Since Fall of Berlin Wall, East-Central Europe Has Been in Eternal “Transition”

 

Tibor Varady (pictured): “Communism was supposed to be something shiny and wonderful. But the magic word ‘transition’ suggested that if we had problems … we hadn’t arrived yet.” (Photo: John Feffer)

Tibor Varady (pictured): “Communism was supposed to be something shiny and wonderful. But the magic word ‘transition’ suggested that if we had problems … we hadn’t arrived yet.” (Photo: John Feffer)

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.

It has been commonplace to use the term “transition” when referring to what took place in East-Central Europe in the years immediately following 1989. The term initially had a refreshing vagueness to it. So much was up in the air. So much was changing. The fixed certainties of the past had melted away. At the same time, it was not exactly clear what the future held or, at least, when that future (of European Union membership, of a fully developed market economy, of a transparent democracy) would arrive. “Transition” offered a sense of movement forward without any fixed time frame. As an unemployed person might say that they are “between jobs,” the region as a whole was “in transition” from one state of affairs to another.

As time passed, “transition” became an increasingly problematic term. First there was the question of when the “transition” had begun. Certainly, Hungary had experimented with melding capitalism and Communism as early as the late 1960s. The citizens of Yugoslavia had considerable freedom to travel and work abroad before 1989. And in Romania, people began to suspect that the “transition” had been in the works before Nicolae Ceausescu gave his final speech before the crowds in Bucharest on December 21, 1989.

If the origins of the “transition” were hazy, the trajectory was even more so. Yugoslavia’s “transition” was certainly very different from its neighbors, for it seemed to move directly backward from the 1990s into the blood politics of the 1940s. Most of the East-Central Europe suffered from such tremendous economic dislocation that the “transition” never seemed to end. And because of the endemic corruption that set in during the 1990s, “transition” seemed at times to mean simply the transfer of resources from one ruling elite to another, with considerable overlap between the two groups.

Tibor Varady is an international lawyer and writer who has had a first-hand look at the “transitions” in both Yugoslavia and Hungary. And he does not like the term very much at all. It reminds him of the circumlocutions of a previous era.

“In no Communist country during the Communist period did we say that we had Communism,” he told me during an interview last May in his office at the Central European University in Budapest. “We said that we were ‘in transition’ to Communism or “in the process of building” Communism. There was a simple reason for this demagoguery. What we had wasn’t so great at all. Communism was supposed to be something shiny and wonderful. If Communist leaders said, ‘This is it,’ we would have said, ‘This is it? What is so good about it?’ But the magic word ‘transition’ suggested that if we had problems, they were not problems with Communism. It was just that we hadn’t arrived yet.”

And now the term has been repurposed for use in the new era. “In this part of the world, people don’t say that we have a market economy,” he continued. “They say, ‘We are in transition to a market economy.’ In part, that is true. But it is also a way to deflect criticism, a way of not facing the real problems. The market economy has, of course, its own problems. That’s why I don’t like the word ‘transition.’ It’s a popular sleeping pill, and everyone is using it. To continue the dissident spirit of intellectuals under Communism, we should say, ‘No, this is a market economy. We have had it for 20 years. We are not in transition. This is it. If this is not good enough, we have to do something about it.’”

Varady served as the minister of justice in the short-lived Panic government in Yugoslavia in 1992 and also represented the country before the International Court of Justice. We talked about those experiences as well as his thoughts on dissidence, contemporary politics in Hungary, and why it’s so important to widen the space between heroes and traitors.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I was in Yugoslavia. For me, it was less dramatic and not such a huge event as it was for most of my friends and colleagues in other countries in Eastern Europe. There were two reasons for that. One is that in Yugoslavia we had a much more tolerable, more human regime. We had freedom of travel. We had a somewhat better economic situation. We had practically unlimited contacts with Western colleagues.  Of course it was a one-party system, and it was not a democracy. But it was a much more humane version than in other Eastern European countries.

Probably the more important reason was that at that time we had another focus. And that was the emergence of Slobodan Milosevic and nationalism. That’s what we were focused on and afraid of. Of course we were happy about the fall of the Wall. But it wasn’t something that affected that much our everyday life. We were a little closer to what people call “transition,” though I don’t like that term. But also a danger of a different kind was looming. I think it applies to most of my colleagues in Serbia and former Yugoslavia — we had more important business at that time.

