Eastern Europe is disillusioned. Can it also be non-nationalist?
The former Eastern bloc societies have already learned very well that market fundamentalism is not working. The support of the nationalist reaction shows crystal clearly how disillusioned they are. The question is, whether our societies can actually move toward political creativity which is non-nationalist – says Attila Melegh, associate professor at Corvinus University in Budapest, sociologist, economist and historian.
Interview by Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat.
A couple of months has already passed since the parliamentary elections in Hungary that turned victorious for Viktor Orban and truly disastrous for the united opposition. In Poland and Europe, people of liberal and left-wing views were truly shattered to see how big was the difference between Orban and his challengers. How would you explain the outcome of this election? Is the result only about Orban’s genuine popularity, or were there also tactical mistakes on the opposition side?
There are different layers of this event. We can indeed talk about the tactical aspect of the opposition’s failure, also about very serious strategic issues, but also, very importantly, about the social and political change in Eastern Europe and in Hungary.
Let me first talk about tactics. I think that the opposition made a couple of really big mistakes.
First of all, they were not able to make the situation clear. Two years before the election, they did not even know how many political groups would appear in the arena. Then, suddenly, they started talking about making a coalition. An extremely diverse coalition, composed of parties with different backgrounds- it goes without saying how fragile this alliance was.
Secondly, the alliance was unholy. Ultra-radical right-wing parties, trying to move towards the center, were accepted together with left-leaning liberals. It was already a problem to form a working coalition from such elements. Furthermore, such composition gave the opportunity to the government media to accuse the opposition of racism and antisemitism. Many of the accusations that the opposition formulated towards the government were, in this situation, threw back at the opposition.
In addition, the opposition has some political figures who have not learned that after losing four elections or more, they should have stepped down or disappeared. Hungarian politicians are big survivors. They survive everything. They keep their destructive one-man parties alive, which makes little, if any, political sense. Ferenc Gyurcsány is a prime example.
Then let us have a look at the strategic mistakes. One of their key messages was that the European Union as such is OK, it just has to be managed more smoothly, and that the only problem is people like Orban, or Poland’s Kaczynski, who are causing trouble. This is, of course, nonsense, because the European Union is very problematic on various levels. But if they formulated such a message about the EU, the government media were easily able to say: Look, they are conspiring with Brussels against their own country!
You know this kind of narrative.
The opposition was portrayed as the enemies of the people….
This is what the government media were doing. But this is not all. The second strategy problem of the opposition was that they were always talking about how good the market was. That was the last thing people wanted to listen to.
We have now in Hungary a government policy on controlling utility prices. And then the key figure of the opposition, the prime minister candidate came and started talking about how the free market wasgoing to solve problems. Literally, it was very difficult to listen to such suicidal arguments in this respect. They are extreme market fundamentalists, with an uncritical view toward Europe or the European Union.
They were just trying to tell everybody that Orban was an autocrat, a corrupt and sinister man – which is true! But the question in politics is whether people want to make something with this message. And I think the Hungarian people have little expectations of non-corrupt politicians, especially from the opposition.
So, if the opposition was just talking a lot about corruption, they were not impressed. They did this instead of coming up with a viable option to solve some of the key problems in Hungary. And they should have done it in a language people could understand. They were offering chaotic and indigestible narratives.
Do you want to say that Orban played excellently in this game, while the opposition made one mistake after another?
Orban, too, had some bad moments. As Polish readers are probably aware of, he has been making alliances with all kinds of authoritarian politicians in and outside Europe. I am talking about ties to Poland, but also less known relations such as Orban’s contacts with the regime in Azerbaijan. Links to Russia, of course, also fall in this category.
Orban was making business with them all the time and before the election he claimed that he was able to make business with people like Putin. Even before the war, he showed up in Moscow. Then the war came and it was a shock; everyone was discussing a big crisis, but the war was a kind of surprise. Then, I think, it was a moment for the opposition to come with a more reasonable approach.
But Orban was able to reorganise his propaganda very quickly. His argumentation would probably not work with the Polish public, but in Hungary it was acclaimed. He says: it is not our war. Hungary must stay out of it. Then Orban accused the opposition, which was much more supportive of Ukraine, that they wanted to send weapons or even Hungarian soldiers. A massive part of Hungarian public opinion approves this ‘neutral’ position. They think that Orban is a strong man, defending his country from getting involved in crazy wars. Last but not least, there are anti-Ukranian sentiments in Hungary, and Orban has ruthlessly exploited them.
But there is one more dimension – the social change itself.
Two or three decades of market fundamentalism in Eastern Europe produced massive nationalist movements, very well established in the societies. So saying that Brussels should not teach us lessons is not just a political agenda or propaganda. It is actually very much embedded into everyday talk now. People remember that during the market fundamentalist period they suffered a lot. This is why Orban is in a good position.
