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Europe

Orban tightens the reins as he smiles to the world

Hungary is set to take over the EU presidency on January 1. In an interview with DW, journalist Paul Lendvai criticizes Prime Minister Viktor Orban for throwing around the weight of his two-thirds majority.

Orban stands in front of a bank of photographers

Orban satsfies Hungarians' desire for a strong man, Lendvai says

In January 1, 2011, Hungary is to take over the EU's six-month rotating presidency, throwing into the spotlight a country of just under 10 million people. A center-right government holds a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament, which is grappling with the fallout of the 2007 financial crisis, which hit the country hard. Austrian journalist Paul Lendvai is editor-in-chief of the Vienna-based German-language publication Die Europaeische Rundschau. He splits his time between Vienna and Budapest, where he was born.

Deutsche Welle: You've titled your latest book about Hungary "Mein verspieltes Land" (My squandered country). What does this mean? Is Hungary not a fully developed country, or do Hungarians have a penchant for political games?

Paul Lendvai: I believe it's more the latter. The title is ambiguous and equivocal. But without a doubt it was my aim to show in this book that over the past 20 years Hungary has often squandered the opportunities that came with the fall of communism in 1989.

Hungary was of course one of the first countries in the eastern bloc to free itself of the chains of communism - and without revolutionary upheaval. After that, there was a series of shifts in government between left- and right-of-center parties, bringing abrupt political changes. Hungary has been a member of NATO since 1999 and a member of the European Union since 2004. How European do Hungarians feel at this point?

Unfortunately, renationalization is a stronger trend right now in Hungary than Europeanization. What do I mean by that? I mean that European states, especially the 27 in the EU, have more or less overcome their differences and are trying to create a common market, common values and a common future - and look together towards the future. That's where Hungary faces problems. Some of those problems are rooted in the country's history, some in its geography and some in the bankruptcy or impotency of the country's political elite, the political classes.

Viktor Orban was previously prime minister between 1998 and 2002. Now he's back in power. He's staunchly conservative, and many have even said he's a nationalist. What's his agenda?

No one knows, because, while Orban's party has regained power, it has no consistent economic strategy. The government moves from one course of action to the next. They already have made grave errors in their first 100 days in power, for instance by comparing Hungary's condition with Greece's. The government is putting the nation and the Church first, rather than civil liberties. This type of politics creates tension with neighboring countries, with Romania and especially with Slovakia. Relations with Serbia are also somewhat tense.

Part of Orban's agenda is also about getting ethnic Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin involved in a common policy. The introduction of dual citizenship is part of this agenda, and after Hungary's EU presidency, Orban will probably give the vote to ethnic Hungarians outside of Hungary.

Orban's tax policies benefit the upper middle class. His politics are aimed against the globalization of foreign capital, but he maintains at the same time a good relationship with local oligarchs. It's actually a very left-populist rhetoric, but at the same time the government is nationalist. These contradictions probably work as long as one can blame everything on the mistakes and failures of the earlier, socialist-liberal government.

At present a majority of Hungarians support Viktor Orban, this strong man. There's a longing for a strong man, and the whole media landscape is being reformed. Imagine a situation in which all public broadcasters are rolled into one government media authority, with a board of directors filled by the ruling party - and that for the next nine years. In Hungary there's fear, and two liberal newspapers, one literary newspaper and another weekly for young readers printed editions with blank title pages in protest. Their intention was to demonstrate the threat of censorship - or the threat of media regulation.

You say that Orban is throwing his weight around. How do his politics fit with the EU and with the EU presidency? Aren't there huge contradictions there? You can't have nationalist politics on the one hand and make European compromises on the other, can you?

I believe that Hungary will resolve that issue in these six months. Orban wants to make a good impression. He is friendly toward Angela Merkel and Silvio Berlusconi, and he was recently in Moscow to improve relations there. I believe there will be a tightening of the reins at home, an absolute concentration of judicial, political and media power. In its foreign relations Orban's government strikes a friendly, open tone. He has a foreign minister who speaks excellent French, English and German. He himself speaks English and was previously prime minister. I don't believe that one can expect major initiatives, but they will do all they can to ensure that all of the conferences and events come off elegantly and in style. I can say one thing: Unlike the Czech Republic, where the government fell during the EU presidency, Hungary doesn't face that danger. The government in Hungary has a two-thirds majority in parliament. And when it comes to the major issues, the government has the support of the extreme right opposition party Jobbik.

Interview: Bernd Riegert (dl)
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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