They set out at seven in the morning, carrying spades, axes and scythes, and climb one of the hills above Gyöngyöspata, a wine-growing village in northern Hungary: Forty gypsies and their supervisor.
This group of dark-skinned men and women, consisting of old and young people, teenagers and widows, represents the advance guard of a massive undertaking currently underway in Hungary. Under Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's plan to promote national renewal and moral rearmament, more than half of all the unemployed nationwide are to be put back to work.
The 40 gypsies from Gyöngyöspata, who don't even use the more acceptable term Roma to describe themselves, have been assigned the job of clearing hibiscus bushes and undergrowth for four months. They are among 300,000 Hungarians who will soon be performing "community" work under a new law, which dictates that anyone who is out of work for more than 90 days in a row forfeits the right to social welfare and membership in the social insurance system.
Are "forced labor camps" being created here, in the middle of the European Union, as the Hungarian daily newspaper Népszava wrote? Are unemployed people from remote villages being housed in worker camps on large construction sites? No one has to work against his will, but everyone who does show up for work is paid the legal minimum wage, says Karoly Papp, the state secretary in the Interior Ministry in charge of the program.
The government is still searching for projects to put the army of the unemployed back to work, at a monthly wage of roughly €290 ($418). There is talk of building dikes, planting trees and collecting herbs. The crew in Gyöngyöspata is "de-bushing" 16 hectares (40 acres) of overgrown community land to make way for the planting of "real Hungarian oaks," as the local mayor, a member of the radical right-wing Jobbik Party, puts it.
He is happy to have any work at all, because he needs the money, says a 59-year-old man named Pál, as he swings a scythe up on the hill. As a skilled forest worker, he adds, he also knows that it will take at least 80 years to grow a real oak forest. But the fruits of the hibiscus plant, the roots of which the crew is in the process of pulling out of the ground and chopping to pieces, could already fetch €0.50 per kilogram today -- if they were harvested.
A Top-Down Coup D'Etat
The things Prime Minister Orbán and his friends in the Fidesz Party are prescribing don't always make sense. However, there is no mistaking that they are in a hurry. The package of laws, ordinances and guidelines to define labor policies, which Orbán got off the ground in only 15 months, reads like the minutes of a top-down coup d'etat.
Orbán's concept of moral renewal and economic rehabilitation for Hungary has several tenets: Those without work are to be given work; those who are already working should work more in the future, but without being paid more; in the interest of the country's "stability," those who hold political power today should be allowed to remain in office for as long as possible; and those who once had power and did not use it for the benefit of the people should now be punished.
Péter Medgyessy, Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gordon Bajnai, the three Social Democratic prime ministers of the last decade, all face the threat of being put on trial. There has been little public outcry, partly because many voters believe that they were lied to and robbed by the "leftists." A speech that Gyurcsány gave in 2006, which was later released to the press, and in which he confessed to have not been telling the electorate the truth about the tense economic situation, as well as dubious real estate deals and the fact that a national bankruptcy was only averted with the help of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union, weigh heavily on the legacy of the former socialist governing party.
Prosecutors are even looking into whether they can charge the former premiers with the "political crime" of incurring government debt, which is not considered a statutory offence today. Orbán and his party are fighting untiringly on this and other fronts. They seek to justify their mission to radically restructure the state with what they call a revolution in the voting booths: In April 2010, the Fidesz Party and its ally, the Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP), won more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament.
Much has happened since then in the Goulash archipelago ruled by Orbán. Fidesz loyalists were given long-term posts in the corridors of power, including the presidency, the office of the chief prosecutor and the audit court, as well as top positions in cultural organizations. The powers of the constitutional court and the budget council were curtailed, the ministry of culture was eliminated, and consolidation is underway in the state media, the film industry and universities.
