Regime Change in Hungary

There's something about white horses and strong leaders. A nation is in crisis, and no one knows what to do. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, a man appears astride a white horse. He takes the reins of the nation, just as he controls his horse, and leads the country to the promised land. The myth of the "man on the white horse," which stretches from the Book of Revelations to the latest Lone Ranger movie, has had a profound influence on Western culture.

Most leaders associated with white horses -- George Washington, for instance, or Napoleon -- never actually rode them. But Admiral Miklos Horthy, the famous authoritarian leader of Hungary, made a point of riding his white horse at the head of the army that swept through Hungary in 1919 until it finally entered Budapest and put an end to the country's brief experiment with a Soviet government. After presiding over a counter-revolutionary White Terror, Horthy established what has been called a "directed democracy" that grew less and less democratic as it moved closer to the Axis powers and policies supporting the Holocaust.

Horthy is enjoying a renaissance in Hungary today. Statues and plaques are going up to commemorate his life and rule. The current Hungarian government of Viktor Orban and FIDESZ has been careful to tread a fine line between supporting and condemning the new cult of Horthy, though some members of the ruling party are more open in their admiration for the admiral. Still, Orban definitely styles himself as a strong leader who has arrived on a white horse to save Hungary from the Left. And he too favors a directed democracy that veers in an authoritarian direction.

As Hungary expert Charles Gati points out, the Orban government has promoted not simply a particular agenda but an entire system change. "There isn't any one thing that concerns me," Gati told me in an interview in his office at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. in March. "This is a mistake to break it down to one thing. You have a general confrontation against pluralist, Western-style democracy in which the distribution of power is sacred. This is the essence. Or if you want to focus on any one thing, it is the lack of checks and balances. This is the key. Using the two-thirds majority as a justification for uprooting Western-style democracy."

What is perhaps most intriguing about Orban is the distance he has travelled since the late 1980s when he identified as a liberal and mixed comfortably with civil society organizations. FIDESZ, Gati points out, was "a liberal party that was a member of the so-called Liberal International, together with the Free Democrats, but they were more dynamic, more energetic. Orban was a dynamo of a leader, and I understood even then that he had ambitions. He was a real politician -- and I say that in the best sense of the word. Little did I anticipate then... that he would turn out to be a nationalist demagogue."

We talked about the geopolitical implications of Hungary's turn to the Right and to the East, the other authoritarian tendencies in the region, and the outreach by FIDESZ to the Hungarian diaspora in an effort to win support.

The Interview

When I was in Slovakia, people talked about the response to Vladimir Meciar and the reinvigoration of the civic movement. In fact, Slovaks said that basically they felt that it was really only in 1998 -- not in 1989 or 1993 -- that they came into their own as civic actors. Are you seeing something similar take place in Hungary? There have been declarations by intellectuals, there have been marches, but are you seeing a substantial reawakening of the civil sector in Hungary?

No. On the contrary, I see the opposite: the oppression of civil society. Intimidation is there as well as the absence of financial support. For example, in the old days -- well, five years ago -- government advertisements in the press were divided in the following way: approximately 70% went to government press, 30% to opposition press. Today it's 100% government. That gives you an illustration of how harsh this new regime is, how it moved away from the values of pluralism towards authoritarianism.

Do you think that FIDESZ has had this tendency from its beginning? When I was there in 1990 there was tension between the Orban half and the more social democratic side of FIDESZ. But I don't think anybody anticipated when I was there that it had an authoritarian tendency beyond Orban himself.

Nobody did. I knew Mr. Orban very very well. FIDESZ had a publishing house established in 1988, and I was among the first authors. They translated two of my books. Mr. Orban edited the translation of one of my books, and Mr. Laszlo Kover, who is the speaker of the house in parliament and maybe the most explicitly right-wing leader within the FIDESZ circle today, edited the other. I knew them very well. We used to go out to have a beer. My wife met Orban's wife when he was in New York in 1992. He was hanging out at my apartment on the Upper West Side, so I can say that I knew him well. He wanted me, even in 1994,to accompany him to his village for his election campaign. Only he and I were in the car, he was driving and I was the passenger. When he was prime minister for the first time in 1998 or 1999, he came here to Washington, and, obviously with his concurrence, I introduced him at a breakfast meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations. Our relationship by then was a little tense, but still reasonably good.

So the answer to your question is: no, you were not wrong. You saw a liberal party that was a member of the so-called Liberal International, together with the Free Democrats, but they were more dynamic, more energetic. Orban was a dynamo of a leader, and I understood even then that he had ambitions. He was a real politician -- and I say that in the best sense of the word. Little did I anticipate then, as I guess you didn't either, that he would turn out to be a nationalist demagogue.

And this evolution in Orban himself and in the party, do you think it is strategic, or do you think it reflects a deeper trend? When I say "strategic," I mean a political decision based on a reading of the temperament of the electorate.

Since the key to their new approach has to do with the use and manipulation of nationalist symbols and nationalist rhetoric, I would have to say that this is a strategic realignment. In the mid-1990s -- when the change began, though it was a gradual evolution -- they came to understand that the country needed a nationalist, centrist-oriented, right-of-center kind of party. There was space there on the political spectrum, because on the other side there was the Free Democrats, which was liberal, city-oriented, very strongly Western-oriented, and there were the Socialists, who in West-European terminology should be called Social Democrats because they now embrace capitalism as much as or more than anybody else, certainly anybody on the right side. So FIDESZ found space there. Since then, they have moved from right-of-center to clearly right wing. Their symbolism, their economic policies -- never mind their authoritarian trends -- all put them on the right wing of the political spectrum. Did they understand what they were doing? Yes, I think so. And almost everybody -- not everybody because some people left the party in 1993 or so -- understood where they were going, and Orban's persuasion and the promise of power prompted them to stay with him.

In many of the countries that I've been to there has been polling to demonstrate that people, generally speaking, discount whatever advantages they've acquired over the last 20 years and have become increasingly nostalgic for the pre-1989 period. Is that also the case in Hungary?

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