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Tusványos Speech: Goals and Dodges of Striker Orbán at the Best of his Form

Reading Time: 9 minutes

By Modeste Schwartz.

Hungary – For almost three decades, the very charismatic Prime Minister has accustomed the Hungarian and international opinion to the now traditional speech of Tusványos (named after the festival organized every year at the end of July in the mountain resort of Tusnádfürdő / Băile Tuşnad, in the Szekler Land, a Hungarian-speaking region from central Romania), of which he makes his most important programmatic speech of the year. For example, it was during one of these speeches that he solemnly “launched” the notion of “illiberalism”, which has since become a hot potato of contemporary political discourse in Europe and beyond.

Compared to such game changing speeches, the speech of the 2018 edition is probably not destined to remain engraved as deeply in the Hungarian and international memories, but was nonetheless a political moment of rare importance.

Let’s analyze the content of this year’s speech, considered from the point of view of its international political implications, from the perspective of Hungarian politics and – since the speech was, after all, pronounced (albeit in an unofficial setting) on Romanian territory – from point of view of the Hungarian-Romanian relations.

  1. “Christian Democracy, by definition, cannot be liberal”

Asked after the speech by participants about the possibility of a divorce between FIDESZ and the EPP, Viktor Orbán denied that he would wish such a divorce, sheltering behind the symbolic argument of the proverbial loyalty of Hungarians to the pacts concluded, good or bad. Nevertheless, the strongest moment – from this point of view – of the speech itself was clearly intended to make FIDESZ’s Western “partners” understand that this fidelity could not be both indefinite and unconditional. Since his third consecutive parliamentary victory last April, the strongman of Budapest was suspected of (and thereby incited to) wanting to go moderate; this is, in any case, how, in Budapest as well as in Western capitals, some people sought to interpret the relegation to the background of the term “illiberal”, to which FIDESZ’s official communication now systematically prefers the “Christian-democratic” label. The least we can say is that – while remaining faithful to this new tactic of communication – this year’s Tusványos speech has shattered these illusions: proposing in five theses a body of doctrine specifying the content of the “Christian-democratic” label (1: Christian culture, excluding multiculturalism; 2: “every child has the right to a father and a mother”; 3: economic sovereignty; 4: protection of borders; 5: keeping the “1 country, 1 vote” principle within the EU), Viktor Orbán reaffirmed the ideological solidity of the Hungarian third way. With an implication that the thinking heads of Brussels, Paris and Berlin, have certainly not failed to decipher: FIDESZ will remain a member of the EPP (and, one could add – even if the author himself would deny it – Hungary, an EU Member State) provided that the EPP does not encroach upon its sovereign freedom to apply that body of doctrine. Viktor Orbán’s hope – which he also clearly expressed in this same speech – is of course that the divorce may, in the wake of the European elections next year, be avoided by “illiberalization” of the EPP, rather than by liberalizing FIDESZ. It is necessary, he tells us, “to relieve the 1968 generation from its functions”: this is the context – above all political and cultural – in which one should interpret another broadly highlighted quote from this speech, in which the Hungarian prime minister accuses the Brussels elite of planning a new “European socialism”. Put in context – that of the symbolic heirs of the 1956 uprising – rather than a rightization of the Hungarian third way, this declaration is above all a sovereignist manifesto (given that the 1956 insurrection was not triggered by some employers’ grumbling against union rights or a labor code, but by popular refusal of the “limited sovereignty” which was then being put in place at the end of the “hard period” of Bolshevik dictatorship, i.e. 1948-1953).

Equally striking, the other foreign policy declarations that marked this speech did not, however, have the charm of novelty. Denouncing the Russian policy of the EU as “primitive”, the Hungarian prime minister called for replacing it with an “articulated” policy, at once realistic, cautious and conciliatory. While continuing to view the integration of the Ukrainian failed state into Western structures as improbable and undesirable, he suggested the idea of a historic compromise between NATO and Russia, under which special security guarantees would be granted to Poland and the Baltic States, in exchange for a relaxation of the sanctions, allowing the development of Eurasian trade. The future shall tell us to what extent this approach, which is very sensible, was based on a real hope of a solution, or rather and above all on the will to eat the cake and have it too, taking into account both the special importance of the Washington-Budapest-Moscow axis in Hungarian foreign policy and constant Polish hesitations in this area.