Why don’t you like the term “transition”?

It is a way to somehow postpone facing reality. In no Communist country during the Communist period did we say that we had Communism. We said that we were “in transition” to Communism or “in the process of building” Communism. There was a simple reason for this demagoguery. What we had wasn’t so great at all. Communism was supposed to be something shiny and wonderful. If Communist leaders said, “This is it,” we would have said, “This is it? What is so good about it?” But the magic word “transition” suggested that if we had problems, they were not problems with Communism. It was just that we hadn’t arrived yet.

Now, in this part of the world, people don’t say that we have a market economy. They say, “We are in transition to a market economy.” In part, that is true. But it is also a way to deflect criticism, a way of not facing the real problems. The market economy has, of course, its own problems. That’s why I don’t like the word “transition.” It’s a popular sleeping pill, and everyone is using it. To continue the dissident spirit of intellectuals under Communism, we should say, “No, this is a market economy. We have had it for 20 years. We are not in transition. This is it. If this is not good enough, we have to do something about it.” This is the reason why I’m not a fan of the word “transition.”

What word would you use instead?

I think we have capitalism. I don’t think it makes sense to say that capitalism is heaven. Capitalism is a reality that may be somewhat better than Communism. But we have to face it and repair it and criticize it rather than wait for the “real capitalism” to come. No, this is the real capitalism and it’s far from perfect.

To extend the analogy, there was a debate under Communism about whether to support reform Communism or do away with the system altogether. Today, under capitalism, we could similarly have a debate about whether to support “reform capitalism” or advocate for something different.

Indeed, under Communism, we did have those two approaches, those two ways of criticism. Under capitalism, I don’t really see any really strong position that says that capitalism is wrong as it is. But we have much less criticism of capitalism and less facing of the reality of capitalism than is proper. The mental attitude of dissidents under Communism would be most welcome and most needed in this new reality as well, as probably in any human reality.

I want to go back to 1989. At that time, you said that people in Yugoslavia were distracted by other issues, Milosevic being perhaps the most important. When we talked about that period of time in the United States there was a focus on Kosovo, because of the events there in 1989. There was a similar attempt by Milosevic to take away the autonomy of Vojvodina. But I don’t hear very much about what the reaction in Vojvodina or whether it caused the same amount of concern elsewhere in Yugoslavia.

Kosovo has been a very special phenomenon in Serbian thinking. Many of my Serbian friends have called it a curse. In 1389, the Serbs lost the critical battle in Kosovo. Most of the heroic legends stem from the Kosovo battle. So, Serbian heroism is tied to a large extent to Kosovo. It is a symbol.

My grandfather opened a law firm in 1893, which my father continued. And I am now plunging into the archive. Through this little window of cases you can see a lot. I was recently looking at a case from 1915, during World War I. At that time my city Becskerek belonged to Hungary (it had many names and became Zrenjanin after World War II). My father and I were born in the same house, but not in the same country. In 1915, my grandfather was representing some Serbs who were accused of anti-state activities. At that time, there was a Serbian minority in Hungary, just as today there is a Hungarian minority in Serbia. There was a search of their house, and there’s a list of all the documents found. Some of the documents were used by the prosecution to prove that it was anti-state activity. Among the documents is a speech by a Serbian professor at a meeting. The speech begins with the words, “My Serbian brothers. I know that everyone always starts a speech with Kosovo, but we have to get over this.” That was 1915.

It was at the beginning of World War I. You would think that other issues would have taken precedence.

Kosovo is not only a curse in thinking, but it was also an opportunity for Milosevic. He really started by celebrating the 600th anniversary of the Kosovo battle in 1989. It was a huge event. He was literally coming from the sky, by helicopter, and everyone was looking up at him. He arrived and delivered a fiery speech. After that the autonomy of Kosovo and also of Vojvodina was abolished. In Vojvodina it yielded a lot of unhappiness. But it wasn’t such a huge event as in Kosovo. Many Serbs say that autonomy in Kosovo led to secession. In my opinion, it was the abolition of autonomy that led to secession. There were indeed some Kosovar Albanians who played with secession; others were focused only on autonomy. But the abolition of autonomy somehow pushed together all these people and created a uniform, radical Kosovo Albanian population.

