Terrible is the situation of a small country that stands alone.
— Miklós Bánffy, Twenty-Five Years (1945)
It is May 26, 2006, and the Hungarian Socialist Party is holding its annual congress in the bucolic lakeside village of Balatonőszöd. The attendees of this closed-door meeting are in excellent spirits. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, the left-wing coalition has just taken 210 of the available 386 seats in the unicameral National Assembly, marking the first time since 1990 that a Hungarian prime minister has retained power following a general election. History has been made, but little do the representatives and apparatchiks gathered by the shores of Lake Balaton realize that all their electoral accomplishments are about to unravel before their very eyes.
Just now the bespectacled Ferenc Gyurcsány is taking his place behind a red podium bearing the phrase Új Magyarország, or “New Hungary.” Over the next 27 minutes, the keynote speaker will deliver what surely must be the most astonishing, the most consequential, and most foul-mouthed oration in Hungarian history. “If I am honest with you,” Gyurcsány begins, “I can say that we are full of doubts, that torment and anguish are behind the self-assurance,” for while the socialists may have won the last round of elections, “you cannot name any significant government measures that we can be proud of, except pulling our administration out of the s*** at the end. Nothing!” The coalition had only survived thanks to “divine providence, the abundance of cash in the world economy, and hundreds of tricks, which you obviously don’t need to know about,” and as for the future, “there aren’t many choices. That is because we have f***ed it up. Not just a bit, but a great deal.” Indeed “no European country has done anything as boneheaded as we have. Obviously, we have lied throughout the last year-and-a-half, two years.” Yet the left must press on, “must change this whore of a country [kurva ország],” and if the right doesn’t like it, “let them protest in front of Parliament. Sooner or later they will get bored of it and go home.”
This altogether extraordinary event would come to be known as the Őszödi beszéd, the “Őszöd Speech.” Gyurcsány later insisted that it had been motivated only by feelings of “objurgation, passion, and love,” but it would be the cynicism, the derision, and above all the sheer vulgarity that would linger in the minds of his listeners. The infamous Őszöd Speech was never meant to go public, of course, but go public it did, thanks to a surreptitious recording that eventually made its way to Magyar Rádió, which broadcast the harangue on Sept. 17, 2006. The streets of Budapest were soon filled with some 40,000 anti-government protestors, while thousands more demonstrated in Miskolc, Szeged, and elsewhere. Raucous rallies would be held daily until Oct. 23, the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, when the confrontation between the socialists and their critics reached a fever pitch. Riot police violently dispersed the angry crowds gathered at Kossuth Square and Ferenciek Square, and it was beginning to look like 1848 all over again when protestors at Deák Square started erecting sturdy barricades out of iron fencing, signposts, and vehicles in the shadow of the Anker Palace. Snow plows were brought in to clear the roadblocks, and hundreds of marchers would be grievously injured by truncheons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons. Gradually the protests petered out, only to be replaced in the coming weeks by candlelight vigils organized by the Viktor Orbán-led opposition party Fidesz.
Gyurcsány’s socialist regime justified its disproportionate use of force on the grounds that the protesters were insurrectionists whose actions “jeopardized parliamentary democracy,” but public opinion was no longer on the side of the left-wing coalition. By spring of the following year, Justice Minister József Petrétei, National Police Chief László Bene, and Budapest Police Chief Péter Gergényi had all stepped down, and by March 2009 Ferenc Gyurcsány joined them in resignation. The 2010 elections were a predictable bloodbath for the Hungarian Socialist Party, with the populist, national-conservative Fidesz party and its allies securing a parliamentary supermajority. Over the next twelve years Viktor Orbán would transform Hungary, eschewing neoliberalism while purging the body politic of “the remnants of communism that are still with us, not only in terms of institutions but in terms of mentality,” as Fidesz government spokesman Zoltán Kovács has put it.
The results of four consecutive Orbán governments have been impressive, with public debt falling alongside unemployment levels, and economic growth quadrupling. Efforts have been made to address population decline in the form of child incentive programs and expanded daycare and kindergarten access, and the baleful legacy of Soviet brutalist architecture is mercifully being expunged, as Kossuth Square, the Neo-Gothic Országház parliament building, the Neo-Renaissance Várkert Bazár, and other sites are returned to their former glory thanks to the National Hauszmann Program and other heritage preservation measures. Magyarország has become a veritable beacon for conservatives all over the world, with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, and others waxing lyrical over Orbán’s many achievements. (Where else, after all, can you find a chain of Scruton coffee shops, named after the traditionalist philosopher Roger Scruton?) In his notorious Őszöd Speech, Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted that “I almost perished because I had to pretend for 18 months that we were governing. Instead, we lied morning, noon and night … we’ve done nothing for four years, nothing.” Viktor Orbán, for his part, can hardly be accused of inaction on Hungary’s behalf.
Except, it must be admitted, in one crucial regard.
