Viktor Orbán intent on destroying Hungary's democratic institutional system says Péter Kreko of Political Capital

March 26, 2017

“Orbán is left with few options other than turning more pronouncedly towards the East and engaging more intensively in a populism that involves identifying and attacking enemies.” – Péter Kreko, Political Capital

Translation of interview with Political Capital director Péter Kreko entitled “The country left to itself, how far can Orbán go?” appearing in the March 19th, 2017 edition of 168ora.hu.

For a long time the Hungarian government has conducted a double communication: while at home it fights a war of independence on the level of rhetoric, in Brussels it signs agreements which it then criticizes at home.  It also tries to satisfy Washington’s expectations.  And yet we are marginalizing ourselves and dismantling our diplomatic relations.  Where is this isolation leading?  How far can Orbán go as the elder of a European Union member state?  We discussed these things with Péter Krekó of Political Capital who is a visiting lecturer at Indiana University, US.

You wrote: Hungary is extremely vulnerable to international processes.  And yet the prime minister, at least on a rhetorical level, has been conducting his freedom fights, evidently unsuccessfully.

Orbán likes to brag about what militant steps he took in the face of international constraints.  Meanwhile, the fact is that these steps have not increased but clearly decreased his room for maneuver internationally.

Even though it was clear that the militant talk covered a servile foreign policy.  For a long time Orbán has been conducting a double communication.  What he says is different at home than in Brussels or Washington?

Hungary’s foreign policy much rather satisfies the needs of great powers than its rhetoric suggests.  Fidesz, as a member of the European People’s Party faction, and Viktor Orbán as a member of the European Council systematically votes in favor of decisions [he] later criticizes at home.  The same can be said about the American connection.  While the anti-American rhetoric has sharpened in recent years, Hungary always acted in the manner of a reliable military ally.  The government did not hesitate for a minute when asked to send soldiers to fight against the Islamic State.  Although it received hardly any media attention, American soldiers are arriving to Hungary within the framework of a transatlantic military exercise.  Despite a cooling in German-Hungarian relations, German companies continue to feel very good in Hungary.

It’s just that it appears that suppleness does not help.  Hungary has become marginalized.  We can clearly see this in the fact that the Hungarian government did not attend the Munich conference on security policy, where, by the way, five hundred decision makers agreed among themselves without it.  Or do you see things differently?

In recent years Hungary has dismantled its bilateral relations.  Two years ago Angela Merkel was here, and a year ago David Cameron.  But beyond them western leaders visibly avoid Budapest and do not invite Orbán either.  The absence of bilateral relations may be the main reason for Hungary staying away from the Munich conference, apart from the fact that, according to mno.hu’s sources, the government did not want to sit on an “opposition” panel. The confrontative rhetoric and visible disregard for human rights has without any doubt poisoned its western relations even if, under the surface, the government is far more subtle.

For several years a series of experts at home and abroad were afraid that Europe had Orbanized, or that this style of extreme politics had become definitive and acceptable.  And then it did not come to be.  Do you think we need to once again be concerned that populist attitudes will strengthen in Europe?

Orbán’s extreme points of view have really started spilling over into mainstream politics.  But Orbán is not the main reason for this, of course.  The answers of populists are similar throughout Europe.  In Western Europe, however, Orbán’s politics are considered exemplary by extreme right-wing parties.  Meanwhile, in Holland and France more and more centrist parties are rightfully afraid of the strengthening of populists, and for this reason adopt some of the extreme right wing’s themes into their own rhetoric.  However, experience shows that in the long or even medium run this strategy does not work.  However, the fact that Europe’s extreme right wing considers Orbán an icon clearly does not improve his diplomatic receptivity on the part of the European center-right.

Might the warmer relationship with Russia and Putin serve as an escape route?

The Putin-Orbán meetings were really our highest level contacts in recent years.  This was the fourth occasion since 2014.  No other head of government within the European Union would meet with the Russian president so frequently.  Moreover, these meetings have no perceivable result from a public interest point of view.