Also, the ethnic proportions are dramatically different between the two places. In Kosovo, it was 90 percent Albanian whereas in Vojvodina it was 60 percent Serbs. It became very impractical in Vojvodina to heed minority rights without a well-established autonomy that had its own set of rules. Problems have to be handled where they exist. If you have a province with a tradition of speaking five languages, you have to regulate this at the level where the complexity exists, not at the level of the whole country. It doesn’t make sense to have Hungarian as an official language in Belgrade or Kragujevac. It’s much easier to handle minority-related problems where the minorities are. That’s one of the important reasons why the abolition of autonomy was a problem.

Unfortunately, even today, when the Kosovo issue is again in the limelight, many nationalists are now afraid that Vojvodina will secede, and they are trying to decrease if not abolish the autonomy of Vojvodina. This is too bad, because Vojvodina is part of normal Serbia. Kosovo was a different issue. As an international lawyer, I don’t think that the secession of Kosovo was justified, legally. But I don’t see any way in which Kosovo could remain part of Serbia as a functional entity. Most Serbian colleagues are recognizing this fact. Justice or injustice, there’s no other way.

De facto versus de jure.

Exactly.

In 1989, you were a lawyer in Belgrade?

In Novi Sad. I was teaching at Novi Sad law school.

You’d gone to law school. Did you go directly from law school to practice and teaching?

I went to law school in Belgrade. This was the normal family tradition for my grandfather, my father, and myself. Then I started practicing in my father’s office when I finished law school. But I had  some interest in legal theory as well. Also, at that time in Novi Sad there was also a very interesting literary movement, a quite dissident Hungarian review that published many Hungarians who couldn’t publish in Hungary. It played a role in Hungarian literature. I became an assistant professor in Novi Sad and also one of the editors of this literary magazine. This was my life.

Then, thanks to what I mentioned before about Yugoslavia being much more open than other countries, there was an opening of the borders in the mid-1960s. We were suddenly free to travel. Earlier it had been next to impossible. Also, the Fulbright scholarship was extended at that time to Yugoslavia as the first Communist country. I applied for a Fulbright. After I finished my compulsory military service, I was lucky to receive the scholarship. I went to Harvard law school in 1967. This, of course, gave a push to my legal career. I got a Masters and then a PhD (S.J.D.) at Harvard. I returned to teach in Novi Sad in 1970.

You were at Harvard at a very interesting time. That was the height of the student movement, the anti-war movement. What was your perception of all of that, coming from Yugoslavia?

Most of my colleagues in Serbia and in Hungary were rooting for the United States during the Vietnam War. There was a prevailing mindset according to which if the Soviet Union was wrong because it banned some basic freedoms, or because it crushed the 1956 Hungarian revolution, than the opposite must be right. By way of justifying the actions of the United States, they were actually rooting against the Soviet Union. They portrayed the United States as the opposite of the Soviet Union. Focusing on the brutal crushing of the Hungarian revolution in 1956, and later on the ruthless Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, many of my friends and colleagues somehow never realized that in this U.S.-Vietnam conflict, Vietnam wasn’t the stand-in for the Soviet Union or Hungary the stand-in for the United States. The opposite wouldn’t be exactly right, but it was a little closer to reality. In the United States, of course, I met many friends who were not exactly rooting for LBJ or Nixon, and were not happy at all with the Vietnam War. This changed my perspective. It was intellectually really exciting. It was very helpful also to get out of overly rigid patterns of thinking, of good guys and bad guys, to see that there was a larger maneuvering room and things might be changing. I can’t say that I became anti-American, because there were many things that I liked in America. But I was not rooting for the American intervention in Vietnam. I did before I came to the United States, though, just as most of my dissident colleagues did, because they perceived this as an action against Communism.

You were affiliated with the literary magazine. Were you also affiliated with other emerging critical Yugoslav circles?

Yes. There was the philosophical group Praxis, which had events on the island of Korcula, and I went to those. Also, Symposion, the name of the Hungarian literary magazine, was much more part of the Yugoslav events than earlier Hungarian literary magazines, which were just meant to preserve Hungarian culture. This remained an objective ofSymposion as well, but we wanted to be part of Yugoslav dissident culture. We had a lot of personal friendships with these dissidents.