“When I last sat with Putin,” Ferenc Gyurcsány recounted before his premature but well-deserved political demise, “I said to him, ‘I dislike buying energy from only one source.’ Putin agreed. ‘In your place, I would feel the same way. But you seem to have no choice.’ It’s Russian gas or none.” Gyurcsány went on to relate a conversation on a similar topic with Tony Blair, who told him that “the Americans consider this [natural gas imports] to be an important foreign policy issue — for you, it’s a heating issue.” Keeping the lights on is admittedly pretty important, which is why, for example, the Polish government has with considerable foresight pursued a policy of energy security and independence, engaging in what Paweł Musiałek has called “highly aggressive anti-Gazprom tactics,” as well as constructing the Baltic Pipe and the Świnoujście liquid natural gas terminal near Szczecin. Hungary, under Gyurcsány and now under Orbán, has spent decades doing precisely the opposite.
In 2009, the Gyurcsány government signed two energy deals involving Russia’s Gazprom, the first financing the controversial South Stream pipeline project, the second establishing a 1.3 billion cubic meter gas storage site. Those two deals were made in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion of Georgia, when it should have been apparent that the Kremlin’s revanchist foreign policy made it an unreliable partner going forward. Yet Gyurcsány breezily countered that “the Russians do not respond well to hectoring. They are a proud people. Nor can we expect that they will adopt democracy quickly and easily. Unlike the Americans, they do not have a long democratic tradition.” Viktor Orbán, then in opposition, condemned Russia’s campaign in the Caucasus. “Something has happened that has not happened since the end of the Cold War,” warned the Fidesz leader. “The imperial approach and imposition of brute force policy, which Russia has now undertaken, was unknown in the last 20 years…. What the Russians are saying now is no different from what they said about Budapest in 1956.” Hungary, Orbán added, understood very well what it meant to be occupied by a hostile power — foreign troops encamped in its territory, cities torn apart, civilians dying — so it was “important that Hungary takes a clear position in terms of politics, morality, and the future.”
Such assertive rhetoric promptly disappeared when Fidesz took power. Recent years have seen Orbán’s government following unswervingly in the footsteps of its socialist predecessor by further intertwining Hungary’s economic fate with that of the Russian Federation, as evidenced by foreign affairs minister Péter Szijjártó’s signing of a 15-year natural gas supply agreement with Gazprom, and the Hungarian Atomic Energy Authority and Russia’s Rosatom cooperation on the construction of two VVER-1200 reactors at the Paks nuclear power plant. (Szijjártó was promptly awarded the Russian Order of Friendship for his efforts, while the Russian Minister of Trade and Industry Denis Manturov had the Hungarian Order of Merit conferred upon him in return.) The Russian-dominated multilateral International Investment Bank had even relocated its headquarters from Moscow to Budapest, a move opposed by the Trump administration on the grounds that, as Panyi Szabolcs summarized it, “the bank’s presence offers no real economic benefits, while Russia can use the bank to expand its ‘malign influence over the region.’” Whether this pattern of Russo-Hungarian economic integration is the result of ideology (conservative Hungary aligning with the perceived traditionalist Russian bulwark against a decadent West) or the product of a sunk-cost fallacy, the result is the same — Hungary is perceived as something approaching a Russian client state.
To be a Russian client state, however, is to be subjected to an unending series of humiliation rituals. When Orbán traveled to Moscow for a Feb. 1, 2022 summit with his Russian counterpart, he was not permitted to bring with him Péter Szijjártó or his senior adviser on Russian affairs, János Balla, only one interpreter. He was obliged to undertake repeated coronavirus tests and self-isolate before being allowed into Putin’s august presence, seated at the legendary long table, at which time he was grilled on the progress of the Paks nuclear power plant project, “how this and that phase is going, and who is responsible for the approval of what and when.” Orbán would later claim that the meeting left him with a sense that “there was trouble coming” on the Ukrainian front, but “at that time,” Direkt36 has reported, “to his inner circle he said that he did not expect a war, and especially not one against the whole territory of Ukraine,” and Orbán’s ally Zsolt Bayer confidently asserted on Hír TV that “Russia is not going to attack Ukraine, even an idiot knows that.” Left undiscussed at the Moscow meeting was the fact that Russian intelligence services had, over the last year and as recently as January 2022, systematically and brazenly hacked into the IT systems of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, a cyber attack that had “completely compromised the foreign ministry’s computer network and internal correspondence,” and “hacked into the encrypted network used to transmit ‘restricted’ and ‘confidential’ state secrets and diplomatic information.”
