Hungary at the Turning Point
A Moment Series
Democracy in Retreat
Are Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his populist-right party marching the country in the wrong direction?
by Yigal Schleifer
It’s a few days before the May 25 European Parliament elections, and the streets of Budapest are awash with colorful campaign posters urging Hungarians to vote for delegates to represent their country in Brussels. It would be a shining display of democracy in action, a comforting reminder of Hungary’s ten-year membership in the European Union after decades of repressive communist rule, if not for the fact that almost all the signs are for one party—the ruling populist-right Fidesz.
The party’s campaign advertising is inescapable. On subway platforms, its trademark orange greets commuters as they step off their trains. On sidewalks, signs proclaiming the party’s simple, yet telling slogan—“Only Fidesz!!”— are plastered on 15-foot-high, circular advertising kiosks towering over pedestrians. And on the highway into Budapest from the airport, I count so many billboards featuring the half-smiling face of Fidesz leader Prime Minister Viktor Orban, that it reminds me of 1980s Romania, when roads were lined with nothing but signs extolling the virtues of communist strong man Nicolae Ceausescu.
Here and there I see opposition posters, mostly plastered on pieces of cheap plywood, nailed together around tree trunks or utility poles. This isn’t by accident. After being in power from 1998 until 2002, Fidesz regained control of the parliament in 2010 with a two-thirds majority. The party soon began passing legislation at will—including laws restricting the location of billboards. This drove the country’s second-largest outdoor advertising firm—owned by a government opponent—out of business, leaving the industry dominated by a company owned by a former Fidesz party treasurer.
Fidesz’s slate of candidates easily won the May race for Hungary’s seats in the European Parliament. But the victory came on the heels of a far more critical win: Orban and his government were reelected in April, again with a two-thirds majority. According to Freedom House—a human rights watchdog group based in Washington, DC— the party’s winning streak comes at a cost. In its recently issued “Nations in Transit” report, which tracks democratic development in the region stretching from Central Europe to Central Asia, Hungary was named one of the worst backsliders. “Hungary’s multiyear governance decline…remains the most poignant reminder that democratization in post-communist Europe is neither complete nor irreversible,” the report said. “Without counterbalancing improvements, any further deterioration in governance, electoral process, media freedom, civil society, judicial independence or corruption under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s recently reelected government will expel Hungary from the category of ‘consolidated democratic regimes’ next year.”
This shift is a setback not only for Hungary, but for the wider post-Cold War project of spreading the European Union’s democratic principles of good governance, rule of law, and human and civil rights to countries that had precious little experience with those ideals during the Soviet years. “Hungary is a critical case. It had the best chance of making it to the level of a certain type of Western-style democracy,” says Dieter Dettke, a former German diplomat currently teaching at Georgetown University. “It had the most exposure to the West during the Soviet period with its ‘goulash communism,’” he adds, using the term for its more open version of communism that flirted with elements of free market capitalism and rejected the Stalinist oppression of the 1950s. “It was Hungary that helped bring down the Berlin Wall by opening up its borders for East Germans who were escaping.”
As Peter Kreko, one of Hungary’s leading political analysts, puts it to me during an interview in his Budapest office, “Hungary is still a democracy, but it’s a weaker democracy than before.”
Until December of 2011, 45-year-old Balazs Nagy Navarro was one of Hungary’s leading foreign affairs correspondents at the country’s state television news network Magyar Televízió (MTV). That was the year the veteran reporter and editor resigned in protest, after the network—in anticipation of possible government reaction—pixelated the face of Zoltan Lomnici, a former head of Hungary’s Supreme Court who had made comments critical of the government. The incident, which came in the wake of other more serious acts of self-censorship, led Nagy Navarro and a few of his colleagues to stage a 21-day hunger strike in front of the glass-box building that houses the network’s offices on the outskirts of Budapest.