All of this produces jobs for men like Daniel Papp. As a media expert and the co-founder of the radical right-wing Jobbik Pary, he was long known only to the initiated. But in April they catapulted the pale 32-year-old to the position of editor-in-chief of the news office at the new MTVA media fund. The MTVA is the umbrella organization covering the formerly independent state radio and television stations, as well as the MTI news agency.
A Purging of Editors in Hungary's Public Media
Papp is sitting in his office, surrounded by empty bookcases, on the grounds of the state television network, where he oversees more than 400 news editors. In fact, he has already let a quarter of those editors go, and more layoffs are in the offing. The new editor-in-chief has a deceptively meek expression on his face. When asked why the best journalists, particularly the most critical ones, are being let go, Papp and his press spokeswoman answer in unison: "The best ones are still here." But didn't the Orbán administration clearly delineate its expectations on what reporting should look like in the future? "That's something we must categorically reject," says the press spokeswoman. "This is a public broadcasting organization. Everyone here works to the best of his knowledge and belief."
Close to 1,000 employees of the state media organizations are to be let go by the end of the year, officially for economic reasons. They will end up jobless in a market that has already been shaken by declining advertising revenues, and by a media law that went into effect with the EU's blessing, once minor changes had been made. It offers various ways to muzzle journalists with unwelcome views.
Chipping Away at the Framework of Hungarian Democracy
Orbán was criticized for the details of this media law during Hungary's six-month presidency of the European Council, which lasted until the end of June. But that was the extent of the criticism. Otherwise, he was allowed to continue chipping away at the framework of Hungarian democracy. He also declared that he would ensure that Hungary, which had not allowed itself to be dictated to by Vienna in 1848 and Moscow in 1956, would not accept orders "from Brussels" now either.
All of his influential friends from the major European parties -- from European Commission President José Manuel Barroso to European Council President Herman van Rompuy, and from French President Nicolas Sarkozy to German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- mean well when it comes to Orbán. They praise the Hungarian premier instead of chiding him. "As far as the Germans are concerned, I have not noticed any efforts that we would be forced to interpret as an intervention," Orbán said while standing next to Merkel in Berlin in May.
"It is not the Commission's job to comment daily on political developments in member states," says Tamás Szücs, a Hungarian citizen and the representative of the European Commission in Budapest. Is he at least permitted to comment on draft legislation being proposed by the Orbán government if it contradicts the EU's fundamental values or existing agreements? "Yes," says Szücs and, after hesitating for a moment, adds: "I am permitted to comment, as soon as the Commission has a position on the issue in question."
But the European Commission has no official position on Hungary at the moment. As a result, Szücs is saying nothing while American diplomats are speaking out. During a visit to Hungary in late June, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Orbán against abusing his two-thirds majority. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Melia, an active supporter of Orbán's Fidesz Party two decades ago, voiced his concerns in a US congressional hearing in late July. A few days later, the US ambassador in Budapest wrote an open letter expressing her concerns about a system "that permanently favors one party."
Last Monday, prominent old-guard dissidents like writers György Konrád and György Dalos wrote an open letter to the vice-president of the European Commission, Viviane Reding, in which they protested against the Orbán administration's decision to recognize only 14 of more than 300 existing religious communities. When Szücs, the voice of the EU in Budapest, was asked whether he knew anything about the EU's response to the letter, he said: "I have no idea whether the letter arrived. As stupid as it sounds, they're on vacation in Brussels at the moment."
Government Funds Could Be Cut Off
Gábor Iványi, a Methodist pastor and co-signer of the letter of protest, is clearly not on vacation. He explains what the new law means for him and other religious leaders. His father once fought the Kádár communists for the Methodists' right to exist, and Iványi, a powerful man with a bushy white beard, now heads the denomination. But Iványi is also a guardian angel for the poorest of the poor in Budapest's Józsefváros district.
In this neighborhood of crumbling facades and ruined houses with bars in front of their windows, where drunks inhabit the sidewalk and park benches, even sleeping outside at night and digging through garbage cans is now illegal. To combat the new rules, Iványi runs a shelter, a hospital and a building called the "heated street," where the homeless can go to warm up. Until now, the Methodists, as a registered denomination, were entitled to government funding for these facilities. But that will end if the new law remains in force, says Iványi.
