Should We Really Be Surprised by Where Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is Heading?

Let me start with a story about a fox and a wolf. The wolf, tired of his usual pleasures (growling, howling, and, last but certainly not least, killing other animals), grew bored and blue. This made the fox concerned, lest the wolf’s state of mind was contagious. Therefore, he decided to cheer up the wolf. He suggested to go to the field and give the rabbit a good kicking. But this made the wolf even sadder: “Haven’t you understood anything?” he asked the fox. “It would be completely pointless and this is exactly the problem: the mindless violence. I have been engaged in it throughout my life”. The fox asked back: “So your problem is that one cannot beat up the rabbit unless he gives a reason for it?” The wolf answered in the affirmative upon which the fox went on: “Ok, then let’s go and find the rabbit. If he has a hat on we’ll say ‘Hey rabbit, you cannot walk in the neighborhood of our forest wearing that silly hat!’ and beat him up. If he has no hat on, we’ll say: ‘Hey, rabbit, are you so unafraid of death in the neighborhood of our forest that you dare to walk around without a hat?!’ and then we beat him up.” The wolf stood up with old glints of wickedness in his eyes and said: “That sounds like a superb idea!”

A rather similar dialogue might have taken place between Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and one of his willing auxiliaries János Lázár, Minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s Office, when they recently decided to attack their country’s civil society organizations (NGOs). First, they demanded of Norway that the Norwegian Civic Fund only supports NGOs through channels which are controlled by the Hungarian Government, in order to avoid the funding of anti-government initiatives. When Norway decisively rejected this demand, Orbán and his comrades commissioned KEHI, the Hungary’s national organization of auditing the use of public funds, to start an investigation of both the NGO that acted on behalf of the Norway Fund and administered the support (including the process of granting itself) and several beneficiary NGOs, wishing to prove the claim that the funds went to organizations critical of the Government’s policies (and, thus, were “misused”).[1]

Although it would take KEHI more than a month to come up with their report[2], a renewed effort was made on the morning of 8 September 2014 to exert pressure on Hungary’s civil society. Obviously prompted by Orbán himself, the National Police Authority sent a large number of policemen to several NGO offices, confiscating documents and computers. This time the accusations (“suspicions” made known to the public) were (and still are) unlawful funding of party-political activities, illegal banking, and embezzlement.

This episode is regarded by many as one of Orbán’s never ending “surprises”. True enough, with regard to surprises (unpredictability), there are some critical points that need to be stressed in relation to the Orbán regime: one is FIDESZ’s transition from a radical liberal to a Christian-nationalist and populist rightist position – uncompromising towards the middle and the left and quite porous towards the radical right which, in the present author’s opinion, had its cautious beginnings during the first FIDESZ government (1998–2002). The other pertains to the apparent surprises the second Orbán government had in store for the Hungarian society and the World: the far-reaching transformation it brought about within a short period of time in terms of introducing and cementing an authoritarian, rightist, Christian-nationalist regime.

In this short essay, I will address the latter issue only. I am suggesting that in many cases we have got what we should have expected, for it would be seriously misleading to depict and perceive the actions of Orbán and his government as some improvised, haphazard, surrealist deeds of Hungarian Politics’ Mr. Hyde.[3] This time, the wolf’s object of desire is not the vicious mischief itself, nor power for its own sake, as so many claim.

Viktor Orbán is a revolutionary and his is a revolution from above. He uses his totalitarian democracy[4] as a means to transform the political, cultural, and social order of Hungary.

Especially since losing government position in 2002, Orbán and his party FIDESZ have done little to conceal their low, scornful opinion about parliamentarianism. They decided to see and to project an image of Hungarian politics as a zero sum game, instead of a give-and-take process with active involvement of the government as well as its democratic opposition. In their discourse, they excluded their opponents from the nation claiming to be the only genuine representatives of Hungarians (with truly Hungarian instead of “Alien” hearts). They refused to concede the electoral defeat of 2002 declaring that “The Mother Country (Haza) cannot be in opposition!” They ignored parliament as long as it could not be used as their ready tool to oust the socialist-liberal coalition from government before the end of their term. When the electorate proved to be unpatriotic enough to grant their enemy another term in 2006, FIDESZ put even more emphasis on obstruction and provocation by, among other things, initiating referendums.

The year 2006 is also significant because it was the first time since the second half of the 1940s that a political party (similarly to the Communists of the coalitionary era, 1945-48) used the street in reaching out for power – the street which was also the preferred place to cooperate with the radical right (Jobbik, 64 Vármegye, etc.).

