The Christmas edition of the Hungarian daily Magyar Nemzet reached the government’s eager supporters complete with a lengthy interview featuring Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. Mr. Orbán is most interesting as a politician when he is speaking to his own, and since one could hardly find a media outlet more supportive of the government’s propaganda needs than Magyar Nemzet, it is no wonder Orbán was really in his element during the exchange. Given the events of the last few weeks, he talked more than usual about both the domestic and the international criticism leveled against his government – and about why the opinion of the international community simply need not matter to his supporters.Orbán knows that his only means to sell his economic policies to his supporters is by shrouding policy matters in ideology. In particular, this interview suggests that Orbán believes that there is a realistic possibility of maintaining the support of his power base by appeals to nationalistic sentiments and to hostilities deeply-seated with many Hungarians against countries wealthier than their own. But the way his communications build up into an alternative “Hungarian” reality of international affairs is a unique process – the Dear Leader is inimitable in this respect.
So here’s the English version of (almost) the (whole) interview and the message as communicated by His Excellency himself. The original interview was published by Magyar Nemzet in its Dec. 24 issue (Hungarian version here) and was conducted by Péter Csermely.
PCs: Mr. Prime Minister, this Christmas did not promise to be too rich for Hungary to begin with. But it seems that even the little something which otherwise would have found its way under the tree is now being taken away by the credit rating agencies.
VO: At Christmas, we do not let mean elves into the house, so today the credit rating agencies will remain disappointed. It is characteristic of the assessment of their activities, by the way, that a few days ago in Brussels the only reaction that the European Commission’s spokesperson had to the news that these institutions are getting ready to downgrade several European countries was that this is only one opinion among many.
In early December, you said that in middle of the month there will be another attack against Hungary. Was this second downgrade what you had in mind?
Yes, along with a few other steps. Back then was when the downgrade of several other countries started, it was evident that they would find Hungary too. We must know, however, that we brought this trouble upon ourselves. Everything that is happening was brought upon us by the socialists’ governing and by their accumulation of a national debt beyond any measure. Countries that are not indebted are capable of avoiding some of these attacks, and the rest of them they can avert easily.
In Europe, every country is indebted.
Yes, the majority of them are, but there are refreshing exceptions even here in our region as well. Poland, the Czech Republic and even Slovakia are in a much better position than we are. So there are countries that followed the rules of common sense, where politicians did not think that economic politics may be confused with party politics, who did not want to keep their people happy from loans.
It is true that after your electoral victory you proclaimed a fight against state debt. Yet the Hungarian national debt is greater now than ever before.
In spite of the fact that we are pursuing forceful debt reduction policies. Without these, Hungary’s state debt would already be at the ninety percent level. Now it is in the range of less than eighty percent. The problem is that, because of the crisis afflicting the entirety of Europe, the exchange rate of the forint is weaker, and this increases the amount of our debt. However, the fight against debt must be continued even during times of unfavorable exchange rates. This will bring visible and tangible results: when the crisis subsides and the forint recovers, our debt level will also drop.
Yet Hungary’s case is unique, even among the highly indebted countries. This is because our international reputation is extraordinarily negative.
The international journalists are right on a few issues, but their claims are falsehoods on most matters. Regardless, however, these news reports exist, and for this reason we must reckon with them.
On what issues are they right?
For example, when they say that the Hungarian legislation is exceedingly fast, and hard to follow. Or when they go on and on that what is taking place in Hungary is not merely governing, but a regime change. They speak about this condemningly, but I think we should take it as a compliment instead. By the way, for more than a hundred years we Hungarians have been persistently unsuccessful at presenting our virtues to Western Europe. Not only because there they are very reserved in their behavior toward us, but also because we are not good at this genre.
Would we be that bad at it? The news about us at best fail to understand us, though most of them reflect straight out hostility.
