How do you know if a real storm is brewing — or if you’re just reacting to a few passing clouds?
That’s a question that many Hungarians and people keeping an eye on the country are asking these days. Iren Kollanyi, 61, is one of them.
She has lived here her entire life, through decades of Communism, the adjustment to a whole new system and Hungary’s admission into the European Union in 2004.
But the last two years have been among the most peculiar. A conservative party won two-thirds of the seats in Parliament and something akin to legislative carte blanche, which it has used in ways that may spell trouble. At the same time, a party far to its right has become a foul-tempered, foul-mouthed player in the country’s affairs.
And to Kollanyi’s ears and those of many other Hungarians, there’s an authoritarian, nationalistic tenor to things, along with strains of anti-Semitism and antipathy to other minorities.
“It’s not good,” said Kollanyi, who is Jewish, when I spoke with her last weekend. “It’s not even a little good.”
Pay attention to Hungary. It may not have any great economic heft, and it’s home to only about 10 million people with a tropism toward beer and a talent for brooding. But it could turn out to be a test case of the E.U.’s imperiled sway in these days of debt and austerity. Brussels and Budapest have clashed already over the Hungarian government’s attempts at tighter control of the news media, the judiciary and the central bank.
Hungary could also be a window into just how potently economic anxiety fans the flames of bigotry. E.U. membership hasn’t brought Hungarians the broad prosperity they had hoped for; the country has had severe budgetary woes of late. And the far-right party I mentioned, Jobbik, has converted these disappointments into questions about the country’s orientation to the West and, for good measure, about its supposed coddling of Jews, gays and Roma: Hungary’s trusty trinity of scapegoats.
This month Jobbik introduced a bill that refers to homosexuality as a perversion and bans its promotion in language so vague, opponents say, that two men or two women holding hands in public could theoretically be imprisoned.
That bill is almost certainly going nowhere. Jobbik has only 46 of the 386 seats in Parliament and most Hungarians don’t support the party, which is better at noise than change. It has, for instance, been agitating for the ouster of Robert Alfoldi, the director of the National Theater, whom Jobbik supporters publicly deride for his presumed homosexuality.
But in an interview on Saturday, Alfoldi noted that “they have not managed to have me removed.”
“There has been no censorship whatsoever,” he added. For now, Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his ruling party, Fidesz, are letting Alfoldi be.
Julia Lakatos, a political analyst with an independent think tank here, said that Fidesz’s repressive, power-consolidating image in the international media isn’t quite matched by reality. When Brussels balks, Orban blinks.
“At the end of the day, he’s a European politician,” she said.
But one danger is that Jobbik, with the third-highest number of seats in Parliament, could continue to rise and tug him in its direction.
I met with one of Jobbik’s members of Parliament, Marton Gyongyosi, who studied in Western Europe, provides an erudite voice for his party and has a measured manner.
Still, he sneeringly referred to the belief of successive Hungarian governments that “the most important thing is to join the glorious West,” which he called “arrogant about basically everything.”
Jobbik has advocated closer ties to Iran, which Gyongyosi recently described as “an extremely peaceful country” in an interview with a Jewish publication. The publication also questioned the seriousness with which he takes the Holocaust.
He told me: “No normal person can ever question the existence of the Holocaust.” But, he added, the Holocaust isn’t “exceptional and above all sufferings” and genocides, and is perceived that way only because Jews talk about it more, not less, as time passes.
“What the people know about is what gets the most attention,” he said. “Why do people buy Head & Shoulders shampoo? Well, that’s because that’s the most advertised.”
On the coffee table between us were copies of The Economist and Time. But over on his desk, less conspicuously displayed, was the Jobbik magazine, a recent issue of which had an article extolling the party’s effort to stop Budapest’s gay pride parade, the kind of degenerate event that’s too blithely tolerated in other E.U. countries, the article maintained.
“Deviant West, Normal East,” was the headline.
The cover story mentioned historical accounts of Jews using Christian blood in rites. “Whether this is true or not,” the story said, is unknown.
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