The author is a Hungarian academic, formerly with Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. At the end of 2018 pressure from the government of Viktor Orbán forced the CEU to move to Vienna, Austria, at least partially. Beda Magyar is a pseudonym, ZEIT ONLINE is aware of his real identity.
Hungary has committed suicide in plain sight, and it has done so with the inept assistance of the European Union – while the rest of the member states stand by and watch helplessly. The death dance of democracy has begun again, just like in the 20th century, by painting human rights, freedom of the press, judicial independence, science and art to be political questions. By portraying facts and reality as a matter of threatened identity. And by depicting hate and violations of the law as moral obligations. This is not just taking place within the EU, this is the EU itself, living up to the delirious nightmares of the far right. What right-wing nationalists call "bureaucrats taking away national identities" means, in practice, that Brussels continues to provide full financial support even as mentally ill rulers dictate the destruction of entire countries – their art, literature and science – in the name of resisting interference in domestic affairs, and by keeping borders open for those chased away. The mass moral hysteria of Hungarian political conservativism is the driving force of the cold civil war that has been battering Hungary since 2002. Is there a way out for Europe from the mess it has created?
1 The Current State of Hungary
Hungary would not even be in a position to start accession talks to the EU with its current legal system and state structures. Luckily for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the EU contracts have proved easy to breach without serious consequences in the past decade. There is a façade of press freedom, but there has been no broadly distributed independent press since the passing of the media law of 2011. State propaganda allows a few showcase media outlets with minimal reach to continue functioning, but most independent press outlets have, by now, been acquired and shut down by the ruling party, Fidesz. There is an appearance of human rights, but the constitution of 2012 makes them contingent on yet unspecified obligations toward the state, and laws are bendable in the extreme by loyal judges. Elections are free on paper, but they are clearly not fair. Government propaganda depicts Hungary, a country with practically zero immigration, as the last fortress standing in the way of "invasion" by "subhuman migrant herds," an allusion to Ottoman times, while being attacked for resisting migration by the decadent liberal elites of the EU, an allusion to the Habsburg era. Meanwhile, refugees are being systematically starved in distant internment camps.
The economy is in a dire state, sustained by the artificial life support of EU funds and four to five huge German companies, and even then, the numbers are heavily doctored. Because Orbán has never had any real plan for the country apart from siphoning money off from wherever it is still possible, Hungary has been in a complete deadlock since he took power eight years ago.
Four million people live below the poverty line and one million are in extreme poverty – in a country of fewer than 10 million. Doctors and nurses have been leaving hospitals in droves and the most recent cancer treatment medications are officially denied to people above the age of 75. The economy has been in steady decline since 2008, unemployment is masked by community work programs that pay about half the minimal wage – and which are compulsory for job seekers or those seeking unemployment benefits – and homelessness has been made a crime. Poverty is as palpable on the streets of Budapest as it was in the early 1990s, and the €87 million provided weekly by the EU is channeled with no monitoring almost directly into the pockets of four or five oligarchs loyal to Orbán.
And then there are the three cherries on top. First, on Oct. 1, 2018, Fidesz changed the law regulating demonstrations such that a meeting of two individuals counts as a political gathering, just as it did under communism. Second, several opposition politicians are under investigation after they attempted to exercise their right to enter public TV premises in December to demand extra airtime for five political demands – beyond the five minutes they got during the 2018 election campaign. Third, the government is silently preparing to establish a set of courts under its direct control for cases concerning the state, a move that would essentially mean the end of the separation of powers.
The brutalization of press and society has reached levels seen in the 1930s. There are, to be sure, no systematic political murders or incarcerations of opposition figures or journalists. But there is a complete lack of organized left-wing mass-movements. And it does not mean that there would not be inexplicable deaths from time to time, with a dubious role of the state, for example, an opposition candidate being hit by a car just the day before the elections, or a shady businessman in a police car, or the owner of the source code of the software administering EU funds, right after he sold it to the government, by heart attack.
Orbán’s main focus is that of creating wedge issues to distract from his conduct and maintain the social divide, usually by identifying scapegoats that make it easy for his followers to express their loyalty and identity. The government has carried out the most comprehensive, fascist-style nationwide hate campaigns since World War II. The first one targeted Syrian refugees in summer 2015, with sayings like: "If you come to Hungary you must obey our laws" or "If you come to Hungary you cannot take away the jobs of the Hungarians." In summer 2016, another campaign accused the United Nations and the EU of intending to forcibly relocate millions of migrants to Hungary. Now, in preparation for upcoming European Parliament elections, a third campaign is targeting EU leadership itself.