Orbán, meanwhile, is getting deeper and deeper in the relationship.  Many believe the last meeting was a complete self-submission, no?

There was indeed spectacular unequal dominance.  It is piquant when a prime minister who has been going on about Hungary’s greatness and uniqueness allows himself to make statements to the effect that people need to know their place in the world.  Moreover, Orbán tried two years ago to organize the Putin meeting so as not to receive so much attention, but the last meeting was completely different in this regard.

Maybe he also undertook this openly because he could see that, in contrast to American presidents to date, Donald Trump can legitimize the contradictory relationship.

[Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter] Szijjártó even stated that the reason they did not conduct a pro-Russia policy was because this was criticized by Brussels and Washington, but that from this time on Washington cease doing so.   But we should not take poison over this.  We still do not know what American-Hungarian relations will be like, because the Trump administration is the most unpredictable to date in America.   And the signs to date are ambiguous at best.  The spokesman, for example, stresses that there will not be any substantive change.  But the new administration it seems wants to extract the 2 percent GDP contribution (from NATO member states-tran.), which requires that Hungary make painful sacrifices.

The same can be said about the Russia-American relationship as well.  Despite Trump’s opinion being known, it often seems as though the administration does not know what its point of view is on this question.  

There are many contradictory forces within the government.  Among Trump’s immediate advisors there are pro-Russian political actors of dubious background.  So far it has been revealed of seven direct colleagues and his son that they fostered relations with Russian diplomats.  Some of them have been “shot out” from next to the President, but within the administration there are those who cooperate more closely with the Russians and conclude economic agreements with them.  Meanwhile Vice-President Mike Pence or Defense Secretary James Mattis can be said to be following traditional lines.  They favor maintaining sanctions and protecting Ukraine, and regard NATO as important.  For now Trump’s role in the formation of foreign policy is limited.  That is not by chance: the foreign policy and news editorial elite of the Washington mainstream are continuously attacking the practically straitjacketed president to prevent him from conducting a pro-Russia policy.  On this they have have been rather successful.  For example, Trump is not changing the sanctions for now.

In any case it is interesting that the politician [Orbán] who started with the slogan  “Russians go home!” today conducts a pro-Russian policy.   In your opinion, how are his believers able to accept such a sharp change?

In Hungary political actors are virtually able to completely define the thoughts of the voters.  Obviously this is also true elsewhere, but with us greater emphasis is placed on political brainwashing.  Presently this works better on the right wing, which is not surprising given the media situation.  The public opinion polls also show that today Fidesz voters are the most pro-Russian, whereas in 2007 they were the most anti-Russian.  Orbán’s communication regarding Russians took a turn in 2009 when he met Putin in Saint Petersburg as chairman of Fidesz and potential (Hungarian) prime minister.  Ever since then he’s been hammering that the Russians are not our opponents, and moreover that we became friends in 2010.  By the way, the left-wing governments did not behave differently, and Ferenc Gyurcsány may stand closer to Putin than Orbán does in his support of the South Stream project.  A large part of MSZP supported the expansion of the Paks [nuclear power plant] by Russia as well.  For this reason it can happen that a number of surveys indicate that Hungarians like Putin more than Angela Merkel.  At the same time, Germany is popular, but judgement of Merkel in Hungary is defined exclusively by the refugee issue.

Besides, it is also special because such an about-face would be inconceivable in a Poland with similar democratic traditions whose political leadership is for the most part the same as Hungary’s.  Jarosław Kaczyński is not even pushing friendship with Russia.

In Poland the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact inflicted deep historical wounds.  A defining part of Polish national identity is opposition to the Soviet Union and then Russia (along with opposition to Germany).  Of course, in Hungary Russians twice put down freedom fights, once in 1849 and once in 1956.  But Hungarian nationalism is of a different nature.  From time to time anti-Western sentiment flares up and tendencies placing emphases on our eastern origins strengthens, such as Turanism and Eurasianism.  There is a bit of jealousy to Hungarian nationalism, as well as the “sour grapes” effect: we cannot be like them, and they do not accept us, and this creates an aversion.  This jealousy gives Orbán grounds for the Eastern opening, which is partially reactive politics.  The reason they criticize us from the West is because we are different, we are closer to the East.  We are a “half Asian people.”

