Hungary After Merkel’s and Before Putin’s Visit: Is Orban’s Political Momentum Declining?

The interview by Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom with the two partners of the Foundation: Csaba Tóth, the Director of Strategy in Republikon Institute, and István Hegedüs, Chairman of the Hungarian Europe Society.

Five years after the last visit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Hungary two weeks ago. Both government and opposition had their expectations of the visit. Who was more content in the end?

István Hegedüs: In the eyes of the ruling party, the visit of Angela Merkel was supposed to give evidence to the argument that Viktor Orbán is an important European player who is not isolated. In contrast, the Hungarian opposition have held up some hope that the political differences between the Hungarian and the German governments would somehow rise up to the surface. However, what actually happened resembled rather hopes of the opposition. The speeches of the two top politicians at the press conference demonstrated visible differences. The Hungarian government didn’t have any longer a chance to portray the negotiations as another “victory” of Orbán. Tellingly, there was no common communique of the two partners after their meeting.

Most attention was drawn by the exchange on Illiberal Democracy during the press conference. While this was one of the key notions in foreign media, Hungarian state television did not even broadcast this part of the press conference. Was it commented on in the Hungarian public discourse or did the state-controlled media spin the entire situation in Orbán´s favour?

Csaba Tóth: Merkel’s criticism of Orbán’s domestic politics came through clearly via independent media. The visit made it very clear how far Orbán is from the mainstream European opinion on issues of democracy and rule of law. The debate on illiberal democracy captured the headlines. Merkel used her visit to underline her point about the importance of rule of law and democratic institutions a number of times.

István Hegedüs: The public TV did not cover the most important part of the press conference, but its influence is very limited in Hungary because of its low share of audience. Moreover, this manoeuvre was unmasked by other media outlets. RTL Klub even showed the unhappy face of Angela Merkel – and slowed down the moving pictures – when listening to the arguments of Orbán why he disagreed with the concept of liberal democracy. The pro-government media in Hungary was not able to give a pro-Orbán spin to the Merkel’s visit.

Angela Merkel spent a lot of time with NGOs and at a university. Was it viewed as showing support for the civic society that is under huge pressure from Orbán’s regime?

Csaba Tóth: It was clear that Merkel prefers the company of NGOs, students and civil leaders to Orbán. I had the opportunity to attend her speech at Andrássy University and it was as powerful as the symbolism of her visit’s protocol: it is hardly a normal scenario between two state leaders belonging to the same party to spend so little time with each other.

István Hegedüs: Angela Merkel visited also the biggest Synagogue in Budapest and in this way she indirectly expressed her support to the Jewish community and the Hungarian Jews who have to face open extreme right-wing anti-Semitism and a double-speech of the government on this matter.

In comparison to the EU, the US seem to have taken a much stronger stance against Hungary for its violation of democratic principles and ostentatious support of Putin.

István Hegedüs: The US put a lot of pressure on the Hungarian government when it introduced visa ban to some officials (among them was the president of the National Tax Authority) some months ago. Obama’s administration as well as Senator John McCain have expressed their concerns about the state of democracy in Hungary repeatedly. The US’ government is definitely not fond of the pro-Russian views and the “peacock” policy of Orbán with regard to the Ukrainian conflict. But the US Administration knows that the Hungarian government finally aligned with the political decisions at the EU level. Moreover, concerning the illiberal shift in Hungary, the US consider this problem as a mostly European one which should be solved by the European institutions and the member states.

Do you think that the EU should do more? If so, how and in what respects?

István Hegedüs: Yes, the European Union should care more about Hungary and the risks of spreading the illiberal, populist and anti-European views inside the post-communist parts of the EU, and the EU as a whole. We need to find new universal methods and mechanisms at a European level to deal with member states in case one of them systematically breaches the norms, values and regulations of the EU. The report of the European Parliament in 2013 on the situation of the fundamental rights in Hungary gave some recommendations and there are further ideas under scrutiny at the European Commission and the Council what to do. It is evident that we need a political will especially in the case of the European People’s Party – a member of which is Fidesz – to talk about the Hungarian case in a critical manner.

Csaba Tóth: Yes, the EU should use more of its leverage to affect the changes in Hungary. The US is willing to engage in the political process. André Goodfriend, US Charge d’Affairs in Hungary, communicated not only behind the scenes but launched a massive PR campaign with press conferences and twitter messages that got through to the Hungarian public. The EU has never done any such thing – although, I believe, it should have.

Let’s talk about Putin´s visit on Tuesday: to whom is it more important? To Putin – since he will set foot on European soil, where currently nobody wants him, or to Orbán who hankers after a deal on gas supplies and a nuclear power plant?

Csaba Tóth: It is important for both of them, but I think that because of the timing Putin has more to gain. As the chemistry between these two leaders is quite strong, the contrast with the Merkel’s visit will be especially striking. I believe Orbán will try to be as business-like as he can. Maybe he will even criticise Putin, which nobody expects.

István Hegedüs: It is not clear yet who can gain more – either in political or in economic terms – Putin or Orbán. For Hungary, nuclear energy might be harmful and even expensive. Moreover, Orbán gave up his original idea about decreasing the one-sided dependence on Russian energy supplies. In general, Orbán introduced a new “opening” towards the East in order to obtain room for himself and his government – something he calls “sovereignty” – and had hoped to receive financial support from Russia and other post-Soviet republics. He does not care about democracy and human rights any more but has declared an interest-based foreign policy. Recently, Orbán tries to change his image and he is going to visit Ukraine before Putin comes to Hungary. There seems to be no end to the “peacock” policy…

Do you expect any public protest during Putin´s visit?

István Hegedüs: There will be quite a big demonstration organised by civil movements in Budapest on February 17.

Csaba Tóth: There will be protests against Putin, but their impact will be limited: the perception of the visit is what matters. Hungarian society remains sceptical of Russia and will be pro-EU in any potential conflict. Orbán will have a difficult time if his true amicability towards Putin shows.

Broadly speaking, for the first time public support for Orbán seems to be decreasing. In your opinion, is it just a temporary tendency or is this a sign of some substantial change in the Hungarian society which allowed Orbán to win three elections in 2014?

Csaba Tóth: It’s not the first time such a tendency occurs: Orbán was in fact polling worse in 2012. The difference is that his social support is decreasing faster now. In the last few years, Orbán never commanded the support of the majority of the Hungarian population; his huge victories were the result of his opposition being very fragmented – between the left-liberal forces and the far right. This situation remains unchanged. Orbán will only be defeated if the pro-democratic, progressive forces can become a viable political alternative.

István Hegedüs: The public mood has changed seriously in the last couple of months in Hungary. Fidesz has lost more than one million people according to the polls. It has become even more evident that it is not that Orbán is strong but that, in fact, the parties of the left and the liberal opposition are weak. Still, the political situation is very different as the consequence of many bad moves and decisions of the government as well as because of the internal conflicts in Fidesz. The atmosphere of fear in the county is over. On the other hand, there is a danger that the extreme right-wing Jobbik might gain more support – and its leader, Gábor Vona, has started to move towards a more moderate position even regarding his views and attitudes towards the Roma people. Moreover, the old scenario is not yet dead: Orbán might become the president of the state with new, strong competences by the means of a two-third majority vote in the Parliament in 2017 for another, let’s say, seven years…

Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom