Heinrich-Böll-Foundation (hbs): György Konrád, many are appalled by current developments in Hungary. How, after the peaceful revolution of 1989/90, could these events come about?
Konrád: The recent past was characterised by democratisation – and sometimes by confusion. It was rife with conflict. There were pleasant and less than pleasant exchanges, there were tough confrontations. All sides have engaged in smear campaigns, not just Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz; the Socialist Party, Fidesz’ opponents, were no little innocents either.
Yet, political rhetoric was still moderate. There was no violence. No one wanted to change the constitutionally guaranteed rules of the game. We had a democratic constitution, maybe not the finest possible, but it safeguarded that a number of institutions were free from government interference – there was an independent constitutional court, an independent press. There were no problems that could only be solved through revolutionary rhetoric.
The new media law is a belated joke by Mr. Orbán, something he did after he had already won and over half of the electorate had voted for him. Turnout at the last elections was rather low. It is not that two-thirds of the electorate backs Orbán; it is, according to how our election laws apportion seats, two-thirds of the MPs that support him.
hbs: What effects does the new media law currently have in Hungary?
The law has been drafted very cunningly. There is a paragraph that decrees that fines will only be passed beginning in the second half of the year, that is starting July 2011, after the end of Hungary’s EU Presidency.
hbs: How do people react – especially those in the media and intellectuals?
Konrád: Intellectuals, people in the media, artists and writers are unhappy. Some are scared. Since its election victory, the government has not just passed the media law but a swathe of other legislation. Among them is a law decreeing that all government employees may be dismissed with only two months warning and without any reason given. This means that people may receive sudden notice, will have to pack up and leave. Many people working in the civil service, people whose families are dependent on a single income now do consider very carefully what they may or may not say or do – because, come the next month, they may find themselves on the street.
This government is all but magnanimous with those who loose out, that is with those they dismiss. There is a tacit consensus that they shall not find another good job, that they shall not be able to lead a pleasant life outside of the civil service. No company will hire them, as businesses know only too well that there would be consequences.
hbs: Into what direction will Orbán’s government steer the country?
Konrád: Mr. Orbán is a relatively young man. From university he went directly into politics, thinking he would be able to erect – within the confines of democracy and the European Union – a one-party state, a Fidesz State while at the same time keeping some democratic institutions for the sake of appearance.
There is, for example, Hungarian President Pál Schmitt who signed the media law. He is frequently the butt of ridicule and satire. Pál Schmitt was a good athlete; he speaks a number of languages and is a nice gentleman with good manners. He likes to talk about how one should defend the Hungarian language but his writings are peppered with spelling mistakes, which is why people smile politely whenever he is mentioned.
Yet, Pál Schmitt is not his own man, he is a Fidesz party soldier – and Fidesz is an organisation that demands absolute loyalty, otherwise, overnight, you will find yourself out of a job. Fidesz is a one-man show. Mr. Orbán is its sole director and everybody else has to consent that his ideas – most of them crackpot notions – are deeply philosophical truths.
hbs: Until now, there seem to have been very few protests in Hungary against the measures taken by Orbán’s government. Is this true?
Konrád: Yes, this is true – and it will stay that way for some time, too. The older people, the ones with jobs, are unable to protest, as they know that they may be out of a job tomorrow. That is how people were socialised under the Communist regime.
Others hold that, as Mr. Orbán enjoys so much support, he should be given the benefit of the doubt, as he is, after all, the winner of democratic elections. As we are living in a democracy, we should take this seriously and respect the results.
hbs: What do you think would it take to make people protest?
Konrád: There is a new wave of resistance. It is slow to develop and is fed by other, new groups. It is younger people, those used to the new freedoms. This will increase in the second half of the year, once, under the new media law, fines will be passed that may threaten the existence of media outlets.
People who want to keep their jobs, journalists for example, tend to be cautious. The presenter Attila Mong has observed a minute of silence on national radio in protest of the media law. He was dismissed. Many newspapers came out with empty front pages, and Hungary’s largest newspaper declared: “In Hungary the freedom of the press has been abolished.”
The EU will try to investigate the new law but Hungarian officials will tell them: “Please, do study the law very carefully, with all its details.” The law is 180 pages. I honestly esteem everybody who will study the complete text.
hbs: How do you think should EU countries react?
Konrád: I believe – and there I agree with Peter Frey, editor in chief of the German TV station ZDF – that it would be uncommonly crude (nor is there a consensus) to deny Hungary the mostly ceremonial EU presidency. However, there is no need to pose for joint photographs, no need to smile and keep up appearances when faced with such problems. Not all “clever” explanations have to be accepted outright.
For example, recently a former Hungarian ambassador to Berlin said that the law had been necessary in order to ban anti-Semitic publications. On the same day, the editor in chief of Magyar Hírlap published an article full of nasty anti-Semitic phrases. This is a newspaper close to Fidesz, and the editor in chief is close friends with Mr. Orbán.
The West is well advised not to take everything at face value and to remember that each word always comes with a second meaning.
hbs: During Hungary’s EU presidency, Orbán plans further steps. A new constitution is due to be passed this spring.
Konrád: This may lead to hard times for the country. I think the new constitution will become the “constitution of one party.” Only Fidesz people will draft the new constitution; no self-respecting law professional will want to be part of it. The constitution will solely further the aims of the party.
hbs: What are the political options for democratic opposition in Hungary?
Konrád: I do not know yet. There is a certain amount of perplexity. The young people, however, are slowly beginning to act. Up until now, right-wing – even far right – ideas had a certain trendy appeal to the young. Now this is beginning to swing the other way. The media law bothers young people as it stands for boredom, for stupid and wrong-headed writing.
hbs: What do you expect from the green LMP party (“Lehet Más a Politika”, i.e., Politics Can Be Different)?
Konrád: Not very much. Up until now, they have been treading very cautiously. They were good during the debate on the media law. But then the Socialists were critical too and so was even the far-right Jobbik party, also in opposition. Sometimes Jobbik is even forced to use a relatively democratic type of reasoning to try to fend off the overwhelming Fidesz majority.
hbs: How do you think should the democrats outside of Hungary react?
Konrád: They should keep their eyes open, not be naïve. They should not make sweeping statements against our country either. A majority of the population did not support Orbán, and I think much may be learned from our case. It is a kind of case study because there is hidden populism all over Europe – in Germany and France, too. It may be, that for the time, it has struck up its tents in Hungary.
hbs: Mr. Konrád, thank you very much for talking with us.
The interview was done by Karoline Hutter for Heinrich-Böll-Foundation.
Translated from German by Bernd Herrmann.