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Hungary: Hungry Hippos?

July 17, 2013


Nice title, right? This post has nothing to do with hippos or hunger in Hungary, but it provides a helpful analogy and a nice play on words.

Wikipedia states that a hippopotamus is “one of the most aggressive creatures in the world and is regarded as one of the most dangerous animals in Africa.” The adult male hippo tends to be “very territorial and indiscriminately ill-tempered.”  Recent Hungarian remarks in international politics appear also to be “very territorial and indiscriminately tempered.” Here’s a list of a few of these remarks:

I: World War II

Just today, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán called to mind the notorious Hitler-Stalin pact when commenting on German leadership in the EU. Since ties between Berlin and Moscow have been fairly close in recent years, Mr. Orbán sees specters of the past. Germany’s Spiegel magazine notes that “many people in Central and Eastern Europe are wary of any signs of closer ties between Moscow and Berlin because they remember the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact which carved up much of Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence.”

Capitalizing on these sentiments, Mr.  Orbán, who has been criticized recently for weakening Hungary’s democratic institutions, evoked the image of Nazi tanks in reference to Germany’s policy towards Hungary back in May. In his defense, German Chancellor Angela Merkel did happen to mention that Germany would “do anything to get Hungary onto the right path — but not by sending the cavalry.” To this Orbán wittily responded that “the Germans have already sent cavalry to Hungary- that didn’t work out.” This referred to the Nazi occupation of Hungary in 1944. The German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle called this comment a “regrettable derailment” in German-Hungarian relations.

So, here we see Hungary chomping down on other countries, particularly Germany, much as a hippo might, were its bit of the Nile encroached upon by crocodiles or humans or anything else. Let’s look at the charges being leveled at Hungary:

II: Proceedings against Hungary

On the third of July, the European Parliament voted 370 to 249 (with 82 abstentions) to warn the Hungarian government that recent changes to the constitution which limit press freedom were threatening to the country’s democracy. This warning is the strongest sanction available to the EU, and may lead to Hungary’s right to vote on EU decisions being revoked.

Fox News reports that “Orbán’s government has also been taking bold steps to centralize control over many facets of life in Hungary…from the arts and the education system to the media and energy prices.”  The system of checks and balances has been, according to the report, clearly weakened. Orbán, however, insists that instead of these purported democratic deficits, the real problem the EU has is that large multi-national corporations have been losing money in Hungary due to large new taxes. Thus, from Orbán’s vantage-point, the issue is one of state sovereignty. The EU is bullying Hungary into accepting these sorts of reforms in order to sneak in, under the radar, tax breaks for corporations.

In an interview from the 10th of July, Mr. Orbán stated that he believes “the current trend is bringing the European Union closer to an empire rather than a union of nations.”  Criticizing the EU’s impending criticism of the recent changes to the Hungarian constitution, Mr. Orbán claimed “This is going to be a resolution which will be strongly biased to the left and as is the case with parliamentary resolutions, the prosecutor and the judge will be one and the same. Those accusing us will vote in majority to adopt a resolution condemning us, therefore I am not in a position to accept such a resolution on behalf of Hungary.” So, these harsh words against Germany and the European Union may be in response to harsh words from Germany and the EU against Hungary.


III: Money

In March, 2013, the Prime Minister appointed a fellow named Matolcsy to head the Hungarian Central Bank. The New York Times titled their article about this “Hungarian Prime Minister Cements Control Over Central Bank.” Gyorgy Matolcsy was previously the economic minister of the country where his “unconventional fiscal policies, which included nationalizing private pension funds and levying special taxes on the banking, energy, telecommunications and retailing sectors, have undermined investor confidence.”

Uh oh.

On the one hand, it’s shady to have a government official work for a nominally independent financial institution. Witness the chagrin which followed a report about many D.C. officials moving on to work in some the United States’ biggest banks in 2010. So, it seems a bit odd to have this happen in Hungary. But, that doesn’t “undermine investor confidence” here in the States. The logical conclusion is that “investor confidence” was “undermined” because he levied “special taxes on the banking, energy, telecommunications and retailing sectors.”

Uh oh.

Just this week the head of the Central Bank, Mr. Matolcsy, asked the IMF, who provided the country’s bailout in 2008, to please, get out.  It stated that the Fund’s representative office in Budapest was “not necessary” any longer. According to the Wall Street Journal, the ruling party in Hungary, Orban’s Fidesz, is “stepping up what it calls a ‘freedom fight’ against those it argues are infringing on Hungarian sovereignty.”  The IMF has agreed to leave.

I’d leave this off with a rather lengthy reaction from the German newspaper Berliner Zeitung to Hungary’s constitutional amendments.  This comment came out back in March:

“When the right-wing politicians in Hungary pushed their new constitution through in 2011, Brussels, Berlin and Paris didn’t want a big conflict. They had to save the euro, thus their crisis-ridden, non-euro neighbour Hungary remained the target of their ‘concern.’ After Budapest successfully ignored the complaints of Europe’s leaders, the West returned to business as usual. The European Council passed a friendly resolution, and Brussels gave the green light for budgetary aid in Budapest. They had said their piece, and eased their conscience.”

“The half-hearted European reactions have not only failed to improve things in Hungary, they have also made them worse. Criticism without consequences only serves to convince doubters that their government is strong and will prevail against powerful enemies. If Brussels only makes a show of strength when it’s about money, then it just confirms the clichéd image that Orbán has created of Europe.”

So, perhaps Hungary, hungry for what it perceives as its own sovereign right on lots of things- kicking out the IMF, curtailing freedoms, and taxing large corporations, has taken on the guise of a hippo, guarding its stretch of stream against outsiders. In this endeavor, it’s been quite successful, but these signs of discord in the European Union are nonetheless potentially troubling, given the continuing question of austerity and even the very unity of the Union. Time will tell, but certainly words and stories such as these will continue on as upcoming elections approach, not only in Hungary, but in Germany as well, where questions as to a country’s fidelity to the European Union have been being posed much more frequently, especially with the rise of parties such as the Alternative for Germany.

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