Hungary: No Georgia on Their Minds

By Anna Porter, September 17, 2008

Domestic politics are dividing this eastern European country

While the leaders of Poland, Ukraine and all three Baltic states sprang to their microphones to condemn Russia’s attack on Georgia, the Hungarian government waited for the European Union to lead the way. It was not a short wait. Germany’s Angela Merkel fulminated at the sight of Russian aggression, the Italians hesitated, and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy seemed to think he could personally dissolve the crisis with a well-planned visit to Moscow. When the EU finally made its statement on Sept. 1, Hungary’s Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány issued his own measured response condemning aggression but not going so far as to threaten the Russians. Perhaps Gyurcsány is more focused on his own parliamentary problems, or, while he says that what happened to the Georgians is a tragedy, he can also see the Russians’ point of view. The South Ossetians, of whom many had not heard until a few weeks ago, have never seen themselves as Georgians. As the Hungarian prime minister sees it, they are, and always have been, a distinct people. In any event, he ended up echoing Hungarian-American historian Charles Gati’s measured reaction: “What Georgia did was a mistake, what the Russians did was a crime.”

The main opposition party’s equally charismatic leader, Viktor Orbán, reminded the world of the crushing of Hungary’s great 1956 revolution and the similarity to Vladimir Putin’s actions in Georgia. However, other than the rolling in of Russian-made tanks, there appears to be scant similarity between putting down a national uprising and marching into a civil war. As Gyurcsány sees it, if you can’t remove your country from its eastern European location, it’s advisable to live in peace with the Russians. “The Russians do not respond well to hectoring,” he says. “They are a proud people. Nor can we expect that they will adopt democracy quickly and easily. Unlike the Americans, they do not have a long democratic tradition.” As Gyurcsány notes, they need to find their own way without lectures about their failures.

Besides, there is this pesky energy problem. Like much of Europe, Hungary relies on Russian natural gas, and here, it is only Russian gas — with no alternatives. “When I last sat with Putin, I said to him, ‘I dislike buying energy from only one source,’ ” Gyurcsány says. “Putin agreed. ‘In your place, I would feel the same way. But you seem to have no choice.’ It’s Russian gas or none.” Hungary needs friendly relations with its sole gas supplier. “Tony Blair told me,” Gyurcsány adds with a smile, ” ‘the Americans consider this [the buying of gas] to be an important foreign policy issue — for you, it’s a heating issue.’ ”

During a boiling hot week in the Hungarian capital, I was unable find anyone seriously interested in Georgia’s fate. The country is seething with anger at its own politicians. The divide between Gyurcsány’s socialists (MSZP) and Orbán’s centre-right FIDESZ-Hungarian Civic Union party is so wide and deep that no conversation seems possible between the two sides. Orbán has steadfastly refused to sit in parliament when the prime minister speaks. The moment he rises to speak, the opposition marches out of the chamber, leaving only one sitting member to let them know when Gyurcsány has stopped. This strange behaviour is a slight improvement over the first three years following FIDESZ’s 2002 defeat at the polls. Then, the leader of the opposition barely ever attended a single parliamentary session. “Our nation,” he announced, talking about his own recently defeated party, “can’t be in opposition.”

Since October 2006, Orbán’s followers tend not to mention the prime minister by name, referring to him as “the evil one,” “the traitor,” “the criminal” or “garbage.” It was that fall that Gyurcsány’s now-infamous speech to his recently elected party members became public. In that address, he told his comrades the party had lied throughout the election campaign, and it was now time for the bitter truth about the economy. Since then, FIDESZ has considered the socialist government to be illegitimate, and has demanded the prime minister’s resignation. Orbán seems to have decided to take his issues directly to the public. He speaks to town halls and at massive open-air meetings where his adoring followers shout approval at his every patriotic phrase. For good measure, they have co-opted several national symbols, including what Hungarians believe is their country’s Holy Crown and the red, white and green emblem of the 1848 and 1956 national uprisings. The first was against Habsburg, the second against Soviet rule.