And what do the Hungarians expect now from Orban? Given the international context, sanctions and war, do they hope he would save them from hardship?
It is difficult to see what people actually expect. I think they believe that Orban is strong enough to defend against some of the external, supposedly very bad, impact. Orban is also trying to show to his voters that he is the best possible protector against inflation and other similar negative phenomena. When it comes to petrol prices, or energy prices, he has introduced caps on these prices and he tells everybody that they would be maintained. When it cannot be maintained then he modifies the price control and argues that he defends only people with low consumption of energy only.
Apart from that, people cannot really expect anything precise. Orban did not promise anything, he just said “I am going to continue”. How to expect anything then? There was no rational debate during the election time. In this sense there was no ‘choice’ of programs at al.
Hungarians just need to trust that Orban is a good leader.
Exactly. So, if we were to say what people expect, I would say: they expect that bad is coming, but it is not going to be the worst. It would have been much worse, many Hungarians think, had the opposition won.
In Poland, the right-wing populists – I do not really like the term, but let us use it for the moment – won their dominant position thanks to implementing some social policies after a long period of total market fundamentalism. This really made a change in people’s thinking: millions of Poles felt that the state could actually take care of them. Is the Hungarian case similar or different?
One of the biggest things that contributed to Orban’s success is exactly this point: that he started talking about social protection. Family policy was one of the key moves of Kaczynski. Same here in Hungary: family policies, family support, social protection, some and mostly symbolic fight against a globalized market. But also fight against migration, which is seen as an element of globalization of the economy.
Of course, Orban’s system is a very carefully thought out, as they would not promise real change, specifically not in the market system. Market fundamentalism might have been softly challenged, but what Orban proposes is a neonationalism with a non-neoliberal face, but very neoliberal in practice.
Does it mean that our societies were so shattered by the transformation period, that even some minor gestures that go against neoliberal logic are very welcome and can guarantee long term support for people like Kaczynski and Orban?
I think you are pointing in the right direction, especially when the opposition is not willing to come up with much neded criticism of the free market. If the opposition starts talking about the free market, then, you know, the job becomes really easy for Orban, right?
There is a joke which might not be politically correct, but I hope I will not be misunderstood. Among the blind, the half eyed is a king, right? When the opposition is doing its job like this, offering no full-fledged criticism of market fundamentalism of the European Union and so on, then there should be no surprise that somebody like Orban can win a lot with, as you said, just gestures. Especially when these partial moves are supported with a lot of media propaganda. The public media are completely under control of the government. They are pushing Orban’s narratives without questioning them.
So where can we look for hope? Are there any circles from which this very much needed criticism can come out? Are there any promising figures in the opposition ranks? You mentioned that there is a section of left-leaning liberals there…
Let us have a look at the situation from the point of view of historical dialectics. When the socialist regimes collapsed, it meant silencing the left-wing critics of capitalism. We entered a period of marketization plus a liberal hegemony, teaching us that the liberal democracy was the ultimate thing to live in, without any questions. We were not supposed to ask what democracy was really about and what real public control was. Fervent anti-liberal, and still anticommunist period is the next phase of social developments, a result of the previous one. This is how we came to an authoritarian nationalist way. Perhaps now we are going to see anti-liberal and anti-nationalist answer, perhaps we will see dialectical developments again. This is, I think, the historical dynamics.
I am convinced this is going to happen. Not just that certain people just figure it out, it is going to happen because people are going to be fed up with what they have now and the evolving economic and geopolitical crisis will be very destructive. Authoritarianism and nationalism are unable to solve key questions.
Do you think that there will be a moment when Hungarian people will feel deceived? Will they feel that they were promised a change for the better, but the change never came?
This may happen sooner than we think – and due to the economy. We are in crisis, a constant crisis. Coping with COVID-19 was already extremely difficult. Now the war brings about a new huge crisis producing all kinds of negative consequences even in states that want to stay away from it. And now the financial crisis is also coming, not just inflation. Inflation is just one element of this.
The solution that was put in practice in 2008, when states threw in money and then maintained some kind of an economic growth would not work again. The states became substantially weaker, they cannot pour money easily into the economy anymore. This means that there is a huge chance of stagflation like in the 1970s, and stagflation is deadly, especially for the poor. Stagflation means real hardship.
And then, I think, people in hardship will no longer have loyalty towards nationalistic slogans. For a moment, it is possible to think “My everyday living is falling apart, but at least I am still a proud Hungarian”. But this will not last for long. That is why I expect change. Here, however, I have again a problem with opposition forces. They are doing their best to keep the existing system alive…
Do you think they are actually happy inside the system? Being the powerless opposition is a position they are comfortable with?
