How to understand Hungary

The portrayal of Hungary and its current government by the international media and external actors is one-sided and lacks context, says the academic and Fidesz member of the European parliament, György Schöpflin. The effects are felt within the country, and raise deeper questions about the European Union and its underlying values.

George Schöpflin
6 February 2012

Understanding another country - its politics, society culture, preconceptions - is always more difficult than appears at first sight. Matters are made worse when those whose job it is to "translate" a country don't make a particularly good job of it. One of the factors that make this understanding difficult is what might be called "the discursive deficit". The voice of a small culture with its own very different language is by definition weaker than that of a large cultural community - English is universally understood, Hungarian is not.

The result is that what is known about Hungary will necessarily include misunderstandings, blank spots, ignorance, prejudice and an impatience with the explanations that the smaller country provides, especially if these explanations do not fit the expectations of the "translators". The outcome is all too often a set of naturalised, reductionist beliefs treated as fact, and these beliefs are extremely difficult to shake. The result, in effect, is a wholesale neglect of evidence-based argument and its replacement by ideology, prejudice or ignorance, which can reasonably be called an "epistemological closure". In the Hungarian case this attitude has gone so far that we can safely speak of a presumption of guilt regarding whatever the Hungarian government says or does. For all practical purposes, it has to prove its innocence.

A problem of vision

The starting-point for any accurate assessment of Hungary today is that it is a deeply divided society. There are two radically different narratives - one from the left and one from the right - and the two have minimal respect for one another. It is all but impossible for outsiders to recognise or understand or accept this. The concept of there being something like two Hungarian societies, each with its own idea of the truth, is entirely alien to the ideal-typical model of a democratic European state. Yet that is the Hungarian reality. Listening to only one side will automatically distort one's understanding of what is going on in Hungary.

The problem is that the international media represent only one side of the argument and reflect only one of the two narratives, namely the one closer to its own preconceptions. The narrative that the media have accepted is that of the left, the opposition, and it adds up to the assumption that what the left says is the sole truth. What the left says and how it communicates unquestionably have a better fit with the prior assumptions of most western journalists, who are inherently suspicious of power and especially of centre-right governments.

Thus it is extremely difficult for non-Hungarian media, for diplomats, for NGOs, and for civil society to accept the division that constitutes the reality of Hungarian politics. It is even more difficult for them to see that the Hungarian left takes no prisoners where the Fidesz government, and above all the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, are concerned. Hungarian readers and viewers have become used to the extreme language that passes for political conversation in Hungary. Outsiders may discount some of the demonisation that the left routinely allows itself, but will assume that some of it must be true.

This manifest failure to grapple with Hungarian realities, and the readiness to rely on convenient clichés like "populism", "extremism", "xenophobia" and "anti-semitism" (all used against the Hungarian government), makes a mockery of journalistic objectivity, neutral reporting and journalistic detachment - the assumptions that underpin and legitimate journalism. These clichés establish an opponent or an enemy, with those engaged in the "struggle" against them occupying the high moral ground. Too often, those who report on Hungary accept what their interlocutors tell them and fail to interrogate their sources.

In this light, it is not surprising that the context of Hungarian politics today is mostly absent from the way in which Hungary and the Hungarian government are treated. Crucial here is the absence of any consideration of how and why the centre-right obtained a two-thirds majority in the 2010 elections and what its project has been since.

The eight years in office of the centre-left (2002-10) were a complete disaster in terms of the welfare of society, the furthering of a democratic political culture and, above all, clean government - on the contrary, the left was to a profound degree corrupt. The neglect of this context, and indeed the easy ride given by international opinion to the centre-left government, are seen by many in Hungary as the seedbed of misunderstanding and inconsistency. The latter is a potent source of resentment.

Such neglect is further manifested in, for example, the failure to register the solid support that the government continues - despite a deteriorating economic situation - to enjoy. The pro-government demonstration of 21 January 2012 saw around 400,000 people in the streets of Budapest. This was severely under-reported, whereas the much smaller anti-government demonstration of 2 January was given far more attention. Many Hungarians are aware of this double standard and resent it.