  1. The Hungarian Kulturkampf has officially begun.

As could be expected (speaking in front of most Hungarian television stations and of an audience out of which Hungary Hungarians probably made up a good half) the Hungarian Prime Minister also touched salient themes of Hungarian internal affairs; in the perfect continuity of his foreign policy statements, he has also taken a stand in a debate which, since his latest victory in April, has stirred the ranks of FIDESZ and its allies: after being in power already eight years, dedicated – not without some very commendable results – to restore public and private finances, the economy and demographics of Hungary, after the diplomatic triumphs of the 2015-2018 period, many of the FIDESZ radicals now demand the establishment of a real cultural policy. Stepping in the footprints of late István Lovas, journalist Árpád Szakács and writer János Dénes Orbán, in particular, have stepped up to point out that a good part of the intellectuals and artists who make alarmist (generally fanciful) statements about Orbán’s “dictatorship” are heavily subsidized by the current regime (as they were generally also subsidized by the preceding ones), and, while announcing month after month their imminent departure into exile, remain invariably coiled in their Budapest sinecures, living more than comfortably on the public money of a regime supposed to – if one is to believe them (and the Western press always believes them) – “crush freedom of expression”. Or even worse: maintaining a real caste domination within cultural and academic institutions, these “subsidized refuzniks” tend to ostracize those of their colleagues who “do not think correctly” (and in particular … those who support FIDESZ!). Described by the Hungarian and international liberal press as an attempt to stage totalitarian “purges”, this appeal to a “Kulturkampf” is in fact a call to respect cultural diversity – and also to respect democratic values, inasmuch as the great majority of Hungarians who identify with FIDESZ are unlikely to feel represented by a liberal / postmodernist cultural elite who, while living off their taxes, seldom deprives itself of the pleasure of insulting them.

On July 28, cautiously, but firmly, Viktor Orbán took a stand in favor of the Kulturkampf, giving the latter in his speech a philosophical-cultural dimension that goes beyond the pettiness of debates on the allocation of budget lines. Giving his fascinated audience a kind of simplified introduction to the concept of “metapolitics” (the word was not spoken, but the intention was there), he said he wanted to lay the groundwork for a “new era” for Hungarian society; and what, he tells us, defines an era, beyond the strictly institutional dimension, is a way of life, a sensibility, a taste. We can see how far the doctrine of the Hungarian regime has moved away from the Reaganian beginnings of FIDESZ, from the period when (somewhat absurdly, moreover, in a country where, as in France, culture always was a state affair) it still complied with the liberal dogma that culture is a set of private activities that are no concern of governments. Even at institutional level, the legacy of this era is still visible, for example in the fact that even today, Hungary does not have a Ministry of Culture (although the State Secretariat competent in this field has, to a certain extent, ministerial attributes).

It is, of course, too early to say what this Kulturkampf will actually look like when/if the intention will translate into reality. But one can only notice – from speech to speech – the coherence of Orbán’s thinking: precisely a year ago, indeed, this very Viktor Orbán (in a 2017 speech then still dominated by the migration theme) pointed out that his ambitious family policy, which he has been implementing for several years, potentially faces the glass ceiling of cultural habits – and in particular the Malthusian habits that characterize many Hungarian women. Without the taboo word “feminism” ever being uttered, it was already clear that the first man in Hungary was becoming (I would be tempted to add: finally) aware of the socio-political consequences of liberal individualism and the impossibility of combating them in the spirit of strict civic legalism (by only tightening the rules governing abortion, etc.). It is in this context that the call to “take over the 1968 generation” takes on a profound strategic meaning, going beyond the tactical enmities existing between Budapest and some left-liberal leaders of the caliber of Emmanuel Macron or Jean-Claude Juncker: by the time the Hungarian national revolution and the “system of national cooperation” erected since then by FIDESZ fully mature (a horizon that Viktor Orbán has himself set out in his speech for 2030), they will have succeeded if and only if they succeed in bringing about a real cultural paradigm shift – which is not the case for the time being.

  1. Transylvanian Contradictions

Finally, Transylvania. Rooted in a very complicated context that even most Hungarian commentators do not really master, the Transylvanian dimension of the latest Tusványos speech will probably be the aspect of the event, either the most neglected or the most distorted by media echoes – also because the few (mainly Hungarian and Romanian) analysts who see though the subject might well think that it is not in their best interest to put the finger in the wound.

