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Orbán Fires America
View of Buda Castle Quarter from the Danube riverbank

Orbán Fires America

Returning to the city of my birth after years of absence, I find a few things to praise, more to reproach.

Charles Gati

Budapest is as beautiful as ever. The inner city is for people who like to walk; most cars are kept away. Public transportation is fast and clean. Especially at night when they are lit up, the bridges that unite Pest with Buda offer a stunning view. Restaurants serving mainly tourists are full; their menus print Hungarian specialties in English, not in Russian. You can eat spicy gulyás and sweet palacsinta and taste a shot of fierce pálinka, but hamburgers are also available along with every conceivable American soft drink and beer. While the government courts Vladimir Putin’s Russia and attacks the West, notably the United States and the European Union, tourists from the West are in evidence. The country’s politics notwithstanding, witty Hungarians claim that Budapest is still a livable place. The only big problem, they add, is that it is surrounded by Hungary. Hearing this, the city’s liberal mayor, Gergely Karácsony of the ever shrinking and deeply divided opposition camp, flashes a big smile.

Washington finally sent a new ambassador to the country in September. David Pressman, the first career diplomat in three decades, presented his credentials to the country’s far-right president, Katalin Novák, in the company of his husband and their two adopted sons. Rumor has it that the president—a strong supporter of Hungary’s laws restricting marriage and child-rearing to a man and a woman—expected only the ambassador to show up, not his family, and so she was stunned. Pictures of the scene on Facebook the next day were the talk of Budapest, offering a bit of comic relief for the otherwise dispirited opponents of Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian regime. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Pressman is quite optimistic about what he can achieve, but—refreshingly—he knows where he is. Soon after he landed, he was subjected to vitriolic attacks by the government press. In Magyar Nemzet, the official daily, he was told to go home. Since then, he has been subjected to hurtful and vulgar denunciations practically every day. He must navigate between the necessity of maintaining at least cordial relations with a government that is still a member of NATO and the European Union, while responding to its anti-U.S. diatribes. Not an enviable task, for sure, but Pressman’s commitment to human rights and his reputation as a skilled diplomat offer hope that he might make a little difference.

The Association of Hungarian Jews has a businesslike relationship with the government. András Heisler, the association’s president, has managed to keep the Jewish community more or less together. It’s not easy, he says, reciting an old bon mot: Where you have two Jews, you have three arguments. He focuses on building a new hospital for his aging coreligionists and maintaining an old-age home, too. He is particularly proud of the Jewish-run school in Zugló, a Budapest suburb where students from grades one through twelve study in a comfortable environment. Oddly, even the school’s principal could only estimate the proportion of non-Jews who are enrolled there. She says that only about 50 percent of her pupils are “probably” Jewish, but since the school doesn’t ask questions about the students’ religious background she doesn’t really know. The school must follow the basic curriculum mandated by the government, but it manages to offer such a comprehensive program of education that both Catholic and Protestant parents are content to pay more in order to enroll their children there.

Of Hungary’s hundred thousand or so Jews—about 1 percent of the country’s population—most are not particularly religious; many of them are secular Jews who might go to a synagogue only on the High Holidays. The famous temple on Dohány Street (about a mile from where I grew up and where there is now a plaque honoring my father, who used to pray there) is the largest in Europe and the second-largest in the world. The synagogue, which had remained in a state of serious disrepair ever since the damage done to it during World War II, was finally rebuilt in its original glory a few years ago. It is also a place for concerts. Zsuzsa Koncz, Hungary’s Joan Baez, who is not Jewish, gave a free concert there in September that completely filled the huge, beautiful synagogue with Jews and non-Jews alike.

Even though Orbán has declared “zero tolerance” toward antisemitism, it is pervasive in Hungary—but not as ferocious today as in France or even the United States, for example. I asked five Jewish friends if they had experienced any physical or verbal abuse in recent years. Only one could remember an incident, which happened at a soccer match. Another man sitting behind him shouted “büdös zsidók” (stinky Jews) for no apparent reason at all. My friend asked him to stop it. Within a minute or two, the man did shut up—after he learned that both of them were rooting for the same team.

