Romania’s protests and Hungary: Interview with G. M. Tamás

February 9, 2017

Photo: Getty Images

As protests continue across Romania for the ninth day, the Hungarian leadership and media from across Hungary’s ideological spectrum are watching the country’s eastern neighbor closely.

Demonstrations broke out in Romania last Tuesday, when the government in Bucharest issued a decree that would have protected corrupt politicians. The decree – which the government withdrew under pressure on Sunday – would have exempted abuse-of-power offences involving sums below $48,000 from prosecution.

Hungarian media controlled by people close to the ruling party, as well as state-owned news agency MTI, are highlighting accusations that the Romanian protests are fueled by outside forces. Moreover, some media close to the Hungarian government are reporting that Romanian officials are “panicked” over Romania’s territorial integrity and Hungary’s strength as protests continue.

The Budapest Beacon asked Hungarian philosopher G. M. Tamás about the dynamics behind Romania’s protests and how he sees Hungary’s own struggle with corruption. Tamás, who was born in Cluj Napoca, Romania, was a dissident during the communist period and served as a member of the Hungarian parliament representing the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) until 1994. Over the past two decades, he has identified as a Marxist philosopher, authoring books on political philosophy and social theory. Tamás has taught at Columbia, Oxford, The New School, Chicago, Georgetown, Yale, and other academic institutions. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna, Austria.

Much of the international media is praising Romania’s large-scale anti-corruption protests as a triumph for democracy. Do you agree with this assessment?

I don’t agree at all. The corruption is, of course, endemic and immense, but the anti-corruption campaign driven by a part of the non-elected bureaucracy from the prosecutors to the secret services acts in an arbitrary manner. The proofs are frequently testimonies by witnesses who would become the accused if they didn’t cut a deal with the prosecutors. Extremely elastic regulations are used in the courts on the basis of which the whole population could sit in jail.

But this is nothing. The demonstrations are fueled by the contempt of the young liberal middle class for the poor who are regarded as the electorate of the governing party, the PSD, considered old and decrepit and barbarian.

Also there is the old conflict between town and country, between ‘advanced’ Transylvania and ‘primitive’ Moldova and Wallachia, and so on. At the same time the government is repellent and the President is a liar. This is not a triumph of democracy, it’s a triumph for class struggle from above and a fight between thieving, law-breaking and selfish political clans that don’t resemble anything as much as each other.

Hungary’s government is highly corrupt, and yet there have been no significant anti-corruption protests in the country. Why do you think Hungarians, unlike their Romanian neighbors, are not going out into the streets to oppose corruption?

For the very simple reason that Hungary’s government is not corrupt in the usual sense of the word. Hungary’s mightiest leading politicians are not being bribed by crime syndicates or by ‘financial interests’, but they would simply hand out state property to their close allies and to themselves – legally! – and would nationalize assets and then re-privatize them for themselves: this is the system of royal donations of the late Middle Ages where you couldn’t tell which is the property of the Crown and which is the King’s personal, private property.

In Hungary today, the clear dividing line between public and private assets does not exist. Proper thefts by politicians, which of course occur, are insignificant. This is naturally far worse than anything happening in Romania from a moral point of view, but political opinion simply cannot put the finger on it.

This has nothing to do with the pre-1989 legacy. So-called communist leaders controlled huge assets but their families could not inherit them, they weren’t transformed into regular private property, which is now increasingly the case in Hungary.

The sums mentioned in the Romanian corruption trials are ridiculously tiny in comparison to what is changing hands in Hungary, but legally! That is an enormous difference.

But never fear, there is a silent hatred against Mr. Orbán’s government never seen before. This might come to real trouble one day.

The new “NOlimpia” campaign to hold a referendum on Budapest’s bid for the 2024 Olympics has received much attention in Hungary as a grassroots anti-corruption movement. Do you believe “NOlimpia” is an effective method of opposing government corruption? Can the movement lead to real change?

Again, this has very little to do with corruption. But it has to do with something else, equally important, to wit, with the irresponsible squandering of state resources for propaganda – for what are international professional sports competitions, especially in the case of team sports, but nationalist propaganda? The Budapest Olympics should never happen, and the organizers of the referendum effort are right that they shouldn’t. But it’s a very modest and courteous attempt that is focusing exclusively on the high cost and the bother of the Olympic Games, and eluding a number of real political problems.

Hungary has struggled with corruption since its transition to democracy. Why is it so difficult for the country to overcome this challenge?

Hungary has not struggled with corruption, not so you’d notice. All governments used taxpayers’ money for their own selfish purposes until corruption was transformed into official policy – men of the political Right were buying state companies with state bank credits on which they would default and then their debt is forgiven or made to disappear, but this was cumbersome. Now they are getting all this as gifts. People who did not have a pot to piss in five years ago are now buying castles, palaces, yachts, mountain retreats and island refuges – all offerings of a grateful Hungarian nation.

How could the country overcome this ‘challenge’ (is it a challenge, really?) when this is the political system for which the majority of voters have declared their unflinching sympathy? This is not a secret. It is not that people like it – everyone can see that it is obscene – but it is not clear what’s happening.

The so-called liberal Left, while in office, was truly corrupt. But the Orbán regime does not steal, this is a mistake; it has conquered and occupied the state which is not any longer a public institution in the modern sense, but – like in many old robber monarchies – a legal right to plunder. Princes have levied special taxes when their offspring were married; the obligations of the subjects were not to an abstract state, but to a ruling family, but they were nevertheless legal obligations. This is the system in Hungary and, probably, it cannot disappear in a peaceful, orderly, parliamentary way. If you think about it, it’s pretty frightening.