Orban et urbi

Hungary’s PM Viktor Orban doesn’t get a great press – at least outside Hungary where it’s harder to arrange.

So broadminded diversity connoisseurs might profit from a recent speech at the Bálványos Free Summer University and Student Camp (a ‘large-scale intellectual workshop of the Carpathian Basin’ apparently).

It reads both well and revealingly; logically constructed and strategically coherent; its premises stated and conclusions drawn.  Perhaps he could give Zoom lessons to more gushy and less focused global peers.

Its theme is Orban’s view of the interests of Hungary as a nation state.

And at its heart is a conception of Hungarian identity, distinctive but not static in response to the current trends, emerging from the Hungarian people.

Which most definitely conflicts with what Orban terms a ‘post-Western identity’ (with its spiritual home for the purposes of this analysis in Brussels).

He puts it like this: “We made an offer to the post-Westerners which was based on tolerance or leaving one another in peace, allowing each to decide for themselves whom they want to live alongside; but they reject this and are continuing to fight against Central Europe, with the goal of making us like them.”

Or, putting it in more practical terms, he will use democratic powers to resist the external imposition – in this case by the EU – of social or demographic change (read migration here) which is not actively sought by a political consensus of Hungarians.

He acknowledges with some relish that such a fundamental political difference puts Hungary’s government at odds with the EU political consensus.

As the earlier statement suggests, Orban sees the other members of the central European Visegrad group (Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) as natural allies, but also recognises that interests will frequently diverge.

Indeed, it becomes apparent that – perhaps as a consequence of this strategy of national interest – a great deal of effort is needed to avoid undue dependence on any one power, the United States and Russia, as much as the EU (although perhaps not with the same level of urgency). 

And policy is interconnected. So the need for diversity in energy sources – in order to reduce scope for EU diktat – flows into considerations of security policy.

Here he rather bravely goes into specifics avoided by many European leaders by attempting to explain how his government’s assessment of the parties’ security needs, shaped Hungarian policy in the Ukrainian war.  

Perhaps he also needs to, as this caused some serious differences with his Polish friends: 

As regards the war, the Poles and the Hungarians have the same strategic interest: they do not want the Russians to come any closer, they want Ukraine’s sovereignty to be preserved, and they want Ukraine to be a democracy … [but] the problem in Hungarian-Polish relations is one of the heart. We Hungarians see this war as a war between two Slavic peoples, and as one which we want to stay out of. But the Poles see it as a war in which they are also involved: it is their war, and they are almost fighting it.”

Fortunately, when making the speech he took the precaution of invoking “ [the need for] modesty and humility: you cannot supplant the Lord of History”.

Because at least one of the premises of his Ukrainian policy – that Western military aid could not make a decisive difference – seems to have been falsified.

That said, his conclusion that the war likely ends by a negotiation which acknowledges some Russian security interests in Ukraine seems quite similar to that of Henry Kissinger and one suspects may be shared by the EU leadership and the Biden administration, albeit more artfully shaded by moral rhetoric.

Another aspect of Orban’s speech which might surprise us non-Hungarians is the almost casual treatment of economic issues.

There are none of the profound statements of dependency on global economic trends, nor the demands for far reaching, urgent and essential reform, which we take in our stride these days. Only a quiet confidence that an open “gateway” or “transit” economy, diversified in energy terms, attractive to market-driven capital and technological innovation, socially and politically stable, will continue to enjoy above-average economic growth.

This, prosaically, seems to be the main objective, rather than more sweeping but perhaps less attainable goals like carbon neutrality or ending child poverty. (Cheap energy seems to be the Hungarian anti-poverty tool of choice.) But it would permit Hungary and its central European peers to become rich enough by 2030 to be net contributors to the post-Western EU budget. And perhaps give them leverage to make it a little less post-Western.

Like good material out of China, it’s a bracing contrast to some of our own, dare one say, post-Western political dialogue. Not surprising then that some will prefer to discount it on the grounds of xenophobia and anti-semitism.  While that might make it easier, the Jerusalem Post – an organ well attuned to the nuances of anti-semitism – lets us know that it might just be a bit more complicated than that.

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