Bálint Magyar: How does the Post-Communist Mafia State work?

In 2008, when Raúl Castro became president of Cuba, a new term appeared to describe the administrative apparatus of the new government: military elite. Fidel Castro’s one-man rule was making way not only for his brother but also for a concept of command that was now collective. 

Names that during the last decades of the Maximum Leader’s government had disappeared from the visible world of the press and public offices began to emerge in relevant positions as if summoned to a feast due to them. And, as they rose to the political scenario, another wave in the opposite direction buried in life figures that until then had occupied the principal portfolios or positions of influence. 

Behind a policy that could be suspected of favoring the country’s entrepreneurial development, Raul Castro’s government began to send weak signals of openness. They made moves optimists could read as clear signs of progress toward mixed market structures, suggesting that the future did not have to resemble the gray void of the present. However, once again, this was just an illusion. Everything but the military leadership’s presence at the government’s head.

Raúl Castro gave himself two presidential mandates of five years each. Thus, he granted the organization administered by his son-in-law, General Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, ten years of grace to finish taking over practically all the country’s economic structures. 

But where from had that powerful military apparatus come? In just a few months, it had swept away the figures loyal to Fidel Castro, confused the press with a discourse favorable to the development of private initiative and foreign investments, and even provoked the reestablishment of bilateral relations with the United States. Who were its strong men? How had they managed to go unnoticed among the totalitarian and personalistic zeal of Fidel Castro? How had they managed to accumulate all the power they now wielded?

There may be more and different questions, of course. On the other hand, the answers are scarce, like everything that has to do with the exercise of power in Cuba. Little is known about a hierarchy that holds the country tightly grip. And it seems impossible to get rid of its presidency entrusted to a figurehead. One detached from the Castro surname and the closed core of power, the so-called «historic leaders of the Revolution.»

However, neither the structure nor the concept is precisely new. Every Eastern European country has suffered in some way and to different degrees a military elite in its transition from totalitarianism to a model of open society. 

How does this transition happen? Today, in Hypermedia Magazine, we talk to Hungarian sociologist and politician Bálint Magyar, former Minister of Education of his country and author of the concept that best defines this type of government: «Post-Communist Mafia State.» 

Before getting into the subject, I would like to introduce you to our readers. Who is Bálint Magyar? How did you get into politics? 

I was born in 1952. I studied sociology and history. In 1977, after finishing my studies at the ERTE University in Budapest, I worked at the Institute of Economics, which belongs to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. At the same time, since the late 1970s, I have been an activist member of the Hungarian anti-communist dissident movement. 

In 1979, the first notable public action of this so-called «democratic opposition» took place; it consisted of signing and sending a letter of protest against the imprisonment of the writer Václav Havel, then in jail in Czechoslovakia. About 250 Hungarian intellectuals protested against what seemed to us an unjust and totalitarian measure.

From that moment on, I started to get involved with other Hungarian opposition movements, and my political activity against communism increased.

How was the transition to democracy in your country?

In 1988 the Alliance of Free Democrats was founded, and the Liberal Party was established. I was one of its founders. This militancy allowed me to participate in the negotiations with the Communist Party to agree on a peaceful transition in Hungary, something we fortunately achieved.

In March 1989, 30 years ago now, a so-called Opposition Round Table was established, and nine dissident organizations participated. In about six months, this opposition round table managed to develop agreements with the prominent leaders of the Communist Party and lead the country towards free elections.

And after the elections, you continued your political career.

Yes, in the spring of 1990, I entered the Hungarian Parliament, where I served for twenty years until 2010. At this stage, I served as my party’s campaign manager from 1988 to 1998, then from 1996 to 1998, and then from 2002 to 2006, I was Minister of Education.

Then, after leaving political duties, I returned to my career as a sociologist.

How would you describe the opposition to the communist regime in Hungary?

Hungarian opposition to communism is a phenomenon of the 1970s. It was not a widespread movement: it consisted of about 200 people. You have to bear in mind that after the 1956 defeat of the communist regime, thousands of Hungarians were sent to prison, and more than 400 were sentenced to death and subsequently killed. It was undoubtedly a warning signal.

Also, coinciding with the rise of the opposition in Hungary in the 1970s, the regime was already easing repressive measures. Of those 200 activists, only a few dozen of us lost our jobs. I was expelled twice from different research institutes, but then I could get other jobs.

After Gorbachev became president, it was increasingly clear that the Soviet Union would lose the economic and military competition with the United States. The Soviet empire ceased exerting the pressure of previous decades on Eastern Europe, which was advantageous for us.

What was the role of the opposition?

Our work was aimed at informing the people. We were very focused on publishing books and magazines deemed illegal at that time.

What roles did different political interests play during the process of system change?

In Hungary, as in Poland, there was a kind of social communist dictatorship. What does this mean? Well, within the Communist Party, vital segments could be considered moderates. These moderate communists, interested in exploring ways of reform within the system, wanted to carry out a kind of democratization of the party. They would include other non-party organizations and give greater possibilities for private enterprise, free prices, and new initiatives within the state economy.