After nearly three years, the protest has become a quixotic one-man quest. Nagy Navarro spends most of his time on a small patch of land across the street from the network, his home a little camper trailer he bought with part of a 10,000-euro prize he received from a German press freedom organization. On a hot and sunny morning, I stop by the trailer, which is festooned with an EU flag. A bearish man with salt-and-pepper hair and piercing green eyes, Nagy Navarro is sitting at a cramped table listening to a miniature radio play Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. Digitally obscuring the face of a government critic, he tells me, was simply the last straw. “It was the peel of the banana that they slipped on,” he says. “They were doing worse things. The state TV had become a propaganda tool of the government.”
The problems, Nagy Navarro says, began with the arrival of the second Orban government in 2010. “All governments, left and right, consider the state media as their property,” he says. “Before, it might have been a pro-government channel, but it was with soft distortions, putting things in a certain frame and doing it with light criticism. But after 2010, it was direct manipulation and lies. We were not journalists anymore, and we were deceiving the public continually. For me it became morally and professionally difficult to come into work.”
Nagy Navarro’s crusade is a lonely one, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t fighting against something real. One of the first things Fidesz did upon coming into office in 2010 was pass new media laws which, among other things, gave the government the authority to dictate content and impose sanctions on media outlets, as well as to dole out an expanded number of broadcast licenses to favored stations. While this has affected state-run entities such as MTV, it has had an even more dire effect on independent stations.
At the threadbare studios of Budapest’s Tilos Radio [Forbidden Radio], a former pirate station that started broadcasting in 1991 soon after the end of communist rule, I meet Gabor Csabai, the station’s longtime director. Once one of Europe’s leading community stations, the all-volunteer enterprise is now struggling to stay on the air. “We used to be the example for community radio stations all over Europe,” says Csabai. “Now we are at the bottom of the European radio system.” He says this is because the station is now required to devote 25 percent of airtime to Hungarian music and, more ominously, has to contend with a government-appointed monitoring body responsible for “content regulation.” “After the communist system changed here, the most important feeling was the lack of fear, the freedom of expression, of open borders,” adds Csabai. “Compared to 20 years ago we are more free. But compared to five years ago, we cannot smile. The toothache we felt during the communist years is coming back.”
Amy Brouillette, a researcher at the Media Studies Center at Budapest’s Central European University, explains to me that the media laws gave the Orban government powers that “are probably wider than any other single authority in Europe.” After a pause she adds, “Well, maybe except in Belarus,” referring to the dictatorially run country considered to be Europe’s most autocratic. Brouillette, an American who has been living in Hungary since the 1990s, continues: “A few things have become obvious since the change of government in 2010. One is that it is possible for one party to conquer the media market.”
European Parliament campaign posters for Hungary’s opposition parties on a temporary billboard in Budapest. The poster on the left, for the Politics Can Be Different (LMP) party,
says “For a Better Europe.” The poster on the right, for the Együtt [Together] party says “It’s Your Future.”
Hungary’s turnaround—from beacon of post-communist optimism to a country chipping away at the foundation of European democracy—is, at heart, the story of Prime Minister Orban. A lawyer by training, the 51-year-old Orban first appeared on the political scene in 1989, when Fidesz was simply an anti-communist youth movement and Orban its spirited leader. He was among the speakers at the reburial ceremony in Budapest for Imre Nagy, a national hero executed by the Soviets after the 1956 revolution. There he delivered a rousing speech calling for an end to communist rule. As the youngest person to speak that day, the then shaggy-haired Orban made a big impression, giving his political career a jump-start.
As he built Fidesz into a political party, Orban presented a very different image from the one that he does today. “He was very dominant and determined, but at the early stage he used the language and vocabulary of the liberals,” says a Fidesz founding member, who became disillusioned and left the party, and who, like many people I spoke with, asked me not to use his name for fear of jeopardizing his career. “For a decade, Orban was a liberal on the international stage. In 1994, he turned in a rightward-looking direction,” the ex-party official explains as we talk at an outdoor café in Budapest’s leafy Szabadsag [Freedom] Square, surrounded by stately buildings such as the Hungarian National Bank and the American Embassy. “He started to compete with the radical right for votes and became populist. During this time, he was also very focused on building loyalty within the party. And he was very successful in that. Orban grabbed power, took over the cash flow and chose all those who were loyal to him.” These dramatic changes in Orban’s politics and methods drove away numerous close associates.
