Ignatieff Speaks on Brexit, Trump, Soros on hvg.hu

Hungarian news site hvg.hu published an interview with President and Rector Michael Ignatieff on January 2, 2017. The Hungarian article can be found here, and the English translation is below.

“George Soros doesn’t need my advice”

He considers George Soros a tough guy for surviving Budapest in 1944. He believes that Trump and Brexit do not confirm the death of liberal democracy but rather the opposite – the fact that it functions. Furthermore, he claims that not even Brussels can force Hungary to take in refugees, however, “zero is not a solution.” We interviewed CEU President and Rector Michael Ignatieff in December 2016.

You were born on the other side of the ocean, but you descend from Russian aristocrats, and your wife is Hungarian, so you have roots in this region. Do you feel like an outsider or an insider in our country?

Perhaps both. On the one hand, I see certain things very much from the inside. I can see the transition, the challenges Hungarian families are struggling with. My wife is Hungarian, and through her I became related to an absolutely ordinary Hungarian family. They have not enriched themselves; they are struggling like everyone else. That also allows me to see how difficult the transition was for many Hungarian families. Of course, I can also see the other side of the transition: the BMWs driving back to Budapest from Fured where my family lives.

On the other hand – let’s be honest – I am a complete outsider, because I don’t speak Hungarian and I am not Hungarian. You can see my license on the shelf, which allows me to work in Hungary as President and Rector. I got it from the President of the Republic. I am the head of a Hungarian institution even though I am not a Hungarian citizen. So, I am inside and outside at the same time.

I don’t know whether you have ever been interviewed without receiving a question about George Soros. This one will be no exception, either. There is a university with a whole range of social and socio-political subjects that relate to the subsystems of Hungarian society and Hungarian politics at every turn. And there is a founder who has become a permanent accessory in government rhetoric. Does it still work?

Look, I keep a constant eye on the political environment of the university: it is my job to do so. I regularly meet the members of the government, ministers and the leaders of Hungarian universities, and my colleagues too. My message is simple. We are a Hungarian institution, and we absolutely love being here. The other side of the coin is that our founder is attacked. This is about politics, we understand that, and in my opinion, the government also understands that we are a university, not a party; we have never harbored any organized political activism. It is possible that there have been, there are and there will be research projects that voice criticism about certain government measures, but this is what universities are for, to teach students to think critically.

I cannot stop the attacks against Mr. Soros. He can defend himself. There is something that people tend to forget: many people left Hungary in 1956 and never came back. George Soros is not one of them. He returned and he is infinitely committed to this country. Perhaps the government doesn’t always like it, but no one can question his commitment.

Still, have you talked with George Soros about how the criticism directed at him by the government might affect the everyday life of the university?

George Soros doesn’t need my advice or my help: he is a tough guy. If you were in Budapest in 1944, you are a tough person.

Let’s step out in the international arena. You have written numerous books about political trends, and led the Liberal Party of Canada for years in the meantime. Donald Trump’s victory, Brexit, illiberalism becoming fashionable in Europe – how do you feel about the danse macabre of liberal democracy? Are you mourning over it?

Trump’s victory, Brexit, AfD in Germany, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the Front National in France – these do not indicate that liberal democracy is in trouble. In fact, quite the opposite. What they indicate is that liberal democracy is functioning, and functioning well. It expresses and channels the dissatisfaction of the people towards the elite, their feeling of being cheated and neglected. Look around in Europe: you can’t see any place where political forces outside the Parliament would resort to violent acts. As long as it stays that way, democracy is fine, thank you.

Of course, as a liberal, I might not be so happy about these election results. I might have preferred someone else’s victory much more here and there. But who cares about that? This is democracy. We liberals can be dissatisfied with the results, but these are signs to wake up: we need to pay attention to the people in ways we have not done for a long time.

You are almost echoing the words of the recently appointed Ambassador of Israel to Hungary. He also pointed out the expectation of miracles and their non-materialization as the biggest danger.

For instance, I am much more concerned about the end of President Trump’s first term than its beginning. If he fails to honor his promises, that will have serious consequences.

So we are not yet at the next “big thing” after liberal democracy? The Hungarian Prime Minister recently declared that his generation will live to see the emergence of a new world order.

I will not go into a geostrategic debate with the Hungarian Prime Minister. But I can tell you that in my opinion, the global world order is changing. If we focus on Hungary only – and now I am speaking as sort of an insider –, would you really like to embrace a power that has invaded your country repeatedly in the past? Sure, they want to maintain good relations with Russia, that is fine, but the people living here have a good memory, and this should be kept in mind.

The other question is whether to be inside or outside Europe. I think it should be the former. 500 thousand Hungarians are working outside Hungary; that is partly why the unemployment rate in Hungary is so low. The money sent home by them is extremely important for the Hungarian economy.  One of my relatives, for example, works in an Austrian ski resort. One can go against Europe, but whoever does that will soon be going against the interests of its own citizens.

I doubt that we would be living in a new world order. We can talk about novelties, but some things don’t change. In my opinion, two things are paramount for Hungary: a strong Europe and a strong NATO.

Human rights are your field of expertise. Within that, there are countless areas ranging from the rights of refugees to well-off Internet users’ right to data protection. In your opinion, which is the most urgent human rights issue at present?

