HUNGARY Between Democracy And Authoritarianism

Hardcover: 288 pages
Hurst-, London-Columbia University Press, New York 2012
(also Hungarian, German and Slovak editions)
ISBN-10: 1849041962
ISBN-13: 978-1849041966

Review by Stefan Wagstyl  is the Financial Times emerging markets editor

The case against Viktor Orbán is set out with great passion in this convincing indictment of the most powerful political figure in the eastern EU. Until recently it seemed that while the EU’s new member states faced economic challenges on the arduous road to convergence with western Europe, their commitment to the EU’s political values was never in doubt. The victory of democracy after decades of one-party rule in eastern Europe was regarded as permanent.

  Hungary is now testing this assumption to the limit. The country that a decade ago saw itself as a leader of post-communist transition has become the first of the new member states to see its commitment to democratic principles come under scrutiny.

In the eyes of many critics, Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s conservative prime minister, is constructing an authoritarian state on the banks of the Danube. Furthermore, he is building it on rocky economic foundations: the country is heavily in debt and its economic policies are under fire from the EU and the International Monetary Fund. The risk of political and economic turmoil is very real.
  The case against Orbán is set out with great passion in Hungary: Between Democracy and Authoritarianism. In Paul Lendvai’s view, Orbán is “a master tactician, a gifted populist, a radical and consummate opportunist, and a ruthless power politician who believes not in ideas but in maximising his power without any compunction, giving vent to Hungarian nationalism or tapping into fear and prejudice at a moment of crisis”. He calls Orbán’s Fidesz “a charismatic ‘Fuhrer’ party”. This is gloves-off political writing at its best.

  Orbán came to prominence as a radical liberal student leader in the dying days of communism. But he soon realised that while the liberals in post-communist Europe had the best ideas, they had little support outside urban elites.
So the opportunistic Orbán headed to the right and built up a formidable conservative-clerical-nationalist power base infused with more than a touch of xenophobia.
  Backed by a two-thirds parliamentary majority, he has rewritten the constitution, increased state control of the media and the courts, and reorganised parliament and constituencies in favour of his ruling right-wing Fidesz party. As European Commission president José Manuel Barroso has said: “There are concerns about the quality of democracy in Hungary.”
  Lendvai is a somewhat controversial figure in Hungary. A Jewish survivor of the Nazi terror, he joined the Communist party and became a journalist before fleeing to the west after the failed 1956 anti-Communist uprising. He settled in Vienna, where he worked as a correspondent – including for the Financial Times – and later as a senior editor in Austrian state broadcasting.
  In this book he tries hard to be fair. The Socialists are justifiably blamed for paving the way for Orbán’s triumph, thanks to corruption and incompetence – especially in economic management. Lendvai rightly puts Orbán in the context of Hungary’s dark 20th-century history – the 1920 Trianon treaty, when Hungary lost a huge chunk of territory, the 1930s dictatorship, collaboration with the Nazis, the legacy of 1956, and the awkwardly incomplete end of communist rule. Neither the political right nor the left come out of this story with much credit.

  But he is surely correct to say that it is Orbán who is largely responsible for taking the dangerous road on which Hungary is now travelling. His huge 2010 victory gave him an opportunity to reach out to enemies, pursue inclusive policies and create a consensus for serious economic reforms and for securing backing from the EU and IMF. Instead, Orbán has gone for conflict and division, and adopted populist economic policies that are viewed sceptically by the EU, the IMF and the markets.
  Lendvai’s book is not the final word on Orbán. But it is a convincing indictment of the most powerful political figure in the eastern EU.

Book Review By Kester Eddy, Budapest June 7th 2012

Democracy is an unwieldy, cumbersome form of government at the best of times. This anecdote, described by Vienna-based journalist Paul Lendvai in his book, "Hungary: Between Democracy and Authoritarianism", shows how even more cumbersome was the process of trying to establish democracy after 40-plus years of one party rule.
In 256 pages, the Hungarian-born author surveys the tumultuous past quarter century of Magyar history, from the collapse of communism in 1987-89 to the current regime of Viktor Orban.
Lendvai is scathingly critical of later Socialist prime ministers (Peter Medgyessy, who came to power in 2002, in particular), but given the remarkable rise of Viktor Orban to the summit of political power in Hungary, first in 1998 and again in 2010, and the subsequent partisan politicking that he has inspired throughout these years, it is understandable that much of the later pages focus on the former dissident law student.
A colleague described this book as "anti-Orban": but it is more than that. Lendvai shines a light into the murky, swirling psychological undercurrents that have dragged – and in the author's view, are once again dragging – the peculiar waters of Hungarian patriotism into a damaging and ultimately self-defeating nationalism: and, as Lendvai repeatedly points outs, this is once again against the weight of historical evidence.
A history of Hungary is unlikely to be a global best seller, but this will surely be high up the "must-read" list for foreign diplomats and politicians who need to deal with Budapest – and will be so for many years to come.
read full article at Business News Europe Bne

Die Zeit
"Paul Lendvai, the Hungarian writer with Budapest roots, sheds light upon the darkening internal affairs of the young Hungarian democracy. . . . He is an indispensable guide to the country and its politicians."
Süddeutsche Zeitung
"This book should become prescribed reading for all Europeans."

Paul Hockenos, The Boston Review
"Paul Lendvai is one of the grand old men of Central European journalism. . . but never before has one of his titles provoked such fierce reactions from the powers that be."

István Deák, author of Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848–1918
"No one could describe with more personal familiarity, expert knowledge, and literary panache Hungary’s perilous travels from the foundering of communism in 1989 to today’s economic and moral crisis. Is this the end of the country’s liberal experiment? Have the brave attempts failed to perpetuate a tolerant and mutually respectful civil society? It is actually a good sign that Paul Lendvai s brilliant analysis, with its anxious warning, has been published and is proving highly popular in Hungary."

Frederick Kempe, president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, author of Berlin 1961Frederick Kempe, president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, author of Berlin 1961
"Paul Lendvai is a legend. No one knows Hungary better or is better equipped to navigate its political descent. Lendvai’s thesis weaves the critical insights of an outsider with a native’s fluency and understanding, all translated through a journalist’s eye for detail and narrative, to portray the grim reality of a teetering democratic society."

Walter Laqueur, author of After the Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent
"Hungary faces a major crisis affecting its national economy, as well as its foreign policy. With the country moving away from Europe, it is no longer certain whether it will remain part of it. In this critical situation, Paul Lendvai’s book provides an authoritative account of the background of this crisis and its likely outcome."

Professor Shlomo Avinery, in Dissent, New York
„His book is essential for understanding current realities in Hungary. He brings to his analysis a Mitteleuropa sensitivity tzo nationalism, minority rights and  historical memory.“

Times Literary Supplement, London
„One has to agree with Lendvai`s conclusion that today Hungary is effectively a one-party state with a thin veneer of democratic pretence.“

Foreign AFFAIRS, New York
„Although Lendvai`s indictment sharpest against Hungary`s current leader, he makes plain that the corruption and economic recklessness of earlier governments did their part to bring about the country`s  degradation. Not surprisingly, Lendvai`s assessment has kicked up more than a little dust in Hungary.“