So, from the internal reforms of the Communist Party, on the one hand, and from the emergence of an anti-communist dissident movement, on the other, an exciting process of transformations resulted, which we Hungarians call «peaceful regime change.»

The first step of this peaceful change was the negotiation process between the Communist Party and the so-called Opposition Round Table. A scenario that was designed, practically in its entirety, by the intellectuals who were members of the Hungarian Liberal Party. We did not want to negotiate with the government apparatus or administrative bodies. We tried to deal with the real owners of political power: the high officials of the Communist Party.

In these negotiations, the Round Table overcame the restrictions the Communist Party tried to implement. At first, the power attempted to restrict the agreements to transform the political system. Still, the opposition demanded other guarantees: free elections, re-establishment of freedom of expression, the unrestricted right to establish organizations and political parties, new rules of coexistence while waiting for the polls, and, therefore, the establishment of a timetable that would allow us to coexist until then. The Communist Party agreed to these demands; at some point, they realized that, deep down, they lacked the legitimacy to decide on the nation’s future.

What would you say was the most important outcome of that first period?

The kind of freedom we achieved. First, we needed full release that would allow us to have free elections, as I was saying, but also freedom capable of guaranteeing the establishment of a new parliament. And freedom of expression, of course, in the first place. Then: freedom of political association and drafting of a new electoral law.

In your opinion, were mistakes made during the transition, and what would you have redirected in that process?

I sincerely believe that the whole regime change was successful in Hungary. Our primary interest then was based on achieving a truly democratic system. We wanted free elections, but we did not want citizens to be forced to choose simply between the Communist Party and the opposition bloc to the Communist Party, but to have a choice between the different opposition parties.

This structure that we established at that time remained practically stable until 2010.

What was the mistake? We did not realize that the electoral system, as we conceived it, could become disproportionate. We were driven by the idea that as more new parties emerged, the greater the democratic guarantees would be. And we succeeded. However, we should have focused more on the idea that achieving a stable government from those first elections was the most important thing.

I wish we had found a way to prevent any actor or political force from obtaining an absolute majority in Parliament. It was nobody’s particular responsibility. It was the response to an illusion. We failed to see the failure rooted within that same system that would lead us to democracy. 

Seen from a distance, I think that we should have, as I was saying, avoided the disproportion of the electoral system. We should have created a more proportionate, more equitable, more pluralistic model in which none of the political actors could take unitary control of the government. 

Then, to dream, I would like us to have established a truly divided executive power: both parties, the president and the government elected by Parliament, with natural and specific competencies, to achieve a balance in the exercise of power.

At what point does the concept of the Post-Communist Mafia State emerge?

Between 1998 and 2002. I wrote an article about the so-called «organized upper world,» which was the opposite of the «organized underworld.» I was referring to the different levels of corruption we could witness in post-communist regimes.

At that time, during the first FIDESZ-Hungarian Civic Union government (1998-2002), the concept was still in an embryonic state, precisely because they did not have an absolute majority in Parliament and therefore could not rewrite the Constitution, could not monopolize political power. After 2010 the situation changed. FIDESZ-Hungarian Civic Union obtained the absolute majority in the Parliament, which ensured them the monopoly of power.

The criminal State starts from that precondition: it needs absolute control of political power to build this kind of regime in which corruption is centralized, and the government operates as a criminal organization.

Why do I call it a Mafia State? Because decision-making occurs outside formal organizations and institutions: that is, it is linked to clans, power groups, military structures, business agglomerates, etc., and because this situation, added to the monopoly of political power, turns the State into a criminal organization.

In a communist dictatorship, the ruling elite bases its power on what has been designated as nomenklatura, a registry of bureaucratic and political positions within the system; in a post-communist Mafia State, the scheme is absolutely different. Unlike the classic mafia, which is also a clan and uses coercion, blackmail, and physical violence as methods, the Post-Communist Mafia State counts for the attainment of its ends with all the official means assured to it by the State. It means that it can exercise coercion without blood.

What has been the impact of this model in Hungary?

First, the forces in power have abolished the autonomy of hitherto independent organizations. They have abolished the independence of civic organizations, political organizations in opposition, and, of course, the freedom of economic structures. 

But this process, I need to point out, cannot be described simply as anti-democratic or of extreme concentration of political power. Still, it is a very particular type of concentration of power. I have called it «patronization». 

What is that?

Patronization is a network, a clan around a figure that serves as Patron, as Caporegime. These networks or clans are characterized by not distinguishing between public and private spheres and are in charge of controlling the political processes of nations and their primary financial flows. To this end, they usually cloak themselves in Western mercantile facades, which makes their detection or eradication within societies more complex. At the same time, these organizations provide their members with specific executive security, which ultimately translates into promotions in social status.

Does this form of state exist in other former communist countries, or is it an exclusively Hungarian model?

Hungary is not unique in this respect. Russia, Azerbaijan, and the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia can be seen as Mafia states. The difference between Hungary and these states lies in how they reached this status. Although the structures are similar, Russia, Azerbaijan, and the former Central Asian Soviet Republics achieved such a concentration of political power through the president’s figure. Once completed, the process of transforming the state into a criminal state begins. 