This more tolerant attitude in Yugoslavia also had periods, and there were bad periods as well. At one point, I was defending Symposion before the court because there was a procedure to ban two issues. One issue was banned because a review criticized a movie about Tito’s heroism by saying that it was over the top. The other issue had a short story describing a discussion in a student home – and one of the participants in this discussion was saying things that were highly politically incorrect (according to the then-prevailing standards). At that time, I was advised not to represent the magazine because it would jeopardize my position as a teacher. But that would have been completely incompatible with the lawyer tradition in my family.

I can’t say that I was a victim. For a while I was not getting scientific projects. But I continued teaching, so nothing really dramatic happened. But this generation of Symposion had to leave the magazine. Later, a new generation came in, which was also a pretty good generation. But there there was a brutal cut.

I want to jump back to 1989-90 to get your perspective as a lawyer to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. I’ve written about the debates at that time between confederation and federation. How did you view those debates?

I was personally in favor of Yugoslavia. It was an interesting country. Without those horrible years under Milosevic and his counterparts, and if the country had stayed together, we could have been the first Eastern European country to join the European Union. But there were many reasons for the country dissolving. What I often read and hear was that nationalism revived after being just brushed under the carpet. My personal experience was that the bulk of the nationalist frenzy was newly generated. After Tito died on May 4, 1980, every leader wanted to be Tito. At the Yugoslav scale that was not possible any more. You also needed some force other than the Communist Party. There was no other force that could have provided uncontrolled leadership except nationalism. And nationalism could not justify leadership over a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia.

You may remember that unlike most Communist leaders, Tito did not belong to the majority.

He was half-Croatian, half-Slovenian.

Yes, but he generally considered himself a Croat. But in any case: he was not a member of the majority. This yielded one thing good for Yugoslavia — Tito was always trying to build authority on balance. Sometimes this balance was a little bit overdone, too technical. We had rules like, at the university in Sarajevo, there should be a Serbian dean and then a Croatian and then a Muslim, and so on. This was inflexible, but it worked. The whole thing was based on balance. What kept this balance, what made it operable, was the Communist Party. And here is where the fall of the Berlin Wall was important, though it was also the case before the fall of the Wall: it had become obvious that the Party would not be a lasting thing. Unfortunately we did not find – and some people did not want to find – a viable substitute for the role of the Communist Party in maintaining an interethnic balance. Nationalism became the horse on which leaders rode to power. And this became incompatible with Yugoslavia as a country.

Plus we had the tremendous misfortune of Milosevic. He was really a strong personality. I knew him — we were studying law about the same time in Belgrade. We did not meet often. One rare opportunity was at the awards given for the best students. He was a man who had a reputation, an odd reputation among colleagues who knew him better, of being a man who never lied. It wasn’t because he was telling the truth. Sometimes he did. But he had an uncanny ability for self-deceit. He really believed what he was saying, even if he was saying the opposite of what he said yesterday. And this made him damn persuasive. It is often forgotten that for some years he was a very successful London banker. At that time, he certainly perceived himself as a banker. He could have remained a very successful banker.

And should have!

Yes, you’re absolutely right. This odd talent and bizarre behavior, which was on the edge of normalcy, enabled him to become very persuasive. It’s also interesting that when we were students at the Belgrade Law School, he was trying to become the deputy secretary of the Communist Party of the law school. There are stories about him. I was not a member of the Party. But one of my close friends was the Party secretary, who later became one of the most radical anti-Communist dissidents. I got first hand information from him.

Who was that?

Nebojsa Popov. We are from the same town. Popov at that time had a belief in Communism and was a Party secretary. He had chosen someone else to be his deputy secretary. But then there was an intervention from higher party level. They told him that it would not be a good idea to have two Serbs. So, since Popov was a Serb Milosevic came to the fore, because he wasn’t a Serb. He identified himself at that time as a Montenegrin. So, Milosevic started his party career on the grounds that he was not a Serb.

A terrible irony.

