Viktor Orbán, the controversial prime minister of Hungary, has no shortage of critics or defenders. For the critics, he is an authoritarian villain, a sinister leading voice in the global populist movement. To his supporters, Orbán is a champion of traditional values, protecting the nation-state and Hungarian culture from shadowy global elites. A recent Religion and Liberty Online article by Zoltán Kész falls closer to the former camp, and while I agree with Kész’s criticisms of Orbán’s harmful economic policies, I, as a fellow Hungarian, would like to offer a broader perspective of the Orbán problem and Hungary’s political challenges in both a global and a Hungarian context.
Both foreign critics and supporters of Orbán tend to generalize his actions and draw the conclusion that all of Hungary thinks like him. This is far from the reality, however. Many Hungarians are critical of his governance and approach to foreign policy. The aim of this short essay is to sketch a broad context for Hungarian affairs that will help foreign observers understand my country’s political situation and Orbán’s electoral success, especially for Westerners who dislike Orbán and might be tempted to lump my country with the nations of other Eastern autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdoğan. There are many Hungarians who feel they are unable to bring about change in our country, and so, demoralized, they decide to move abroad. I’ll say again: Viktor Orbán is not the same as Hungary.
Orbán’s electoral success is generally understood in the context of a global populist movement. The late Hungarian economist János Kornai used the term “populist-nationalism” to describe this phenomenon, and I highly recommend his 2017 speech “Rising Populism and Its Harmful Effects” for another critical Hungarian perspective of Orbán’s movement.
According to Kornai, populist leaders exploit the anxieties of the electorate during a time of disruption and change. Today’s populists, I would argue, are exploiting the shocks to our societies of rapid technological development. The dislocated masses of citizens experiencing this disruption turn to “strong political leaders, who gain their support by contrasting the plight of the ‘people’ with the machinations of men,” especially of an “elite.”
Kornai, speaking in the voice of the populist politician, illustrates the strongman’s rhetoric like this: “You, the people, are at the bottom; they, the elite, are on the top. They, the elite, have lost contact with you, the people. The populist addresses the people, the ordinary simple masses of the street, and tells them: look, I am your man, the true defender of your interest. They do not know what is hurting you—but I do know. They … are corrupt, they are stealing your money, they deceive you. I am the one who is going to make order.”
This has certainly been Orbán’s style, and you might recognize in Kornai’s imitation the voices of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and other leaders of global populist-nationalism. Ultimately, the populist politician exploits the setbacks, both real and perceived, of the “people” and drives a wedge between them and the country’s intellectual, economic, and political leaders. But without a real remedy for their disappointments—like rising salaries, employment, etc.—all “the people” get is national pride and little else.
The 19th-century English poet Thomas Hardy, writing during another time of great economic and political disruption, described in “God’s Funeral” the people’s wandering search for “some fixed star to stimulate their pace” after they’ve lost contact with the traditional ways of living. To Orbán’s credit, he recognizes the disruptions and search for meaning among Hungarians spurred by a technological revolution. Instead of working to build a modern economy, however, he has put himself forward—and the Hungarian-form of nationalism he represents—as our country’s “fixed star.” In power, his policies have done more to strengthen his own authority than spur innovation and modernization.
Hungary’s political problems today have their roots in the trauma of Soviet domination and the messy transition to independence and integration with the West. To really understand Hungary’s plight, however, and especially our complicated relationship to the West, we need to look deeper into history.
After enduring Ottoman rule for 150 years, Hungary’s modern engagement with the West began when it was “liberated” (and conquered) by the Habsburg Empire in the late 17th century. Several Hungarian independence movements sprang up in the following two centuries, but each was eventually crushed, usually because the freedom fighters failed to find allies among other Western powers. Despite winning concessions from the Hapsburgs, culminating in the formation of the “Austro-Hungarian Empire” in 1867, Hungary remained a junior partner until the empire’s collapse at the close of World War I.
