US foreign policy expert Charles Gati believes that popular support among Hungarian voters for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is far weaker than his two-thirds parliamentary majority suggests, and that his government could be vulnerable if the “EU takes up the issue of corruption more seriously than it has in the past”. Referring to the temporary suspension of certain Hungarian officials from travelling to the United States, Gati said “the government doesn’t have a two-thirds majority to steal, or to take 5% on foreign investments”. He believes there is a strong possibility that “the travel ban is just the beginning”.
Charles Gati went to the US in 1956 as a political refugee after the Soviet Union invaded Hungary. After earning a PhD at Indiana University he taught at Columbia University for 15 years before moving to Washington, DC to work for the US State Department under the Clinton administration. He is currently a scholar in residence at the John Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies.
Benjamin Novak: How has Hungary’s relationship with the US evolved since the regime change of 1989?
Charles Gati: In the 1990s there was a great deal of excitement and widely held belief that Hungary’s future was with the West. One of my main tasks at the US State Department was the promotion of NATO enlargement. I look back on it with great pride that it finally succeeded. It was not so easy. There was a lot of opposition from the (US and Western European) bureaucracy. But President Clinton and others overcame the problems.
According to Gati relations with Hungary began to sour in 2001 when the first Orbán government failed to distance itself from radical right-wing MP Istvan Csurka, whose party, the Hungarian Justice and Life Party, was part of the governing coalition, after Csurka celebrated the 9/11 attacks on the United States. “The US expected a more sympathetic response from Hungary’s prime minister and that never happened,” Gati said.
According to Gati the socialist-liberal governments of Peter Medgyessy (2002-2004), Ferenc Gyurcsány (2004-2009) and Gordon Bajnai (2009-2010) had “reasonably good relations” with the United States thanks in no small part to the efforts of Hungary’s talented ambassador to the US, András Simonyi. “He promoted the Hungarian cause in Washington like nobody else,” Gati said.
Benjamin Novak: There are concerns whether Hungary shares the same values as the US and the European Union. How does what is happening currently in Hungary look to an American?
Charles Gati: Some speculate that every 25 years or so there is a substantial change in the orientation of some countries, including the US, alternating between liberal and conservative. Maybe so. But in the case of Hungary the current govenrment is promoting values that are not pro-Western. The policy of the Eastern Wind (Keleti Szél) for example: holding up the example of illiberal regimes, notably Turkey and Russia, China. I would say that there must be a deep sense of disappointment in political democracy of the Western type in the Hungarian countryside, and I think Mr. Orbán masterfully exploits these sentiments.
Gati points out that the Hungarian people and Hungarian culture command “enormous respect” in the United States and Western Europe, and that foreign criticism is directly solely at the current government. “Hungarians are seen as gifted, talented but on occasion their politics get in the way of the promotion of Hungarian interests,” according to Gati.
Benjamin Novak: Where do you see this going?
Charles Gati: Well, at its worst, it could lead to Hungary’s isolation from the West and the reorientation of its foreign policy towards the East, but that is the worst possibility that I can envisage. The other possibility is a gradual adjustment under, I admit, some pressure to a certain fundamental reality, which is that since Saint Stephen more than a thousand years ago, Hungary has attempted, and now successfully after 1989, to belong to the West. I think this is a deeply held view despite friction, despite disappointment, despite the West not living up to Hungary’s expectations. Nonetheless, I think Hungary’s place is in the West. I think under economic pressure in particular that Hungary will gradually return to the path that József Antall, the first prime minister after 1989, so clearly outlined and so clearly identified with.
Gati does not think the United States or the EU will ever have cause to isolate Hungary diplomatically and economically as in the case of Russia. However, he points out that Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” speech was “harmful to him” because “he validated those like myself who called Hungary an ‘illiberal democracy’ back in 2011”.
Benjamin Novak: Where do you see Hungary going in terms of its relationship with NATO?
Gati: I think the government rather skillfully makes a contribution to some of NATO’s missions, whether it’s Afghanistan or sending 100 troops to the Baltics as reassurance against the possibility of Russian action. NATO is a political organization more than a military one. I think militarily Hungary is satisfactory. Does not deserve an “F”. Does not deserve an “A” either because its military budget is shamefully minimal. Although there are promises that starting in 2016 it will raise military spending to the level stipulated by NATO.
Gati points out that, unlike NATO, the European Union’s decisions are based on consensus. He further points out that the EU has rules about corruption just as it does about investment and property ownership. “I would not rule out the possibility that some of this new information about corruption in Hungary will interest the EU as well.”
Gati challenges the government’s claim to represent two-thirds of Hungarian voters.
The regime is not nearly as solid as its promoters believe it to be. The constant emphasis on the “two-thirds” in itself suggests to me how weak it is because the justification for the explanation for the very radical substantial changes is constantly explained by the “two-thirds” as though it was a kind of religion. But in point of fact I believe support for the government is far weaker than that.
Gati knew of no previous instances when EU officials were banned from travelling to the United States for reasons having to do with corruption.