Yes. I think he became a Serb in the 1980s. Until then he declared himself a Montenegrin. Again, that shows this odd ability of his to change persuasions and identities. But it had a devastating effect.

I saw a website in Serbian that traced all the prominent Serbian politicians who were actually of Montenegrin descent. It was almost like a conspiracy.

Yes, it’s stunning. Nikolic is one of the few who is not.

So, you probably went to school with Mijat Damjanovic as well.

Yes. When I started law school the number of first-year students was 2,800. There was no admission test. Everyone was admitted. Many didn’t even have any intention of studying. They just registered to postpone compulsory military service. So, the first year was actually the admission test. Out of 2,800, only about 600 passed to the second year. It was a huge crowd. I still regret not getting close to some people who were then around me; it turned out later that it was pity not to get close to them, and Mijat was one of these. There were just too many people around. Milosevic was one year younger than I was, so we were not in the same class.

How did you get involved in the International Court of Justice? What was your experience with that?

During most of my life I have tried to avoid direct contact with politics of any kind. Avoiding politics, I was trying to be tricky even in choosing what I was teaching. At that time (in the 1960s) in Yugoslavia, teaching sociology, in which I had an interest, didn’t leave you much else but being a bastard or a tragic hero. I was teaching private international law, which meant I could do what I want because it was esoteric. In Symposion, I got closer to politics because it was impossible not to. But I was trying to create some room within the legal profession. I can still publish what I wrote at that time. But if I had been writing about constitutional law, I would have probably either betrayed myself or become a tragic hero that would have been kicked out.

Then when we had our first election multiparty election in 1990, there was a hopelessly intellectual party, as it turned out later, the UJDI (the Association for Yugoslav Democratic Initiative). I became a member of the UJDI. We thought that this was the time for dissident intellectuals to win. But we only won one seat in the Serbian parliament, and that was my seat. I didn’t win because of the UJDI or my political importance, but because in the electoral district where I was a candidate my family was well known and appreciated.. So, I got into parliament with the UJDI, which also had members like Nebojsa Popov and Vesna Pesic, but there was very limited room for maneuvering. As the war was coming, I was thinking of moving somewhere else.

Then came this odd episode with Milan Panic. I was already in Budapest negotiating with the Central European University in the spring of 1992. I cannot completely explain the episode with Panic. He was the American businessman who became the prime minister of Yugoslavia, elected by parliament where Panic had 10 percent of support or less. It was a deal between Milosevic and Western powers. According to Panic, the deal was that there would be elections on all levels very soon and Milosevic would not contest him on these elections. This was supposed to be a smooth way of transition from Milosevic.

When we first met, it turned out that his Serbian was quite bad, so we spoke in English. His English was better, but he wasn’t a native speaker of English. He’d lost his Serbian, though it improved during his stay in Belgrade. He’d left Serbia when he was around 20, before the borders were open. He wound up in Germany. Then he won this visa lottery and came to the United States, where he worked for a while as a manual worker. He finished school, got a Ph.D. in chemistry, and became the owner of a pharmaceutical company. It was an America dream story. At that time, when everyone was losing optimism in Serbia, he was a symbol of a miracle, and we needed a miracle at that time.

I accepted the invitation to be his minister of justice. When we wanted to talk about something, we had to leave the office because we knew that we were wired. We didn’t have real power. It was bizarre to serve in a government without power. We started in July 1992 and in December 1992 were elections. And Milosevic did run. Panic did well but not well enough. He left the day after the election and went back to California. And I started to teach at Cornell in January 1993. It was odd because the new government wasn’t formed until March. So I was still technically minister of justice while I was teaching at Cornell, but that was a joke of course. In April I came to the CEU because I wanted to be closer to my family; my mother was at that time still alive. So in 1993 I came back to Europe, and for a while I would teach in United States for three months each year, but my base was in Budapest.

When the change came in 2000, I was from time to time participating in demonstrations in Belgrade. When Kostunica prevailed over Milosevic, he invited me to be minister of justice. But at that time, I felt that I had already had too many changes and moves, and my family felt the same way. I also liked teaching at the Central European University. So I declined. Then I received an offer to take over the cases in front of the International Court of Justice. I accepted this.