To be honest, when I am critical toward Orban, I am double critical toward the opposition.
First of all, because of their market fundamentalism that I have already talked about. Adopting such a position in modern Hungary is an absolute nonsense and a proof that they have not learned anything from history. But secondly, I am critical of them exactly for the reason you named. When I look at some of the opposition politicians, I see people who are happy with their own little parliamentary position.
There is no ambition to take power?
They simply do not care. The most important thing for them is to kill the other opposition party, so that their own is much stronger next time. That is the game they are playing. Orban is still in power and their little games matter little to the society, but they do not care. Have a look at Ferenc Gyurcsany, who is an example of that. I look at him and I think: he is a real pain, the most important thing for him is to kill the Socialist Party.
How do you see the role of the European Union in all this? Is the EU, too, powerless when facing Orban’s national authoritarianism… or they, too, do not care?
The European Union is tantalized. First of all, they thought that they could easily dominate in the Eastern European arena. And now it turns out it is not so easy. They would need to have a counter-strategy, which they do not have.
In addition, the structure of the European Union is very fragile. It is very much a nation-state based system, in which individual states maintain a lot of rights. The national elections are far more important than anything else, and it is easy for a skilled populist to play all kinds of games with Brussels. It is easy to go against Brussels in certain cases, which are easier to win concessions. But even if a populist does not win, he says: look, we are unable to act, because they are throwing obstacles to us. From a propaganda point of view, it is a win-win situation. The EU is an easy prey.
And if we see things in a wider perspective… the EU has no vision concerning its future development model. The Lisbon Treaty model is nonsense, this free market fundamentalism is not something which can work any more. The EU needs a redefinition, but it cannot come up with one. As a result, they are being marginalized. The European Union is losing more and more significance globally speaking, becoming more subordinated to the US. The new government in the US is very happy about this. They would like to use the European Union as their own little brother, which is doing certain things for them. And many of the politicians in the European Union are happy with this, which actually gives momentum to people like Orban in a lot of ways, in both East, West and South of the continent.
I think the European Union is politically unable and formally unable to handle the situation. I would go as far as to claim that we see a disintegration process going on. I just cannot say what would be the final outcome of that. It is a big question: what is going to be the overall strategy of large scale capital?
I assume that now the previous universalist globalization model is going to be completely abandoned. They are starting to build separate blocs and chains of production. We are going in the direction of an American and European bloc fighting against China, but also against other upcoming emerging economies.
The next step would be to separate even the supply chains, so the blocs are not too much linked to each other.
So what is the role for Hungary and Eastern Europe in this bloc model? Are we still to remain as a cheap workforce reservoir, where factories are relocated from the European West?
Yes. Our region cannot get out of the Euro-American bloc, and if we stay inside, this is the role written for us, which causes a lot of demographic problems and social problems in these societies. It could be different, had the EU decided to go into a new model in terms of decision making, but also in terms of economy. I do not see signs of such a process taking place though.
So it seems that the only hope for peoples of the Eastern Europe are new grassroots movements that must emerge now from the crisis. People rising up against the situation.
East European countries are also learning fast. And I think they have already learned very well that market fundamentalism is not working. The support of the nationalist reaction shows crystal clearly how disillusioned they are. This is already a starting point for a discussion about how the disillusion can be effectively expressed.
The question is, whether our societies can actually move toward political creativity which is non-nationalist. I think, unfortunately, that the right-leaning public opinion in Eastern Europe is not really helpful.
We are doing this interview in Portugal and Portugal is very different. If you go to Latin America, it is even more different. Disillusionnment is expressed in anticapitalist terms, while in Eastern Europe the nationalist reaction is supported by long term right-wing instincts. Whether it can change or not, that is a big question. I would not rule it out because of the historical logic, but for a moment, I cannot expect that Eastern Europe is going to be a vanguard in these changes.
I could agree with you because I see even today in Poland, where we see a certain revival in workers’ movement, the places where the protest movements are the most vocal are big industrial hubs – either factories relocated to the East or factories sold to Western business. Not a “genuine Polish business” that grew after the transition, for most of the businesses with local capital are too small to employ huge groups of workers. It is like history replaying in front of us – huge factories, exploitation, workers learning the meaning of solidarity. If relocations were to assure an obedient working class to exploiters, now they are bringing up workers who are not afraid of collective fighting…
Exactly. This is a very important lesson and a very important development. But it must depass the borders of one country. We need more global solidarity and global action, even though it is extremely difficult. There will be no long-term positive changes in one country.
Cover photo: Attila Melegh. Photo by Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat.
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