In Hungary, the situation was different. Viktor Orbán transformed his party into an organization that does not resemble the models of Western political parties. FIDESZ-Hungarian Civic Union is an organization in which a single figure holds concentrated and discretionary power over the rest of the members. And only that figure alone can grant rewards and order punishments.  

In Romania, Bulgaria, and even Slovakia, political parties have tried to lead the development of their countries as the Mafia States. If they have not succeeded, it has been because proportional parliamentary structures have prevailed, preventing political power monopolization.

Generally, when the European press talks about Hungary today, it is associated with xenophobia, border control, and nationalist movements. How do you see today’s Hungarian society?

A fundamental characteristic of Mafia States is that they are not ideologically driven regimes. They use ideology but subdivide it into ideological spectrums, which they then use effectively for specific purposes. When we see anti-Semitic, homophobic, or xenophobic ideological spectrums, those who employ them do so not necessarily because they think that way but because these ideas work to stabilize or increase their political power.

Sometimes these regimes need extreme social groups that can be exposed as real threats to society. When the terrorist attacks in Western Europe occurred, Viktor Orbán wanted to show that the government would defend the Hungarian population from similar attacks. And he did so at the cost of blaming victimized groups, such as immigrants, who could not even respond or be part of the public discussion that took place in the country’s political life.

Therefore, what the government did was position itself in a very cynical political functionality, which allowed it to select this group as the most appropriate to make it the target of its attacks. But the whole thing is still a farce. 

And I come back to the point of how the Mafia States work. The idea is there to be implemented, not to be used as a guide. Let me explain.

In Hungary, there is a permanent campaign against immigrants. Still, at the same time, the government launched a Special Residence Program, through which 20,000 non-Hungarian citizens received permission to settle in the country. These premises were not free: they had to pay large sums. The intermediary organizations that made these transactions possible were companies appointed by the ruling forces. Both sides came to the same conclusion: if they could combine making money with allowing immigrants to enter the country, why not do it? And, of course, they did. They set up a business. 

I dare say that, in Hungary, the most prominent criminal organization linked to human trafficking is the government itself.

There is currently a rise in populist and extreme right-wing movements in Europe. Do you think they could increase their presence in European institutions and influence them?

There is a serious problem around that. We don’t know the results of the next elections at the European level. Still, I must emphasize that when we hear about nationalist forces today, it is not, in the strict sense of the word, the kind of nationalist forces that we talk about in the 19th and 20th centuries.

For example, Viktor Orbán’s struggle is only to achieve impunity for his criminal organization. They do not deny the need to belong to the European Union. Still, under the pretext of nationalist sovereignty, they are trying to defend that the Hungarian government -themselves now- should not be accountable for the money it spends from the European Union. Why? Because today a large amount of these funds goes to the coffers of the ruling elite. It is distributed among the members of the political famiglia. The moment they have to account for the money coming from the European Union, just then, they proclaim themselves nationalists.

Let’s be serious: we are talking about a criminal organization fighting not to be punished.

Russia and China are directing their geopolitical strategies toward constructing a multipolar world, in which Europe will undoubtedly be one of those poles. Do you think this fragmentation will happen?

The global world order is in transition. That is undeniable. And Europe should try to be an influential part of the new order. Maybe we should start talking, from now on, not about the European Union but the United States of Europe. I believe that a Europe divided into several zones will be inevitable. We are moving towards that, so we should think not of the unity of equals but a unity of different ones. 

Are you unhappy with the current functioning of the European Union?

Right now, there are still many issues that need unanimous decisions by the European Union member countries to get them approved. This requirement gives specific blackmailing power to the nations. It allows them to manipulate the decision to favor their interests, even for countries like Hungary that contribute less than 1% of their GDP to the Union. And this is a problem. A problem that has become a crisis.

Every time I see, for example (three or four times in the last six months), Viktor Orbán undermining attempts to reach a joint decision on certain agreements by offering a veto as an answer, I reaffirm my idea that the European Union is in a crisis. 

Behavior such as Orbán’s favors the enemies of the concept of Europe as a Union. Although at the same time, I must admit that the existence of this crisis could make more and more countries aware of the need for a change of structure in the functioning of the European Union. 

I am convinced that our conglomerate of countries will move towards multiple regional cooperation even if it were not called the European Union. We will design a decision-making structure that will prevent blackmail, undemocratic actions, and majority decisions’ veto.

Do you see your country within that international structure?

I cannot foresee what will happen; I would like to, but I dare not. Right now, we are on the point of no return to democracy; we are moving further and further away from it. Hungary is such an autocratic regime, so mafia-like in its power structures that it is impossible to defeat the present government simply with an election. But I do not know what our way back to democracy will be, let alone when it will become possible. 

Now, if we do not, we will hardly see Hungary within a future structure of the European Union.

March 25, 2019.

© Edición en inglés: Andrés Jorge González.

© Imagen de portada: Bálint Magyar.


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