We had three cases: the NATO case (in which Milosevic sued NATO for genocide in Kosovo), and the Bosnian and the Croatian cases. It’s not a secret that our whole strategy was to settle those cases by demonstrating a lack of jurisdiction, for which, in my opinion, there were many valid reasons. In the NATO case, the court threw out the case on the grounds of lack of jurisdiction. I think the same should have been done in the Bosnian and Croatian cases. But this is a case where very high authorities have different opinions. I cannot put myself above the court. Had this argument of lack of jurisdiction been raised at the beginning before the court had already gone a long way, we could have won on the jurisdiction issue. I was representing Yugoslavia only in the jurisdiction part, and after Milosevic was ousted.

I’m personally persuaded that cases against newly shaped countries were a wrong track. The Hague Tribunal (ICTY), which deals with individuals, is the right track, though it had many mistakes and had many imperfections. People who did horrible things should be held responsible. But when we’re talking about the responsibilities of states, this is a questionable setting, especially when these states were new states, formed during conflict. In the Bosnia case, for example, the allegation was that the Bosnian Serbs committed genocide against Bosnian Muslims. Regarding Srebrenica, this was proven by the ICTY. The accusation against Yugoslavia/Serbia was that Yugoslavia was aiding and abetting the Bosnian Serbs in committing genocide. What is odd is that if Bosnia is suing and Serbia is the respondent, the Bosnian Serbs who allegedly committed genocide are on the side of the victim because they are part of the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In reality this was not a state conflict, but an ethnic conflict. It is difficult to seek justice if the juxtaposed actors are not those who actually committed the crimes versus those who suffered. The ICTY found that a Bosnian Serb, a general of the Army of the Republika Srpska (General Krstic) was guilty of genocide. But before the International Court of Justice, General Krstic and the Army of the Republika Srpska were actually part of the state that was suing (Bosnia-Herzegovina), while the Kosovar Albanians, the Vojvodina Hungarians, and the anti-war Serbs were on the side of the alleged perpetrator (Serbia). So, it’s not possible to have justice when you frame things this way. That’s why I was personally persuaded that this was the wrong track.

The only remaining case is the Croatian case. I was hoping that there would be a settlement before it goes to a full hearing on the merits. The court upheld the jurisdiction on a 9-7 vote. It was a close call.

As far as the Tribunal is concerned, Mladic and others should face justice. The mechanism of the ICTY has not been perfect. One (of the several) unanticipated problem was translation. It’s not only because of imperfections. If you’re a prosecutor and you’re part of a culture, you’re in a much better position to observe patterns of lying and patterns of truth telling. If you get everything through a translator, and you’re not getting the emphases, you are just not in a position to judge. For some of these problems, there’s no perfect solution. But the problem wasn’t anticipated at all. If it had been heeded, the way of handling it could have been improved.

Also, there were situations in which it’s difficult to say that there was no political influence. It’s odd that Milosevic was first accused of misdeeds in Kosovo and only later in Croatia and Bosnia. He was accused of misdeeds in Kosovo after Serbia sued NATO. This inspired doubts, because it looked like it was political. From a professional point of view, one has to consider that the first event was the Croatian case. This was where the prosecutors could have had the most time to gather evidence. If you go by gravity, then Bosnia was the worst, which was in 1993-95. In Kosovo, which was later and not as grave as Bosnia, the prosecutors didn’t have that much time to gather evidence and were not prompted by such huge tragedies. Yet Milosevic was first accused of misdeeds in Kosovo.

Do you think political considerations also played a role in the acquittal of the two Croatian generals as Croatia was getting ready for EU accession?

It would be quite a weighty conclusion. I’m reluctant to say without real evidence. What I find odd is that almost nothing regarding the facts was changed. You had a decision on 28 years of prison and then an acquittal. This is not unthinkable but quite rare. If someone is sentenced to 28 years for committing murder, and then it turns out that he didn’t commit murder, he goes free. Here the facts were hardly changed or not changed at all. It was the qualification of the facts that changed. Without a different set of facts, it’s hard to go from 28 years to zero years. But again I’m not deep enough in the case, and I’m reluctant to make a judgment.

In her memoirs, Carla del Ponte talks about ordering her assistants to dig up information for possibly bringing charges against someone in the U.S. or NATO chain of command for the NATO bombings. Ultimately, no case was made. And it’s not clear why that didn’t happen. Do you have any insight into that?

I don’t know any more about that. The bombing took place, and a case was brought before the European Court of Human Rights, which was thrown out again on grounds of lack of jurisdiction. It was not a decision I was particularly happy with, but it was not easy to set jurisdiction because it was not crystal clear who was bombing, whether the state committing the bombing was part of the treaty or not. The bombing of Belgrade TV was a particular focus. I read somewhere Wesley Clark’s explanation that he actually let Milosevic know that this bombing was going to happen.

Yes, I read that as well — and that Milosevic didn’t provide any warning to the staff.

I can imagine that Milosevic wanted something big. He may have wanted more victims in order to place more blame on NATO. Those people who remained on the premises were either technicians or people not on Milosevic side. The way he handled it is really unpardonable. But I don’t understand if Milosevic was enemy number one, and Wesley Clark told Milosevic, why didn’t Clark go public? If you can tell the chief enemy, then why can’t you tell the citizens? This would have changed things.

I’d like to ask about the situation here in Hungary. For a legal scholar, it must be fascinating to be here and see a constitution amended so many times. Does Fidesz have a group of constitutional lawyers on its side preparing its case? And what’s your evaluation of the cases that they are making?

First I have to say that I’m feeling uneasy about these things. I didn’t go very deep into this matter. As a lawyer I should have gone deeper to have an educated opinion. But what is most reproachable is this attitude that if the Constitutional Court rejects legislation, then the government will simply change the constitution. This is more of a problem in itself than the content of the changes. For example, there was this really tough issue whether homeless people can be prohibited from sleeping in public if a shelter is offered to them. It’s not an easy issue. It’s an issue in New York City and in many other countries. I’m reluctant to label either position as outrageous. But if the Constitutional Court ruled one way, then the next day the government changes the constitution, this is bad for rule of law and the legal system.

Also, you have a very divided press in Hungary. It’s more divided than in Serbia. If I want to have any sympathy for Orban, I read the anti-Orban press. If I want the opposite, I read the pro-Orban press. This also shows that the allegations that freedom of press was abolished are not exactly true. But it’s also true that the media law enacted by this government — which the government said was needed in order to establish balanced information – has not produced balanced information. You have criticism that goes beyond the reality, and you also have real mistakes. The Western press is more inclined to take one of the juxtaposed extremes rather than to focus on what is happening. It’s not easy to find a remedy without a really objective approach. And this is somehow missing.

The EU has certain mechanisms at its disposal. It hasn’t used significant sanctions to prevent money from going to Hungary. But there have been strong statements, and some European leaders have decided not to meet Orban.

Those decisions may actually provoke defiance and strengthen Orban. There’s one other thing. Fidesz absolutely wrongly accused the previous government of being Communist. They were more neo-liberals than Communists. They tried to demonstrate that they weren’t Communists and economically were actually more to the right than Orban. When Orban came with economically more leftist moves, though his rhetoric was more nationalist and right wing, he did some things that many leftists in Western countries are considering, like a special tax on banks (for which I have sympathies). These measures were attacked. Even more attacks were directed against the media law. When the media law came into focus, the argument of some pro-Orban people was that these attacks were orchestrated by those mighty business players who were aggrieved by the tax on banks. I don’t know. This may or may not have been part of the picture. But even if it was part of the picture, this does not mean that the media law is a good one..

One of the big problems following from the fact that the Socialists were economically not leftist, is the growth of Jobbik. Jobbik really has an anti-Semitic, anti-Gypsy, and sometimes fascist rhetoric. You always had such parties in Hungary, near the threshold for representation in parliament. Jobbik added something to this. During the campaign, they went to the poorest people and said, “No one understands you like us.” And they were right. Of course, their understanding was demagoguery. But the others didn’t do even that. Jobbik won in many poor regions. They said, “Nobody is talking to you but us,” and then later they said this nonsense about being robbed by “Israeli investors.” These guys in the poor areas don’t know where Israel is, and there’s not a Jew among them, but they had some sympathy for this party that was coming finally to talk to them. This is what National Socialism was. This is what made Jobbik stronger. There was a void, with no real leftist party. It’s really unpardonable to leave leftist issues to an extreme Right organization.