European Parliament campaign poster for the Fidesz party on a downtown kiosk that reads: “Our message to Brussels: Respect Hungarians!”
Fidesz was voted out of power in 2002 and replaced by the Socialist party, MSZP, which had been in control previously. But in 2006, an audio recording surfaced of then-Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány in a closed-door party meeting, in which he said his government lied to win and “lied in the morning; lied in the evening.” As a result, public sentiment began to turn against the Socialist-Liberal coalition. Shortly thereafter, the global economic crisis hit. In 2008, Hungary saw its economy shrink by almost seven percent—one of the highest figures in Europe. Reeling from growing unemployment, a weakening real estate market and dangerously overleveraged banks, the country reached an agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a $25 billion bailout. The resulting austerity package was a difficult economic blow for Hungary’s citizens.
Orban—and Fidesz—rode the wave of growing frustration back into power in 2010. One of the major policies the party adopted was to raise taxes dramatically on multinational companies working in Hungary, a step that Orban billed as reclaiming the country from foreign control. This reflects another Fidesz strategy: The party has directed domestic discontent outwards, much of it toward the European Union.
The EU factor in today’s Hungarian politics is a complex one. The transfer of billions in euros from the EU to support Hungary’s economy is a lifeline that provides Brussels some leverage over Orban. But the reform and bureaucratic requirements imposed by the EU make an easy target for the Orban government, which paints Brussels as a bogeyman threatening Hungary’s sovereignty. One of the slogans Fidesz used during the European Parliament election was, “Our message to Brussels: Respect Hungarians!”
For the Hungarian right, Brussels is the new Moscow; the technocrats of the EU have replaced the brutes of the Soviet Union as oppressors of the Hungarian nation, which many Hungarians believe has long suffered from the effects of foreign domination of one kind or another. “The European framework wasn’t ready for the strange occurrence that a country prepared to be a European Union member—legally and politically—should be moving away from democratic values,” the former Fidesz party member says. Although the EU was very strict about ensuring that Hungary reformed its laws to meet European standards in order to join, Brussels has been lax in enforcing those standards.
I ask a Hungarian economist in his 30s how he sees the EU fitting into the political situation. “The only constraint on Orban is an external one—the EU,” he says over coffee and pastries at one of Budapest’s grand old cafés. “They are keeping him from going completely crazy.” The economist now works in Luxembourg. He left a prestigious position in the country’s Central Bank, because of growing government influence on what was previously one of Hungary’s most professionally run institutions. Like a growing number of young professionals, the economist found that he was shut out of jobs for not being a Fidesz loyalist.
Hungary is not alone in using the democratic process to centralize control and stifle dissent. What some call “Putinization” is a global phenomenon these days. Within the EU, the country has positioned itself firmly within what is termed the “eurosceptic” camp, a group of nations that claim Brussels interferes too much with internal matters and overregulates the lives of ordinary citizens.
Orban is quite open about where he stands regarding liberalism and democracy. “I don’t think that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations,” he said in a July speech he gave in Romania to a gathering of ethnic Hungarian students. “While breaking with the dogmas and ideologies that have been adopted by the West, we are trying to find the form of community organization, the new Hungarian state, which is capable of making our community competitive in the great global race for decades to come,” Orban told the students. Among the rising “stars” of the new world order being built, he says, are Russia, Turkey and China, noting that none of these “is liberal and some of which aren’t even democracies.”
Balazs Nagy Navarro, a journalist who once worked for Hungary’s state television network (MTV), in front of the camper trailer that has served as his home during his long-term protest against his former employer.
A short walk from Szabadsag Square is the stunningly ornate 19th-century Gothic Revival Hungarian Parliament building. Here I meet Ferenc Kumin, a former political scientist who now serves as a government spokesman. A youthful-looking 39-year-old with closely cropped hair and dressed in a gray pinstripe suit, Kumin rejected the accusations that Fidesz was undermining Hungary’s democratic institutions. “All of this criticism is a product of our opposition, which is alive,” says Kumin, who speaks in a rapid-fire manner. “I wouldn’t say they are in good shape—but they try their best to challenge us.