Since in government, Orbán has made a number of references, allusions and gestures from which the contours of an illiberal politician emerge – consider his regular ranting with the “neo-Spenglerian” thesis about the decline of the West, his claim that democracy, in its existing forms, is no longer capable of coping with the most important issues of society, his policy of “opening towards the East”, his excessively friendly and often repulsively subservient gestures towards social orders that systematically reject democratic principles as unfeasible under their circumstances (like the Chinese or the Russian) and/or towards authoritarian elites cultivating rampant ethnonationalism such as the one in Azerbaijan.

The speech of 27 July 2014 demonstrated a greater public in a less coveted language what should have been obvious about Orbán’s general political and ideological orientation for certainly more than half a decade.

What the second government under Orbán brought along is often described as a coup (Putsch) , referring to the unscrupulous exploitation of its absolute majority in parliament, and their regime of rule BY rather than OF law. It was claimed that FIDESZ had entered the election campaign in 2010 with a hidden agenda and only when elected with a 2/3 majority of seats in Parliament they revealed their true intentions: they rewrote the constitution, undermined the separation of powers, and in a number of ways demolished the bases of a democratic Rechtsstaat.

This is, of course, true to some extent. However, I do not think that we can blame Orbán for not having publicly revealed some of his most fundamental ideas for the future: A Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere – the Regime of National Cooperation. In this respect one of Orbán’s most important utterances prior to 2010 was, in my opinion, his speech of 5 September 2009, the so-called Kötcsei beszéd.[5]

In this speech, Orbán discussed the relationship betwen government and culture, from the point of view of the political ruler which he knew he was to become. Seeing culture not merely as high culture, but as a system of values he set the focus on what an “ideal government” should do, especially in relation to those elites whose role is not merely to articulate these values but also to exemplify and instantiate them by their own behavior. He states early on the principle of ethnonationalism: governing Hungary must be governing the community of Hungarians, i.e. not merely Magyarország but the hungarian land (magyar ország in separate words and with lower case m and o), meaning of course the land of magyars. The preservation and cultivation of this distinctive ethnocultural quality of the community is, he says, the foremost duty of their government. Alas, Orbán continued, this objective was not what had been pursued under the socialist-liberal governments, who represented values of cultures and powers alien to the land of magyars.

Thus, Orbán claimed, the whole pre-2010 era of post-socialism should be seen as an era of the dualistic field of force (duális erőtér) characterized by the thorough antagonism between the values promoted by the FIDESZ-led unified right (a polgári szövetség) and the values represented by the “neoliberal” pole of socialists and liberals (entirely alien to all true Magyars). This antagonistic dualism of the political field, in Orbán’s rendering, also disoriented the cultural elites and resulted in crisis and stagnation – which is why, Orbán argued, the Hungarian electorate was calling for not merely a change of government but for the replacement of the dualistic field of force with a central field of force (centrális erőtér) from where the liberal pole is squeezed out as it has proved to be thoroughly bankrupt. This central field of force will have to be asserted in the norms and criteria according to which the cultural elite will be selected.

Thus, the antagonistic tension and confusion in the prevalent values of society, characterizing the era of duális erőtér, will yield to a long-term stability and harmony between government and culture, both focusing on true national issues. As Orbán himself put it: “today it is realistically conceivable that in the coming fifteen-twenty years, Hungarian politics should be determined not by the dualistic field of force bringing with it never conclusive and divisive value debates, which quite unnecessarily generate social problems. Instead, a great governing party comes in place, a central field of force, which will be able to articulate the national issues and to stand for these policies as a natural course of things to be taken for granted without the constantly ongoing wrangling.”

Orbán presented the issue as a choice to his own party whether “We want to prolong the two-party system with the ongoing division as to values or we assert ourselves as a great governing party, a political force striving after permanent government [állandó kormányzásra törekvő politikai erő]” – and he made it clear he wanted to choose the latter. Such a government, Orbán was confident, would be able “to create and secure [for Hungary’s cultural elites] the necessary conditions for a calm and relaxed state of mind required for creativity, and all the necessary conditions for a nice, noble and distinguished life”.

This ‘beneficial’ effect of the central field of power has become recognizable in a number of professional, artistic, and academic fields. Those approximately 1000 journalists losing their jobs in the public media; the spectacular institutional restructuring of modern and contemporary historical research by establishing (under direct governmental control) a whole set of well-funded new research institutes and letting the ‘old regime’ institutes and university departments to whither due to lack of funding; all the directors and actors (no longer) working in major theaters and the opera; formerly leading institutions and personalities related to economic and social research whose services are no longer asked for; and, first of all, all the hundreds of thousands of voices that have been silenced by existential fear, could tell a story of what, in a language more blunt and straightforward than Mr. Orbán’s, has been a veritable and still ongoing process of Gleichschaltung.

