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The following is an extended excerpt of a radio interview, edited for readability.
On 1 February 2014, Chuck Mertz of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) talked to Todd Williams, an American expatriate in Budapest, about the lead-up to contentious elections in Hungary and the character of both New Left and ultra right political currents there.
We are interested in the voices and reflections of people “on the ground” who have few platforms for expression around matters that are routinely underreported or misreported in other media, such as the recent rise in nationalist and neo-fascist movements in Europe—as well as glimmers of ‘New Left’ formations in post-socialist countries.
Chuck Mertz: It’s our man in Budapest, live from Hungary, Todd Williams. How are you, sir?
Todd Williams: I’m doing great. I have a little piece I want to read. Elections have been set for April 6th, so this is something I wrote this morning, just a funny little thing about voting here in Hungary.
CM: Let’s hear it, sir.
You live in a politically oppressive system. Then that changes, the Russians leave, and you see a chance for true freedom—which means from the Russians and to get rich like Americans. That is squandered by bickering over past mistakes; the wrongs of Communism aren’t righted, you still have a Trabant, and those old Communists are still around. And you don’t get rich.
Oh, damn it, the Communists are back. Man, you’re pretty tired of Communists who obviously aren’t going to right their own wrongs. So next time you emphatically vote them out and vote in a bunch of relatively young guys who promise to right those wrongs and get you rich like the Americans. But still, you don’t get rich like the Americans. So you reluctantly vote the Communists back in again. Things are going okay at first, because it turns out they’re not really Communists but businessmen, and this is before 2008. But then they go too far and start stealing, and get busted, Nixon-style.
There aren’t any other parties at this point, so you go back to the guy who promised to right the Communists’ wrongs in the first place. Maybe this time he will. And he does! By writing a new constitution. The last one was Communist, influenced by Russians, so “Yay, new constitution!” Wait, what?
And he changes street names. Even on Moskva Tér, Moscow Square, the name has been changed. You still call it Moscow Square, though, just for old times. Still, no more Russians. Except for that huge monument to the Russian liberators right between the American Embassy fortress complex and the watchful eye of eight-foot Reagan. And oh, wait, is that a new memorial going up to the German invasion of Hungary? Which is just going to blame the Germans and exonerate the Hungarians from any wrongdoing in World War Two—is that going up on the same Square? Of course it is.
Then, he goes too far by not only enriching himself but enriching all his family, his friends, his neighbors, and even his hometown. He’s building a stadium and an airport there. And he introduced a whole bunch of new taxes. And he made it a hassle to buy cigarettes.
It hurts your head to think of the other stuff. Enough is enough. You decide to vote for someone else this time. Your choices are a) Communists who are really businesspeople, and b) fascists who are really just medieval anti-communists who hate gypsies. So you decide to stay where you are.
Oh, but he just made a deal with—damn it, not again—the Russians. What to do, what to do?
That’s how I see the twenty years I’ve spent here in politics, basically. As I’m saying, somehow it’s always the Russians.
Now the government signed a secret deal to get a Russian company to invest some incredible amount of money to expand a nuclear power plant here. This turned into a political chance for the Left—they’ve made a coalition now, all the Left parties together, and they’re using this nuclear power plant issue to have protests, to galvanize the Left and get people to vote against Fidesz. All of this is because [Orbán] made a secret deal with the Russians.
All of the politics here, if you look at it on a surface level, is that people can’t bring themselves to vote for anything that’s connected to Communism or the old Party, because they’ve hated Russians for so long. And it’s not just Communism. Russians were involved in the 1848 Revolution; they were also involved in some revolution in the early 18th century, so they are definitely persona non grata.
So [Orbán] made this secret deal with them, because he had rejected a new loan from the IMF. The Europeans were pressuring him to get this loan from the IMF, he didn’t want to do it. He said, “we’re independent,” and now there’s this? So people are pretty pissed off.
CM: When you say that people in Hungary are anti-Russia, you mean actually anti-Russian—anything to do with Russia—not necessarily to do with Communism?
TW: Yeah, it’s Russia. Because the hatred is deeper and longer than Communism.
Although Communism is a huge part of it because it is fresh in people’s minds, as you can imagine. For example I am translating a book—this guy is a big game hunter, Africa, Afghanistan, that kind of stuff. And he’s nobility; his father had a small plot of land and he had servants. It was small; in his mind it was really nothing. But he remembers they paraded his father and some other small landholders through their village, and on the side of the cart that they were in, they’d written “I’m a smallholder, I’m an enemy of the state.” There’s a lot of people who have that feeling—they took people’s families, they took people’s houses, they put people in jail who were nobility.
But the Russian thing goes beyond that, because there’s a feeling that in the 1848 Revolution, if the Russians hadn’t intervened on the side of the Austrians, then Hungary would have been free.
We’re always talking about whether this rightwing party Jobbik is fascist or not—they’re certainly racist, I won’t deny it. But there’s one thing they’re missing, and that’s a real enemy. These movements always start in the countryside, generally in the eastern part of Hungary, because the Roma live there. But no one in their right mind thinks that the Roma are a political threat in Hungary, it’s a straw-man enemy. So they go back to the Russians. They’re much more powerful.
And now Orbán, Fidesz—the ruling party—has made a deal with [the Russians].
CM: There was an article at Jacobin last month by Jake Blumgart called Hungary after Communism. In it he wrote, “the only forces tapping into Hungarian discontent are on the right.” You were saying how the Left has created a coalition. How much of a challenge to Fidesz is this new coalition?
