Eörsi: All it took was a single spark

August 19, 2016

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“(I)t simply is not enough to blow horns around the world, declaring that Hungary does not have a democratic system. The most crucial challenge is to help people understand why having a democracy is important. The biggest changes to democratic institutions occurred when [those in power] discover loopholes through which money can be stolen. These loopholes were plugged with the system of checks and balances, courts, or the free press. That is to say that the people need to be convinced that these institutions are not important by themselves, but for prosaic reasons: to prevent those in power from stealing our money. That is precisely what is happening right now, and this is precisely why these institutions are being broken down.”

The following interview with Mátyás Eörsi was published in the August 18th, 2016 edition of Hungarian print weekly Figyelő (pg. 18-19).

Mátyás Eörsi was born in 1954. From 1990 to 2010, he served as an SZDSZ (Alliance of Free Democrats) MP in the National Assembly. He served as an undersecretary at Hungary’s foreign ministry under the Horn government, as the deputy chairman of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, and as the chairman of the parliament’s European integration committee. Between 2002 and 2009, he was the Liberal parliamentary group leader in the Council of Europe. After 2010 he consulted for several international organizations. He has been a member of Hungary’s Democratic Coalition opposition party since 2012.

Will you be critical of the Orbán government if you are elected secretary general of the Warsaw-based international organization, the Community of Democracies?

I have been critical of the Orbán government so far, why wouldn’t I be in the future? But whether I will do this in the name of the Community of Democracies is an entirely different question. If I am elected, I will have to represent the position of 28 countries, and, let’s be frank, the world isn’t made up of Hungary alone. The Community of Democracies deals with a range of issues that extend well beyond the flaws in one particular country.

You were nominated by the Hungarian government, something that elicited mixed responses. Your fellow Democratic Coalition party member, Tamás Bauer, wrote on Facebook that he believes people should not even engage in dialogue with Fidesz because the party is a practitioner of despotism. Is it worth it?

I respect the opinions of others, but I do think I have certain competencies when it comes to the field of democracy building, and I would even partner with the devil if it means I could accomplish more in this area. My critics should instead be concerned with whether I make any unprincipled compromises or whether I say anything that is not in line with the views I have espoused until now. If they see anything like that, they should not be afraid to speak out.

Did the Hungarian government ask for anything in return for your nomination?

When I visited Péter Szijjártó, I made it clear to him how I view the government, that I share the position of the Democratic Coalition, and that I will not be changing my opinion. Szijjártó said he is fine with that. If at any later point they try to say to me that they did me a favor, I will immediately make that public. The election will be next year and I need to campaign until then. Let me also say that a nomination by the Hungarian government is a prerequisite, but it is also serious ballast as well. I was not convinced that they would not want to hear about this or that they would try to stipulate conditions for my nomination. A very good friend of mine reproached me for this because, as he sees it,  while his friends are being locked up by the Turkish government, I am rubbing elbows with the Orbán government. All I can say to this is that it is worthwhile to try and do something to help Turkish or any other democracy within a given structure. Of course, one can also post things on Facebook that, if they are lucky, only 16 people will read.

Were you surprised by the strong criticisms from Hungary’s opposition?

I was counting on being criticized, and there were a few very rude accusations that also highlighted the kinds of problems we have on this side, too. I do not support what this government is doing, but we must admit that they have the support of a relative majority in this country. The real challenge is not who can make the most intense statements about this government.  It is in figuring out how to build the support of the majority. Someone on Facebook wrote that these guys are thieving scoundrels. My own views are not too far from this. According to a Medián poll, the majority of people also see things this way but they simply do not see an alternative. What I am trying to say is that we will accomplish nothing by being irate and short-tempered, we simply need to do more. This is what the parties are working on, but the people behind these parties, the members and activists, are becoming increasingly harsh in how they express their views.

What can the Community of Democracies do? Can it issue a few critical statements or threaten with sanctions?

I understand the veiled pessimism in the question, but this same doubt can be expressed towards the United Nation and the European Union. Indeed, politics is a kind of idle work.  It is very rare that an international organization sees a problem and proceeds to fix it to the delight of everyone. Believe me, criticism of Hungary’s democracy have made the Orbán government very uncomfortable. It is no coincidence that we have had some very serious meetings with the Venice Commission, the European Commission, and the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE). When they saw that a recommendation curtailed their style of politics, they fought back, but made gestures elsewhere. There are constant signals that Hungary is being closely followed. But the Community of Democracies is not the kind of organization that names and shames. The focus here is dialogue.