Moreover, few if any observers seem to notice that the effect of the attacks on the Hungarian government has included a marked strengthening of support not just for Fidesz but also for the right-radical party Jobbik, which currently enjoys the support of around a quarter of the electorate (about the same as the three left-wing parties combined). So much for unintended consequences. A further such consequence is that the attacks are helpful to the government in providing grounds for arguing that external intervention is distorting the government's strategy. It is clear that even some of the centre-right critics of Fidesz are lining up behind it under the impact of external criticism.

A question of values

Indeed, the role of external actors in the internal affairs of European Union member-states is an increasingly acute issue (for example, regarding technocratic governments in Greece and Italy, and the proposal to impose a budget commissioner on Greece). The project by the European left to launch a procedure against Hungary under Article 7 of the treaty on European Union, which would if successful deprive Hungary of its voting rights, can be placed in this context. This raises a number of intriguing questions. Is the EU an internal actor in relation to a member-state or an external one - and where is the boundary-line between the two? Can the EU act by majority, without broad consent? How well grounded are the charges against Hungary (because if they are weak, then what is being witnessed comes close to a simple political declaration of guilt, in which Hungary's voice is all but inaudible)? The hallowed principle of hearing both sides, audi et alteram partem, is being ignored.

A further result of such one-sidedness is neglect of the fact that the Hungarian government and opposition exist in a kind of negative reciprocity. The left has constructed its identity around the proposition that Fidesz is in league with the devil: that it is racist, xenophobic and somehow the embodiment of evil. Fidesz sees the left, and thus derives some of its own legitimacy, from the proposition that it is irresponsible, corrupt and has never been willing to shed its communist-era baggage, the human-rights violations committed during the communist era most of all. This negative interdependence is an aspect of the polarisation that allows the left to ignore the aspirations of Hungarian society and Fidesz to regard the external dependence of the Hungarian left as illegitimate. This assessment seldom if ever forms a part of the picture that the media paint.

The current level of intervention in the internal affairs of a member-state is generating questions of legitimacy, opposition and mounting scepticism about the value of the EU itself in Hungary, not least because there is no question of reciprocity. External actors seem free to intervene in Hungarian affairs and as far as some are concerned, this certainly includes the destabilisation of the Fidesz government and the ousting of the prime minister. On the other hand, it is regarded as outrageous for Hungary to raise of issues of concern with any hope of being heard, such as anxieties about Slovakia's language law which impinges on the rights of the Hungarian minority. The real fear is that small states are being bullied by large states in the name of human rights, (some) European values and left-wing actors armed with one-sided preconceptions, as well as by power itself.

These external actors are evidently unaware of their role in Hungarian domestic politics. Small countries tend to be far more sensitive to external opinion than large ones. This has given rise to a partially reflexive interaction - Hungarian opinion hears what the foreign actors say, but the reverse is not the case. This generates an intensifying resentment. No one likes it when their domestic affairs undergo sustained intervention from abroad; this explains the placards held up during the 21 January demonstration, "We are not a colony".

In assessing the relationship between Hungary and the EU it is vital to separate out the political and legal dimensions of the story. The legal issues are clear and finite, and are thus open to negotiation and resolution. The political ones are vague and unclear as to what the Hungarian government should do. Matters are exacerbated by the habit of Hungary's critics of switching between the two. If the legal objections are met, political ones are raised and vice-versa. In this sense, the rules keep being changed in the midst of the process.

Ultimately the issue comes down to the question of who decides what European values are: can it be the left alone, or must there be a broader consensus? If Hungary is, indeed, found to be in breach of these values, is it the only EU member-state that is properly singled out in this way? If not, then should not others also be subjected to infringement procedures and the like? Otherwise a double standard is manifestly in operation.

Behind all this there lurks the suspicion that Hungary is being used instrumentally, to deflect attention from shortcomings elsewhere, in the western European member-states, which appear to be exporting their guilt eastwards. If this suspicion is accurate, then the role allotted to Hungary is all but accidental. Other states are just as likely to be the target. Indeed, there is more than a suggestion that Romania may be the next on the list.


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