[Hungary] Beshbarmak and oranges

Dariusz Kałan in conversation with Ferenc Gyurcsány · 28 July 2015

What sorts of plans does the star of the biggest political scandal in the history of modern Hungary have for his future, and does it involve any chance of a return to power?

Do you remember the name Ferenc Gyurcsány? This Hungarian politician and prime minister (2004-09) began his political career in youth movements of the communist 1980s, to then enter the world of business in the liberated 1990s. For many years after, he was the owner of a very profitable financial consulting firm, which helped him claim a place on the list of 50 most prosperous Hungarians (2002). He returned to politics at the start of the 21st century: first becoming a member of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSzP) and then the minister for sport and youth in Péter Medgyessy’s government. After Medgyessy was dismissed from his post in 2004, Gyurcsány took his place as prime minister, on a mission to lead Hungary according to the famous “third way”. Four months after MSzP won the parliamentary elections in 2006, the media got hold of a recording of Gyurcsány’s speech, given at a closed party meeting, in which he admitted that socialists had lied about the state of the economy, and in the time they were in power they “did not do anything for four years. Nothing.” The leak led to mass demonstrations in Budapest, demanding the prime minster resign. It took Gyurcsány until 2009 to actually step down, and a year later his rival, Viktor Orbán, won the elections with a constitutional majority. In 2011, Gyurcsány resigned from MszP and set up a new party, The Democratic Coalition (DK).

Today, this former prime minister and leader of Hungarian socialists is seen as the man who paved the way for Viktor Orbán’s rise to power. His now infamous secret speech, in which he decisively dismissed the performance of his own party’s governing, has gone down in history as a prime example of political cynicism. In spite of this, Gyurcsány seems to be recovering the trust of Hungarian voters. After the elections of 2014, his new party finds itself holding seats in parliament.

We meet in his office, in the centre of Budapest, six years since his resignation as head of government. Gyurcsány appears to be relaxed and in humorous spirits, dressed in a stylish sweater and red sports shoes. He has retained his sharpness of mind and ability to charm with words. He speaks openly about his controversial past, with the sensitivity of neutral observer, reacting to questions about Orbán without losing his cool, unlike most Hungarian opposition politicians. In spite of this more or less accomplished, easy-going appearance, one can sense in him traces of disillusionment and regret. We speak about his unexpected career path, his even more unexpected fall from grace and life after that fall. Gyurcsány, the golden child of Hungarian communism, represents both the strong and weak sides of modern Hungary, and also serves as a warning to those liable to become seduced by political pride and arrogance.

Dariusz Kałan


Dariusz Kałan: Are you still in the mood to get involved?

Ferenc Gyurcsány: More and more so. My new party has the support of around 10% of those declaring their intention to vote. Not bad for someone who until recently was considered a political deadman.

Are you surprised? According to the Financial Times, you went from being Hungary’s Tony Blair to becoming the nation’s most hated man.

I’m not surprised. I made mistakes. I was both loved and loathed. People still remember the past – the bad stuff too – and I don’t blame them at all.

Taking into account my low popularity among Hungarians, it is unlikely that I will ever get to be prime minister again, or even serve in government. I have to accept that my aspirations are not exactly aligned with my means to achieve them. Hence, I have learnt to limit what those expectations might be.

A politician who claims he does not want to govern is not presenting himself in a positive light.

Those are the realities, and I would be a fool if I chose to ignore them. Certainly, many people must be thinking: that devil Gyurcsány is hiding his true ambitions. But I’m not. All I want to do is unite the forces of both the liberals and the Left, because under present circumstances only a grand coalition of a democratic opposition is capable of standing up to Fidesz. All I see myself doing there is acting as mediator. I am under no illusions about my role.

If I had the kind of power and popular support I did 10 years ago, we would have no problems defeating Orbán’s party.

So what then motivates you? A sense of hurt ambition? Revenge? A fear of Orbán?

No, no, no. You don’t have to believe me when I say that I am very much convinced that what I am offering as a politician – moderate, pro-European, liberal policies – are best for Hungary. I simply feel that I’m right and believe that, sooner or later, I will prove that what I did and what I am doing now is important and necessary for this country.

Besides, this is my life. The life of a politician. I love and hate it, simultaneously. And do please remember that, unlike Orbán, I know there is life beyond politics. I am a wealthy individual, because when I was younger I worked hard in business. Just before communism ended, I became a financial consultant, then bought up bankrupt firms, restructured and sold them on. I was making very serious money.

At the end of the 1990s, I realised that the world of business does not satisfy my needs. I spent days poring over boring financial reports and thought that real happiness must lie elsewhere. I instinctively turned in the direction of politics, began reading, learning.

It is hard to say goodbye to all that. If I am not involved in family issues or conversations with friends, I concentrate on matters of public interest. I don’t understand anglers who spend their days hanging around shorelines. I need to act, this gives me energy and the means to carry on. I am sure many people are surprised to see a man who has the option of living an easy, wealthy life has once again began to lead his own party, which is a hard task, time consuming and not always worth the effort.