His “field theory of power” makes it clear enough what Orbán’s revolution from above imposes on Hungarian society: one-party system instead of political pluralism; a hegemonic, even monopoly position of Christian ethnonationalism over intellectual and cultural life[6]; a highly regimented/disciplined society with stiff hierarchies and centralization instead of an open society wherein artistic and academic autonomies, freedom of thought, free expression of opinions, free cultivation of life-styles prevail. As Jacob Talmon put it, totalitarian democracy “is based upon the assumption of a sole and exclusive truth in politics. It may be called political Messianism in the sense that it postulates a preordained, harmonious and perfect scheme of things.”

After the recent local elections, there is nothing to prevent Viktor Orbán from completing his project of political, cultural and social transformation towards a Christian, ethnonationalist, and totalizing/dictatorial one party state and social order, disenfranchising the citizens and turning, by their reckless revisionism, Central and Southeastern Europe into a powder keg. Russia’s “imperial revivalism” creates a particularly potent and dangerous regional-international constellation for Hungarian developments.

Instead of funding them lavishly, the European Union could and should do more to prevent Hungary’s rulers from forcing their own country (and the rest of Europe) back to where it stood between 1933 and 1939.

 

György Péteri is Professor of Contemporary European History at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. From May to July 2014 he was a Visiting Fellow at the IWM. Some of the core ideas in this essay were first presented at the 44th annual convention of ASEEES (Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies) in New Orleans, at the round table Democracy in Crisis? Politics, Culture, and Intellectual Life in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, on 17 November 17 2012.

 


[1] In his latest famous political speech at Tusnádfürdő, Orbán said this about civil society in Hungary: “If I look at civil society in Hungary, those who are regularly visible publicly (and this has been brought up to the surface by the controversies around the Norway Fund), what I can see is that we’re dealing with salaried political activists here. In addition, these are political activists paid by foreigners. Activists paid by distinguishable foreign interests about whom it is hard to imagine that they consider their funding activity as an investment into society. It is much more reasonable to believe that they use this funding to exercise influence upon the Hungarian state at the given time and in the given issues. It is, therefore, of great importance for us, if we are to reorganize and replace the liberal state by our national state, to make it clear that these are not civil [organizations], that what we are confronted with are not civil [organizations], but paid political activists trying to assert foreign interests in Hungary.”

“A munkaalapú állam korszaka következik”, Viktor Orbán’s speech at the XXVth Bálványos Free Summer University and Student Camp, 26th July 2014, Tusnádfürdő, Romania. http://www.miniszterelnok.hu/beszed/a_munkaalapu_allam_korszaka_kovetkezik – accessed last time 15 October 2014

[2] KEHI’s report came only on 22 October. In it KEHI not only fails to prove that they had the right to initiate and conduct such an investigation but also fails to claim or prove anything even in the neighborhood of ‘criminal’ in the acitivities of the NGOs unlawfully molested.

[3] For one of the latest examples of the attitude which would express concerns but still give the benefit of doubt to Viktor Orbán, explaining that his utterances (among others in Tusnádfürdő, in July 2014) can be (mis)interpreted in a number of ways, see Cyrill Stieger’s “Tiefe Gräben in Ungarn: Die Versuchung der Macht” Neue Zürcher Zeitung (Mittwoch 15. Oktober 2014), http://www.nzz.ch/meinung/die-versuchung-der-macht-1.18403853 – accessed on 15 October 2014.

[4] Never since 1933 has the distinction of Jacob Talmon between liberal and totalitarian democracy been so topical as it is these days in Hungary (Jacob Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, London: Secker & Warburg, 1952).

[5] A rich summary of the speech can be found at Viktor Orbán’s own web-site, www.orbanviktor.hu, while the FIDESZ-friendly Nagyítás published a shortened and edited version of the text that was made accessible on the web at http://tdyweb.wbteam.com/Orban_Megorizni.htm (last accessed on 10 November 2012).

[6] The most recent development on the ‘front’ of artistic expression is that the Hungarian Academy of Arts (an institution created and lavishly funded by the Orbán regime to assert its power over various fields of arts) has established a Committee of Professorial Nominations, which means that having concentrated all public funds and a great deal of public infrastructure to be devoted to artistic activities in the hands of their Academy, Orbán’s government will enable them also to control professorial appointments relevant for art education at public institutions of higher education.

