The following interview with Hungarian President Viktor Orban has been translated from the German by JLH. The translator includes this introduction:
1. A leading newspaper in a “liberal” city and nation interviews “reactionary” head of the neighboring Hungarian government; 2. Reporters from the former imperial capital interview the head of what was once a client state, and then became a partner in the ruling of a reduced empire; 3. The interview appears in a paper in an Austria which slipped out from behind the Iron Curtain, while Hungary was left behind, and a nominally clandestine, but recognized commerce and exchange between individuals and groups — to say nothing of the local version of an underground railroad — sustained the cultural and national bonds. Austria-Hungary was more a concept than a place, and it is still in the air.
The confrontation here is also emblematic of the rupture of East and West which has resulted in a “privileged” lifestyle and “progressive” — not to say suicidal — political outlook in the West, which confronts a skeptical, hard-nosed, unashamedly nationalistic and tilting toward the capitalistic attitude in the formerly oppressed East.
The translated interview from Die Presse:
Orban Interview: “We Have Smashed the Left”
by Michael Flesichhacker and Christian Ultsch, June 16, 2012
Hungary’s president, Viktor Orban: 1) has no problem with memorials to “Reichsregent” Miklos Horthy; 2) explains his “new economic system”; 3) and advocates for a “Europe of Nations.”
PRESSE: At the apogee of the euro crisis, the EU is moving in the direction of greater integration and a fiscal and banking union. Member nations will no doubt cede more sovereign rights to Brussels. Does Hungary welcome this development?
Orban: This question will not have anything to do with Hungary for years to come. We have learned from the crisis in the southern countries. Joining the eurozone too soon leads to disaster. In that case, you could be forced to leave the Eurozone again, which has the impact of an earthquake. Hungary will not move toward the Eurozone until fully prepared. Not only the European countries are concerned with whether the EU will become “the United States of Europe.”
There are two visions for the future of Europe: Europe as an empire or a Europe of nations. I unequivocally support a Europe of nations. The greatest advantage of the European continent is that we are diverse. So we must be very cautious in ceding sovereign rights. The key decision is whether to enter the Eurozone. A currency union is not possible without political union. Countries already in the union have very few options.
Do you intend to lead Hungary into the Eurozone?
We must do what is in the interest of Hungary. We do not yet know how the Eurozone will weather the crisis, and whether it will be better to be inside or outside. Recently, countries outside the Eurozone have been more successful in the battle against the financial crisis.
You are not referring to Hungary, are you?
Hungary has been very successful in managing the crisis.
The interest Hungary must pay on its bonds is nine percent. That is not exactly a sign of success.
When you speak of success, it is a question of goals you have set. At the start of my term in office, two years ago, Hungary was in worse condition than Greece. The first project begun by the International Monetary Fund in Europe in 2008 aided in the salvation of Hungary. Greece has collapsed, and Hungary is still standing. The second goal was increasing the number of employed. We now have 3.8 million taxpayers instead of 2.6, An increase of 50%. Third, national debt is lower than it was 2 years ago. Unlike Emperor Franz Joseph, we cannot say that everything is in order. We have serious difficulties, but thus far we have been successful in approaching our goals.
In 2010, you made much of the fact that you no longer needed help from the IMF. And now you have to take 15 billion euros credit, because the Hungarian state apparently is not able to refinance itself.
That is not the case. We are capable of financing the state without IMF funds. but the interest on bonds is very high. The question is not whether we can finance the state, but at what price. We are still in the financial market and do not intend to leave it.
What level of bond interest can Hungary absorb?
We have calculated this high level of interest in the present budget and could also withstand it next year. But if we had an agreement with the IMF, interest would be much lower. We actually need no credit, but are taking precautions. Hungary does not intend to live off the IMF. But turbulence could arise in the financial markets because of problems in Greece, Spain, Italy and other countries. The money from the credit is not intended for spending, but as a cushion for a worst-case scenario.
Apparently it is not easy for Hungary to get credit from the IMF.
You could say that.