The streets tell a different story. One of my taxi drivers volunteered to deliver a long harangue about Jewish control over Hungary’s businesses and cultural life. The number one enemy of Orbán’s Hungary, the much-maligned boogeyman George Soros, is depicted on huge posters with an unusually large nose. He is attacked primarily for his “globalist” (i.e., “cosmopolitan”) outlook and his control over the U.S. government and European institutions. The slanderous campaign against him is but a latent appeal to Hungarian antisemites.

The really big dispute Jews and most historians have with the Orbán government has to do with the country’s history in the 20th century. The government and its acolytes insist that Nazi Germany alone was responsible for the death of some 550,000 Hungarian Jews (including about half of my family). The government of Miklós Horthy (1920–44) made “mistakes,” they claim, but many Hungarians did what they could to save Jewish lives. The disingenuousness of that position aside, what shocks the Jewish community is that some of the worst antisemites from the Horthy era, dead or alive, keep receiving high accolades and awards.

Seldom mentioned is that the first antisemitic laws in Europe in the aftermath of World War I, before Hitler’s rise, were passed in Horthy’s Hungary. In 1944, my aunts, uncles, and cousins were stuffed into wagons like animals heading to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen by the Hungarian gendarmerie and at the end of that year by thugs from the Hungarian Arrow Cross. As a little boy, I saw the Budapest ghetto guarded by Hungarian, not German, Nazis. Thus, upholding the “relative innocence” of Hungarians in the interwar period and during World War II is as inaccurate as it is repulsive.

The increasingly malicious campaign against imagined foreign enemies is intended to reinforce the myth that “real” Hungarians must fight for their survival against a sinful and corrupt West that is trying to deprive them of their independence and traditional values. Claims of victimhood in a hostile world fall on fertile soil. They are effective because an estimated 80 percent or more of the media—close to 100 percent outside Budapest—are both subsidized and controlled by the government. By clever design, some reflect Orbán’s views only 75 percent, others 100 percent, and still others 200 percent. Call it all “Hungarian diversity.”

America and American values are the main enemy these days. On this issue, Orbán personally leads the way. In speech after long speech, he describes the United States (when led by Democrats) as the source of all evils in the world. It is a domineering, imperialist country that has even managed to undermine the independence of the European Union. Incredibly, Orbán now blames the United States for Russian aggression against Ukraine. One of his longtime supporters stated on the country’s official TV that the United States blew up the Russian pipeline in the Baltic Sea and therefore the European Union should declare war on the United States. Other commentators have urged the Hungarian government to do likewise. Meanwhile, Orbán, who adores Trump and his acolytes, tweeted this: “I am sorry to see the political witch-hunt against a true American patriot and a good friend, Steve Bannon. Keep on fighting, Steve! The truth will prevail!”

In a speech delivered in Romania to ethnic Hungarians, Orbán lashed out against what he called the “post-West”—as opposed to the real West presently represented by the four Central European states, the so-called Visegrad 4: the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary. In his view, the “post-West”—the United States and Western Europe—has failed to deal at all with critical issues, migration among them. “Brussels, reinforced by Soros-affiliated troops,” he said, “simply wants to force migrants on us.” He contrasted the mixed-race world “in which Europeans are mixed together with those arriving from outside Europe” with “our world where people from within Europe mix with one another,” adding that “we are not a mixed race: we are simply a mixture of peoples living in our own European homeland.” This racist comment was also meant to justify Orbán’s frequent contention that Hungary must fight to save Christianity from its enemies in the “post-West” and from migrants.

While Orbán also claimed that all members of the Visegrad 4 share his views, in fact only Hungary is unwilling to support NATO’s efforts to help Ukraine. The new Slovak government is highly critical of Hungarian domestic and foreign policies. So is the Czech government. Poland often identifies with Hungary, but on the critical issue of our times—Russian aggression against Ukraine—it takes an openly hostile view of Hungary’s appeasement of Putin’s Russia. In short, the Visegrad 4 exists only on paper and in Orbán’s fertile mind. He seems to want to assure his listeners—and perhaps himself, too—that Hungary has good allies, that it is not alone.

As for the war itself, Orbán and his supporters are prepared to undermine Western support to Ukraine and circumvent EU sanctions in order to appease Putin’s Russia. Orbán makes it clear again and again that “this is not our war.” He does not allow weapons from the West to be delivered to Ukraine through Hungarian territory. While, oddly, his representatives to the European Union have voted for almost all of the sanctions against Russia, Orbán talks to his domestic audience as if he were a strong opponent of such sanctions because the sanctions do not destabilize Moscow. Official Hungary, imagining its role as a bridge between East and West, advocates “peace” in Ukraine—a peace that would authenticate Ukraine’s loss of a large part of its territory and that would require, as Orbán advocates, accepting Russia’s condition for it: denying NATO membership for Ukraine. He urges negotiations between Russia and the United States to arrive at a mutually acceptable deal, although, he adds, hope for peace rests with Trump, not Biden. In addition, as I write this, the Hungarian Parliament has yet to ratify Sweden’s and Finland’s applications to join NATO.

Orbán’s approach to the West became even more transparent in a closed-session speech to his followers this fall. As some information about the speech has since been leaked to a respected reporter from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, we know that Orbán predicted that “the war in Ukraine could drag on until 2030, with Ukraine losing up to a third to half of its territory.” The sanctions, he noted, hurt Europe rather than Russia. He promised his audience that he “would try to prevent the European Union from extending sanctions against Russia” this year.

Orbán went on to predict that the Visegrad 4 countries would become net contributors to the EU budget by 2030. At that time, Hungary should “reflect on the meaning of EU membership and what membership gives us under these circumstances.” Strange words from a man who in the 1990s was the vice president of the Liberal International and chairman of his country’s parliamentary committee on European integration.

Hungary’s international position is thus clearer in 2022 than before. Bluntly put, Orbán’s Hungary cannot be classified as a loyal member of NATO or the European Union, and it is no longer a reliable ally of the United States. Huxit, meaning the exit of Hungary from the EU, is now a possibility if or when Brussels’ financial aid dries up—despite the fact that some 75 to 80 percent of the country’s population continues to favor membership in the EU. Orbán’s refusal to offer as much as one word of disapproval of the state of democracy in Putin’s Russia shows the degree to which his government has become Moscow’s de facto voice in Western institutions.

Much has been written about Hungary’s “backsliding” democracy, notably the absence of the rule of law. It is useful to clarify that the domestic order resembles neither a functioning democracy nor a harsh dictatorship. The electoral law that is now part of the constitution so heavily favors Fidesz, Orbán’s party, that no other party or coalition of parties has a good chance to win a national election in the foreseeable future. A closely enforced system of economic rewards and punishments is applied to ensure compliance. As a last resort, tax authorities step in to investigate. Their latest target is the last pre-Fidesz prime minister, Gordon Bajnai, a wise, pro-Western political economist turned successful London-based businessman.

The domestic order can best be described as “goulash autocracy,” taking after János Kádár’s “goulash communism” in the 1970s and 1980s. The system compares favorably to Putin’s Russia or Erdoğan’s Turkey. There are no political prisoners in the country, at least not yet. Critics have a modicum of elbow room to retain a modicum of independence. The price they pay is a compromise; to survive, they bend but they try not to break. An example of this is the story of Népszava, by now the only independent national daily, a venerable social-democratic publication. According to industry sources, its publisher, in order to get government or government-approved advertisements, reached an understanding with the authorities to the effect that the paper will not run stories about corruption by some key officials closest to Orbán, or about certain aspects of his family’s life, or about his fortune (and where it is stashed away). Opinions vary about the wisdom of this informal pact, but Népszava is a brisk, brave, and informative paper offering highly critical reporting and tough, insightful editorials about Hungary’s domestic and foreign policies.

Elsewhere, however, there is widespread compliance with the government, including its handling of large contracts. These contracts go to Orbán loyalists who then return the favor by making financial contributions to Fidesz and its leaders. To get around the problem of corruption, the European Union is in the process of reviewing its generous grants, possibly making them directly to civic organizations and municipalities. If such changes are made, the central government would be deprived of parts of an estimated 3 percent of the country’s GDP that the EU now allows it to distribute. The resulting decentralization of the Hungarian economy would be a major blow to Orbán and his oligarchs. The European Parliament seems ready to adopt such a drastic change, but the Commission has been much too cautious over the years, seeking accommodation with the Hungarian government. The country’s expulsion from the European Union is not on the agenda, of course, because once you are a member your membership is, in fact, safe.

