Hell-lo Dictator!

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is greeted by President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker on the second day of the fourth European Union (EU) eastern Partnership Summit in Riga, on May 22, 2015 as Latvia holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council. EU leaders and their counterparts from Ukraine and five ex-Soviet states hold a summit focused on bolstering their ties, an initiative that has been undermined by Russia's intervention in Ukraine. AFP PHOTO / JANEK SKARZYNSKI

Prime Minister Orbán returns greeting from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga, Latvia          (photo: AFP).

On May 21, 2015, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the top European Union-level official, individually greeted the heads of all delegations attending the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga, Latvia.

Standing on stage between Prime Minister Donald Tusk of Poland and Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma of Latvia, Juncker commented in a loud, jocular voice as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary approached: “the dictator is coming.” Juncker then extended his arm to shake hands and addressed Orbán directly as “dictator” and playfully slapped him on the side of the head (see video of greeting).

Many Hungarians, even those who oppose Orbán, voiced objection to Juncker’s condescending treatment of the prime minister. President Gábor Vona of the radical-nationalist Jobbik party wrote on his Facebook page (source in Hungarian):

I am also the leader of an opposition party, and I also have innumerable problems with Viktor Orbán and his policies, but this is an instance when I think that I must set my political affiliations aside. As a simple Hungarian citizen, I protest that which took place.

Obviously there are many lessons, everybody can draw their own. Two now occur to me:

1. Do they look at Hungary and its leader like this in the EU?

2. As Europeans, should we regard this person [Juncker]  as an authority and a leader?

At the other end of the political spectrum, Márk Herczeg of the liberal-democratic website 444.hu, one of the most popular and influential anti-Orbán media outlets in Hungary, wrote the following (source in Hungarian):

One does not have to be a specialist on protocol to see: Jean-Claude Juncker is a true moron. . . . Juncker has fallen to a level of boorishness unprecedented in the history of the EU, one that calls to mind Latin American dictators. . . . Who is leading Europe now, a lunatic or an enormous bumpkin? The scariest and most likely answer: both.

This is not the first time Juncker has publicly humiliated Orbán: in January 2015, the head of the European Union led Hungary’s prime minister off stage by the hand following a photo op in Brussels as if he were a child (see Back in the Fold?). In Juncker’s defense, he welcomed most delegation leaders to the May 2015 Eastern Partnership Summit in uncommonly casual and chummy terms (see video of all greetings). However, he reserved his only politically charged comment for Prime Minister Orbán, whom he—as many European Union officials—manifestly regards as an authoritarian renegade who has spurned the organization’s fundamental democratic ideals. Orange Files wonders based on the indignation that Juncker’s off-color greeting of Orbán in Riga aroused among Hungarians of diverse political stripes if growing European Union criticism and potential ostracism of Hungary’s prime minister might actually serve to enhance his political power rather than to undermine it?


Back in the Fold?

On January 23, 2015, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán held talks with European Union officials in Brussels during which they discussed his recent comments against non-European immigration (see Je Suis Viktor) and the impending official visit to Hungary of Russian President Vladimir Putin (source in Hungarian).

After the talks Prime Minister Orbán and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker shook hands and smiled for the cameras. However, instead of loosening his grip at the end of the joint photo-op, Juncker said “Let’s go now!” and led Orbán off stage by the hand in a gesture calculated to symbolize the assertion of European Union authority over the previously defiant, euro-skeptic prime minister of Hungary (see video below).



Until recently, Orbán would not have allowed himself to be placed in a position of such blatant and humiliating subordination, particularly toward an official from the European Union. 

However, over the past couple of months his position has weakened considerably both internally and externally:

According to all five major polling companies in Hungary, the popularity of the prime minister’s FideszChristian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) governing alliance has declined sharply among Hungarian voters since October (source in Hungarian);

Unprecedented public conflict has taken place among Fidesz government and National Assembly officials since November, suggesting that the Orbán administration’s previously rock-solid internal cohesion is diminishing (see Another Cleft in the Monolith);

Officials from the dominant countries within in the European and Euro-Atlantic alliances that provide Hungary with vital developmental funding and military protection—Germany and the United States—have sent strong messages to the Orbán government that they will no longer tolerate its autocratic and explicitly illiberal domestic policies (see Proclamation of the Illiberal Hungarian State) and reluctance to support collective measures designed to penalize the Putin administration for Russia’s occupation of Crimea and proxy attacks on Ukraine (see Teutonic Shift and The Spectacular Fall);

And the main foreign-policy endeavor of the Orbán government, building (economic) ties with the rapidly developing states of Asia, Eurasia and the Middle East through in what it refers to as Eastern Opening [keleti nyitás], has failed to produce the anticipated results (source in Hungarian).

The above factors, coupled with the greater emphasis that European states have placed on internal unity to combat Jihadist terrorism following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in early January 2015, have apparently compelled Prime Minister Orbán to at least temporarily steer Hungary back toward the western political sphere.

The political force in Hungary that stands to benefit the most from Orbán’s volte-face: the radical-nationalist Jobbik party, which opinion polls show has gained popularity among Hungarian voters as that of Fidesz-KDNP has declined (see source in Hungarian and 24 Bastions). Jobbik will likely generate significant political profit from the anti-liberal, anti-capitalist, anti-European Union, anti-West sentiment that Prime Minister Orbán has so proficiently incited among Hungarians over the past five years in order to legitimize his authoritarian domestic policies, though now appears ready to moderate or abandon.