Indeed, the speech of the Hungarian Prime Minister has, according to tradition, been preceded by an introductory speech by the Hungarian-Transylvanian bishop and politician László Tőkés, prominent figure of the events of December 1989, and host of Viktor Orbán as a charismatic figure of Hungarian nationalism in Transylvania. In spite of small concessions, this introductory speech has remained perfectly faithful to the anti-communist and irredentist topoi which, from the very beginning, have defined not only the discourse of politician László Tőkés, but also the (“resistant” and self-victimizing) ideology of a large part of the Transylvanian Hungarian elite. As for Viktor Orbán’s discourse and diplomatic positioning in relation to Bucharest, they have evolved so enormously in recent years (and especially during the past year), that, for any observer with some degree of objectivity, the juxtaposition of these two registers ended by evoking, volens nolens, a dialogue of the past and of the future. Barely mentioning the V4, the bishop remained faithful to his role as a “human rights activist”, granting, on the Romanian side, his esteem only to a tiny elite of protesting liberal figures from the 1980s and 1990s (in the meantime, most of them have been coopted by the Băsescu and Johannis regimes), and even managed to regret that the “spontaneous” participations of Traian Băsescu (who meanwhile returned to a hard magyarophobic stance) at the festival have come to an end! As for the betrayal of Klaus Johannis (who personally withdrew Tőkés’ Romanian decorations, in the hope of mongering inter-ethnic tensions and thus sabotaging the PSD-RMDSZ axis), instead of seeing it as the logical consequence of the dependence of the “Romanian Right” on a Romanian deep state controlled by the West, he preferred to blame it on a kind of assimilation psychosis affecting this Transylvanian Saxon, who, while speaking a rather poor Romanian, never misses an opportunity to declare himself “Romanian in his heart”.

While apparently not contradicting his host, Viktor Orbán nevertheless resumed his themes in a highly compressed version, and a qualitatively so heavily altered one that it was difficult to repel the impression of hearing a contradictory plea. In the context of the centenary celebrations of Greater Romania, which are currently under way, he has simply recalled – lending his voice to the most basic common sense – that Romanians should not expect to see Hungarians (no matter what citizenship they have) rejoice at the evocation of the Treaty of Trianon, and expressed (without mentioning names) the wish that the Romanian judicial system would not condemn innocent people (on the spot, everyone’s thoughts went towards the two recently jailed Szekler activists – but the allusion could also refer to other Hungarian victims of the “anti-corruption crusades” of the recently ended Kövesi era). Immediately (and predictably) highlighted by the Romanian Atlanticist press (e.g. by Hotnews, a former propaganda outlet of the late Băsescu regime), these remarks – following immediately after László Tőkés’s rhetorical excesses – actually rather sounded like a call for everybody to calm down.

Last but not least, while the 66-year-old Calvinist bishop spoke almost exclusively about a painful past, with no real prospects for the future, Viktor Orbán, though he is really only eleven years younger, spent most of his speaking time (in regional matters) on the Visegrad horizon, the only one able to heal the wounds of the past: regional integration (through energy and communication axes) and “state-to-state” diplomacy (implicitly bypassing Transylvanian elites often suffering from inertia in the moral comfort once provided, in the recently ended era of flourishing globalism, by the oppressed minority status).

Probably sensing the potential of conflict created by this ideological and generational divergence, Viktor Orbán acted as a tactical genius by choosing to get by with a joke, implicitly comparing his growingly confident relationship with Liviu Dragnea to a semi-official flirt, which should be kept secret so as not to excite the resentments of friends and relatives of both partners. Although implicit, the comparison is, moreover, substantially correct: while the camp of the past is sinking into an irredentism which, unrealistic by nature, can hardly be more than a nostalgia with paralyzing, sterilizing effects, the camp of the future wants to move forward, and knows that it will be difficult to build a stable and prosperous Central Europe without a proper functioning of the Bucharest-Budapest couple.

This edition of the Tusványos speech was thus the occasion to attend a real recital of dodges and improbable goals by this Ronaldinho of politics named Viktor Orbán. One hundred years after the collapse of Austria-Hungary, in the middle of Romania, he announces (this is the title that his own press office has retained) that “the hundred-year-long era of Hungarian solitude is over”, thus succeeding at the same time to remain in the rather irredentist tone of the festival and to unfold a policy of the outstretched hand in the direction of the power in place in Bucharest. Summoned to return to “liberal normality” by his European political family” and the soft belly of his own movement, he straight-facedly announces the forced retirement of the May 68 generation of Eurocrats. Out of a small, landlocked Hungary wedged between Poland and Romania, he makes a crossroad-Hungary, where everyone can keep his identity, but where all must pass who do not want to remain stranded on the fringes of the new streams of energy, transport, but also of ideas and culture. Long recognized as a leader comparable to Hungarian national giants such as Széchenyi, Kossuth or Bethlen, the province guy from Felcsút, slowly but surely, rises – in a context, against all odds, of full democratic fairness – to those mythical heights of the Kurucz resistance where the colossal shadows of Rákóczi princes parade.