TW: It’s hard to say. If you’d asked me that in October or November, I would have said it’s nothing. But since this secret deal with the Russians—which essentially means that instead of being beholden to the IMF (which everyone understands as the Americans), now we’re going to be beholden to the Russians—people are thinking, “is that really better?”
I think it’s possible now that [the New Left] could actually make a dent in the elections. Of course it remains to be seen, but I think there’s a possibility now. The thing is, on the Left there are two guys who were each prime minister. One, Gyurcsány, was for longer—he’s the guy that got busted Nixon-style; they were stealing from the country. So people hate him, and they say he may be the reason this won’t work. But the other guy [Gordon Bajnai] is younger, and he was a prime minister for a year in 2009-2010, so there’s some support for him even though he’s not charismatic. I feel like there’s renewed hope, and I think one of the reasons is this Russian thing.
I have a list of stuff that [Orbán] has done, that the government has done. With tobacco, for example: people smoke here. And he basically privatized the tobacco industry; he closed 27,000 shops and left only 7,000 open, so it’s much harder for people to get tobacco, and they bitch about it all the time. It’s an important thing. He made being homeless illegal, and people think that’s totally ridiculous. Of course, he changed the constitution. And then he changed regulations on taxis: they have to change their colors, and there’s some suggestion that there’s a company who gets to paint all the cars yellow, and it’s a friend of his. He’s building a stadium in his hometown, as well as an airport. One of the guys in the government has bought 27 properties around the country that are just ridiculous. That kind of stuff. People are saying enough is enough.
CM: In the article at Jacobin, they also pointed out how Orbán ended free higher education. Progressive income tax has been replaced with a flat tax of 16%. When he was making all these changes and, considering the rightward shift of Hungary that has happened since you’ve been living there, twenty-two years—during this time when you saw the re-writing of the constitution, these reforms, the rise of a very vocal and strong right wing, did you consider leaving Hungary at any time?
TW: No. It never occurred to me. Here’s the question. When you say ‘fascism,’ when you say ‘extreme right,’ what are you really talking about? What do you expect these guys to do? What do you think is going to come out of this? Let’s say that Jobbik wins a few more seats and they actually get to put their leader into the prime minister’s position? What could they possibly do? Are they going to commit a Holocaust against Roma? Are they going to round up Jewish people?
The leader of Jobbik was in Romania recently and he was firing up his listeners about ‘if we have to, we could fight,’ etcetera, but that’s nonsense. There’s not much of an army here, so I mean, when we are afraid of this kind of stuff, what exactly are we afraid of? What would you say to that?
CM: I don’t know. It would depend on my personal interaction with them. How creepy are these fascists? I would need to determine if these guys are just blowhards and not going to do anything, just pounding their chests and walking around, or if they are people who are actually dangerous and might commit crimes. These Magyar Garda, are they the creepiest fascists you’ve ever seen?
TW: No, hell no. First of all, there are not any Magyar Garda walking around in Budapest. There are some skinheads, but that’s not [organized] groups—it’s what you would see anywhere there are skinheads in town.
There was an incident a couple of years ago in this village: they came through with torches and pitchforks Frankenstein-style, trying to put on a show. But these Magyar Garda guys look like farmers who have dyed their clothes black. It’s like, makeshift uniforms. People with mustaches like—they look medieval. I think I know what you’re asking. They do not look menacing at all.
Years ago, skinheads and some Africans got into a fight and this 15-year-old skinhead was killed by a guy from Nigeria. That was right at the beginning when the mood was much stronger, and even then when they saw me, no one attacked me, they just said, “go home.” That was it. I would feel different if I were in Croatia, for example, or even Germany. But here I just don’t feel it.
[It may be relevant to mention here that Williams is black. –ed.]
CM: Do you think that’s because you’re in the city and not in the rural areas?
TW: I think that’s part of it, but again—I’ve been in rural areas, I’ve been around, and you just don’t see that. I know people who live in other places and I talk to them, and I don’t hear stories about people randomly attacking Roma. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen. But I’m not sure that it’s happening more because the Magyar Garda’s around. It happened before as well.
There is tension in the countryside. Not just Roma, but everyone has less money. People are poorer in the countryside than they are in the cities. So it’s that same old thing where this rightwing party is using tension that already exists to try to get some power. The leader of Jobbik, Vona Gábor, was recently in London trying to drum up support for super-right Hungarians—it’s a publicity stunt. I don’t think that guy is serious at all.
I do have a bit of a fear now because Jobbik is trying to pass themselves off as a ‘family party,’ and distance themselves from the fascist connection. They’re doing that because they see a gap. As I said earlier, people simply don’t want to vote for the Communists, and ultimately the ultra right are just trying to seize those gaps in the voting population. They play on the whole nationalism thing. We’re Americans so we know what that means really well, except of course there’s no 7-0 war record here in Hungary. They haven’t won in a long time, so you can’t use war to get power. The ultra right doesn’t talk about militarism so much, they don’t wave flags and all of that. It’s about going back to a ‘simpler,’ more traditional life.
The national myth in Hungary is that we are in the middle of all of this turmoil that’s always going through our country. These guys run across the country, the Russians, then it’s Turkish, it’s Russians again, it’s Austrians, and all we want to do is just be our countrified, farming selves and drink wine. That’s my overly generalistic impression of the whole thing.
CM: Todd, it’s always great talking to you. Enjoy the rest of your weekend in Budapest.
TW: Hopefully the next time we talk I’ll be holding a card that says I’m legal.