By now, Hungarians have become one of the most hateful peoples in Europe, if not the most hateful. Officially, these crusades are "information campaigns" from the government, a designation that essentially allows for the diversion of unlimited funds to support Fidesz, even during election campaigns – so far this year the government has spent over €300,000 a day for this purpose. The opposition, meanwhile, is practically banned from the public eye. The campaigns also pave the way for Orbán to leave the EU altogether, should his personal costs outweigh his personal benefits.
One of the most important issues of Orbán’s identity politics, raised in preparation for the 2018 elections, was another hate campaign, this time targeting an old/new enemy: George Soros. Soros is an ideal target, as he simultaneously represents the Jewish banker, the "communist" philanthrope and the values of open society and liberalism. The "Soros-plan," in Orbán's telling, calls for the forceful planting of illegal economic migrants in Hungary by paying each of them €2,000 to €3,000, a plan that has already allegedly poisoned and corrupted the EU. This narrative is a potent mixture of elements from Hungary's history, including Hungary's defense of Europe and Christianity from the Ottoman empire since the 15th century (represented today by Muslim, mostly Syrian war-refugees framed as "economic migrants"), the freedom fight against Austria in 1848 (with the emphasis now on raw nationalism and "Hungarian-ness"), the revolution against the USSR in 1956 (outsmarting the greatest powers of Europe), and the defeat of invisible evil forces (the Jews), who destroy everything that is dear: the sacred values of nationalism embodied by the slogan "Isten, haza, család" or "God, homeland, family."
An Existential Threat
George Soros is the face of the conspiracy tormenting Hungary, the manifestation of the legend of left-liberal Jews being responsible for the losses and failures of World War I. And according to Orbán, the tools Soros is using to dismantle Hungary, Europe and Christianity are NGOs, such as the Open Society Foundation, which was forced to move to Berlin, and the Central European University, which has been forced partially to Vienna and used as bargaining chip in the EU.
2 The Trenches Within Hungary
Hungarian society has become sharply divided into two separate, parallel cultures. Supporters of Fidesz and the party's far-right ideology perceive the diverse, fragmented and disorganized opposition, broadly framed as "left-liberals," as an existential threat. Indeed, even the formerly neo-Nazi party Jobbik has started to show a more centrist and cooperative face recently , after realizing that there is no air left to the right of Fidesz. Though the divide has grown considerably deeper after every election, it has deep historical roots. Hungary was occupied by foreign powers from 1526 until 1920 and again from 1945 to 1989, national traumas that created an atmosphere of us against them, and more specifically, those with them (the traitors) and those against them (the rebels). To the surprise of many, the schism not only reemerged after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, but it was no longer between those who fought for democracy and the former communist rulers, but between liberals and conservatives. Even moderate right-wing elements did not raise their voices when a conservative government in 1993 gave an honorary military funeral to Miklós Horthy, the fascist governor of Hungary during the interwar period. He was the first leader to introduce racial Jewish laws in post-Enlightenment Europe in 1920 and was later a faithful ally to Adolf Hitler, ultimately responsible for the deportation of 437,685 Jewish Hungarian citizens to Auschwitz, among other crimes against humanity. What the Holocaust is for the left, the Treaty of Trianon, the World War I peace deal, is for the right.
This divide cuts across contemporary Hungarian society. On the one hand, there are the "true Hungarians," who consider themselves to be the heirs of Horthy, and anyone who holds different views to be "anti-Hungarian," including, but not limited to, those who oppose Fidesz, "left-liberals," members of the LMBTQ community, Jews, Roma, foreigners and any "alien hearted" elements. Until 2010, the attitude that only the political right and Fidesz represented true Hungarians was more or less accepted as a skewed but legitimate worldview, a necessary compromise to establish enough of a consensus to run the country. The divide has also been kept alive by elements of the political left who, for example, honor János Kádár, Hungary’s Cold War dictator who was responsible for executing hundreds and destroying the lives of thousands.
