WORLD

HUNGARY: NO GEORGIA ON THEIR MINDS

Domestic politics are dividing this eastern European country

ANNA PORTER September 29 2008
WORLD

HUNGARY: NO GEORGIA ON THEIR MINDS

Domestic politics are dividing this eastern European country

ANNA PORTER September 29 2008

HUNGARY: NO GEORGIA ON THEIR MINDS

WORLD

Domestic politics are dividing this eastern European country

ANNA PORTER

While the leaders of Poland, Ukraine and all three Baltic states sprang to their microphones to condemn Russia’s attack on Georgia, the Hungarian government waited for the European Union to lead the way. It was not a short wait. Germany’s Angela Merkel fulminated at the sight of Russian aggression, the Italians hesitated, and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy seemed to think he could personally dissolve the crisis with a well-planned visit to Moscow. When the EU finally made its statement on Sept. 1, Hungary’s Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány issued his own measured response condemning aggression but not going so far as to threaten the Russians. Perhaps Gyurcsány is more focused on his own parliamentary problems, or, while he says that what happened to the Georgians is a tragedy, he can also see the Russians’ point of view. The South Ossetians, of whom many had not heard until a few weeks ago, have never seen themselves as Georgians. As the Hungarian prime minister sees it, they are, and always have been, a distinct people. In any event, he ended up echoing Hungarian-American historian Charles Gati’s measured reaction: “What Georgia did was a mistake, what the Russians did was a crime.”

The main opposition party’s equally charismatic leader, Viktor Orbán, reminded the world of the crushing of Hungary’s great 1956 revolution and the similarity to Vladimir Putin’s actions in Georgia. However, other than the rolling in of Russian-made tanks, there appears to be scant similarity between putting down a national uprising and marching into a civil war. As Gyurcsány sees it, if you can’t remove your country from its eastern European location, it’s advisable to live in peace with the Russians. “The Russians do not respond well to hectoring,” he says. “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 demo-

cratic tradition.” As Gyurcsány notes, they need to find their own way without lectures about their failures.

Besides, there is this pesky energy problem. Like much of Europe, Hungary relies on Russian natural gas, and here, it is only Russian gas— with no alternatives. “When I last sat with Putin, I said to him, T dislike buying energy from only one source,’ ” Gyurcsány says. “Putin agreed. ‘In your place, I would feel the same way.

AS PM GYURCSANY SEES IT, IT'S ADVISABLE

But you seem to have no choice.’ It’s Russian gas or none.” Hungary needs friendly relations with its sole gas supplier. “Tony Blair told me,” Gyurcsány adds with a smile, “ ‘the Americans consider this [the buying of gas] to be an important foreign policy issue—for you, it’s a heating issue.’ ”

During a boiling hot week in the Hungarian capital, I was unable find anyone seriously interested in Georgia’s fate. The country is seething with anger at its own politicians. The divide between Gyurcsány’s socialists (MSZP) and Orbán’s centre-right FIDESZHungarian Civic Union party is so wide and deep that no conversation seems possible between the two sides. Orbán has steadfastly refused to sit in parliament when the prime minister speaks. The moment he rises to speak, the opposition marches out of the chamber, leaving only one

sitting member to let them know when Gyurcsány has stopped. This strange behaviour is a slight improvement over the first three years following FIDESZ’s 2002 defeat at the polls. Then, the leader of the opposition barely ever attended a single parliamentary session. “Our nation,” he announced, talking about his own recently defeated party, “can’t be in opposition.”

Since October 2006, Orbán’s followers tend not to mention the prime minister by name, referring to him

WE IN PEACE WITH THE RUSSIANS

as “the evil one,” “the traitor,” “the criminal” or “garbage.” It was that fall that Gyurcsány’s now-infamous speech to his recently elected party members became public. In that address, he told his comrades the party had lied throughout the election campaign, and it was now time for the bitter truth about the economy. Since then, FIDESZ has considered the socialist government to be illegitimate, and has demanded the prime minister’s resignation. Orbán seems to have decided to take his issues directly to the public. He speaks to town halls and at massive open-air meetings where his adoring followers shout approval at his every patriotic phrase. For good measure, they have co-opted several national symbols, including what Hungarians believe is their country’s Holy Crown and the red, white and green emblem of the 1848 and 1956 national uprisings. The first was against Habsburg, the second against Soviet rule.

Georg Habsburg, who would be a powerful archduke had his family not been forcibly dethroned at the end of the First World War, sees no absurdity in this, but he has refused to take any part in local politics. Passions are too inflamed. The tone is too aggressive. Several protests have turned into armed battles between the police and the participants; time and again police have turned water cannons against screaming, car-burning demonstrators. In October 2006, the television building (owned by Canadian Michael Tippin) was torched; in March, the mayor of Budapest was attacked while speaking at a festival; actors were chased from the stage at a riverside poetry reading earlier this year. This July’s gay pride parade was attacked by stonethrowing, club-wielding rioters who abused and beat the peaceful marchers, including József Orosz, one of the country’s best-known TV and radio journalists. Katalin Lévai, a Hungarian member of the European Parliament, took refuge in a police car. “It was terrifying,” she says of the moment a flagstone smashed the window, “but more than that, it was profoundly humiliating.”

Then there are the Magyar Gdrda—the Hungarian Guard—with their black uniforms, boots, and racist slogans, whose presence terrifies those with unhappy memories of Hungary under the Nazis. “A fractious, insignificant minority,” according to István Stumpf, former minister in the Orbán government,

now president of the Szazadveg Budapest School of Politics. Nevertheless, people can be forgiven for demanding that Orbán sever even the perception of a relationship with this and other far-right extremist groups.

Hungarians this September are loud, impassioned, abrasive and utterly devoid of humour. Only the prime minister seems to take the looming crisis in his stride. His former partners, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), have abandoned the coalition and are demanding his resignation, the government is on the verge of defeat over his proposed budget, yet he is willing to take the time to explain to Macleans that he understands what has led to this sense of heightened frustration. A case of lost illusions, he thinks—Hungarians had expected more of the post-Communist era than they got. Membership in the EU has not guaranteed the nirvana they perceive across their western borders. In Austria, in their view, the cars are better and the air conditioning works. People live better. Democracy has not provided enough benefits yet, and they are tired of waiting. They don’t understand that 20 years is not long enough to reach what took western Europeans more than 60 years to build. Despite the disappointments, and, Gyurcsány says, unlike his opponents, he still believes in parliamentary democracy and will, one assumes, leave his post if—but only if—it is the will of the people. He will not be threatened or cajoled out of his magnificent 19th-century office.

The ghost in that office is still Gyurcsány’s unfortunate 2006 post-election speech. That had been the signal for FIDESZ’s refusal to abide by the rules of parliamentary democracy. Not quite two years later, the ghost may appear behind the PM’s chair and determine his fate. On Sept. 8, Gyurcsány held a press conference to announce that his party will hold a convention on Sept. 27 to decide whether to proceed with a minority government and its own budget, ask the president to dismiss parliament and proceed to a new election, or accede to the SZDSZ’s demand for the installation of a caretaker government until the 2010 scheduled election. For now, the only certainty is that the national crisis will continue. M

Anna Porter’s 2007 book, Kasztner’s Train, won this year’s Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize.