Although Viktor Orbán does a good job of bringing up important topics in Europe, Hungary could benefit from a far more balanced debate culture. Cultivating such a balance is essential in limiting polarization, says Danish journalist Lasse Skytt. Skytt came to Hungary years ago in an effort to better understand “what’s going on” in the much-debated country he calls “Orbánland”. He recently published a book based on his experiences, interviews and research which deals with the aspects of Hungarian politics long dominated by the Prime Minister. He chose to meet us at the controversial Memorial for Victims of the German Occupation in Szabadság (Freedom) Square.
Why did you want to meet here?
The book takes place all around Hungary, including at the Bálna Building in Budapest where Fidesz held its election party in 2018, and in the Refugee Camp in Debrecen where riots broke out in 2015. But I also mention the Liberty Square as a place of action, and I chose to meet here because I think the square and its monuments symbolize polarization – not only in Hungary, but also in Europe. The book is about how to cope with polarization, and these historical events are very meaningful to Hungarians.
How did you end up in Hungary?
A woman, who is now my wife, had the opportunity to study here. I decided to follow her, and I saw a lot of potential for me as a journalist to try to understand Hungary from the inside.
We moved here in 2013, and since then, Hungarian politics has turned out to be even more interesting than I could have imagined.
Due to the migration crisis, Hungary suddenly found itself on the European map. Along the way, Viktor Orbán emerged and grew into a European politician who now has a powerful voice at the European stage. I came here just at the right time.
Beforehand, how much did you know about Hungary?
I knew about its historical events: 1956 and that before the fall of communism Hungary was called the “happiest barrack”. It was, perhaps, the most liberalized former communist country, the most Western of the Eastern countries. Prior to my arrival, news of extremists and Jobbik coloured every page I read, including the Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard – Jobbik’s former paramilitary-like group that claimed to defend “a physically, spiritually and intellectually defenseless Hungary”), the Roma killings and the Jobbik party’s rapid rise. Today, the story about Hungary is more or less dominated by Viktor Orbán, hence the title of my book.
What did you find different about Hungary after your arrival?
Beforehand, I expected Hungarians to be more open-minded. They were supposed to be “the happiest barrack”, you know. But, at first, they appeared to be close-minded and complex to understand. I then learned that Hungarians are actually warm and welcoming – more than you would think if you only read the newspapers. Yet, the extent of the growing polarization in Hungary and the fact that people are so divided also surprised me.
Do you think this is a worldwide phenomenon?
Absolutely, it’s enough to just look at the United States. I think that by understanding polarization and its dynamics in Hungary – and according to a number of scientific studies,
Hungary is the most polarized country in the EU – there is a good chance of understanding the polarization occurring in Europe and the world.
So in my book, I lifted Hungary’s case up – without ignoring its differences and unique aspects – in an effort to understand more about Europe and the world.
Yuval Harari’s quote means a lot to me: “Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.”
To what extent do people in Denmark care about Hungary?
To a great extent, and I can easily say this because I earn a living based on that interest. The Danes care more about Hungary now than they did five years ago. Especially since the migration crisis broke out. This put Hungary and Orbán on the map. The Danes, in general, are curious but also sceptical of such things. They won’t accept an easy answer; they want to really dig in, so that’s what I am trying to do as a journalist.
Did conflicting media reports play a role in your decision to write the book?
Yes. If you read about Hungary in the Western, left-liberal media, and if you read about the EU in the Hungarian, pro-government media, you will have a very different understanding of what’s going on.
The reports are not all necessarily incorrect but are definitely guilty of exaggeration. On both sides.
I think the truth is somewhere in between and both sides should be more interested in the opinions and mindsets of the other. This is also one of the purposes of my book. We definitely need some level of balance and flow because it can be dangerous if you take it too far. You risk losing not only support but also trust. In this case, only discord remains.
What can Hungary and Denmark learn from one another?
I think many people in Denmark are very complacent and comfortable in their lives. So, in my opinion, it’s important for them to understand that “history is not over”, as Francis Fukuyama suggested, and that things can change. New developments are taking place all the time. And,
Hungarians, I think, could learn from Denmark the art of debate.
Danish people tend to be very good at talking to those they don’t agree with, and they actually want to listen to different perspectives. We had a crisis, too – the Muhammad caricature riots – that forced us to discuss some very delicate topics, including Islam and freedom of speech. Still, to some extent, sadly, Denmark is also becoming polarized. The level of debate is not as good as it once was.
To what extent did the migration crisis hit or affect Denmark?
It was similar to my experience in Hungary: more and more migrants came until suddenly, foreign people were walking on the highways in Denmark. That was really a wake-up call for many people. However, contrary to Hungary, Denmark was one of the end stations of the mass migration. It was an eye-opener because up until 2015, these things had always happened far from us. Suddenly, we were waking up and wondering what we should do now. This led us to take some drastic measures, for example enforcing border control and changing the policies on immigration.
Did it alter the political spectrum in Denmark?
Yes, back then the left bloc was more pro-migration, or at least it tried to be more humanistic in the classic meaning of the word. However, today, many leftist parties have adopted policies critical of migration. The Social Democrats are even cooperating with the Danish People’s Party on immigration policy. Something has definitely shifted in Denmark, as well as in Europe.
How do you view Orbán’s role in the migration crisis?
In the book, I don’t give Orbán full credit, but he definitely noticed the problem, took the bull by the horns and started an important conversation about it. I quote an article that claims he won the migration debate, but obviously, there were and still are many actors in this game. In addition, the crisis and the debate are far from over.
Is it strange to you that rather than compromise and coalition, like in Denmark, politics in Hungary always revolve around pressure and power?
It is, and that’s what I reference in the book, too.
On a European level, Viktor Orbán does a good job bringing these topics to the table to discuss. Whereas back home, I don’t see the same lively debates about different ideas and opinions.
I also don’t think it’s good for a prime minister to refuse to participate in TV debates with his opponents. You’re never fully tested this way. Some challenges can only make you stronger if you have the right answers, and Orbán does have many right answers. But at the end of the day, he can’t be the leader of the whole country because a part of it turns its back on him. Ultimately, this benefits neither him nor the country.
What about the controversial anti-Soros and anti-EU campaign? Could something like that happen in Denmark?
It’s hard to say because we also have campaigns and billboards. The problem, I think, is that there has been no debate about it although it’s very divisive. While this is the truth for many, for others it’s simply ridiculous. If the polarized groups never talk to each other, it will stay like this.
What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about Orbán?
People on the Left often ask me if I think he’s bluffing. But I don’t think so.
Many of the things he does, it’s actually conservatism at its root.
Another misunderstanding about him is that his conservative ideas are completely new: family, church, culture. Of course, they are used politically just as almost all aspects of society in Hungary are, including religion and sports, but I think he truly believes in what he does, and many of his followers as well. These people are not stupid, they just have a different worldview than the typical left-liberals. This is very important to understand.
Is there any criticism of him that you think is valid?
The corruption is an obvious one. Also, the criticism regarding the over-politicized elements of society is legitimate, too, meaning that the state and the government are far too involved in areas that should be neither Left nor Right.
In which areas?
Sports and culture. The academic world. I know this is true for other countries as well, but that does not necessarily make it better. The concept of ‘whataboutery’ goes hand in hand with the growing polarization.
What about Orbán’s proclaimed ‘illiberal’ turn?
It’s hard to say, because when I hear ‘illiberal democracy’, I usually think of Russia, China, Singapore or Turkey. I think Hungary is more European than those countries. The Hungarian government argues that ‘illiberal’ just means that it is not liberal. So it’s important to note that, at this point, ‘illiberal democracy’ is used by Fidesz to highlight the resistance against liberalism. It’s a way to distinguish their political idea.
It is, however, a good question, what if you take the idea too far? In total, just around 50 percent of Hungarians support Viktor Orbán and his ideas, while in Russia, almost 80 percent support Vladimir Putin.
