• George Baines

The Politics of Memory and the ‘Putinisation’ of Hungary

The removal of the Imre Nagy bridge sculpture, a stone’s throw from the Hungarian Parliament building, has again sparked furore in a country once considered the ‘star pupil’ of post-Soviet democracies.[1] Imre Nagy, the nationally revered leader who stood defiant against Moscow’s communist hardliners in the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, during which Budapest fell to a four-day siege at the hands of Soviet forces, was ultimately hung for his pro-reform, communist ideology. One cannot say that Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, however, shares any of those defining qualities of Mr. Nagy. Contemporary Hungary finds itself, in many respects, even closer to the tide of Russia’s autocratic tendencies against which Nagy attempted to stem and for which he ultimately sacrificed his life.

Prime Minister Orbán is indeed no communist; so much so that formerly liberal Orbán is known to have held a speech in 1989 very much in favour of Hungarian independence from the Soviet Union. But as PM he has since proclaimed during a speech in Romania in July 2014 that the ‘new state that we are constructing in Hungary is no liberal, but an illiberal state’.[2] This reconfiguration of the Hungarian political system into his self-coined ‘illiberal democracy’ has been dubbed the ‘Putinisation’ of Hungary by opposition parties and Western media, Professor Ellen Bos of Andrássy University in Budapest once explained to me at Leipzig University during a lecture.[3]

Photo taken by myself on the 28th of December 2018 in Budapest, Hungary

My first-hand exposure to the sensitive world of contemporary Hungarian politics on the 28th of December 2018, the date on which I saw protestors take to Martyr’s Square to rally against the Nagy bridge removal, put the autocratic, and yet perplexing tendencies of Viktor Orbán in perspective. Another controversial measure taken in Orbán’s war on political memory includes the erection of the Memorial to the Victims of the German Invasion, unveiled in 2014. Uncovered in the dead of night, Orbán attempted to minimise the controversy of his side-lining of Hungary’s role in the Holocaust, instead focussing on the Hungarian people as the victims.

A staunch nationalist, Orbán’s efforts of revisionism go way beyond that of the historical. While the attempted erasure of Hungary’s communist past does little to address the illiberal political culture which manifests itself as its consequence, Nagy’s planned replacement statue, that of Admiral Miklos Horthy, represents an equally polarising period of Hungarian history as that of the Memorial to the Victims of the German Invasion.

Admiral Horthy, the Regent of Hungary from 1920-1944, governed Hungary in the aftermath of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the breakup of Hungarian lands. Far from a bulwark against communist fascism, Horthy instead opted to collaborate with Adolf Hitler in a shared strategy of irredentism as he sought to reclaim territory taken from Hungary under the Treaty of Trianon, which left around one third of Hungarian speakers outside of its new borders. Apart from Horthy’s blatant appeasement with Hitler, the curious contradiction of this new monument will be its juxtaposition against the 2014 Memorial.

What wartime history does Orbán indeed plan on telling within the context of Nazism and Communism? Is it that of victimhood to an existential threat of Germany — since the 2014 Memorial displayed no Nazi insignia but that of the eagle, the alternative symbol of modern Germany — or of a territorially assertive and antagonistic nation in a crowded Central and Eastern Europe? There is evidence for both hypotheses. Hungary has an antagonistic relationship with Germany, with Orbán decrying Merkel’s EU-backed refugee quota initiative, labelling the refugees ‘Muslim invaders’[4]; in consulates Hungarian diplomats have been distributing Hungarian passports to ethnic Magyars in western Ukraine, triggering a diplomatic fallout[5]; and Orbán himself addressed a crowd in Transylvania, Romania in July 2014 after which he shared pictures of emblems heralding ‘Greater Hungary’ — which includes the 1.3 million Hungarian speakers living within north-west Romania.[6]

Crowded it may be in its geographic milieu, it is anything but in Hungary’s parliament. Professor Bos detailed how there no longer exists a bipolar parliamentary structure, but a dominant Fidesz-KDNP coalition of Orbán’s centre-right Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Alliance and Zsolt Semjén’s right-wing sister party, the Christian Democratic People’s Party.[7] Both parties are inseparable and have ruled in consecutive coalition governments as of the 2010, 2014 and 2018 elections and have consistently commanded two thirds of the unicameral National Assembly. Their lust for power has led them to both gerrymander voting districts and raise the necessary vote share for a party alliance of two and three or more to ten and fifteen percent, respectively,[8] effectively barring any effective opposition bloc in the Országház.