Do you feel you are being unfairly treated, because different conditions are set for Hungary than, for instance, for Spain?
Unfair treatment is part of life. But the worst reaction to that would be to be insulted. There are two lanes in banks: one for those who want to pay money in; the other for those who have no money and want to borrow some. When you are in the second lane, you are sometimes treated unfairly. Double standards are not out of the ordinary in the EU. Politicians have to make an attempt at fairness. Bureaucrats do not. If politicians do not treat their voters and economic players fairly, they cannot succeed. That is not true for bureaucrats. Bureaucrats simply want to make use of their power.
Are you referring to the EU Commission?
To directorates-general, departments. It is also true of the bureaucrats of the European Central Bank. They criticize things in individual countries which they usually never mention.
A poll indicates that 80% of German and Austrian entrepreneurs in Hungary feel they are not being treated fairly by the government. They complain about a lack of consistency and legal accountability in Hungary.
I am familiar with these opinions and there are reasons for them. But the reasons are different than given by the Austrian and German business people. What we are doing may be unpleasant for some, but was not unpredictable. I explained our intention clearly several times. Instead of saying that they do not like this direction, they talk of inconsistency. When I said that we had to overcome the crisis we inherited in 2010, I announced emergency taxes for three years. That is consistent, but I understand that the companies no longer want to pay.
Foreign firms complain that they are more unfavorably positioned than Hungarian firms.
In Europe, there are fashionable ways of criticizing. They include accusations of being inconsistent, of not providing legal accountability or of discriminating against foreign companies. However, that is not always the case. Altogether, Hungarian businesses had to pay much more in emergency taxes. both in banking as well as, for example, in the energy sector. What is happening in Hungary is that we are constructing a new economic system. Some sectors are on the side of the winners and others are among the losers. The losers complain about inconsistency.
Who are the winners?
Manufacturing firms. We are learning from the mistakes of countries in the south. They concentrated on tourism, the service sector and real estate. We do not intend to make the same mistake. We cannot succeed without industrial capacity. So we are supporting anyone who wants to open a factory, no matter whether they are foreign or Hungarian. We intend for Hungary to become a manufacturing center in Europe.
And who are the losers in your new economic system?
The financial sector cannot have such high profits as in the past, and neither can the monopolies in the gas, water, energy and trash industries. In Hungary, average salary before taxes is 700 euros per month. Not minimum pay — average pay. And the average pension is about 250 euros per month. So businesses that take care of basic necessities are no longer able to make such high profits. Energy producers could make a certain profit, but energy providers only to a very limited extent.
What is more important for you — that things are better for Hungary or that you are proud of your country?
From birth. we are proud of being Hungarian. But in modern Europe, countries that are not successful can also not be proud. Success and pride are closely related.
So why did your government waste so much energy on things like the media law or the new constitution, which are not really important to the well-being of the Hungarian people, instead of concentrating on the economy?
The media system in Hungary was paralyzed because, under the socialist regime, the media authorities had become inoperable six months before the election. There were no institutional structures for media. We put our energy into correcting that situation for no more than two months.
But this law, which unleashed fears of restrictions on freedom of the press, caused a huge stir.
That was not and is not our intent.
Did you not foresee the criticism?
The criticism was useless and senseless. In politics there are sometimes futile and nonsensical discussions.
Could you relate to any aspect of the criticism?
I understood several technical details. We also accepted four or five requests for changes.
The constitution is more important. Between 1990 and 2000, all Central European states created new constitutions. The only exception was Hungary. After the Communist regime, we just modified and modified and modified. All Hungarian governments since 1990 have wanted to write a new constitution. But with our two-thirds majority, we were first who were in a position to do it.
Other states write constitutions by consensus. Why did you not integrate the opposition more thoroughly?
We did exactly that. In the context of a national conference, we asked all of Hungary. We created a parliamentary commission to develop a new constitution and all parties were invited. But opposition parties simply declined. What can you do? Just as you cannot force a woman to marry.
Because of the nationalistic features in the constitution, Austria’s best-known Hungary expert, Paul Lendval also accuses your government of leading Hungary in the direction of a revisionist autocracy.