“The opposition has a difficult time attacking us, so what they can do is bring the discourse from real issues, from figures and facts, into a more symbolic arena where weak concepts are around, like ‘European values.’ Define European values! It’s not easy. It’s a very strong political weapon to use against your enemy if you want to do that,” Kumin adds.
It’s certainly true that Hungary’s opposition parties are in miserable shape. One reason Fidesz won so many votes this past April is that Hungary’s liberal and left opposition is divided and disorganized. In the last elections, a coalition made up of the country’s most significant liberal parties, some of which have previously governed the country, garnered only 19 percent of the vote. In comparison, far-right Jobbik, which is Fidesz’s only significant competition, earned 20 percent, up from 17 percent in 2010.
Janos Petras, the lead singer of Karpatia, a nationalist rock band
Liberals seemed to have been completely caught off guard by Fidesz’s consolidation of power. “We knew back in 2010 that there would be major disagreements with the government, but not in our wildest nightmares did we imagine that Fidesz would start demolishing democratic institutions and start installing its cronies,” says Timea Szabo, the sole member of Parliament representing Dialogue for Hungary, a small green liberal party, during an interview in her small office in a building down the road from Parliament. “They started pushing forward bills that they simply didn’t have the mandate for—including constitutional changes.” For example, she says, Fidesz used its legislative heft to enshrine a flat tax in the constitution and to dilute the power of the country’s high court.
“I often feel like Don Quixote, fighting against windmills. In Parliament there’s not much we can do,” says Szabo, a former journalist now in her second term. She rushes out to the hallway for a press conference about an initiative she and another parliamentarian are introducing to create quotas for women in the Hungarian Parliament, which has the lowest level of female representation in the EU. The legislation, she admits, has little hope of success, since Fidesz doesn’t support it. Outside, three cameramen and a handful of reporters are waiting. The camera lights flick on, and Szabo reads from a prepared statement. It all feels like a formality, everyone from the parliamentarian to the journalists playing a role in a production they know few will see.
On the southern end of Szabadsag Square, hidden by a white-cloth-covered fence and guarded by multiple policemen, is a small unfinished monument. Every day, a group—the day I was there around 100—mostly with gray hair, gathers to hold hands and sing anti-communist songs to protest its construction.
The government is erecting the monument to honor the victims of Nazi Germany’s March 1944 occupation of Hungary—including 565,000 Jews. But the country’s opposition parties and Jewish groups are unhappy: They believe the monument—a historically and artistically challenged creation that will feature an eagle (Germany) swooping down on the Archangel Gabriel (Hungary)—whitewashes the extensive and troubling role Hungary’s Nazi-sympathizing government played in the massive deportation of Jews to Auschwitz.
The Fidesz ex-party official I’m with explains that the monument is a powerful example of how Orban has reached back into Hungary’s history for inspiration. “It isn’t modern right-wing politics, but a 19th-century conservatism that plays well with the Hungarian sense of the past. That’s what he’s doing here,” he says, pointing toward the monument site.
The official approach to the memory of the Holocaust fits uncomfortably into all of this. On the one hand, Fidesz has been credited with taking positive steps, such as setting aside 2014 as a year to commemorate the Holocaust and dispensing government funds for memorial projects and events. On the other hand, as with the monument in Szabadsag Square, Fidesz is being accused of rewriting history by offering up a narrative in which Hungarian responsibility for the systematic deportation of nearly 440,000 Jews—the majority to Auschwitz-Birkenau—is diminished: The monument portrays all Hungarians, by linking it to the 45-year Soviet occupation and the continuum of Hungarian suffering. During my stay in Hungary, it was the construction of the monument that almost every government critic I spoke to—Jewish or not—considered the defining symbol of the Orban government’s efforts to toy with the past in order to bolster its political future.
