Nothing new in the East?

On Viktor Orbán’s speech at Băile Tuşnad

Gábor Egry
31 July 2014

Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán possesses the rare gift to generate publicity with almost every public appearance. But after four years of permanent verbal wars against opposition in Hungary and abroad alike, including the IMF and the European Union, and a sweeping, although unfair electoral victory this spring, Europe has seemed to get accommodated with his lasting presence on the European political scene and started to discount his verbal attacks on these enemies.

Furthermore, Orbán’s annual speech in Băile Tuşnad (Tusnád in Hungarian), a small spa situated in the Székelyföld, a predominantly Hungarian inhabited region in the middle of Romania, which is a custom honored for more than two decades, has never generated much attention outside the Carpathian basin.


Sincere provocation

Thus, agitated reactions from all over Europe to his recent tirade, delivered last Saturday, were somewhat unexpected. But it seems parts of his speech cited frequently that denounced liberal democracy as a failed and outdated political and economic system and proposed to establish an illiberal democracy, similar to regimes such as Russia, Turkey, India, China, and Singapore, objects of much envy in the West according to Orbán, have been taken as sincere provocation even by his tacit supporters.

His frankness in admitting to his political goals was clearly shocking. Nevertheless, it does not seem to have much influence on him and he will certainly continue his quest for the political organization and state form that is – as he explained – the guarantee of success for the national community after the apparent failure of the liberal world order in 2008.

But has Orbán really changed his view of the world and his ideas with this speech? Is it proof of a sudden change of mind? He clearly intends to suggest this interpretation when he refers to the economic crisis of 2008 as a historic turning point, the herald of a new era, its significance similar to the first and second world wars and 1989. In his opinion it exposed liberalism as the rule of a few over many with the distorted understanding of freedom.

Although liberalism postulates that individual freedom is limited by others’ freedom, in practice it was always the powerful who decided what constitutes others’ freedom. He also declared a break with the “neoliberal” concept of competitivity to measure and compare economies. This thought certainly disappointed many right leaning centrist and technocrat economists and intellectuals, who saw Orbán as their secret hope during the socialist governments that were seen as inept and unable to deliver much needed structural reforms.

But just as Orbán’s vague and generalized social and economic visions appealed to “neoliberals” before he came into power for a second time in 2010, now his speech is attracting a twisted, half-hearted admiration from the New Left, where people identify Orbán’s criticism with their own interpretation of liberalism as a disguised form of exploitation. Nonetheless, both Orbán’s previous, economically liberal and newfound, leftist admirers fail to see that his vision of the community is extremely persistent and hardly compatible with their own ideas of liberty.

The key and permanent element in Orbán’s often articulated vision for at least one and a half decades is organic nationalism – something that was suddenly recognized in this speech by quite a few observers. A break with the idea of economic competitiveness is proposed in order to replace it with a new measure of success that rewards nations and their states, which are able to find the most fitting organization for themselves.

Instead of economic success, this authentic form of organization is now the object of competition between states. But re-organization of the (ethnic) nation with the state at its center is a familiar trope from Orbán, just as the quest for the nation’s destiny, which will manifest itself in victory over rival nations. What kind of victory it is was never elaborated, the struggle itself and triumph is the central idea in Orbán’s vision.


The main obstacle on the road to national success

Even if his frankness caught by surprise many, the vision outlined is just a logical outcome of his persistent organic nationalism that seeks redemption for the ills of the Hungarian nation in the authentic form of their nation state. The most shocking aspect of this vision for a foreign audience, especially for an East Central European one, is probably its cold, calculated, brutal selfishness.

Interpreting the world as a race between nations in which he will follow “illiberal” models and positing national interest above all, Orbán practically renounced solidarity in the EU or among its new member states. His criticism of the EU is not driven by the intention to repair its malfunctions with the preservation or resuscitation of liberal freedoms, he sees liberal freedom as the main obstacle on the road to national success, either in the form of globalized free markets or as a normative regime imposed on the nation.

But despite his frankness and radiating self-confidence, those familiar with Orbán’s vision will find this speech surprisingly shallow and vague. In previous years he has provided a more elaborated assessment of the situation and more detailed promises of the social reconstruction, supported with coherent criticism of what exists.

In this text, easily detected contradictions (such as citing President Obama’s criticism of inequality and the banks as proof of liberalism’s failure), striking paradoxes (such as denouncing NGO’s that receive funding from abroad as foreign agents in front of the representatives of Hungarian organizations in Romania that operate with regular financial support from Hungary), and unheard of mistakes (quoting Joseph S. Nye with the opposite meaning of the original) are kept together only with a thin veil of nationalism and belief in personal destiny.

The definition of the community Orbán stands for, the strongest, most powerful part of earlier speeches, was weak and hardly capable of generating identification from the audience. It seems that after declaration of victory over liberalism in Hungary and establishing the System of National Cooperation, Orbán was left without the internal out-groups he always needed to define and mobilize his own political community. Western liberalism is far away, NGOs are insignificant and Orbán seems to struggle in making the threat they pose realistic.

Even more astonishing is the lack of direction he offered. As if with the ultimate failure of Hungarian liberalism, he suddenly would have lost his imaginary power. Anything could happen in the future, he said, but it obviously means that there is no certainty, no prophecy, no promise, only chances. Orbán, so long master of his own destiny, has suddenly found himself at the mercy of the circumstances.


Gábor Egry is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Political History, Budapest.