Last week Orban arrived in Brussels to present the issues Hungary is looking to promote over the next six months, but was criticized over a new law in Hungary which greatly expands the state's power to monitor and penalize media outlets that do not respect certain "moral codes."
The leftist opposition in Hungary was quick to accuse the prime minister of political censorship. The EU expressed concern as well, with some officials calling to strip Hungary of the rotating presidency and impose sanctions against it.
The media law was not the first decision by Orban's government to stir controversy. It was preceded by another decision to grant dual citizenship to some 300 ethnic Hungarians who live in neighboring countries, on land which was part of Hungary until the end of World War I.
Slovakia, where some 600,000 ethnic Hungarians reside, called the move a "declaration of war" and announced that residents who acquire a second passport would be stripped of their Slovakian citizenship. Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania expressed their disapproval as well. The temporary taxes imposed on large companies, mainly foreign ones, due to the financial crisis in Hungary also angered the country's prosperous neighbors.
In addition, the Hungarian government decided to privatize private pension funds and decreed that a copy of the Declaration of National Cooperation would be displayed in public buildings.
The declaration states that during the April elections the Hungarian people decided to found a new regime which will be built "on the pillars that are essential for prosperity, humane life, and will connect the members of the diverse Hungarian Nation. Work, home, family, health and order will be the pillars of our common future."
Orban frightens Europe. In documents published by Wikileaks, American diplomats refer to him as a "thug." But the Hungarian leader says he does not understand why he has such a bad image.
In a rare interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, held in a posh Brussels hotel shortly after he met with the heads of the European Jewish Congress, who expressed their concern over the neo-fascist Jobbik party's openly anti-Semitic ideas, Orban says that during a recent meeting in Cairo Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa described the civil unrest in Tunisia as a "real revolution" which erupted due to the dire economic situation in the country and the citizens' desire for more freedoms.
The developments in Tunisia took Orban back to the 1980s, when he had an active role in the toppling of the communist dictatorship in Hungary.
"We support this movement. I told the European Parliament that we should support Tunisia," Orban says.
Twenty-one years have passed since Hungary became democratic. Are you pleased with the transformation in your country?
"No. There is a sense in Hungary that the work has not been completed. The transition to democracy has not been completed, and many questions remain. Over the past eight years (during which the Left ruled) the rule of law was destroyed; democracy could not protect himself and the country fell into debt. Now I feel that I am facing a historic challenge.
"I find historic justice in the fact that the generation which was active in the initial stage of the transition to democracy – but was too young to play a major role during this stage – is not getting the opportunity to finish the job. We have a majority in parliament. Such a majority has not existed in Europe since Charles de Gaulle, who built a new France. Our task is to build a new Hungary, clean the house and instill order."
Attacked 'more than Jewish community'
Orban, 47, began his political career as a liberal, but he quickly realized that in order to seize the premiership he would have to move to the right. The Fidesz party, which he heads, was founded when Hungary was still communist. It eventually overcame its conservative rivals. Orban was often criticized for not removing right-wing extremists from the party. He was also suspected of "flirting" with the nationalist, anti-Semitic and racist Right.
In 1998 Orban became the youngest prime minister in Europe and began implementing his ideas, but coalition constraints prevented him from leading the country as he had envisioned.
His "radical" attitude vis-à-vis governing led to a loss in the heated 2002 elections. Orban complained of election fraud and tried to bring the leftist government down by organizing violent protests. These events certainly didn’t help his image, but the financial crisis which hit Hungary two years ago and plunged the country to the brink of bankruptcy brought him back to power 10 months ago. During this time, the Left collapsed, while the extremist, anti-Semitic Jobbik party became the third largest in parliament.
Orban is not concerned. "Extremism is always potentially dangerous, but in Hungary's political reality Jobbik and the other far-right parties have no chance of having a major influence," he says. "With a successful center-right party such as ours it is hard for the radical right to find room to operate. This is why they repeatedly attack us in the ugliest manner. They attack us more than they attack the Jewish community or the 'Jewish conspiracy' - which they believe exists. I am one of their main targets.
"The Hungarians, by nature, are not extreme. They become more extreme only when they are forced to fight for their freedom, as was in the case in the uprising against the communists in 1956 or the revolution against the Austrian Empire. They will not turn extreme in the name of despotism. My lesson from history is that if there is a strong moderate centrist party which can lead the country, there is no room for extremists from the right or left," says the PM.
European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor declared prior to meeting you this week that the level of anti-Semitism in Hungary is 'far from being acceptable.' Are you concerned with the anti-Semitic tendencies in Hungary?
"No, but the situation is not alright. And still, if I compare the situation today to that of a year ago, I think there has been a significant change. A year ago everyone thought the far-right would have major influence in parliament; people estimate that we would agree to cooperate with Jobbik to gain a majority. The election results made it clear that these concerns were unfounded. The Jewish community is calmer today, but we must recognize that a certain anti-Semitic culture does exist, especially on the Internet – on websites which are operated outside of Hungary.