From the Hungarian point of view, the Treaty of Versailles was a disaster, and much of Hungary’s animosity toward the West can be traced to this moment. Hungary was humiliated. The shock was so terrible that the country was simply unable to comprehend what had happened. The treaty created both anger against the West and a desire to regain territory and resources that the treaty stripped from us. This anger laid the groundwork for Hungary’s turn to a far-right regime in the 1930s under Miklós Horthy. (The Horthy government’s relationship with Nazi Germany is much-debated and out of the scope of this essay.)
At the Yalta Conference—the meeting between the Allied Powers of World War II where the postwar settlement was decided—Hungary was thrust into the clutches of the Soviet Union. It is a Hungarian saying that “we were sealed at Yalta.” In 1956, Hungarian students revolted against the communist government, but the revolution was brutally put down when the Western powers, afraid of starting World War III, declined to help them. Hungary was alone.
It has been three decades since Hungary’s transition from Soviet dictatorship, yet we find ourselves in a distressingly similar predicament. Though we are part of NATO and the European Union, our country lacks friends. Since the crisis of the Russo-Ukranian War, and our government’s pseudo-neutrality, you could say we even lack well-wishers. Because of friction between NATO and Hungary and the EU and Hungary, these alliances can seem more like agreements on paper rather than in reality.
During these challenging times, Hungary, as we have throughout our history, turned to a “strongman” for political leadership. Under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy it was Tisza; in the interwar period it was Horthy; during the Soviet era it was Kádár; now we have Orbán.
Since the financial crises of 2008, Orbán has managed to exploit a general sense of alienation and skepticism toward the West. Both attitudes, as we have seen, have deep roots in our history. The European Union’s at-times heavy-handed policies have not helped. For instance, in response to the Orbán government’s changes to the rule of law, the EU suspended billions of euros in economic assistance. With a more imaginative policy—perhaps by bypassing Orbán’s government and providing the assistance directly to Hungarians—the EU might have accomplished its goal of reprimanding the government without punishing the people.
Instead, situations like this lend credence to Orban’s claim that, unlike the bureaucrats in Brussels, Russia and Turkey don’t want to tell Hungarians how to live.
“Circles of Freedom”
But just as Hungary is more than Viktor Orbán, we are also not doomed by our past. István Bibó, a Hungarian political theorist from the 20th century, said that while every society has particular characteristics, behaviors, and history, societies can still redirect course through the collective intention to make rational decisions about the future. A country’s health and a people’s peace of mind can be strained by shocks. Hungary’s certainly has.
The remedies for shocks, according to Bibó, are “small circles of freedom” that can be put in practice through the creation of small communities like clubs and conferences where people can interact and exchange ideas with each other. These “small circles” were engines of reform in the 19th century, later during the transition from Soviet communism, and can be again today.
Hungary cannot simply import Western values into our country. It is we who have to do our homework to make a true democracy. What the West can do, however, is refrain from condemning our entire country for the actions of its government or, worse, simply abandon us to our fate. Instead, concerned Westerners should seek to connect with and show their support for those in Hungary, especially the young people, who are working for change.
Since joining the EU, we Hungarians have seen that money alone is not enough to build a functioning democracy. What we need instead is to learn the habits of a democratic society. This will not happen if we are cut off from our friends in the West. While globalization has its disadvantages, it has nevertheless made it relatively easy to make connections. The establishment of various think tanks, associations, societies, and fellowships with the goal of developing democratic institutions in Hungary and building relations with the West could do much good.
Without creating these institutions and developing democratic habits, more and more Hungarians, particularly young Hungarians, will choose to leave the country, for political or economic reasons. All efforts to keep young people (especially) in the country are worthwhile, because if the next generation’s best and brightest leave, we will be without the creative capacity to establish a true democracy, paving the way for an endless circulus vitiosus of quasi-democracy and autocracy.