Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Saga of Viktor Orban and Hungarian Democracy

I rarely write “follows ups”. Events I discuss on this blog are driven by the irresistible hand of speculative capital, so their outcomes tend to be preordained. Still, on a snowy weekend in New York I thought to take a break from work and give you an update on Viktor Orban’s saga. The information from the Financial Times is in my fingertips and there might be an educational angle to the story. You know Viktor Orban of Hungary, don’t you, from the previous posts here and here.

Pressure mounts on Hungary (Wed, Jan 18)
A simmering battle between Brussels and Budapest intensified yesterday when the European Union’s executive branch ruled that three new Hungarian laws violate EU treaties and began legal proceedings to overturn the measures, one of which officials believe threatens the independence of Hungary’s central bank.

The heightened tensions came as the government of prime minister Viktor Orban continues to seek aid from the EU and the International Monetary Fund. Brussels has said it is unwilling to support such aid until Mr Orban revises the central bank law, which gives the prime minister increased power to appoint senior management at the bank.
Who, then, should appoint the senior management at the central bank of a country?

Orban fights shy of battle with EU critics (Thu, Jan 19)
In a hastily arranged visit to Strasbourg, Viktor Orban sought to reassure critics that the sweeping reforms by his government since its landslide election victory in 2010 were in line with European principles... The EU’s executive arm on Tuesday announced it was taking legal actions against Hungary to reverse measures it believed could compromise the independence of the central bank and judiciary among others.
Landslide victory. Reversing local law. Central bank independence. European values.

European values!

Hungary’s leader ready to back down in EU dispute (Fri, Jan 20)
Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, appeared to back down on a key issue in the country’s dispute with the European Union, increasing market optimism that talks could soon start on a financial support package. Mr Orban told a radio station he was prepared to drop a planned merger of the country’s central bank and financial markets regulator, which had raised concerns over the independence of the central bank... “It is important to accept that there appears to have been a complete turnaround, even a U-turn, in terms of the attitude of the Hungarian administration – and right to the top,” said Tim Ash, head of emerging markets research at RBS.
Game, set, match, then, you say?

Not at all.

Game, perhaps. But set and match are yet to be played. Therein lies the educational aspect of the story that I mentioned.

Yesterday, after the prime minister’s U-turn, Paul Krugman of the New York Times had a guest post titled Hungary, Misunderstood? If you click on it here, you will see it is quite a post, dense with data, graphs, text and obscure references that, unless you are a student of Hungarian history, you would neither know or care about.

What is more, if you search Krugman’s blog for “Hungary”, you will find 10 posts. Here is the page in question. One relatively sympathetic article is from August 10, 2011. The rest, progressively critical, including Hungary’s “hair raising” march towards dictatorship, begin in December 2011.

Why is this man who cannot properly pronounce the name of the capital city of Hungary so suddenly interested in that relatively small country? What gives?

A partial answer is that Krugman is the attack dog of neo-liberalism. He hears the whistle and off he goes. The attacks he leveled on the opponents of NAFTA who said that the treaty would result in destruction of jobs in the US would make Rush Limbaugh blush.

But it is not a matter of one attack dog only. Today, two days after the matter seemed all but settled, came the editorial in the New York Times. Titled Hungary’s Lurch Backward it went for the jugular from the opening sentence: “The soothing words of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, do little to counter his government’s assault on the independence of Hungary’s press, judiciary and central bank”.

It ended by saying:
Unimpressed by Mr. Orban’s facile promises, the majority parties in the European Parliament now want governmental leaders to consider invoking a clause of the E.U. treaty that would strip Hungary of some voting rights if Mr. Orban continued to flout European law. Europe’s powers to nudge Hungary back from authoritarianism are limited. But to its credit, it has begun wielding them.
If you are not Hungarian and ordinarily do not follow the affairs of the country, I say keep Viktor Orban’s name in the back of your mind. My guess is that you will see it again – and never in a positive light. In fact, that is how you will only hear of his name – until you hear of it no more.

And as a tribute to Hungarians everywhere, get a copy of Marai’s Casanova in Bolzano. Whether you read it on a gloomy winter day in New York or under sunshine in Sao Paulo, you will see it is the most adult, and therefore the most touching, love story ever written!


farmland investing said...

You know, I must say that Orban is starting to remind me of that other chap from Slovakia a few years ago Meciar who seemed bent on flouting EU norms and taking Hungary in a different direction than that which EU standards seemed to allow. I think this issue will not go away, and Orban will indeed be in the news constantly. I do not know if Hungary will be bailed out or not, but keep in mind that many citizens there took out loans to purchase homes in Swissies as a way to have very low interest rate loans. This assumed the forint was stable, and now this whole lot may blow up in the their faces.

Nasser Saber said...

Your memory is not bad. The circumstances were a bit different then --Orban is within the EU -- but yes, non-conformers will be put in their place (initially) respectfully but immediately and firmly. That is the point I was making in the post: finance capital tolerates no dissent. Mr Orban, welcome to the EU and the "open society".