Jean-Michel de Waele: Orbán is more pro-Russian than the 1980 Hungarian communists

Jean-Michel de Waele [ULB]

What Victor Orbán likes about Vladimir Putin is his model of state authoritarianism, his police state, and his grip on the media, Jean-Michel de Waele told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

Jean-Michel de Waele is professor of political science and current Dean of the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the Free University of Brussels.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

Isn’t there a revolutionary atmosphere in Central Europe, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall?

There is something in common with the fall of the Berlin Wall and current development in Central Europe 25 years later, and this is the surprise element. Nobody in 1989 expected the Berlin Wall, (and) the domino effect that took place. What happens now, in several Central European countries, is also a surprise.

The defeat of Victor Ponta [the Romanian Prime Minister who lost the presidential election to ethnic German candidate Klaus Iohannis], the upsurge against Viktor Orbán [thousands of Hungarians accuse the Prime Minister of employing corrupt public servants and cosying up to the Kremlin], the civic mobilisation in the Czech Republic [Czechs protested against President Miloš Zeman, accusing him of drifting too close to Moscow] have all been surprising.

In Western Europe, those in power are also unpopular, but in Central Europe the welfare states are much weaker, corruption is stronger and power is more fragile. We have seen in Bulgaria street protests toppling down a government [the previous government of Boyko Borissov resigned in 2013 following protests over the price of electricity]. That is something that would never happen in Western Europe.

The situation is however specific in Romania. In Hungary, it looks like there is no alternative to Orbán. The same largely applies to the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. In Romania, Iohannis came as an alternative, following a mobilisation of the people, in spite of the support of the oligarchs, of the very powerful media, and of the Orthodox church for Ponta. The fact that a Lutheran, a representative of a very small minority won, is very unusual at a time of isolationism and a of surge of nationalism.

How about the Russian factor behind the development, both in 1989 and today?

In the case of the Czech Republic and of Hungary, the popular surge indicates a rejection of the government’s policies vis-à-vis Moscow. Western audiences find it difficult to understand, but in Central Europe some political forces play a balancing act, as if it was still possible to choose between the EU and Russia, which is absurd.

 This kind of “choice” is the case in Ukraine.

Indeed, but Ukraine is in a different geographic and geopolitical situation. However Mr. Orbán is more pro-Russian than the Hungarian communists in the 1980s. And it’s very strange. In Bulgaria, there is a tradition of friendship with Russia, there is a strong Slavophile movement. Even in the Czech Republic we have something similar, but not at all in Hungary. Therefore, for the Hungarian population which feels deeply Western, this alliance of Mr. Orbán with Mr. Putin is astonishing.

Having said this, what Mr. Orbán likes with Mr. Putin is not Putin> it’s his model of state authoritarianism, his police state, his grip on the media, this minimal and façade democracy.

Therefore, the Russian factor does not apply equally in the Central European states. In the Czech Republic, we know that there are strong links between Russian finance and Czech businesses and mafia groups. Russia has installed in a number of countries its people, and a majority are in the business circles rather than in political circles.

Orbán once said: you in the EU can criticise me as much as you want, but one day you will do as I do. He was mostly referring to his unorthodox way of running the economy, of nationalising private funds and heavily taxing foreign companies. Does he have a point?

No, I don’t think so. One thing is to denounce the ultra-liberal policy of the previous Barroso commission, which is to be found in Hungary and in many other places, another thing are Orbán’s experiments, which could find supporters like Marine Le Pen or maybe UKIP.

I’m glad you mentioned Barroso, because he said in a book he published during his last days in office that one of his favourite memories was when Orbán said at a EU summit he will not take criticism from the heads of state and government, but would accept it if it comes from the Commission. Of course he would accept it, because Barroso said nothing. Do you think Juncker could say more?

If Juncker could say more, is that the question?

Yes, and will he say more?

I think the Commission can say more. It’s difficult to say if it will. Let’s see if the EU heads of state and government will accept that Juncker plays a role. Because if Jacques Delors had played a role [as Commission President in 1985-1994], it is because Mitterrand and Kohl allowed him to. And they even asked him to play his role, and gave their support to a Commission that played its role. If this will happen again, with those heads of state and government so weak and so unpopular, I don’t know, but it’s not likely.

It’s true that Mr. Juncker has his own strengths, and has some cards to play. He has a rich experience, he has a vision about Europe, he is not an ultra-liberal and is not as pro-American as Barroso.  His project to find several hundreds of billions of euro for investment is interesting, but if he doesn’t succeed with it, I fear that he would no longer be credible. He would be demonetized.

As a European, I put hopes in Mr. Juncker, but I also have my doubts. As Prime Minister of Luxembourg, didn’t he preside himself over a tax haven? I don’t remember him at that time speaking in favour of a more ethical way of doing things.  

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