I know him well. A few months ago, I met him at a filling station and asked how he was doing. I do not agree with him at all. There is not one political point on which we agree, except perhaps that we are both for world peace.
Would you agree to a public discussion with him?
He has said what he thinks. I have said what I think. Discussing it further leads nowhere.
Lendval’s books are translated. He is influential in the international debate.
Parties are also organized on the international level. I am vice president of the European People’s Party. All the center-right parties belong to this family. Intellectual, political life is organized internationally. Do not misunderstand me: there is no conspiracy by Lendval and others. But there are international platforms for leftists and for conservatives. Lendval is no friend of the present Hungarian government. He does not like our value system and attempts to fight against it internationally. That is the look of European politics today.
Your declared goal is to crush the Left in Hungary…
I have succeeded in that.
Polls show the socialists are again almost even with your Fidesz.
We have won all the by-elections since. Victories and defeats never last forever in politics. In the last election, we crushed the Left, achieving over a two-thirds majority.
The left is nowhere in Poland. In Hungary they are on the move again.
Political life revolves around competition. I won the election in 1990 and lost in 2002. Now I am back.
Your approach to the past sometimes causes irritations. Right now in Hungary, squares are being named and memorials placed for Miklos Horthy, the authoritarian Reichsregent of the inter-war period (1920-1944).
We should separate historical debates from political discussions. Debates about the past are not relevant to the present political life of Hungary. Our party would have been in the opposition 70 years ago. The strongest connection we have to the past is the Smallholder [small farmer] Party, which was in opposition to Horthy. In Central Europe after WWII, the Communists’ great mission was to extinguish history. The present discussions about the past are a reaction to that.
What do you think of the Horthy memorials?
These are exclusively local community decisions.
You have no opinion about that? If memorials in praise of Engelbert Dolfuss should suddenly appear in Austria, that would certainly be something for the head of state to think about.
If a Hungarian community wished to put up such a memorial, that is its responsibility. That is not the government’s job.
If a Horthy memorial were to be proposed for your community and there was a poll, would you be for or against?
I would respect the decision of the voters. If they wished to erect a statue for Lenin, Stalin or Hitler, I would decidedly be against it.
But you have no problem if a man like Horthy is glorified, who signed laws in 1938 for discrimination against the Jews?
That is a long, complicated discussion. And it is not my job as president to make a final decision. But I advocate continuing the debate.
Why do you even leave room for such discussions?
Hungary is a democracy. Presidents do not want to start or halt discussions. If people want to discuss something, they ought to discuss it.
And if someone wanted to erect memorials to Hitler?
Then I would participate in the discussion. I would reject the memorial. He was a dictator who occupied our country.
But a memorial to a domestic dictator is okay?
No, no, no. Is anyone calling Horthy a dictator? Ferenc Szalasi (1944-1945) was a dictator.
Not long ago, in a controversial action, the mortal remains of Hungarian poet, Jozsef Nyiro were sent to Romania for burial. He was a member of the National Socialist Arrow Cross parliament in the Szalasi era. And your party colleague, Laszlo Köver took the trip to re-inter Nyiro. Romania’s prime minister is considering whether to declare Nyiro persona non grata. Why these provocations?
Why must issues of piety be confused with political issues? If you wish to bury someone, he is buried. It amazes me that that is a political issue in Romania.
Of course it is a highly symbolic, political act, when the head of Hungary’s parliament supports such a re-burial.
I deny that vehemently. Recently there was a memorial service for the communist dictator, Janos Kadar. I was not there, of course, but it was a pious act not to forbid the celebration. This line of argument takes us in the direction of “homo sovieticus.” I reject any discourse that tends to over-politicize people’s private lives.
You have no problem with communists who oppress their population in China, from whom you are seeking billions in credit.
I am a Christian. Freedom is most important to me, because God gave it to us. I do not believe, however, that Hungary has the right to dictate to other countries what political system and what values they should have. That would mean that Western countries can only do business with each other.