At home he still plays the nationalist authoritarian, but abroad Hungarian Premier Victor Orban has been softening his diplomacy. Could protests and the EU’s grip on his highly indebted country be having an effect?
In the latest episode of a running tussle between Viktor Orban and the European Union, the EU hit back at Hungary’s prime minister on Friday. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, believes that "those who compare the European Union to the USSR show a complete lack of understanding of what democracy is," his spokesperson Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said.
It was a reaction to remarks the controversial Hungarian prime minister made on a national holiday last Thursday, a day that marks the start of the 1848 revolution, when Hungarians rose up against the supremacy of the Habsburg monarchy.
Just as it was true then, Orban exclaimed, it was true now that Hungary was "not a colony." He went on to compare EU diplomats to Soviet-era oppressors, and called international criticism and the EU’s latest threat to freeze funds next year "things dictated from abroad."
Orban the 'freedom fighter'
These remarks went down positively with the 200,000 supporters who had rallied outside the parliament building in Budapest, but much less so with the 100,000 protesters nearby. Adam Balazs from the Budapest Institute for a Democratic Alternative (IDEA) criticizes Orban for trying to "play the role of some kind of a freedom fighter." The institute is close to Hungary’s opposition party the Socialists.
Hungary is clearly very divided – the depth of extremist opinion became visible when a group of far-right extremists recently entered Budapest's Bank Center and raised the medieval Arpad flag.
No longer a model child
"But that does not mean there is utter chaos in this country," cautions Hans Kaiser. "That is definitely not the case." But even Kaiser, with six years of experience as head of the Budapest office of Germany's conservative Konrad Adenauer Foundation, has noticed that "the entire social and cultural situation has gone lop-sided." As far as the economy is concerned, he says, Hungary may well have been Europe's model child "but that's long since been over."
Observers in Brussels share this view. Hungary currently exceeds the budget limits laid out in the European Stability Pact. As a punishment, EU finance ministers agreed to freeze almost 500 million euros in funds due to be sent to Hungary next year, unless the government presents sustainable austerity measures by June.
But Orban is only partly responsible for Hungary’s catastrophic budgetary situation. The preceding Socialist governments piled up far more debt over a long period, what Kaiser calls "an absolutely disastrous legacy." Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany eventually had to admit to having cooked the books. Gyurcsany "basically lied through his teeth," Kaiser said.
The result was that Orban’s Fidesz party won a landslide victory in 2010 and has since been ruling with a comfortable two-thirds majority in parliament. The Socialists took a big blow, while the Liberals may soon fall into oblivion altogether. To the dismay of many, the far-right Jobbik party became the third largest group in parliament, after the Socialists, with 12 percent of the seats.
This makes for an explosive political constellation. Jobbik is "very dangerous," says Hans Kaiser, adding that there is "not really a functioning opposition in place." Adam Balazs agrees that "at the moment there is no leading figure" who could bring together the "patchwork" of opposition parties and movements.
For two years now, this means that Orban has had the freedom to do essentially whatever he wants. He has introduced well over 300 laws, "massively overburdening" his country, according to Kaiser. Among these is the internationally contested media law, which the Hungarian government had to dilute under pressure from Brussels.
Orban's changes have led the EU to launch several proceedings for breach of treaty against Hungary. His newly amended constitution is also causing much controversy for, amongst other things, dropping the "Republic" from the country's official name.
New communication strategy?
As far as the EU is concerned, Orban has an image problem. Kaiser believes this is largely because of "the underlying desire to carry the internal Hungarian conflict to the European stage." In other words, the opposition feels so helpless, says Kaiser, that politicians and parties travel abroad to look for support from friendly parties.
On top of this, the Hungarian government and the EU, according to Kaiser, also suffer from a mutual "inability to communicate," which has pushed Hungary into a "very bad and insecure situation" in Europe. This, he says, is the only way to explain the deep hostility between Orban and EU Commissioner Nellie Kroes. Balazs blames the Hungarian prime minister for this strife for casting "Europe as Hungary’s enemy."
Orban polishes his image
As much as Orban blows the nationalistic trumpet at home – his advisors seem to have understood that he has an image problem when communicating with politicians and journalists abroad. Lately, Orban has shown himself more open to criticism. "We can always talk about it," is his new phrase, along with, "We don’t want to worsen the conflict with the EU."
He no longer brushes off accusations in a condescending way, but is still unafraid to snipe back at his opponents. In a recent interview he said that, in contrast to the EU Commission, at least he and his government were elected by the people.
'Economic matters will determine Orban's fate'
But he has just had to take a major blow at home, with a radio station run by some of his opponents winning a crucial court trial. For now, at least, the state media authority cannot go ahead as planned and strip the station of its broadcasting frequency.
But at the end of the day, says Kaiser, it's not about the heavily criticized media laws or about Orban’s nationalistic remarks at all. "His fate will not be determined by strange symbolic politics," the analyst says, "but by whether or not he’ll manage to get the country back on its own two feet economically."
Author: Klaus Dahmann / nh
Editor: Ben Knight