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    Akos Rona-Tas is professor at the Sociology Department of the University of California, San Diego and a research associate at Met@risk, INRA, Paris. He is the author of the books Plastic Money: Constructing Markets for Credit Cards in Eight Postcommunist Countries (with Alya Guseva, 2014) and Surprise of the Small Transformation: Demise of Communism and …
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  • Lew Rubinstein

    Lew Rubinstein lebt als Poet und Essayist in Moskau. Nach dem Studium der Philologie war er als Bibliothekar tätig. Seit Ende der 1960er-Jahre verfasst er poetische Arbeiten, seit 1974 serielle Textzyklen als so genannte Kartotheken. Zusammen mit Andrej Monastyrskij, Dimitrij A. Prigov und Vladimir Sorokin gilt er als wichtigster Vertreter des Moskauer Konzeptualismus. Print

  • Jacques Rupnik

    Geschichte und Politikwissenschaft, Paris
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  • Claudia Šabic

    Claudia Šabi? ist Politikwissenschaftlerin und Ethnologin. Seit 1998 ist sie Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin an der Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main. Print

  • Ranabir Samaddar

    Distinguished Chair in Migration and Forced Migration Studies, Calcutta Research Group
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  • Paul Sanders

    Paul Sanders is a historian and management scholar. He is a full-time professor at Reims Management School in Reims, France. He has published across the disciplines of history, international relations and leadership.   Print

  • Karl Schlögel

    Karl Schlögel war Professor für Osteuropäische Geschichte zuerst an der Universität Konstanz, dann an der Europa-Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder. Nach seiner Emeritierung arbeitet er an einer Archäologie des Kommunismus und einer Geschichte des Wolgaraumes. Zurzeit ist er City of Vienna/IFK Fellow am IFK in Wien.     Print

  • Thomas Schmid

    Thomas Schmid is the publisher of the WELT Group, Berlin. He worked for various newspapers, among them as editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. From 2006 to 2010 he was Editor-in-Chief of Die Welt.   Print

  • Margit Schratzenstaller

    Margit Schratzenstaller is senior researcher at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO) and is currently coordinating (together with Karl Aiginger and Stefan Ederer) ‘WWW for Europe’, a 4-year research project within the 7th Framework Program funded by the European Commission.   Print

  • Dieter Segert

    Dieter Segert ist Professor für Transformationsprozesse in Mittel-, Südost- und Osteuropa am Institut für Politikwissenschaft der Universität Wien. Seit September 2007 ist er Mitglied des Vorstandes des IDM Wien, seit Juni 2008 Mitglied der Leibniz-Sozietät der Wissenschaften zu Berlin.   Print

  • Victoriya Sereda

    Sociologie, Ivan-Franko-Universität, Lviv
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  • Michel Serres

    Michel Serres ist Philosoph und Mitglied der Académie Française.   Print

  • Anton Shekhovtsov

    Visiting Fellow, Ukraine in European Dialogue
    (January 2016 – December 2017)
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  • Marci Shore

    Associate Professor of History, Yale University
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  • Sławomir Sierakowski

    Director, Institute for Advanced Study, Warsaw; Founder, "Krytyka Polityczna" movement
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  • Sara Silverstein

    Ph.D. Candidate in Modern European and International History, Yale University
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  • Ondřej Slačálek

    Assistant Professor of Political Science, Charles University, Prague
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  • Aleksander Smolar

    Political Science, Paris
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  • Timothy Snyder

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Richard C. Levin Professor of History, Yale University
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  • George Soros

    George Soros is a pioneer of the hedge-fund industry, investor and philanthropist, he is the author of many books, including Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States: Essays (2012), The Soros Lectures: At the Central European University (2010), The Crash of 2008 and What it Means: The New Paradigm for Finance Markets (2009).   …
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  • Robert Spaemann

    Robert Spaemann ist Professor em. für Philosophie an der Universität München.   Print

  • Pawel Spiewak

    Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Philosophy, Warsaw University
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  • Wilfried Stadler

    Wilfried Stadler ist Unternehmensberater, Wirtschaftspublizist und Honorarprofessor an der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. Bis 2009 war er Vorstandsvorsitzender einer österreichischen Spezialbank für Unternehmensfinanzierung.   Print

  • Rudolf Stamm

    Rudolf Stamm war von 1975 bis 1988 Korrespondent der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung für Osteuropa und Österreich, anschließend bis 1999 für Italien, dann bis zu seiner Pensionierung 2002 für die USA mit Sitz in Washington D.C. Er starb 2010 in der Schweiz. 1985 erscheinen seine NZZ-Reportagen aus Osteuropa in dem Band Alltag und Tradition in Osteuropa. …
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  • Paul Starr

    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue / Ukraine in European Dialogue
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