"We are not pleased with this. We are looking for the means to deal with this phenomenon, including by establishing a government body which will supervise the media. The problem is that the EU is preventing us from establishing this body. The discussions on the matter are ongoing. We've sent letters to the American Administration demanding that it operate against the far-right websites, but the Americans claim it is part of free speech. I don't like this attitude. We must fight anti-Semitism."
Many Israelis have invested in Hungary over the past few years despite the efforts of Jobbik and other extremist parties that have launched a smear campaign against the 'Israeli takeover'. Should Israeli investors be worried?
"Certain circles in Hungary have believed for many years in the existence of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the country. This is an ancient tradition. According to this theory, businesspeople get orders from New York or Tel Aviv and buy the Hungarians' lands for this purpose.
"Obviously, this is silly. The Israeli investor's part in Hungary is too small to take over the country. The Israeli capital in Hungary is invested mainly in real estate, and these are businesses which come and go. There is also Israeli activity in the production of medicines; we are glad to have the Israelis there and hope to see them expand their activity. There are many Israeli investments in the hotel industry as well, and that's very good for Hungary because we don't have enough good hotels yet.
"I'm not worried about Israeli businesspeople or Jews investing in Hungary. They have good relations with the government. They are treated fairly and equally. We are interested in successful businesspeople from all around the world, including Israel."
In your opinion, what connects Israel and Hungary?
"For different reasons, the two people are 'nations of the world' with large diasporas. You can find Hungarians everywhere. Painful historic circumstances have led to the loss of many Hungarians scattered across the world in the past 150 years. In the beginning of the 20th century it happened due to economic difficulties. Millions of Hungarians immigrated to the United States. Then came World War I and the tyrannical regime between the two world wars, and then many intellectuals left.
"We lost the Jewish community in World War II. We also lost many soldiers and the people who fled the communist regime. An additional 200,000 people escaped following the oppression of the 1856 revolution. We understand very well what it means to be attacked due to your ethnic or religious descent. When the Israelis are hurt by something, we identify with them.
"Apart from that, the Jewish people are oriental, and the Hungarians are of oriental descent as well. We are considered the West's last oriental nation, so that makes us brothers in spirit. But unfortunately, and we mustn't hide it, the Hungarians and Jews have failed to find too many ways to cooperate and coexist on Hungarian soil in the past 120 years. Our history is filled with failed cooperation attempts, and that's a shame. Let's see what the future holds."
Do you feel something new being built today in the fabric of these relations?
"Hungary's Jewish community is vital today. That's a good thing, but we can't turn a blind eye to the fact that many Jews are still living in the past because of the tragedy of the Holocaust. They have a very active social life, but we still can't say that new cultural bridges are being built. Many people are interested in that and working on it, but history is history and we must respect that and act sensitively and cautiously.
"We have good ties with the community, but we must be aware of the fact that because the recent dictatorships which acted against the Jews came from the Right, the Jews lean towards liberalism and the Left. It will take time before people can base their decisions on the future rather than on the past."
'Netanyahu a strong leader'
Orban says he has "a very good personal relationship" with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He visited Israel when Netanyahu was finance minister and remembers that "he had a good plan which helped the Israeli economy emerge from the crisis. I learned from that plan which recovery steps could succeed. He gave us many good ideas and we tried to examine their implementation in Hungary as well. He is a strong leader, a tough person. It's very likely that we'll be able to build bridges for the future with him."
One of the issues on the European Union's agenda at the moment is recognizing a Palestinian state. What is your stance on this matter?
"I don't think the EU should rush to accept a Palestinian state before Israel and the Palestinians reach an agreement on this matter. I think this cautious stand will unite the Europeans in the future as well. We support the two-state solution, but we don't think it can be imposed from the outside. The partners, rivals, sometimes enemies, must reach an agreement on the matter."
As rotating president of the EU, you turned down an offer from Tehran to visit the Iranian nuclear facilities. The recent round of talks between Iran and the international community in Istanbul failed. What do you think should be done about the Iranian nuclear program?
"Just like with the previous issue, European unity is a precondition for success. We consulted European leaders and decided not to accept the Iranian invitation. Our policy must be very clear: We must halt the Iranian attempts to produce a nuclear weapon. There are no differences of opinion on this matter in the EU. The only internal conflict is tactical – how will we reach this target."
Are we reaching the point in which military force will be required?
"Any reference to the use of power by a politician is dangerous, so I wouldn't go that far."
Do you see Israel as an EU member in the future?
"Knowing the opinions of the EU's leading forces, I don't view this as a realistic option in the near future. Theoretically, this must not be ruled out' we have good relations with Israel, but any such move stirs stormy discussions in the EU.
"Regardless of the attitude towards Israel and the Jewish people, there is a lot of opposition to any further expansion in the EU. The economic difficulties have made people more cautious, and the politicians must adjust to the opinions of the people they represent. Therefore, in the coming years, we won't be talking much about expanding the EU, unfortunately. I am working to change this attitude within the EU, but the general opinion is not in favor."
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