Orbán’s Ostpolitik has hardly been affected by Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Hungary has exempted itself from any embargoes, blocked European Union attempts to furnish Kyiv with economic support packages, and has even intervened to prevent the sanctioning of the Russian Patriarch (and former KGB asset) Kirill, leading one European diplomat to announce that “with this unnecessary stunt, Hungary has lost the bit of goodwill that was left among its peers in Central and Eastern Europe. The country has never before been so isolated.” László Kövér, the Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament, has maintained that “we, Hungarians will not deny the east or the west, we will work to build a link between them,” but also warned that the West was full of “intellectual assassins,” the “representatives of cancel culture, the transhumanists, [who] are attacking the memory of the Western people. Their task is to turn every human difference that exists against each other — white people against black people, Westerners against Orientals, men against women, young against old, Christians against Muslims.” This is very different rhetoric than we hear coming out of the equally conservative, equally populist Polish government, viz. recent statements by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki concerning “risks which are related with aggressive Russian politics and with their aggression and war crimes in Ukraine,” the need “to organize sanctions in Europe, one package after another, so that the sanctions really bite Russian economy,” and the importance of “supporting Ukraine in their fight for freedom, sovereignty, and independence.” Baltic and central European nations are endeavoring to reinforce the continent’s eastern flank, and are growing increasingly exasperated with Hungary’s amoral approach. When Orbán said of the appalling Bucha massacres that “we live in a time of mass manipulation,” Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński did not mince any words: “My assessment is unequivocally negative — I must admit that it is all very sad,” adding that “when Orbán says that he cannot see what happened in Bucha, he must be advised to see an eye doctor.”
Hungary’s Fidesz government views the war in Ukraine not as a moral and humanitarian catastrophe, not as geopolitical menace, not even as a “foreign policy issue,” but strictly as a “heating issue.” Rising fuel prices have endangered Orbán’s understandably popular utility bills cost reduction scheme, which subsidized electricity and gas prices for everyone, necessitating a modification requiring Hungarians to pay “market prices” for any consumption above the “national average,” despite repeated campaign promises that the reductions were an integral part of the Fidesz platform. The national currency is starting to lose its value, and inflation is running at more than 20 percent, imperiling much of the economic progress that has been made since 2010. Tempers are beginning to flare. When questioned in a radio interview about his country’s “exemption” from Russian oil and natural gas embargoes, Orbán made the ill-advised riposte that “those who have a sea and ports are able to bring oil on tankers,” and “if they hadn’t taken it away from us, we would also have a port.” While it is true that the lands of the Hungarian crown, under the Habsburg dual monarchy, once included the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia, the nonsensical notion of modern-day Hungary having territorial access to the Dalmatian coast prompted the Croatian Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs to summon the Hungarian ambassador, and to state that “Croatia condemns the statement by the Hungarian prime minister” and “we condemn any territorial claims on neighbouring countries.” Hungary’s state secretary for information, Tamas Menczer, flippantly responded that Orbán was merely expressing a “historical fact.” Hungarian post-Trianon ressentiment and revanchism thus continues to affect relations with Croatia, Romania, Ukraine, and other neighbors, only adding to a siege mentality in Budapest.
The historian Norman Stone astutely observed that “Hungary is now a small country, but she is, as D. H. Lawrence said of Balzac, a gigantic dwarf, with an interest far beyond her size and the remoteness of her language.” For my own part, I am something of a Magyarophile, coming by it pretty honestly, as the preparatory school I attended as a stripling was run by Cistercian monks who had fled Hungary in the aftermath of the 1956 uprising. (Mind you, one of them labeled me a “dilettante,” to which I must plead guilty, and a “Polack piece of s***,” which is at most a half-truth, since I am not actually of Polish descent.) For special occasions we make Székely gulyás and lángos; our home is often filled with the strains of Bartók, Dohnányi, Ligeti, and Liszt; our shelves fairly groan under the weight of volumes written by Miklós Bánffy, Péter Esterházy, Milán Füst, Ferenc Karinthy, Imre Kertész, Dezső Kosztolányi, László Krasznahorkai, Gyula Krúdy, Sándor Márai, István Örkény, Magda Szabó, János Székely, Miklós Szentkuthy, and (my personal favorite) Antal Szerb, among others, not to mention films by Béla Tarr and László Nemes, whose Son of Saul (2015) is surely one of the most breathtaking movies ever made. Hungary has always punched far above its weight, yet amidst the worst European geopolitical crisis in generations, it seems to be shrinking away, leaving others to rise to the occasion.
The novelist and statesman Miklós Bánffy separated his epic Transylvanian Trilogy, which tells of how Hungarians sleep-walked towards the geopolitical abyss of the First World War, into three books: Megszámláltattál, És hijjával találtattál, and Darabokra szaggattatol, or You Are Counted, You Were Found Wanting, and You Are Torn To Pieces, in reference to the Book of Daniel’s story of Belshazzar’s feast and the cautionary words mene, mene, tekel, upharsin that appeared on the wall. When it comes to the perils posed by the malign Kremlin, the writing has been on the wall for decades now, and European countries are being counted. Some are found wanting, while others are being torn to pieces. There was a time, not so long ago, when Viktor Orbán understood the threat of Russia’s “imperial approach” with its “imposition of brute force policy,” castigating the Gyurcsány regime for its feckless policies. In 2008 Orbán demanded that Hungary take “a clear position in terms of politics, morality, and the future,” and in 2022 the same should be demanded of him.
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