Hungary's democracy is in danger says Géza Jeszenszky

April 16, 2017

Translation of interview with former Hungarian diplomat Géza Jeszenszky published in the April 13th, 2017 edition of Hungarian print weekly hvg under the title “Democracy in danger” (pp.12-14).

Putin’s hand may be in the destruction of Central European University, opines Géza Jeszenszky, former foreign minister, who talks about his own confusion, the hinterland abandoning Fidesz and how the street protests are saving the country’s international prestige.

CEU was formed in Budapest at the time of the Antall government [1990-93] but you weren’t all that enthusiastic about it back then.  Why did you accept it anyway?

Because [founder] George Soros supported the Hungarian intelligentsia in the 1980s and obtained undying merits in preparing the system change.  And still it was not out of gratitude that we supported CEU, but because the government was certain that it would be good for the international reputation and university life of the country.  Also influencing the decision may have been that, if the bad boy of Prague, Václav Klaus, does not need the university, then we welcome it with open arms.  Of course we knew George Soros did not like us and would rather see the SZDSZ [Alliance of Free Democrats] in government, and we were also aware that the university would not be the home of conservative values.  But we were not afraid of contrary opinion, since that is the point of parliamentarianism.  In fact, a strong opposition is part of a strong government!

What do you think now about making it impossible for the university [to continue operating]?

They say old people don’t learn anything, and I still think there is a need for CEU just like I did a quarter of a century ago.  It is not true that it operates unlawfully.  If there are administrative deficiencies, they can be redressed.  Nor is it true that liberals he [Soros] works with study and teach at CEU, if we consider this to be negative.  Government spokesman Zoltán Kovács graduated there. And one of [Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán’s economic advisors, László Csaba, teaches there, who was the third editor of our book with János Mártonyi.  The closure of CEU would do enormous damage to the country’s prestige and would reinforce accusations made against the government.  Furthermore, economically it would be a bad decision in that CEU brings a large number of students, teachers and researchers here who spend their income and scholarships here.

As former foreign minister and then ambassador to Washington, how much do you see this matter affecting the American-Hungarian relationship?

We know that President Trump does not have a good opinion of George Soros.  But he is not an ideologue like Orbán, but a practical man, one who became popular with the slogan “Make American Great.”  Probably he will not take it well that a small country harms America’s interests, even though Hungary’s most selfish interests dictate that we be on good terms with the world’s leading military and economic power.

The government thinks everything depends on whether America is willing to sign a contract with Hungary.

I don’t think it likely that, in the current situation, given the current mood, that an international contract between the two countries guaranteeing CEU’s existence is likely to come about.  On the one hand, the Hungarian party does not really want this, to be frank, and on the other the American federal government needs Senate approval for every international contract, which is extremely difficult to obtain.

Do you have any idea what the objective of the Orbán government is in making it impossible for CEU to operate?

Orbán probably feels that his opponents are trained at CEU.  But Putin can also feel this way as many Russian and other students coming from former Soviet states study at the university, who become opponents of the system whether they return home or remain abroad.  So probably pressure from Putin also plays a role in this. But I do not think that this by itself would be enough. Anyway, it is possible to chase away the university, but it is naive to think that it is possible to close Hungarian public opinion off from the ideas that exist there, as they are not created by CEU but by the world.  It is ridiculous to think today that in the age of the internet it is possible to stifle free thought in the middle of Europe and cut Hungary off from the world.  Even [Hungarian communist leader 1956-88] Kádár didn’t manage to do that.

Why doesn’t Trump make any gestures towards Orbán?  What could [Hungarian Ambassador to the United StatesRéka Szemerkényi have spoiled who, word is, was recalled from Washington for failing to inadequately serve in America over the CEU matter?

I think there’s more to it than that.  Primarily she could not sell to the new American foreign ministry that the politics of the Hungarian government are good. But that didn’t depend on her. Even though the Hungarian prime minister supported Donald Trump before a very doubtful election, in politics there is no gratitude. Trump will not pay anything in exchange. From America’s point of view, and for geopolitical reasons, Romania, the Czech Republic and Poland are much more important than we are.

No problem, there is Russia to take its place as our partner!

I am not viscerally against Russia.  Moscow is an important economic partner, although Orbán’s current politics renders us dependent.  Paks II would be built from Russian loans with Russian technology, and operate with Russian fissionable materials as well.  And the Russians are to take care of the spent fuel rods. Moreover, it is very expensive.  In the long run renewable energy will be cheaper than nuclear energy.  Anyway, an unsuccessful country without infrastructure, whose citizens are poor, and which is demographically threatened, and where corruption is even greater than in Hungary, cannot be a sample for Hungary to follow.  It is also worthwhile considering why the transatlantic policies work better in other post-communist states than in our case.

For sure Orbán considered this and concluded that this is not working for us, so let’s head East!

One American university removed a picture of Shakespeare and hung a photograph of a lesbian, colored female author in its place.  It is possible to list absurd and harmful phenomena similar to this but the scales still tip very much in favor of the West.  Moreover, the West is capable of correcting mistakes.  The capitalism condemned by Marx or Madách transformed into a social market economy after the Second World War, which continues to work to this day despite every crisis. There is no alternative to the Atlantic politicization for Hungarian foreign policy.  What has the Eastern opening brought?  Nothing!

We have a long tradition of beating two powers, not to mention the golden age of Transylvania.

Whoever says this forgets that Bethlen’s successors were not able to accomplish what he did. At the end of that beating, the Turks completely destroyed Transylvania, which to this day has ethnic consequences. The fate of Denmark, Belgium and Norway in the Second World War shows that neutrality is worth nothing in the face of an aggressive power.  At the same time Orbán’s anti-Brussels diatribes like the current billboard campaign are created for domestic effect.  There is no question of leaving the EU or NATO.

Aren’t you considered a traitor for openly criticizing the government?

I regret the most the fact that I have gone from being an ambassador of the Orbán government to Washington and Oslo to being a critic.  But I’m not the one who changed.  The government became less and less acceptable.  As you know, the unnecessary conflict over the Norwegian Fund was what brought me home from Oslo in 2015.

Not long afterwards you said in an interview that democracy is not under threat here, and that the country’s prestige can be restored.  Has your opinion changed since then?

I have not had any new experiences since returning from Norway, and I had hoped that after the 2014 electoral victory a consolidation would begin.  I was mistaken.  The government continues to engage in pointless conflicts. The growing friendship with Russia and the attacks on press freedom has caused me to see that democracy is in danger.  There is no government that cannot be defeated.  With regard to prestige, the CEU affair creates two images of Hungary.  So far we’ve spoken about the negative  but there is the image of the demonstrations as well, which shows that the people of the country want to live in democracy and freedom.

Does that mean that “if elections were held this Sunday” you would not vote for Fidesz?

Elections are secret.  I could answer your question but it would only be gratuitous.  In reality, I could not say who I would vote for. I see this uncertainty in my own family and my own environment as well.  It seems the government is being abandoned by its intellectual hinterland.  It’s enough to consider the statements of (former) President Sólyom, the Eötvös József Group or the Professor Battyány Circle.  Perhaps this cannot be seen directly in terms of party support but rather in the quality of governance.  I presume that as Fidesz loses this layer of intellectuals it will want to replace them with those who have abandoned Jobbik, which has been moving to the center. Returning to the question, for sure it would not be good for the country if Fidesz were to once again obtain a two-thirds majority.   Nor would it be good if it could form a government without a real coalition partner.  A sober, hopeful center-right coalition partner could restrain Fidesz from taking certain steps, like closing CEU.