Kati Marton doesn’t think of herself as a political activist. A veteran journalist for ABC News and NPR, she is the author of nine books, most recently The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel. Marton’s unusual background has shaped her work: Born in Communist Hungary, she escaped in 1957 with her parents, also journalists, who had been jailed by the regime and whose story she tells in her 2009 book Enemies of the People.
Lately, though, Marton’s past has been motivating her in a different way. The erosion of democracy in Europe, particularly in her native Hungary, spurred her to launch a project called Action for Democracy, aimed at raising awareness among Hungarian expatriates and dissidents to influence Hungarian politics. Its first goal—to improve the chances of a challenger to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in elections April 3—was at press time unresolved. But with Vladimir Putin’s march into Ukraine and autocrats tightening restrictions on speech and dissent all over the world, Marton sees tasks beyond the election and beyond Hungary. “I don’t consider it politicking,” she says. “I’m campaigning for values.”
What prompted you to get involved in Hungarian politics?
I lost my homeland once, and now I’m fighting not to lose it a second time. We have to stop Orbán. He has actually become a bit more popular since the Ukraine war started. I never expected the country of my birth to regress to such an extent.
In advance of the April 3 elections, all six opposition parties united behind one candidate. What accounted for such a strong political challenge to Orbán this year?
It was probably born of desperation, the sense that Orbán was tightening his grip and Hungary was becoming a European pariah. The European Union was finally starting to crack down on Hungary’s defiance of EU values, on immigration, on the rule of law and on safeguarding independent media. All these are baked into the EU, and he has flagrantly abused them.
Now Orbán is in a tough spot, because his buddy and co-conspirator Putin is doing to Ukraine precisely what prior Russian leadership did to Hungary in 1956. If they put a puppet government in Kyiv, then Hungary, which is a member of NATO, would be a nation with an active armed border. It’s a nightmare for Orbán, but deservedly. He made a pact with the devil. He was in Moscow right before the war, and he’s cozied up to Putin for many years.
Do you remember fleeing Hungary as a child?
Tanks are among my earliest memories. We lived on a hilltop in Buda, and the tanks appeared in the square at the bottom of our hill where we used to do our shopping. To see all that replaying itself in 2022 reawakens a lot of emotions. We all recognize ourselves in those images of the refugees. My parents and I left with four suitcases, and it was the end of everything familiar to me as a little kid. My friends, my pet, my neighborhood. And it worked out all right, but nobody should be forced to leave their home. It’s just not a normal state of affairs. We were very fortunate because my parents had reputations as brave reporters, so we were well treated. But everything was strange, and I didn’t speak any English. The wound of leaving everything familiar is a wound that never heals. And it’s happening to so many people right now.
We’re saying Hungary cannot be on the wrong side of history yet again.
This is why I’m fighting to get through to my fellow Hungarians. Just as Putin controls information, Orbán does too, so they’re getting a different version of what’s going on in Ukraine. We’re bombarding the Hungarian internet with information about what’s going on in Ukraine and what this means for Hungary, saying that Hungary cannot be on the wrong side of history yet again.
When did you conclude that Orbán is on the wrong side of history?
Probably when he evicted the Central European University from Hungary in 2018. I was a trustee, and I was so proud to be part of that community. The university was a vital part of the city and a great meeting place of more than 100 nations, which is exactly how I imagined that Hungary would evolve, as an open, tolerant country, the way it briefly was before World War II. There was a huge flowering of talent in science, art and music before darkness fell with the rule of Miklós Horthy and the antisemitic laws of the 1930s. That was when my parents were young. And that flowering happened again after 1989.
Do you think Hungary can be that again?
Of course it can. It’s such a talented country. It’s just been very, very unfortunate in its leaders, and the population has been reluctant to confront its own history. Orbán paints Hungary as history’s victim. That’s not necessarily true—ask my grandparents. Unfortunately, they’re not here to tell their tale, but they were proud Hungarians, and from one day to the next, they were not deemed fit to be Hungarian, because of their bloodlines. And Hungary has not really assimilated that history. It’s a virus that runs deep in all of Europe. Some countries have done better than others. I’m in awe of how well Germany has done.
How big a factor is antisemitism in Hungary right now?
It’s mostly focused on George Soros. Soros was the perfect scapegoat, because he combined a Western capitalist persona with his Jewish history. He was just
custom-made for Orbán to exploit. But Orbán is an absolute opportunist. I don’t think he’s a man of any convictions.
You don’t think he’s even really an antisemite?
I don’t. It’s a convenient weapon for him, but he will use anything. He’s anti-gay, and he’s no feminist, God knows. But is he anti-modern in a fundamental way, as those Republicans going to see him seem to think? I don’t think so. He’s about maintaining power, and he’s identified certain tropes that pay off for him. I don’t think it’s a matter of deep conviction, because in the early years, we were friendly, and he was in my home for dinner.
Orbán’s been at your house for dinner?
Yes, in New York. He and George Soros have actually been together at the same table in my apartment. Orbán was the prime minister then, but he was still a normal human being. When my husband [Richard Holbrooke] and I went to Budapest, Orbán and his wife would take us to the opera. It was when he was defeated at the polls in 2002 that he decided that he would go all in with the anti-Soros campaign. It was such a narcissistic wound for him to be defeated that he just decided, “Never again.” And it’s worked well for him.
Have you seen any other leader go through such a dramatic transition?
Well, Putin didn’t start out in his present mode either. He was also rather modest and well-spoken and said all the right things in the early days to Bush and to Clinton: “We’re part of Europe. We’re going to play nice.” Unlike Orbán, Putin has never been defeated in an election. But he had an encounter with humiliation early on, in 1989, when he was with the KGB in Dresden and faced demonstrators. Moscow, famously, was silent, and he drove back, tail between his legs, in a junky Trabant with an old washing machine in the back. He never got over that.
If the April elections don’t go the way you hope, is there still a role for the Hungarian diaspora?
Absolutely. We’re not going to fold up our tent. There are other elections coming up in other places, and we’re developing relationships and a network. The focus now is Hungary, but our ultimate focus is rescuing democracy, which has proven to be a much more fragile creature than we assumed. We kind of thought we’d gotten it done. And it turned out that that is never the case, anywhere.
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