But this happens to be my life. This is the most honest answer I can give you.

Have you, over the past 5 years, even once thought: “Damn, it is actually my fault that Fidesz got into power”?

There isn’t a day goes by when I don’t think about this.

If you were prime minister and leader of a political party, who had to resign his post in disgrace, and a year later your biggest opponent had gained a constitutional majority in parliament – then of course you are responsible for that. Naturally, I could claim that things were more complicated, because the global economic crisis caused widespread damage to our markets, but I don’t want to do this, it feels beneath me.

I will only say that I wouldn’t recommend any country choose a prime minister without any former experience. When I became head of government, I was a political infant: in 2000, I joined the socialist party, and three years later entered government, and then four years after that I became prime minister. Everything happened too quickly. This is a banal thing to say, but ruling a country demands practice, something you cannot learn in any school.

Besides, my party saw me as a foreign body, in the presidium only one person wanted me to accept the mantle of prime minister. I had a slim majority in parliament… I could also mention that when I was stepping down, socialists had 1.7 million more supporters than they do today. But I really don’t want to make excuses. Let’s just say that the changes which took place in the country and the fight I had to contend with in my own environment at the same time turned out to be beyond me.

Well, we’re only human, all of us. Not that long ago, I wrote an article in which I mentioned politicians are neither angels nor devils…

Sure, since the times of Shakespeare we’ve known that politicians have weak characters, consumed with wars against their opponents and the contenders for their crowns.

This doesn’t apply only to politicians, though in the world of politics such tendencies are more acutely visible, due to intense media presence. All the characteristics which seem so apparent in the world of politics – rivalry, jealousy, self-confidence, the need to appeal or constantly perfect the self – these are very human traits. Politicians are no worse and no better than their voters in these respects.

For me, politics is a confrontation not only with my opponent, but also with myself. We have to try to utilise the qualities we think as good in a fight with this other “we”, representing darker sides of the human character. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose.

Your wars against Orbán – are they anything more than personal squabbles? Because I have the impression that you two have more things in common than things setting you apart.

A lot of things from the past connect us. We were both born in the countryside. We are first-generation intellectuals and political dreamers, rather than dumb servants. Based on this, you can suppose that we have a lot in common, but anyone who compares our political programmes and world visions will find far more differences there than commonalities. At least I hope they will.

You are trying, along with the rest of the Hungarian opposition, to specifically come across as anti-Orbán.

You are being unfair. There is more to it than simply being anti-Orbán. Everything comes down to the question: how would people like to live? Like in Kazakhstan, which Orbán described as somewhere that feels like home to him? Or in Tuscany, or in Brandenburg? It’s no accident that the 500,000 people who have emigrated since Fidesz came to power did so to the West. Using a culinary metaphor, I am offering oranges, while Orbán wants to serve up beshbarmak, meaning a cheap Kazakh dish eaten without the use of knife and fork.

I would like to provide Hungarians with a Western lifestyle and a Western way way of thinking about responsibility. I was once a proponent of Anthony Giddens’ “third way”. Though that ideology has now become outmoded, its founding idea, that people are responsible for themselves, is still valid. The task set before any government is not to tell people whether they can or cannot shop on Sundays. Central government should be teaching them how to fish instead, through a sound educational programme.

Orbán said in 1989 that you were the only serious communist, and the rest were pathetic and weak.

Our political paths keep on crossing. Orbán was once a brilliant liberal democrat, but then he kept on moving in the direction of authoritarian rule and lack of faith in the world. He moved to Budapest when he was 18 or 19 years old, and was horrified by what he saw. For a long time, he couldn’t find any way to fit into this new world. He was jealous of the city elites, and in the end he began seeing them as the enemy. I, on the other hand, arrived in the capital when I was 14 and fell in love with the city. I saw it as an amazing opportunity, and something very attractive.

I think that it is here that one can find the most fundamental difference between me and Orbán. But if you think we resemble one another, I have to respect that opinion.

I rather think that you are two opposite sides of the same coin.

That is an opinion which is popular in Hungary. People say that we are the only two individuals with the right sort of strength, charisma and intelligence to infect others with our own vision and organise mass support. Is that what you meant?

Not just that. I also think that you both lost touch with reality. You got high on power.

Well, power does indeed change people. It is a like a litmus paper, which brings to the surface all flaws, even those you had tried for years to hide.

It doesn’t matter whether we talk about politics or about business – the mechanism is always the same. When you realise that it is up to you not only where the country will go in the next few years, but also the individual fate of millions of citizens, that is when you start thinking differently about yourself. You start strutting around, thinking yourself perfect, and of course failing to see how ridiculous you appear.