In a few years, Hungary may stand at a crossroads between East and West.
What do you think in general about the direction Orbán is taking the country?
I have asked several Hungarians whether they’re better off under Orbán, and to be honest, most say they are. When I asked his fierce critics if it would be better to have a left-wing government, they usually say ‘oh no’ and that it would probably be about the same. There is a general lack of trust in politicians. In Hungary, and in Europe.
How did people receive the title of your book? Don’t you think it’s too simple?
I’m a journalist and catching people’s attention is definitely a priority. So that was one reason. I also clarify in the book that I chose this title because Orbán does dominate a lot of different elements of society, even areas that are usually non-political.
I’ve gotten a lot of different reactions to the title. From Orbán’s supporters, I usually hear that it’s unfair and too simple. On the other hand, many of his opponents have said that I give Orbán too much credit by putting his name in the title. I guess I can’t win…
As one of my colleagues once put it: “In Hungary’s deeply divided and distrustful society, even political neutrality is seen as bias”.
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I got the impression that at many points you had to refrain from writing your opinion…
Yes, I did my very best to not write my own opinion. Since I’m a foreigner, I don’t have to vote here and I don’t have anything at stake personally, so I can afford to think freely and be impartial. And I’m not going to tell Hungarians what the right thing to do is. I’m merely saying that having debates and talking to the other side could be beneficial. I tried to choose my interviewees according to these principles, and I use scientific research to prove my points.
Still, my opinion is in there because I do try to tell people not to get locked up in echo chambers. I encourage them to seek out and listen to other perspectives and opinions. It’s not good for society to have two blocs that won’t even talk or listen to one another. Hopefully, people will start doing that after reading my book.
Which was your favourite interview?
The one with Tibor, an ordinary guy from Veszprém. He is the average Hungarian, and I learned a lot from him. It was also interesting to meet a person like Andy Vajna. He was definitely a character. I met him in his office; he was smoking a cigar, there was a roulette table by his desk and huge “Hasta la vista, baby” letters on the bookshelf. He reminded me of two people: a charming Danish film director who also smokes cigars, and Donald Trump because of the way Andy Vajna communicated in short, tweet-like sentences. I also enjoyed my interview with the mysterious, bestselling author of Budapest Noir, Vilmos Kondor. We didn’t speak in person, but he sent me emails responding to my questions. I’m not even sure he actually exists…
Why didn’t you manage to set up an interview with PM Orbán, the protagonist of the book?
When I tried to contact him and his office, I didn’t get a response. Nevertheless, I think that he might actually be interested in talking to me, a journalist who isn’t there to judge him or simply hold a microphone. Ironically, I start all my lectures with a photoshopped image of us sitting across from each another. So, I really hope I will have a chance to meet with and speak to him in the future. If he reads this, he might call me up.
What do you think the main message of the book is?
The main message would be that the current form of polarization should be stopped, or at least limited.
It’s important for people to step back, get out of their echo chambers and listen to the other side. Whether by reading newspapers, watching documentaries or talking to someone that they disagree with.
Referring to Yuval Harari’s bon mot that you quote at the beginning of the book, what are the questions you haven’t found an answer to?
What will it all lead to? I mean, so many things have happened over the last couple of years: Trump, Brexit, the migration crisis, yellow vest, the rise of Orbán, right-wing nationalists and the new populism on the Left. Everything seems to be up in the air, so the million-dollar question is whether the pendulum of history has now swung to the other side.
Is the era of liberal democracy over for good? Or will everything eventually calm down and return to its “old track?”
Time will tell the answer.
Are you staying in Hungary?
Yes, I plan to stay, now more than ever. On the one hand, Hungary is a great, interesting place to be. On the other hand, the knowledge I’ve accumulated since arriving here also makes me want to stay. And who knows, a few years down the road, when I have more answers, I may write Orbánland 2.
Orbánland can be ordered through the publisher’s website www.europeland.media. The book can also be found in the Bestsellers Bookshop in central Budapest.
images: Dénes Erdős/ Hungary Today