Hungary: Still Struggling Over Values

Speaking in Vienna, Hungary’s ambassador to the EU emphasises the country’s achievements in the crisis, putting through “reforms”. Yet criticism increases – a failure in communication?

Top Stories | Werner Reisinger | June 2013

All is not well in the state of Hungary: Anti-Semitism, paramilitary actions against Roma and Sinti, censorship of inconvenient artists and writers, a heavily disputed media law – Austria’s neighbour and important trading partner is facing heavy criticism under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (Fidesz). At their embassy in Vienna, Peter Györkos, Hungary’s ambassador to the EU, was trying to put a good face on it.

"There is now an unseen majority for the political family of conservatives," Györkos said in mid-May. "This empowers our government to enact their programme, primarily focussing on the fair allocation of austerity measures within the society, along with deep structural reforms."

When the Socialist government of Ferenc Gyurcsány was voted out in 2010 following a political corruption scandal, doors were open for Orbán’s "conservative revolution".

"Hungary was hit first by the severe crisis we are still facing today," said Györkos. "When the crisis hit us, there was no recipe, no strategy to work with." Backed by a two-thirds majority, Orbán repeatedly made changes to the constitution, appointed insiders to a new media board, weakened the supreme court, and introduced banking taxes – and at the same time attracted investors to the country’s weakened economy.

While Györkos claimed that "the structural reforms have already shown some positive results," unemployment figures are higher than ever. An estimated 500,000 Hungarians are unemployed and roughly 300,000 of them are forced to leave the country to seek work abroad.

The society is deeply divided into winners and losers. And whether the recent value-added tax hike to 27 per cent will have a positive effect is a subject of heated debate.

The reforms and changes to the constitution have visibly unsettled the European Commission along with fellow member states, and Brussels is threatening additional proceedings against Orban’s government for violation of the EU treaty. The issues include a recent ban of campaign advertising on private television networks, additional taxes on private assets to cover national expenses in case of sudden pressures on the budget, and new legislation enabling Tünde Handó (head of the newly founded National Judicial Office and married to Fidesz founding member József Szájer) to assign certain cases to certain courts. A decision is due by early June.

EU-ambassador Györkos’ raised a spirited defence of Hungary’s right to part from EU norms: "There is no common European legal foundation," he argued. "The situation in each of the 27 member states is different – so Hungary must be treated fairly." As to the advertising ban, he said "all parties are still given an equal opportunity to advertise on public broadcasting networks." Yet Györkos is optimistic that he and the Hungarian officials will "clear things up".

So is all of this really a problem of "miscommunication", as many Fidesz politicians claim?

The argument that Europe just doesn’t understand Hungary’s situation, however, doesn’t stand up to analysis. Already, Hungary shows all the elements of a society and a political system drifting towards authoritarianism. As observers like Roland Mischke have written in Le Monde diplomatique, the EU is perceived as a hostile foreign power putting pressure on the country from the outside; minorities and the political opposition along with intellectuals and artists are seen as enemies on the inside, while nationalist traditions and sentiments are fanned back to life. In addition, the media has been brought into line by a law enabling censorship by regulators like the NMHH, led by Orbán-intimate Annamária Szalai until her death in April.

To quote Mark Twain, history doesn’t repeat itself – but sometimes, it does rhyme.

As of November 2011, homelessness has been illegal in Hungary. Fines up to €500 await anyone who can’t afford a flat and is forced to live on the streets or in tent-settlements in the forest. Roma and Sinti, often living in slums in the countryside, are being forced into public work programmes. If they refuse, social benefits are revoked for up to two years.

Orbán is evidently trying a double-strategy: While condemning xenophobia and declaring to the outside world that "anti-Semitism has no place in Hungary", he is trying to appease the growing far-right by making concessions.

But how will things turn out in Hungary’s struggle with Europe’s values? Victor Orbáns’ plan of cosying up to anti-Semitic and ultra-nationalist Jobbik on the one hand and working to create jobs on the other [See "Central Europe’s Nationalist Paradox" by Martin Ehl, TVR, April 2013], is not likely to succeed in the long run, says Otmar Lahodynsky, European editor of the Austrian weekly profil, who chaired the discussion at the event. He expects Orbán’s Fidesz to lose its absolute majority at the 2014 elections. But if the opposition Socialists and others do not succeed and Fidesz manages to stay in power and hold to its political course, Hungarian diplomats like Peter Györkos will have their hands full satisfying EU demands.

At the end of the day, says renowned journalist Paul Lendvai, a scenario of Hungary leaving the EU is at least possible.

At the debate on 7 May, the "we do it our way" course that Hungary is currently on was acclaimed both by conservatives and right-wing sympathisers, who see Orbán as a figurehead for the fight against restrictive EU policies and centralisation of power in Brussels.

EU-ambassador Györkos agrees: "Hungary is indeed successfully handling the crises. How is it that nobody notices?"

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