It’s no use pitying ourselves. My wife usually says that whoever signs up to be a horse must do all the dragging. Undoubtedly, for foreigners the puzzle is difficult to put together. In Hungary, the closure of the post-communist era is under way. Post-communism in turn is not simply the period after communism, but an era, a system, with elements quite well-defined. One of these elements is that the country does not have a new constitution, but tries to get by with the old one instead. One of its characteristics is that the new civilian parties are not able to acquire a stable structure, or offer a realistic alternative of government. In economic life, even though there are rules on the books about competition, in reality everything is dominated by monopolies, interest groups and cartels, which are based on an old network of relationships. In some countries, this period was closed off quickly; in the Czech Republic, for example, it took five years, in Poland fifteen years. Hungary spent twenty years of its life on this struggle. In our country it was only last year that we were able to begin building a democracy in the Western-European sense, free of post-communist liabilities.
If this is so, the picture will be really difficult to parse together for the international press. As a matter of fact, their news is about something completely different. It is about how we lack credibility – and so does the government as well as you personally – and that our economic policy is a failure on the one hand, and, on the other hand, it is not only un-orthodox, but it is unfitting of a constitutional state.
The central element of the economic policy that the government and the two-thirds parliamentary majority behind it stand for is burden-sharing. The Hungarian people did not experience such a thing over the last twenty years. Built on austerity measures, socialist economic policies meant that what the people had was taken away from them from time to time, but in the meanwhile profit centers accumulating additional incomes did not take part proportionately in sharing the tax burden. We announced that we would change this, and we did so. In three years, we are bringing in 1,080 billion forints into our tax-burden sharing scheme from bank taxes and crisis taxes above the regular dues from these [profit-makers]. This is unprecedented in Hungarian history, unprecedented in Europe, it is no wonder if the outrage is also unprecedented. The situation is similar with the loan repayment and other rescue packages designed for those who hold loans in foreign currencies. The banks had to forfeit several hundreds of billions of forints, this was the price to be paid for freeing the greater part of foreign currency loan holders from their debt-slavery. No one sober enough would have thought that financial circles owned by foreign interests would be thankful for this, and that in their own countries they would feed their journalists reports that the economic policy that prevails in Hungary is a great and just one. We must acknowledge that if we want to build an equitable system, those interested in maintaining the previous, unjust system are going to resists. This was inevitable from the very outset. But what was not so inevitable, and what disappoints me at the same time, is that the Hungarian opposition turned against the interests of the people and operates as the domestic voice of international financial forces. Another key objective of the government, since this is a vital question for Hungary, is to strengthen the middle class, families who rear children and grandchildren from the jobs they hold down – since it is their work that advances the country. It is unfortunate that this counts as a practically innovative economic policy approach.
This word, “innovative,” has a really good sound to it, but opponents of the government say that there is hardly any innovation here. The government looked around, wherever it saw money, it swept it in, and though it is possible that on the short-term it acquired additional income, on the long-run it caused enormous damages – for example with the bank taxes, or with the nationalization of the savings deposited into private retirement funds.
People have a habit of greeting you with whatever hat they themselves wear. Our opponents spent the last twenty years mesmerized by policies of economic restriction. They do not see or they do not want to see that, by eliminating the possibility of stock marketing retirement funds, we secured and defended pensions. The losses of the banks hurt them enormously, but they did not take one single step for foreign currency loan holders pushed into the state of debt-slavery when they had a chance, in fact, they participated forcefully in bringing about this tragic situation. All they can see is that we levied special taxes on international corporations. They fail to see that with many of these [corporations] we arrived at agreements of strategic cooperation.
Was there any sense to declaring a freedom fight interlarded by such strong adjectives against the International Monetary Fund? After all, now we have to apply for a loan to them.
Our goal is not to take out a loan from the IMF. To the contrary: we want to continue financing the economy from loans borrowed from the monetary markets. What we would like is for the IMF to enter into an insurance contract with us, in case the European money markets become paralyzed, which is not something one can rule out. In contrast to the situation and the hopes of a year ago, the euro zone is clearly unable to cope on the short-term with its own crisis.
Precisely for this reason, was the government not overly loud with the IMF over the last year?