An autographed photo of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II hangs on the wall in his office, a souvenir of her 1993 state visit, when she also paid a visit to his church. The pastor finds it hard to believe that Hungary's new leaders could now rule that he is not even worthy of leading a religious community. Ironically, as Iványi says at the end of the conversation, he once officiated at current Prime Minister Orbán's wedding and baptized his first children -- in a basement apartment on Madzsar József Street in Budapest. "Viktor has changed completely, from an almost anarchistic young man to a conservative, right-wing nationalist," says Iványi.
In photos from his student days, Orbán looks like someone who, despite his small stature, has the potential to set the world on fire. Professor László Keri remembers what he called out to Orbán at the end of an argument in 1983: "You and your friends, you're just as aggressive as the sons of Lenin in the (Hungarian) Soviet Republic, like (the Hungarian Communist politician and Bolshevik revolutionary) Béla Kun. God forbid you ever become prime minister."
The professor's solemn wish did not come true. Orbán is now in his second term as prime minister, while political scientist Keri lost his professorship in September 2010. The free thinker who, almost 30 years earlier, had taken the young, rebellious Fidesz activists under his protective wing, had served his time and, at least officially, was replaced for age-related reasons.
Keri is sharply critical of his former student. "What is so worrisome is how the party and the state are merging here in Hungary. Orbán is the Hungarian version of Putin, but there is also an older parallel: to Gyula Gömbös, the prime minister who was strongly influenced by Mussolini in the 1930s." When Orbán praises the "workfare" model of social benefits in return for labor, he is "quoting the language of the 1930s verbatim."
'What Is Now Taking Shape Here Is an Operetta Dictatorship'
Where is the country headed under this government? "I don't believe that Hungary is on the path to a dictatorship, although this is perhaps what Orbán would like," says the professor. "But our people tend to be somewhat relaxed, and our greatest contribution to European culture was probably the operetta. What is now taking shape here is an operetta dictatorship."
Many intellectuals and scoffers say that Orbán's plan to bring about an intellectual and moral transformation will not fare any better than all the other revolutions of the last few centuries, and that every large-scale movement tends to be deflected by the flexible nature of the Hungarian people.
'Checks and Balances Are Being Eliminated'
Writer and philosopher Agnes Heller has her own take on Hungary's current situation: "Under Kádár, we had communism without communists, starting in 1989 we had democracy without democrats, and for the last year we have had conservatism without conservatives. It's a reflection of the nature of the Hungarian, eternally chosen and misunderstood, sitting in his corral and unable to make up his mind, because his biggest concern is to survive in the midst of the enemies surrounding him."
Heller, 82, her mobile phone in a Mickey Mouse case dangling from a chain around her neck, was a favored student of the philosopher Georg Lukacs. She experienced the end of the war in Budapest with her mother. She emigrated to the United States in 1977 and, since her return to Budapest, which anti-Semitic hate publications have recently begun deriding as "Judapest," enriches Hungarian debates with her life experiences.
It isn't necessary to smell fascism behind every bush, says Heller. "The worst thing is that the checks and balances are being eliminated in this country, and that the rule of the yes-men has begun." In fact, she adds, now dissidents are even being treated as criminals.
The Hungarian authorities are investigating Heller and some of her philosopher friends, known as the "Heller gang," for alleged embezzlement of research funds. But Heller, sitting in her apartment high above Guttenberg Square, laughs off the accusation.
What is most troubling to Heller, who survived both the horrific regime of the Hungarian version of the Nazi Party and the communists, is the disquieting feeling that the clique now running Hungary does so without "responsibility" -- and without a sense of the "danger that violence could erupt." "Orbán is extremely sure of himself," says Heller. "It's a typical characteristic of dictators."