3 The Value Context of Hungarian Society
Hungary is one of the most individualistic countries of the EU, second only to the United Kingdom and on par with the Netherlands. But in sharp contrast, personal responsibility is low and distrust is high. In such an environment, one of the few things you can count on is being tricked. As such, the most reasonable behavioral strategy is to be the first to trick others. This kind of unique social pressure contributed to the rise of two prominent cultural ideals of the Hungarians: the betyár and the gentrified hussar, both of whom team up to dominate others but yet value loyalty to each other above all else. They follow their own moral code, yet put themselves above the law.
The betyár is the Robin Hood of the Hungarian puszta, or steppe: he robs from the rich and distributes the bounty among the poor. Betyárs have become folk heroes; they fought the powerful by outsmarting them and brought justice in opposition to the unjust laws of the rulers. It is important to note that one of the most extreme neo-Nazi groups in Hungary calls itself the Betyár Army. Hussars, the famous cavalry squads of Hungary, are nobility without estate who managed to keep their aristocratic privileges, even if not their wealth, thus enabling them to climb the ranks in the military easily. Blue blood is their greatness, irrespective of merit.
An Illiberal State
These two cultural ideals embody dominant Hungarian attitudes, such as the idea that disobeying the law is a clever and righteous deed and, conversely, that rules are for the inept and the underclasses. Outsmarting authorities (as a betyár) is not a disgrace, especially if it leads to personal advantage, while individual privileges (of a hussar) in turn become indicators of success in the eyes of the general public. The core of Fidesz's and Orbán’s aristocratic stance is the feeling of superiority due to being born Hungarian, of standing above the law, of being celebrated and honored not for work or merit. It is feeling like a hussar, living like a betyár. Individualism and distrust could be a result of these strong cultural identities, which reinforce the drive to outsmart even allies.
4 The Language, Symbolism and Values of Fidesz
Viktor Orbán and Fidesz have skillfully played on the identities of betyár and hussar by using "national-conservative" language to reignite the conflict surrounding national grievances, thus deepening the schism within society and generating the unwavering support of 2 million voters within the Hungarian electorate. Orbán and his advisers transformed political communication by reviving archaic words and expressions, issues and mannerisms from the 1930s. It is a rhetoric that revolves around Hungarian greatness, Trianon, the revolutions and fights for independence (from Vienna, from Moscow, and, these days, from Brussels). And it is a rhetoric that often implies the destruction of anti-Hungarians, generally without being explicit – and without transgressing the boundaries of legality.
Since the 2010 elections, conservativism has fully merged with Orbánism. He declared his victory to be a "revolution in the polling booth," he introduced the "System of National Collaboration," he began referring to the country as an illiberal state and he idealizes Putin, Erdogan, and Xi Jinping. He explains illiberalism as like pornography: "Nobody knows what it is like, but when you see it, you know that is probably it." Meanwhile, the opposition has been sidelined by the narrative of being anti-Hungarian traitors, who deserve no fair treatment and who eventually must be "dealt with." The freedom-fighter hussar attitude justifies victory by any means necessary – no rule, moral code or law can be an obstacle. In a curious entanglement with the betyár attitude of tricking the authorities – in this case, Brussels – stealing becomes an honorary, revolutionary expression of resistance and proof of superiority. Regulations and laws can be broken at any time when they are not in the "interest of the Hungarian people."
Because Orbán has not been ostracized by the EU, the U.S., or any international bodies, his hateful nationalistic "illiberal" rhetoric is spreading fast, even as he tries either to pull the EU to the far right or create a Putin-style frozen conflict on the EU political stage. The European People's Party – the center-right political group in European Parliament, to which Fidesz belongs – stumbled blindly into his trap. Prior to EPP's recent debate whether to expel Orbán from the group, he threatened that if Fidesz were to be suspended, it would leave the EPP. Yet after the vote, he boasted that "we" asked for the suspension "ourselves." As the joke goes: "The EPP has almost left Fidesz." The EPP handed him a perfect delay to see if he needs to jump ship to lead the strengthened far-right disruptors after the elections, or if he can rise up as the savior of conservativism from within.Now he is destabilizing the EPP from the inside by collecting signatures for a popular vote against migration using the EPP logo, and by framing the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and his deputy Frans Timmermans as leftist agents forcing migration, who intend to destroy Christian-conservative values: if he can split the EPP to traitors and the faithful, he transforms the playing field. He strives to stir sufficient chaos to cover up his embezzlement and his thirst for power – and to posture as the last hope and savior.