“The government’s line is, ‘We are sorry for what happened. Yes, the Nazi occupation was horrible, the Soviet occupation was horrible, but we had nothing to do with it,’” says Gwen Jones, a historian affiliated with Central European University in Budapest. “It’s quite clearly an abdication of dealing with the country’s past honestly, of dealing with issues of responsibility.” Jones is organizing a project to commemorate the “yellow star” apartment buildings where the city’s Jews were forced to live under regulations passed by the Hungarian government. “Fidesz has been very good at passing legislation that has gone into force retroactively,” says Jones. “It appears they are now trying to do the same to Hungary’s history. If a government can pass laws retroactively, it can also try to change history.”
Fed up with the government’s approach and with the construction of the monument in Szabadsag Square, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, the main organization representing Hungary’s estimated 100,000 Jews, announced earlier this year it would not participate in any of Fidesz’s Holocaust commemoration projects. Meanwhile, some 50 organizations that received close to $1 million in government money for the commemoration year have returned it. They formed their own alliance, called Memento 70, and are now trying to raise funds independently.
“There was a feeling among these organizations that we had reached a limit in terms of what could be played around with,” says Andras Harsanyi, an economist who is helping organize Memento 70’s activities. “Giving the government its money back was more about showing the population that we raised our voice and were able to gather a community around us. There’s a point where you have to raise your voice.” Harsanyi, a 38-year-old with short gray hair and pale blue eyes, grew up in a secular Jewish household, his parents committed communists.
Kumin, the government spokesman, denies Fidesz is engaging in revisionism. “No one wants to whitewash the responsibility of the Hungarian authorities. No one questions that. We are ashamed of that,” he says. But, he adds: “We believe the story is only complete if there is the German invasion part in it. Without that, you don’t get the complete picture… you get a false picture. That’s why the monument has to be dedicated to that event.”
Today, Hungary has the third-largest Jewish population in Europe, the majority of which is in Budapest. There are occasional anti-Semitic incidents— in 2012, for example, bloody pigs’ feet were hung from a Budapest statue of Raoul Wallenberg, the Hungary-based Swedish diplomat who saved countless Jewish lives during the Holocaust by issuing them “protective passports” from his home country. That same year, several Jewish cemeteries were defaced and a Jewish community leader was attacked by two young men after he left a Budapest synagogue.
The Hungarian Jews I spoke with, although concerned by incidents like these, were more worried about the political rise of the far-right and the kinds of anti-Jewish rhetoric the government is willing to tolerate. “Everything starts with words,” says Rabbi Ferenc Raj, who leads Budapest’s Reform synagogue, Bet Orim.“You know that rhyme about ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’? We don’t believe in that. I pay a lot of attention to words.”
Not far from Parliament, in a Jewish community center building on a side street near Budapest’s opera house—another one of the city’s opulent 19th-century buildings—I meet with Gabor Szanto, a novelist and poet who edits the Jewish cultural and political monthly Szombat. During the war, the community center was one of the “yellow star houses.” Today it houses a café, theater and a number of local Jewish organizations, serving as a potent symbol for a community that has managed to slowly rebuild itself after the devastation of the Holocaust.
Szanto, whom I found working in a small, cluttered office in the back of the building, says he doesn’t doubt that the Orban government believes in the narrative of the Nazi period represented by the Szabadsag Square monument. In fact, he says, not enough credence is given to what is called “Trianon trauma,” named after the 1920 peace agreement that stripped Hungary of some two-thirds of its territory. Nearly a century later, many Hungarians still resent the treatment of their country after World War I, and this sense of victimization colors how they view the rest of the country’s traumatic 20th-century history, he says. Still, Szanto continues, the monument can’t be divorced from Hungary’s current politics. “The government needs a tool to steal voters from the far right, and that tool is in the field of historical narratives,” he tells me. “This coming to terms with the past is a process. The debate about the past is still open but the statue is something final. The debate is something that is still hot, but the statue is a cold stone.”
Protesters marching hand in hand around the controversial World War II monument being built by the Hungarian government in Budapest’s Szabadsag Square. The sign says “Dialogue, not Double Speak.