According to the organization’s website, one of its main activities is sharing the experiences of democracies in transition. But where are the success stories? Viktor Orbán recently made very critical statements concerning the exporting of democracy. He said it is impossible.

There are no success or failure stories. It does not work like a Hollywood movie, where at the end everyone rides a horse into the sunset. In Libya, for example, the international community only succeeded in preventing Gaddafi from shooting his own people with fighter jets. This is not the exporting of democracy. Today, Barack Obama says that his biggest failure is Libya, and I agree with that, but I think there is something else as well: Vladimir Putin. I worked out in Libya and the problem there was that the situation received very little attention and the country received very little support. Obviously, it is impossible to foist on them a different, more developed model of a democratic system, but more could have been done. Let’s just consider Ukraine where many people are trying to help make a functioning democracy out of a centralized government based on the Soviet model. Most of these people, who go to Ukraine from Brussels or Strasbourg, explain at various workshops what certain laws are supposed to look like. They then leave the workshops together and have a nice big dinner. We look at this situation differently. We do not necessarily look at the law per se, we look at political processes. Where are the obstacles to transition and political reform? For one project in Ukraine, we brought along two former prime ministers, Iveta Radičová and Ferenc Gyurcsány, to share their experiences how the implementation of reforms can be thwarted, who the main opponents can be, and what can be in the background. This is not exporting democracy, but it is a form of know-how that can be very educational. Obviously, every transition is different, but there are no shortage of similarities. If Viktor Orbán is ever ousted, I will invite him to one of these workshops because everyone’s experiences are interesting.

If we are already on the subject, what kind of condition is Hungary’s democracy in? Is the situation salvageable? Political scientist András Bozóki says Hungary is somewhere between a democracy and a dictatorship. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit, we are tied with the Philippines, ranked 54 out of 167.

I think that, in broad brushstrokes, you have a democracy when the people can chase away a government if they are fed up with it. Hungary is still in this situation, but many things are happening in the media, campaign finance, and economic hinterland which serve to move Hungary out of this situation. Unfortunately, it simply is not enough to blow horns around the world, declaring that Hungary does not have a democratic system. The most crucial challenge is to help people understand why having a democracy is important. The biggest changes to democratic institutions occurred when [those in power] discover loopholes through which money can be stolen. These loopholes were plugged with the system of checks and balances, courts, or the free press. That is to say that the people need to be convinced that these institutions are not important by themselves, but for prosaic reasons: to prevent those in power from stealing our money. That is precisely what is happening right now, and this is precisely why these institutions are being broken down.

But the Hungarian prime minister may have been on to something. According to the World Values Survey, there is a decreasing number of those in the developed world who find it fundamentally important that they live in a democracy. For example, 70 percent of Americans felt like this in the 1930s. By the 1980s, this number fell to 30 percent. Similarly, there is an increasing number of leaders around the world who rule with an iron fist or who are proponents of military rule. Has democracy become a thing of the past?

Many of these people have lived in democracies for decades and have become as used to it as oxygen. Do you know where respect for democracy is strongest in the European Union? In the Baltic states, where they live in the shadow of Russian aggression.  In Taiwan, democracy defines the identity to the nation next to China. Democracy is nothing more than an education process, and we are often quick to forget that. I think we will remember back to this current period as we did when we remembered why it is important to have a Constitutional Court or why it is important to have an independent press. Believe me, this current period will be useful for many reasons.

In other words, this is only a transition period, and sooner or later we will return to that path of democracy? Isn’t it believing in an illusion to suggest that Hungarian society will learn from this? What we are seeing is a disillusionment with politics.

People do not trust that change is possible. But this is a problem with perspective. Do you remember Mohamed Bouazizi? He was a simple street vendor in Tunisia, where the world’s most capable intelligence services and embassies constantly read the feel of the people to determine whether there is any chance for change. This is a stable dictatorship, they reported home. Then, when a simple street vendor was not received by a local mayor, the street vendor became so outraged that he poured gasoline on himself and lit himself on fire. The Ben Ali regime proceeded to collapse within one month, and then two other regimes collapsed in surrounding countries shortly thereafter. All it took was a single spark for the perception of a stable system to topple like a house of cards.