5 Connecting the Dots
It is important to see the pattern here: It is not a random sequence of unfortunate or unforeseen circumstances. The most recent victim was Central European University, but now, it is the turn of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Orbán's attacks usually start with a hateful press campaign against un-Hungarianness; in the case of the Academy, the prelude was an attack on "degenerate" gender studies as a representation of lazy humanities and therefore superfluous. It is followed by an extremely rapid legal and/or financial trick, rendering the victim dysfunctional – withholding the budget of the Academy, for example. Next, prominent Fidesz politicians reinforce the fabricated narrative by focusing on complex, incomprehensible and meaningless technical details. It is enough to confuse outsiders, but for those familiar with the matter, it is based on blatant lies to such a degree that it precludes any discussion.
Orban's "Peacock Dance"
Then, under the pretext of
negotiations (which never actually took place in the case of the CEU), the
whole matter is stalled until what's left of the opposition press loses interest
and the public gets used to the underlying arguments of the government
narrative (basic research is unnecessary, humanities are for liberals on the
leftist fringe, gender studies spread homosexuality and the government's
intervention isn't really much of a shift at all). After a few months, the
original plan is carried out under the guise of a compromise solution: Every
conciliatory step from the victim is used against her, the noise from the tired
press and the confused public grows ever quieter and the government presents
itself as being the solution to the conflict it generated in the first place. The fate of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the country's beholder of intellectual capital, appears to be sealed, because in the coming EU fiscal period support will primarily be available for innovation and research, and a directly controlled structure is necessary for Orbán to appropriate the funds.
The method was first tested in 2011 with Orbán’s media law, which practically ended freedom of the press in Hungary – not to mention the Hungarian press itself. A loud choir of independent media outlets immediately pointed out the legal subtleties, the purposefully underregulating rules, up for interpretation for loyal courts, which crippled press freedoms. The government accused the media of leftist malice and of unfounded accusations, cried for fair treatment and postured as the victim. The EU raised a long list of concerns, in response to which Hungary's leaders further hollowed out regulations and referred to a corresponding passage for each critical passage from the media laws of other EU member states. Eventually, the EU decided that it could do no more and became a silent onlooker to the perverse freakshow of the destruction of the Hungarian press, the silencing of dissent, the monopolization of public opinion and the dissemination of state-sponsored fake news.
The latest and one of the most cunning deployments of this so called "peacock dance," as Orbán likes to call it, began under the smoke screen of the CEU scandal in late 2018: the destruction of what was left of judicial independence in Hungary. Orbán is currently negotiating with the Council of Europe's Venice Commission about the wording of a law that would create a separate court for all legal cases pertaining to the government or the state. The Commission’s requirements will be met soon, just as they were in the case of the media law, resulting in a sufficiently hollow set of rules that allow for broad interpretation, combined with a few loyal appointees. The result will be the technical merger of two branches of government, essentially granting Orbán immunity for decades to come, even if not on paper. It is ironic that the European People’s Party – which has long acted as an Orbán enabler – along with its lead candidate Manfred Weber, are demanding that Central European University remain in a country that was able to destroy its legal status in just a single week in 2017 and which is now destroying judicial independence. Many want the CEU to stay, but the new legal construct is no guarantee, particularly given that Orbán has repeatedly insisted that it is the CEU itself that wants to leave. He continually stirs hatred and says the CEU should have obeyed the law retroactively. Instead of being governed by laws, Hungary is now ruled by a raw authoritative force under the guise of fake state institutions, puppet courts, a puppet parliament and legal-sounding gibberish.
