Orban is a rare political leader in Europe. He is quite popular, but he is in a balancing act. To his left are the Europeanists, who see all his actions as a repudiation of liberal democracy. On the right is a fascist party that won 20 percent in the last election. Between these two forces, Hungary could tear itself apart. It is in precisely this situation that Weimar Germany failed. Caught between left and right, the center was too weak to hold. Orban is trying to do what Horthy did: strengthen his power over the state and the state’s power over society. He is attacked from the left for violating the principles of liberal democracy and Europe. He is attacked from the right for remaining a tool of the European Union and the Jews. The left believes he is secretly of the right and his protestations are simply a cover. The right believes he is secretly a Europeanist and that his protestations are simply a cover.
Now we add to this the fact that Hungary must make decisions concerning Ukraine. Orban knows that Hungary is not in a position to make decisions by itself. He has therefore made a range of statements, including condemning Russia, opposing sanctions and proposing that the Ukrainian region directly east of Hungary, and once Hungarian, be granted more autonomy. In the end, these statements are unimportant. They do not affect the international system but allow him to balance a bit.
Orban knows what Horthy did as well. Hungary, going up against both Germany and Russia, needs to be very subtle. Hungary is already facing Germany’s policy toward liberal integration within the European Union, which fundamentally contradicts Hungary’s concept of an independent state economy. Hungary is already facing Germany’s policies that undermine Hungary’s economic and social well-being. Orban’s strategy is to create an economy with maximum distance from Europe without breaking with it, and one in which the state exerts its power. This is not what the Germans want to see.
Now, Hungary is also facing a Germany that is not in a position to support Hungary against Russia. He is potentially facing a Russia that will return to Hungary’s eastern border. He is also faced with a growing domestic right wing and a declining but vocal left. It is much like Horthy’s problem. Domestically, he has strong support and powerful institutions. He can exercise power domestically. But Hungary has only 9 million people, and external forces can easily overwhelm it. His room for maneuvering is limited.
I think Orban anticipated this as he saw the European Union flounder earlier in the decade. He saw the fragmentation and the rise of bitterness on all sides. He constructed a regime that appalled the left, which thought that without Orban, it would all return to the way it was before, rather than realizing that it might open the door to the further right. He constructed a regime that would limit the right’s sense of exclusion without giving it real power.
Russia’s re-emergence followed from this. Here, Orban has no neat solution. Even if Hungary were to join a Polish-Romanian alliance, he would have no confidence that this could block Russian power. For that to happen, a major power must lend its support. With Germany out of the game, that leaves the United States. But if the United States enters the fray, it will not happen soon, and it will be even later before its role is decisive. Therefore he must be flexible. And the more international flexibility he must show, the more internal pressures there will be.
For Horthy, the international pressure finally overwhelmed him, and the German occupation led to a catastrophe that unleashed the right, devastated the Jews and led to a Russian invasion and occupation that lasted half a century. But how many lives did Horthy save by collaborating with Germany? He bought time, if nothing else.
Hungarian history is marked by heroic disasters. The liberal revolutions that failed across Europe in 1848 and failed in Hungary in 1956 were glorious and pointless. Horthy was unwilling to make pointless gestures. The international situation at the moment is far from defined, and the threat to Hungary is unclear, but Orban clearly has no desire to make heroic gestures. Internally he is increasing his power constantly, and that gives him freedom to act internationally. But the one thing he will not grant is clarity. Clarity ties you down, and Hungary has learned to keep its options open.
Orban isn’t Horthy by any means, but their situations are similar. Hungary is a country of enormous cultivation and fury. It is surrounded by disappointments that can become dangers. Europe is not what it promised it would be. Russia is not what Europeans expected it to be. Within and without the country, the best Orban can do is balance, and those who balance survive but are frequently reviled. What Hungary could be in 2005 is not the Hungary it can be today. Any Hungarian leader who wished to avoid disaster would have to face this. Indeed, Europeans across the continent are facing the fact that the world they expected to live in is gone and what has replaced it, inside and outside of their countries, is different and dangerous.
I don’t agree with everything Friedman writes but certainly it’s a very interesting analysis on Hungary’s situation.