Many in Hungary will tell you that one of the biggest problems with their country is the rise of Jobbik, the far-right party founded in 2003. Like Fidesz, Jobbik has tapped into frustrations about slow economic growth and has played upon nationalist leitmotifs surrounding Hungarians’ sense of national loss and honor. Unlike Fidesz, Jobbik has frequently and overtly employed anti-Semitic, anti-Roma and xenophobic language. Two years ago, in a speech to Parliament, Marton Gyongyosi, a Jobbik leader, said, “I think now is the time to assess…how many people of Jewish origin there are here, and especially in the Hungarian Parliament and the Hungarian government, who represent a certain national security risk for Hungary.” In 2011, meanwhile, the Hungarian Guard, uniformed paramilitary groups affiliated with Jobbik, briefly terrorized the Roma part of a small town called Gyongyospata, its members holding marches and torchlight parades. Fear of violence led to the evacuation of the town’s Roma women and children.
Eager to become Hungary’s governing party, Jobbik is now attempting to moderate its image, distancing itself from the black-shirted thugs of the Hungarian Guard and trying to portray itself as part of the larger family of like-minded European parties such as Holland’s Party for Freedom or England’s UK Independence Party. Prior to Hungary’s most recent parliamentary elections, Jobbik campaign literature went so far as to picture the party’s leader, Gabor Vona, stroking puppies.
A few days before the European Parliament elections in May, I take a train from Budapest to Veszprem, a provincial capital some 60 miles away. Set amid agricultural fields on the way to the holiday area of Lake Balaton, Veszprem is playing host to Zoltan Balczo, a Jobbik MP who is holding a press conference in the party’s local office. At the entrance, a mailbox is emblazoned with a Jobbik sticker that reads: “Hungary for Hungarians.” Inside a cramped, fluorescent-lit room, seven local reporters are facing Balczo, 66, who is dressed in a gray suit and a light green shirt. On the walls of the room are maps showing Hungary before it lost its territory in 1920, photographs of Admiral Miklós Horthy, who led Hungary from 1920 to 1944 and orchestrated the country’s World War II alliance with Nazi Germany, and a poster saying, “Radical Change.”
After he speaks, the gentlemanly Balczo agrees to talk with me privately, saying: “Nothing is taboo. Ask me anything—about racism, anti-Semitism, anything.” Mentioning the sticker I saw on the mailbox downstairs, I ask Balczo if Jobbik believes non-Hungarians are truly a threat to the country. “The biggest danger for Hungary from Jobbik’s perspective is that foreigners can buy agricultural lands here,” he responds. “It’s a danger for our sovereignty.” He has a ready example to prove his point. “Why does Palestine have problems gaining independence?” he asks. “Because its lands were bought up by Israel. If a country wants to have its independence, it needs to own its land. What would you think if Russians wanted to buy up Nebraska?”
Whether Jobbik’s new “moderate” tack is actually winning the party more votes is an open question. Although the party remained Hungary’s second largest after this year’s parliamentary elections, its share of the national vote dropped from 20 to 15 percent in the May European Parliament elections. Kreko, the political analyst, suggests that this might be because Jobbik’s base of young far-right voters are finding less to like in a party that no longer uses the extreme language it once did. “Jobbik is actually more mild than Fidesz in some positions right now,” he says. “A lot of people say that Fidesz is a bigger danger than Jobbik, and I would tend to agree.” On occasion Jobbik may still employ more outwardly racist language than Orban’s government, Kreko says, but “Fidesz is the government. It is in power.”
With the liberal and leftist parties out of the running, Hungarian politics is now a competition between the populist right and the extreme right. This means, says Kreko, that Fidesz has had to incorporate parts of Jobbik’s platform to attract right-wing voters. As a result, Fidesz has adopted several complicated historical positions that have long been staples of the Hungarian nationalist right’s agenda. In 2010, the party passed legislation creating a day of national commemoration for the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, a step which critics saw as reinforcing the Hungarian sense of victimization. Through the erection of statues and other memorials, Fidesz has also overseen the rehabilitation of Admiral Horthy.