One does not light a flame in order to hide it. We had to understand that we relate to the IMF as to a bank, and not as to a political organization. We do not consider aspirations they might have that go beyond expectations that a bank may set for its clients as a matter of course, these we can hardly accept. After all, Hungary is a country, an independent sovereign nation. If the IMF says that it expects economic policies that guarantee to them that they get their money back, that is a matter of course for us. The how [of setting up these policies, however] is up to us.
Are we going to strike an agreement with them?
There is a good chance we will.
They were here just now, but they left very quickly, according to the news because serious differences of opinion came to the surface.
A series of negotiations contains several tactical elements worthy of novels; let us not get distracted by these.
Was the unfriendly letter sent to you by Barroso one such tactical element, or are they really fed up with us?
The [European] Union conducts over 700 proceedings against its various member countries for violations; among these, there are fourteen conducted against us. It would be time for the Hungarian people and especially for the Hungarian intellectuals to realize that nation states try to assert their own interests at Brussel’s various forums. From time to time, this results in conflicts. Those who never undertake a conflict cannot represent their home country well. There is no need to get scared, to hide underneath the table – we must defend our position in open debate. Courage is not simply a character trait, but a form of life. By the way, it is possible that they may be fed up with us. Too much is happening in Hungary too fast, and every day someone reports us to them, driven merely from domestic economic and political motivations. Before the last elections Hungary was choking in corruption, its public administration fell apart, the economic system was hopeless. Ten million people lived here, 3.8 million of them was officially employed, out of these, 1.2 million did not pay taxes, so a little more than two and a half million kept ten million. When I recount this in Brussels, everybody is shocked, they don’t think that such a country could exist, they think a country like that is doomed to fall apart. We were elected to change this, and this is what we are doing, and we are doing it fast, very fast, because Hungary has no time left to waste.
We are getting plenty of criticism from abroad about matters of public law too: more than one new Hungarian law and the new Hungarian constitution are under running fire.
Hungary’s left-liberal parties failed enormously at the elections. It is natural therefore for European parties allied with them, and for media organizations as well as intellectuals sympathetic to them, to pay special attention to the situation here and to automatically receive the Hungarian transformations with deep antipathy. Anyone who thought that it was possible to be spared from these attacks lives in a dream-world. Our task is only to bear these [attacks] with requisite strength and cheerfulness.
They are not too cheerful. What they say, at home as well as abroad, is that you are building a dictatorship, and dismantling democracy.
Yes, but this is so witless. What is more, this disk has been playing for such a long time that at this point it is cracking ear-splittingly. It wasn’t crispy fresh even back during our 1998-2002 government.
Do you consider the recent news, according to which Brussels is so fed up with you that informally they are looking for your replacement, true?
I am an old soldier in politics, what is more, even the electorate had me released from my position several times. I have seen a lot, I have experienced a lot in this profession. When such rumors are circulating, that’s when I feel that we are on the right track, and that is when I feel the strength of our political community. A strong opposition party that has the backing of the people does not hope for the implosion of its opponent, or that somewhere far away a great power center will knock out its rival from behind the steering wheel of the government – to the greatest glory of democracy. An opposition capable of survival has trust instead in that it is capable of performance that, on the one hand, can divert the intentions of the government, and that, on the other hand, it can recruit the majority of the voters behind its banner. But to hope that someone will dismiss the prime minister, well … that is pathetic, no?
Today is especially suited for taking a glance at the long-term future ahead.
The real debate in Hungarian politics is not about government. That’s just the surface, that’s for appearances only. What divides political forces in reality is what they think about the country. I lead the political community which believes that Hungary is capable of a lot, of very much. The camp standing opposed to us denies this. But what speaks from me when I say that we are destined for greatness and that we are a diligent, talented people is not national romanticism, but experience…
 Orban is calling the rating agencies “krampusz” – an devilish companion to Santa Claus who punishes children for their bad behavior and who usually carries a bundle of wooden sticks to scare them from wrong-doing.