When I became prime minister, I already had experience of working in business and knew the dangers of power. That is why, right after I was sworn in, I organised a small party for my friends. I asked along people who were not in politics – artists, journalists, industrialists – and told them: My dears, if you ever see me losing touch with reality, please let me know.

And did they?
One of the reasons I resigned from the post of prime minister was that a close friend looked me in the eye and said: “Ferenc, this really is the end”.

This was two years after you said that you had lied morning, day and night. And none of your friends had yet said that you had changed?

Nine years had passed since that speech was leaked, and I still think I was right. The whole system was inefficient, and I was the first politician who openly admitted this. Please keep in mind that the speech was given at a closed meeting of the party which chose me as prime minister, and yet which at the time was not led by me. We had only recently won the elections. I had to shake it up and not allow it to once again grow stupid with excessive power.

I don’t regret stepping down then. Although today I know that I should have resigned in May 2008, when the Hungarian people rejected, through a referendum, my proposed reforms of the health and higher education services. I wanted to hand in my resignation, but I wasn’t able to convince my own party to accept the idea.

And those two years – what were they like? A politician who arouses so much public anger, and who is mistrusted by those close to him, is useless.

I didn’t see it like that back then. When I walked around the streets, went into pubs or cinemas, I didn’t meet with negative reactions. Only when it was publicly announced that I would go to visit a given town, my opponents organised small protests.

I am trying to analyse myself, and hence I hope I have a handle on the way I was thinking. Every true politician is a fighter. When your politics becomes incomprehensible, you struggle on. You try and convince others, in hope that soon lady luck will smile upon you again. Throwing in the towel doesn’t come into it. But if you are intelligent, sooner or later you notice that you’re hitting your head against a wall. And so you struggle on without much conviction, because you lack any other inner vision with which to infect people.

I think Orbán is going through the same thing as me. All this talk about the failure of liberal economies, reversals in the West and economic nationalism turned out to be worthless rubbish. Voters are turning against him, while his people are becoming more and more vocal in demanding their rights. He is starting to see this. He’s fallen into a trap without an escape route. He’s gone too far in trying to convince everyone that the West is bad, that Russia is good, to now reverse out of it without losing face. All he can now do is stay put. Vegetate.

Essentially, Orbán is in the same position I was in nine years ago.

You recently said in an interview: “The socialists were corrupt in the 1990s and also later, in times when I was their leader”. In what way are you an improvement on Orbán?

Precisely because I noticed the pathological behaviours within my own environment, after we won the elections in 2006 I prepared a law changing the way political groups are funded. This was the first step to healing the workings of our public life. And so if you ask if I am better than Orbán, I will answer: I knew about breaches of legislation and I fought against them, while Orbán built his programme around them. In other words: I became rich before I entered politics, while he got rich after he became prime minister.

And I am no small-time dictator. I don’t think I have all the answers. Decisions within Fidesz are made by a single person, while the representatives of the party vote mindlessly the way their leader wants them to.

Many people think that I am determined, hard, or maybe even despotic. But the truth is different. I struggle with a lot of doubt, before I make a decision I weigh up all the pros and cons, studying the problem from all angles. If you were present at the meetings of my party’s management committee, you would see that I play the role of middle man, trying to get others to think for themselves. I also frequently allow myself to be convinced of an idea I had rejected in the past.

You also share a positive attitude towards Russia.

You’re wrong. After the invasion of Crimea and the war in the east of Ukraine, no one should have been in any doubt that Russia is an aggressor, a country which cannot engage in normal politics.

“In all the important issues, Gyurcsány either openly backs Putin or at least fails to disagree with him. They meet very often, and he never conceals his fascination with the Russian president”. That is what was written about you in 2007.

I’ve met Putin five times in as many years. That is even more infrequently than Merkel or Berlusconi.

I first thought he was a democrat. He spent a long time trying to assure me of the purity of his intentions. He told me that Russia is a country without democratic traditions, with over a hundred different nations. A country mired in corruption and battles between oligarchs. I have to be careful, he’d say, and introduce changes very, very slowly, otherwise everything will fall apart.

And I really did believe him. I wasn’t alone in this. If you take a look at all the things written about Russia back then, you will find many similar hopes expressed. Or have a look at what the likes of Chirac and Schröder said. Even Obama reset all of his relations with Moscow.

Besides, at the time, my political strategy produced good results. It was while I was in charge that Putin admitted Russia had moral responsibility for the violent suppression of the Uprising in 1956.

When did you become disillusioned with Putin?

After the rigged parliamentary elections of 2011 and presidential elections of 2012. Then came a series of killings of his political enemies. He changed, a different man.

So late? Earlier, there was the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Munich speech, the war in Georgia…

I don’t have a better answer. International politics is always created by a group of diverse individuals: politicians, advisors, diplomats… We didn’t know about many things, didn’t argue about Russia. In my close group of advisors there was no one who said: we are too close to Moscow, this could be dangerous for us.

I’m not sure, perhaps we were too naïve.


Translated by Marek Kamierski.