This has had devastating impacts on the political culture of post-Soviet Hungary. Historical revisionism is only logical within a country of which ninety percent of the constitution has been amended since post-Soviet independence to reflect a swing towards authoritarianism.[9] Liberal freedoms have suffered in turn, where regional newspapers have been taken over by Fidesz-backed media companies, selective national consultation committees have replaced referenda, and the notion of a ‘new social contract’ has been accepted to reflect the apparent social heterogeneity.[10] It is no wonder that at 6.64 on the Economist’s Democracy Index in 2017, below even politically illiberal Poland, Hungary sits comfortably at the lower end of the ‘Flawed democracy’ grouping.[11]

Returning to the concept of ‘Putinisation’, further developments in Hungarian society reinforce our understanding of Hungary’s slide into unsettling territory. In line with the Russian foreign agent law, but doused in political scapegoating à la turque, Orbán’s dystopian witch-hunt of former patron and billionaire philanthropist George Soros has led to the desired outcome: the retreat of the Soros-funded Central European University to Vienna. Notwithstanding the parallel ‘Slave law’ on 400 additional overtime hours demanded by Hungarian employers and Putin’s rising the retirement age above the male life expectancy, Orbán’s Hungary teeters on the autocratic.

As we look towards the future of Hungary, we must look to civil society — the people who effect change. The Yellow Vest movement which sprung up in France last year in opposition to President Macron, who reigns by decree over the mostly provincial French, had reassuringly gained traction in a similar vein in Budapest last December. The public reaction to the ‘Slave law’ reassures us that civil society is still able to fraternise and mobilise in ways which draw familiarity between that of Hungary and a democratic France - contrary to the parallels with Russia’s ‘autocracy in all but name’. We must find hope in this, and in Hungary’s ability to still enjoy a free, investigative press — the key to any democracy — and Hungary’s ability, as it has proven in recent history, to self-correct.

[1] Professor Dr. Ellen Bos, Tuesday 13 June 2017, University of Leipzig

[2] Orbán, V. 2014. Kormany.hu. [Online]. [13 January 2019]. Available at: http://www.kormany.hu/en/the-prime-minister/the-prime-minister-s-speeches/prime-minister-viktor-orban-s-speech-at-the-25th-balvanyos-summer-free-university-and-student-camp

[3] Professor Dr. Ellen Bos, Tuesday 13 June 2017, University of Leipzig

[4] Agerholm, H. 2018. Refugees are ‚Muslim invaders’ not running for their lives, says Hungarian PM Viktor Orban. The Independent. [Online]. [13 January 2019]. Available from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/refugees-muslim-invaders-hungary-viktor-orban-racism-islamophobia-eu-a8149251.html

[5] Arunyan, A. 2018. How Hungary and Ukraine fell out over a passport scandal. Open Democracy. [Online]. [5 January 2019]. Available from: https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/aleksei-arunyan/how-kyiv-and-budapest-fell-out-over-zakarpattya

[6] Reuters. 2015. Hungary PM rapped by Romania over territorial ‘revisionism’. Reuters. [Online]. [5 January 2019]. Available from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-romania-hungary/hungary-pm-rapped-by-romania-over-territorial-revisionism-idUSKCN0Q113T20150727

[7] Professor Dr. Ellen Bos, Tuesday 13 June 2017, University of Leipzig

[8] ibid

[9] ibid

[10] ibid

[11] https://infographics.economist.com/2018/DemocracyIndex/]


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