I think the most important rights are inseparable from each other in a free society. Constitution, Parliament, free media, independent judiciary. These conditions are valid everywhere, not only in Hungary; this is not some kind of western imperialist plot.

The other issue is how to harmonize the rights of the people living here and those of the strangers jammed up at the borders. Half a million people have already fled from Mosul, 250 thousand people might leave Aleppo, which increases the migration pressure continuously. In Serbia, there are already 8-9 thousand people living on the border in the most miserable conditions. After a certain point, some people will have to be let in. Some, not all of them. I don’t think the Visegrad countries can afford to maintain their “zero” position for long. By doing so, we only sweep the troubles away to someone else’s doorstep: to the Serbians, the Italians, the Turks. If we cannot share this burden somehow, the situation will become untenable.

I am not criticizing the government. I understand the situation, the fact that the population was shocked by the wave that passed through the country last year. Hungary is not obliged to admit anyone; Brussels certainly cannot force you to do that. This is the competence of the government and the Hungarian Parliament. But zero is not a solution. And I am not saying that as a rector, but as a private individual and as a human rights expert.

This is the point where the parallel with the Hungarian refugees fleeing after the 1956 revolution is usually pulled out of the hat. You have an exceptional overview of the context: your wife is Hungarian, you were born in Canada, one of the countries having admitted the highest number of 1956 refugees, and you have Russian ancestors. Is that a right claim?

Well, figures do help a bit. Now everybody thinks that the record wave of refugees of last fall was unprecedented, which is not true. Look, my grandparents were Russian refugees. Between 1918 and 1921, two million Russian refugees flooded Europe. A Europe much poorer than today, which was only past the horrors of the First World War. Many of them went to Berlin, which was being ravaged by an unseen hyperinflation. Nonetheless, Germany absorbed the crowds, as did France. And now we are speaking as if Europe was full to the brim, and not one more person could enter. Just look into the history books. When in 1956-57, hundreds of thousands of Hungarian refugees were pouring across the Austrian-Hungarian border, the Austrians said that it was impossible to take care of so many people. The allied occupational forces had left the country barely a year earlier, and Austria was a poor country. If you ask an Austrian now, he or she will most likely say that that was one of the best decisions that Austria had made in the 20th century, and they will be proud of that.

The momentary stress and pressure weighing upon a country is a bad counsellor; it will not be able to project how that situation will be remembered in 20, 50, or 100 years. Canadians take extreme pride in telling you how humane and right a decision it was to welcome so many Hungarian refugees after 1956, for they have become fantastic members of our society. My father as Ambassador to Yugoslavia helped 5-10 thousand Hungarian refugees go from the Balkan country to Canada, and people still come up to me in Canada saying “Wasn’t your father the Yugoslavian Ambassador? I can thank him for being able to live here” – good deeds are remembered. Hungary should also take that into consideration.

20 years ago, you wrote about the emergence of new nationalism in your book. Two decades have gone by, and history seems to be repeating itself. Is this the same wave, or are we in the age of an even newer nationalism?

The new nationalism of the early 90’s was the nationalism of change. The former Soviet member republics and the other post-communist countries were switching over to capitalism. This meant more than 20 countries that had to build their identity around a new nationalism idea. But the new-nationalism of 2016 is driven by different forces. One of them is terrorism, the other is globalization.

The problem is that the recent economic crisis swept through the whole world, including the United States. People expect their governments to get back in the saddle, take control of the events and be able to protect jobs, for instance. What is most astonishing is that this economic nationalism manifests itself most dramatically in the United States, which could be the most sovereign economic power of the world for the size of its strength. Despite that, Donald Trump cannot say to coal miners in Tennessee or to metalworkers in Pennsylvania that he will protect their jobs simply because he will not be able to do that. For the price of iron is determined not by the United States, but by the global market. The continuous dismantling of wind power is an irreversible process, and not even a strong sovereign state can control these trends.

You were the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada in opposition from 2008 to 2011. You have had your fair share of political fights. Seen from here, Canada looks like a calm and uneventful political arena. Can you make a comparison with Hungarian political life?

All modern political arenas are becoming harsher and more aggressive, and the main reason for that is social media. One of the components is the so-called algorithmic segregation, or segregation created by algorithms. The people who read hvg.hu will not see opinions too different from those in social media, and they would not even like to. Hungarian society is utterly polarized along political fault lines without these algorithms already. If you vote for a certain side, you are not very likely to talk to a person who votes for the other. Society is not so strongly divided in Canada, but social media exaggerates that, too.

The other component is the phenomenon of digital disinhibition. As a politician, I must have shaken hands with 30 thousand people, but this is quite normal in such a position. I could count on one hand the number of those who said something unpleasant or who were aggressive after our handshake; people tend to be very nice in this situation. Social media, however, resembled a sewer: people generated unbelievable hatred with respect to my person or the members of my family. At one point, my team forbade me from reading any more comments. Social media unleashed this sewer on politics, and with that, it also channeled hatred. Algorithmic segregation and digital unscrupulousness acting in tandem increase polarization at a staggering rate in politics and hence within society. If Social media wasn’t in the play, you, too, would invite your acquaintance who voted differently over for dinner, and you would discover that there is a wealth of things more interesting than politics. The country where everything is about politics is an ailing one. In a healthy country, politics is only one of the many things people engage in. The politicization of every aspect of life means the death of a country, and more and more countries are heading in that direction.