The EU Prefers To Look the Other Way
Domestically, Orbán not only won the 2018 elections and demonstrated his power and the efficiency of his propaganda machine, but he also elevated fear, hatred and verbal aggression to a rather threatening level. Although neither he nor his Soros campaign billboards ever said anything explicitly anti-Semitic, the underlying message was clear enough in the Hungarian cultural context. Although Orbán maintains a showcase friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and with a tiny Hasidic community inside Hungary, he makes sure his followers can identify the real enemy behind the supposedly extremist liberals and the CEU, all of whom "serve foreign interests" or are carrying out the "Soros-plan." Just to be clear: Even though Fidesz officially follows a "zero tolerance" policy when it comes to anti-Semitism, the scourge has inexplicably tripled since 2002, when Fidesz begun to swallow up far-right parties. And it jumped sharply in the 2010 election year, when Fidesz won the super-majority to change the constitution – before they started to fulfill most of the promises made by Jobbik. Anti-Semitism stands at around 30 percent today, even if only 20 percent hate Jews openly. Orbán is not only spreading the anti-Semitic narrative, but he is, in fact, broadening it to include refugees, liberals and any political opponents. Whenever the issue is addressed, the same anti-Semitic tropes are evoked against Orbán's critics. And most EU and international bodies prefer to look the other way, which serves to strengthen Orbán's position and message domestically.
6 A Way Out for Europe
Under the sexy surface of seemingly cosmopolitan Budapest, there lies the disfigured carcass of a democracy, bled to death. Hungary, as my generation once knew it, is gone and is not likely to return for at least another two or three generations, even if Orbán disappears tomorrow. The damage to state institutions, education, healthcare, Hungarian culture, theater, literature, fine arts, science and research might be possible to repair eventually, but the racist, hateful mindset, the torn social fabric and the self-aggrandizing, cheater attitude is here to stay for our lifetimes. My message is this: Hungary is lost, but the EU and most of its member states could still save themselves.
Is the current situation to be blamed on the Hungarian electorate? Surely it is. Orbán was elected legally in 2010 (even if the 2014 and 2018 elections were clearly and blatantly manipulated). Would Hungary have fallen into this pit had it not been a member of the EU? Hardly. The state is built around EU funds, a few German companies and open borders that make it easy for anyone with dissenting views to leave.
The EU would have done a great service to Hungarian constitutional democracy, culture and society had it cut off funding in time, perhaps when press freedoms were blown away in 2011 and fair elections became an impossibility – or, at the latest, when inalienable human rights disappeared from the constitution in 2012. The counter-argument has been that such a move would represent an unacceptable interference in domestic affairs, that it would unnecessarily hurt the Hungarian population and stir up anti-EU sentiment. After all, Orbán was elected legally; he represents the will of the electorate.
And yet, it is Orbán himself who is hurting the population and stirring up anti-EU sentiment, all while implying that the EU is a puppet organization of the global Jewish conspiracy. Falling for Orbán's narrative – that the interests of the Hungarian people are identical with his own – has cost Hungary a lot more than money. He may have discarded his anti-EU song and dance within two weeks had he been ostracized – and even though economic collapse is extremely painful, state institutions would have remained in place and allowed for a restart. But now, even though the economy is wobbling forward, the country needs to be rebuilt from scratch. The institutions, the legal system, the social fabric, the structures of cooperation and communication: They are nothing but a pile of rubble, with the know-how either chased away overseas or in forced into retirement.
At this point, not even cutting off EU funds would help much, as Orbán has consolidated an oppressive system that he can run with much fewer resources if need be – especially if he can strike a deal with German industry outside of the EU. With no legal means to change course, with no communication channels to change opinion, the country is slowly disintegrating. It is currently ahead of only Bulgaria in terms of EU living standards.
Nevertheless, with this option on the table as a threat, the EU could at least exert control of the flow of the money by establishing local offices and a bureaucracy with direct responsibility for providing and accounting for funds. It could establish local EU courts to uphold EU laws and an independent TV and radio broadcaster with national coverage to help Hungarians start mitigating the damage that the EU has helped to inflict.
Instead of simply believing that Hungary is a democracy, the time has come to look for evidence to prove that it is not a dictatorship. Instead of the EU or its member states believing that democracy defends itself, the time has come to realize that it is the most fragile of all forms of government, since anybody can make a bid for power. Yet it is exactly this feature that gives democracy its greatest strength: that of relatively quick self-correction. But the tipping point toward self-destruction is visible only in hindsight.
The time has come to follow positive examples of resistance and fight with all available means for Enlightenment values, human rights, self-determination, parliamentary debate and cooperation – and to start taking seriously the power-hungry, blood-thirsty and authoritarian figures instead of insisting on diplomatic conversations about human rights or mere existence framed as political questions. The far right has already seized the narrative in large swaths of the EU. But the majority still wants a united, tolerant and cooperative system. For now.