Certain analysts believe that cannot be the only reason.  Part of the Hungarian people feel they received nothing from the West and from democracy, and for this reason became indifferent and even disillusioned.

From a public opinion survey conducted jointly by Political Capital, the Slovak Globsec, and the Czech Evropské Hodnoty, that in comparison to the Slovaks and the Czechs, the Hungarians wish to belong to the West the most, and that the ratio of those supporting the Eastern orientation is very small (6 percent, versus the 32 percent supporting the western one).   At the same time a very wide segment (48 percent) would position Hungary between the East and the West, so there is a strong “crossroads country mentality.”  It is also true that many are uncertain.  The West has lost much of its appeal over the past 10-15 years.

In any event, regardless of how much we identify with the West, the kind of mass demonstrations like those taking place in Poland and Romania are inconceivable here.  

There are many reasons for this.  The ability of the Hungarian left and liberals to mobilize people is meagre.  The main reason for this is that since 2006 it has yet to overcome the pangs of conscience caused by the (Socialist/Liberal) government’s mistakes and corrupt affairs.  And this is being exploited by the right wing.  The democratic deficit in Romania was more serious than ours.  There organizations of force were always weighty.  The Ceausescu regime was one of the most authoritarian within the socialist bloc.  In 1990 President Ion Iliescu had minders beat demonstrators for democracy.  After such precedents, the many hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators carries a greater significance. And the fact that the issue of corruption could become so important is also thanks to institution building.  Without the anti-corruption prosecutorial office, the topic would not have become a matter of public knowledge to such an extent. Furthermore, the institutional system does not differentiate between right- and left-wing corruption.  And in this way voters got the message that it is a national interest transcending parties that the EU and state money not disappear.  With appropriate institutions the Hungarians would also get this message.  But in our case what is happening is the deliberate dismantling of the laws and institutions that guarantee transparency.

Hungary is being squeezed to the periphery and will soon be left without acceptable allies.  Meanwhile at home populism is making greater and greater strides, and we are moving with large steps towards autocracy.  Can isolation accelerate this process as well?

Orbán is left with few options other than turning more pronouncedly towards the East and engaging more intensively in a populism that involves identifying and attacking enemies.  The manner in which Orbán spoke in parliament today with [Jobbik leader] Gábor Vona is symbolic.  Apart from practically calling him a homosexual, Orbán accused the right-wing leader of being too soft and of betraying “his values.”  So the problem is that Jobbik is no longer defaming Jews and Gypsies so much?  Fidesz was always a heterogeneous collector party maneuvering between the far right and the center right.  By now it is clear that Viktor Orbán is the party’s most extreme politician.  Meanwhile the economic indicators are not substantively improving, and we are laggards in the region.  We have achieved no successes in any technical political areas:  health care and education is in ruins.  So he has need of the rhetoric of war in order to cover up these serious problems.

Several years ago the Hungarian prime minister mentioned, among others, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who went even farther in destroying democratic institutions.  As the leader of a EU member state how far can Orbán go?

What is certain is that the expectations of the European Union do constrain Orbán on a certain level, primarily because we need the cohesion funds.  But this does not represent too serious of an obstacle.  The opposition media has been destroyed.  And now that this question is considered more or less solved, he is turning against civil society.  Then, in my opinion, he will try to bring higher education under more direct control.  He cannot incorporate the entire institution, but he will try to make that area as dependent on him as possible.  It can be said by way of summary that it is not possible to do everything, for example he cannot establish total control over civil organizations on the Russian model due to the EU regulations.  But there is room to go lower.  He could still destroy the existing democratic institutional system, and that is his intention.