whoever, found a practical enemy in the refugees, Orbán and the party quickly started talking about saving Europe. Within months they themselves started to believe that every other refugee is a terrorist.
Is the CEU issue a political tactic, or is it rooted in real hatred?
CEU embodies the liberal subculture that Orbán turned against 20-25 years ago — intellectual thinking, or to use his fresh new language, the human rights gobbledygook. The university represents everyone he believes looked down on him and wanted to destroy him. He built up a right-wing party to challenge them and he won. Still, his old enemies are there, they write articles, they teach new intellectuals, and they tarnish his reputation abroad.
So, he needs to take a stand against them. But why so suddenly? Why now?
He has harbored ill-will toward them for a long time. The election of Donald Trump and strengthening euroscepticism made Orbán think that the time for this had come, and emboldened him in his belief that this new American administration would not care about what he is doing.
But US leadership wasn’t so open to these attacks.
Trump definitely doesn’t like Soros, but he likely does not have time to follow this scandal unfolding in Hungary. It’s also possible that news of what is happening doesn’t even reach Trump, but that the administration won’t let this attack on American interests pass without speaking up.
Returning to the international situation, if this also influenced the timing, since when has Orbán been preparing for the attack?
The open war against George Soros is somewhat fresh. It’s only been about two years since Orbán’s rhetoric depicted Soros as his archenemy. Until then, Orbán did not personally attack Soros. But since then, he has continuously talked about Soros’ foundation and Soros’ university. Last year, Orbán announced that 2017 would be the “Year of the Rebellion.” He said that nations and the world would rise up against Soros and the European elites. In reality, this only meant that Orbán himself would turn on Soros. It was a declaration of war.
So, CEU was a planned and targeted attack, not just some kind of issue meant to distract the public?
This is an important occupation of space. Orbán always wants a fight. He may clench his teeth sometimes and seem moderate, but he is a radical character and always feels as though he is on a battlefield or on the football pitch. If Sherlock Holmes can’t do detective work, he finds himself in an opium den. If Orbán has no political battles to win, he becomes bored. He once announced that a consolidation was coming, but that doesn’t matter. His restless nature simply doesn’t allow him to sit still. And he stands up when he is hit, just like a boxer.
But it’s not like he’s been hit lately. Still, he’s constantly in battle against the multinational corporations, foreign grocery store companies, the media, and even CEU.
It is important to point out that he did suffer a serious defeat even before the failed Olympics bid. Regardless of how they tried to spin it, Orbán knew that the anti-refugee referendum failed because voter turnout did not reach 50 percent. So he’s looking for scapegoats, and he’s found three: those in his party who failed to mobilize voters; Jobbik, because they kept their voters at home; and, still, the left-liberal civil society organizations, intellectuals, and media. So, Népszabadság was shut down one week after the referendum.
In other words, it was worthwhile to take these battles to them?
Liberals obstruct Orbán’s ideology from being executed in Hungary, and they also oppose the expanding of his vision throughout Europe. Today, George Soros has been made to embody this symbolic enemy. Orbán has learned from Recep Erdoğan — a man who mercilessly liquidated his own outside enemy. In Erdoğan’s case, we need only point to his attacks on the schools and network of Fethullah Gülen. Orbán felt the time was right to teach a lesson to CEU’s lecturers and the civil organisations supported by the Open Society Foundation.
Then came the attack which provoked unusually strong domestic and international protest.
And Orbán most certainly calculated with that, although he may have underestimated the strength of these protests. He must have believed that groups in Hungary’s domestic higher education would have turned against CEU out of jealousness because of the better opportunities and higher salaries offered by the university. But instead of softening or backing up, he responded with force.
Will these protests give him cause to reflect on the situation?
I don’t think so, but I don’t know. Orbán can wake up tomorrow and decide to take one step back after taking two steps forward. We can be certain about one thing though: all those who approached this situation from a purely realistic perspective were wrong. The issue here comes down to whether it is worth it for Orbán or not. For Orbán, the issue is why shouldn’t I attack CEU if no one can stop me? Why shouldn’t I call civil society organizations foreign agents? It’s worthwhile to do away with liberal naiveté. During the French Revolution, Danton trusted that Robespierre “would not dare” cut his head off — all the way until the final moment. The vehemence of the domestic and international protests over the attack on CEU seems to show there are no longer any illusions regarding the nature of the Orbán system.
This is a completely coherent explanation of this series of events, but there are other explanations, too. One suggests that Orbán is growing increasingly close to Vladimir Putin and Orbán seeks to please Putin by eliminating CEU, a university that sends dozens of liberal intellectuals back into the post-Soviet world. Is this also an explanation?
I don’t know the extent to which Putin is interested in CEU. I suppose 30-40 Russians graduate from CEU annually, compared to many thousands of students from Moscow and Saint Petersburg that study elsewhere in Western Europe and the United States. If Putin really wanted to work against the influence of liberal universities, he has no shortage of weapons in his arsenal to do so: travel permits, separate exams, naturalization hurdles, etc. My intention is not to understate the danger of the Orbán-Putin friendship, because the Hungarian government does absolutely nothing to work against Putin’s disinformation campaigns. In fact, Hungary’s pro-government media often runs Russian fake news. Orbán most certainly respects Putin because the Russian President has reached the most coveted goal: he alone decides what should happen. I’m not inclined to believe that Orbán is Putin’s puppet. Orbán’s not a puppet type. Orbán may think of himself as a genius geopolitical strategist, someone capable of carving out enough elbow room for himself between Moscow and Brussels for the purpose of extending what he’s developed in his own little laboratory in Hungary to other places in Europe.