But last year, the Orban government left many speechless when it awarded its highest state journalism prize to television personality Ferenc Szaniszlo, known for spouting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and anti-Roma diatribes. This was followed by the bestowal of a top cultural award, known as the Golden Cross of Merit, to Janos Petras, the lead singer of Karpatia, a nationalist rock band that’s a favorite of Jobbik voters. Named for the Carpathian Mountains—which Hungarian nationalists consider the mythical birthplace of their people—Karpatia is notorious for writing a song that became the Hungarian Guard anthem.
Borbala Kriza, a sociologist who has studied Hungary’s extreme-right “national rock” music scene, says giving Petras the award makes perfect sense for a government trying to siphon off votes from Jobbik. “Young people in Hungary are either completely apolitical or are active in the far right,” she tells me in a café in the Buda Hills, a tony part of Budapest that overlooks the Danube. “The far right has been able to not just build a party, Jobbik, but also a political subculture, national rock. It’s really political identity-forming music.”
Curious to meet the performer deemed worthy of Hungary’s top cultural honor, I reach out to Petras, who agrees to meet for an interview at a teahouse in a quiet Budapest suburb. The singer, dressed all in black, his head shaved and arms heavily tattooed, is easy to spot among the locals having lunch in the garden, where he is sitting at a table sipping a reddish herbal tea. Though a bit standoffish at first, Petras turns out to be soft-spoken with a slight trace of a lisp. When I ask him about his politics, he replies: “On a smaller level, if I buy a bottle of milk in the store, I care if it’s Czech or Hungarian. On a larger level, I want the territories that were taken away from Hungary in 1920 to be given back. My politics can be found between those two examples.” Surprisingly, Petras agrees with many of the liberals I spoke with, that Hungary is a democracy in decline. But his example of the problem is that people like him cannot question the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust without facing censure. “It’s very interesting how this number of six million Jews killed came about,” he says, his voice taking on a harder tone. “Today you can’t question this number. You have to accept what they say, like an idiot. This is one way to show you the problem with Hungarian democracy.”
On my way home from Budapest, I fly back to the United States via Brussels. As it happens, Orban and a small entourage board the small commuter jet after all the other passengers are seated; they are on their way to a meeting to discuss who will be the EU’s next top official. The passenger sitting next to me, a Western European businessman who owns a factory in Hungary, visibly recoils upon seeing Orban. He curses the prime minister under his breath and then whispers to me in English about all the corrupt Fidesz officials he now has to deal with. He has enough to say to fill most of the two-hour flight.
After hearing so many horror stories about Orban and his autocratic style, I am surprised that once we land, the Hungarian leader slings a colorful soccer-themed backpack on his shoulders. Could this man who is carrying his own bag, one that looks like it belongs to a child no less, be the dangerous democracy-buster I have been hearing about?
That’s the question I pose to a friend back in Budapest in an email I send, with a photograph I took of Orban with his backpack attached. He replies quickly with a link to an April 11 Wall Street Journal article. It turns out the rucksack on Orban’s back is a new one. He had recently donated his old one to the Hungarian National Museum as an object that bears “proof to the modern-day history of the country.” A regular fixture on Orban’s back during his term that began in 2010, the previous backpack is now part of an exhibition that includes, among other objects, the pen that Jozsef Antall, the first Hungarian prime minister of the post-communist period, used in 1991 to sign the treaty that undid the Warsaw Pact, the agreement militarily binding together the Soviet Union and its satellite nations.
The two items might very well belong together in the National Museum, as bookends for the story of Hungary’s European journey of the past several decades. Where Antall’s pen symbolizes the end of the Cold War and the start of a process that ultimately led to Hungary joining the EU, Orban’s backpack—or, more correctly, the populist message behind it—could likely come to represent a period that saw the unraveling of the country’s democratic gains.
As our plane rolls to a stop, the Hungarian prime minister and his small entourage are quickly ushered off the plane to a small bus waiting to take them into town. Orban has a serious look on his face and is silent. He may have come to the capital of the European Union as the representative of a member country, but he is about to set foot in a place that he himself has come to describe as enemy territory.
Yigal Schleifer is a journalist based in Washington, DC. Between 2002 and 2010 he was a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor in Istanbul, Turkey. Prior to that, he was a senior writer with The Jerusalem Report. Funding for this article was provided by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.