Sad to say, the domestic order Orbán has constructed is rather stable. While there are now frequent rallies about major budget cuts to the education and health services, he is still popular and the opposition is fragmented. He and the propaganda machine he has put together successfully blame everything on “sanctions,” “Brussels,” “Soros,” or “the United States.” It is unlikely that someone could soon emerge to take on the current establishment.

The most intriguing question, of course, is why Orbán is doing what he is doing. After all, at the beginning of his political career in 1989, he led a group of his followers to the Soviet embassy in Budapest to shout, “Ruszkik, haza!” (Russians, Go Home!). In 1991, he wanted to publish, and eventually he edited, the Hungarian translation of one of my books. The next year, while he was visiting New York, we watched the U.S. presidential campaign in my apartment together—and he was particularly taken by candidate Bill Clinton. In 1994, he asked me to accompany him to a campaign event in his hometown Felcsút; with no one else in the car, he drove too fast, ignoring my repeated requests to slow down, but he impressed me with his liberal, pro-Western views and his ambitions.

So why did he turn to the far right at home and against the West abroad?

First, Orbán has had a problem dealing with authority. As he tells it in a Hungarian-language interview still available on YouTube, his father was a large, domineering presence in his life. At the age of seventeen or eighteen, Viktor was still stopped by the front door by a father who demanded to know where he was going. He could not leave to have a beer with his friends without his father’s permission. Worse, if he resisted or left without permission, he was kicked and beaten up, encountering the brutal father’s notorious belt. Orbán relays in the interview that he developed mental-health problems at that time (in a vastly inflated diagnosis, he states that he became “schizophrenic”). What does appear to be true is that he did not and still does not like to be told what to say or do. Consider, too, that his father’s name was Győző (Victorious), the name also given to Orbán’s younger brother. In that family, stubborn determination to win by whatever means was an essential trait.

Second, by 1993 or so, Orbán began to sense that there was no space for him in the center or center-left of Hungarian politics; both the liberal Free Democrats and the Socialist Party attracted more support than his own then-liberal Fidesz party. On the center-right, however, he noticed that the once prominent Democratic Forum was rapidly fading, torn by infighting between its dominant conservative traditionalists and its far-right radicals. Gradually, over a decade or more, he thus shifted from his liberal stance to a conservative position, and then to the far right—because that is where the votes were.

Third, Orbán has been offended by the condescending attitude of politicians in Washington and the European Union. He has long complained about the patronizing style of Western politicians who claim to know better what is good for everyone. By contrast, Orbán has never complained about Putin or the Chinese leaders. There is no information about how Putin has treated him, but, as Péter Medgyessy, the left-of-center prime minister from 2002 to 2004, told me with a smile, “He had access to the fast lane.” On one of Medgyessy’s trips to Russia, Putin escorted him to the airport for his return flight. It is easy to imagine that Putin treated Orbán the same way, and equally hard to imagine a Western leader in Washington or Brussels driving Orbán to the airport.

Fourth, and probably least importantly, Orbán seems to have found an ideological outlook to justify his personal and political needs at some point in the 1990s. His search led him to the so-called village explorers, known abroad as the populist writers of the 1930s. Like the narodniks in 19th-century Russia, this movement upheld the miserable condition of Hungarian peasants and focused on the distinction between city and countryside, favoring the latter. As they opposed both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, the village explorers called themselves patriots, nationalists, or Hungarians, never democrats committed to pluralism or the rule of law. Their considerable appeal fell on fertile soil among educated elites in the countryside, not among the urban intelligentsia in Budapest. While Orbán is not known to have discussed publicly his appreciation of the village explorers’ mentality, his politics is but an application of their views under modern circumstances.

Given Hungary’s economic and financial condition, the European Union is best positioned to alter the Orbán government’s approach to graft, corruption, and a plethora of rule-of-law violations. As the EU threatens to cut its lavish grants during the current economic crisis, chances are Orbán would make some of the changes required to ensure continued EU funding—but then, as soon as Brussels looked away, he would try to wiggle out of his commitments and revert to present policies. His need to be completely in charge at home and to be famous or notorious abroad overrides all other considerations.

Charles Gati, after a long teaching career, is presently a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Eastern Europe