Anything that passes for the Left here is associated with intellectuals in Budapest, and these are not people who go to talk to poor people in a straightforward manner.

Exactly, and this is a problem. If there was a leftist movement, it would decrease the influence of Jobbik. Of course, Jobbik would still exist. There are extreme rightists in Hungary (as there are in other countries in the region, and in Western Europe as well). But they would be way less well represented than they are today.

I want to ask about overseas Hungarians, an issue that Fidesz has been using. It has backed work permits for people to come here, a referendum on extending citizenship, overseas voting. Is that still an important political issue that any party can pick up?

All parties will use it because a law was passed that allows dual nationality. Quite a few Hungarians outside borders have taken Hungarian nationality. In Slovakia, it was contested very much, even though Slovakia also had a law that allows overseas Slovaks to take Slovak dual citizenship. In Serbia it was not contested at all because Serbia has a very strong interest in giving dual citizenship to Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia, and elsewhere. So Serbia is in a similar position.

These are now potential voters. Not only Fidesz but other parties as well are pursuing this. I’m not enthusiastic about this. People should vote where they pay taxes. I am absolutely for maintaining cultural identity. It’s a human right — the right not only to be equal but also to be different. It’s a little bit different in the United States where the typical pattern is that people wind up there, change residence and citizenship as a matter of choice. In Central Europe we have had many changes of borders. People do not move, the borders do. They stay where they were born, but this place becomes part of a different country. If a Slovak or a Hungarian left his country and became a U.S. citizen, it would be difficult for him to claim the right to send his children to a Slovak or Hungarian school. But the situation is different if it’s not the people but the borders that are moving. There have been Serbian, Hungarian, Slovak, and Romanian schools in or around my hometown, which is now in Serbia, and which used to be in Hungary..I do not think changes of borders should change this. Of course everyone would have to learn the language of the majority as well – and this is perfectly doable. This multicultural identity is a human right, and I’m very much in favor of this.

In my own environment I have seen that this is quite possible. I’m culturally more Hungarian, but I was really defending Yugoslavia in front of the International Court of Justice with full persuasion. I think the borders should stay where they are. It wouldn’t be bad if borders lose significance so that there’s easier communication between people. But voting rights is somewhat different. We’ll see how many people will vote and how they vote. The forthcoming elections  will be the first elections in Hungary when a considerable number of people outside the border will vote. Probably more votes will go to Fidesz, but I do not think that all Hungarians outside the borders will vote for Fidesz. We shall see. 

When you think back to 1989-90, when the “non-transition” began to take place, have you changed your perspective in any significant way? Have you had any second thoughts?

Not that much. In this respect, I am not typical. Part of the reason I’m not typical are my years in Cambridge, Massachusetts between 1967 and 1969. I became more ready to be critical of the market economy as well. Many of my very close friends became more critical as time went on. I was certainly not for Communism. But as far as social rights are concerned, you cannot leave unnoticed that the standard of living of poorer people was going down during the years of the “transition to heaven.” But again, that doesn’t mean that we should now go back to Communism. You just have to keep a dissident spirit.

One of the things after this change is that many people have a sort of black-and-white perspective. There is a picture according to which under Communism there were only tragic heroes and bastards. Things were not that simple. There was a greater variety of people – and of patterns of human behavior as well. Agitated periods of history tend to impose a brutally simple categorization — before, under, and after Communism as well.. I remember an example of this a couple of years after World War II. I was about eight or nine years old, and there was a guy selling ice cream. He was selling ice cream during World War II as well, when my hometown was under fascist occupation. The guy selling ice cream would have been 16 or 17 years old then. He must have sold ice cream to the fascist soldiers as well. Under the dominant perception, under fascism you could only be a hero or a traitor. He obviously preferred the hero-category. So he said, and repeated many many times, “Yes, I was selling ice cream to German soldiers, but I always looked at them with anger and contempt. I never smiled.” I think he was lying.. But this doesn’t make him a horrible person. If he was 16 when he was selling ice cream, he was probably smiling at everyone. Okay, it wasn’t nice to smile at German soldiers. But there should be some human space left between heroes and traitors.

We had this too after the fall of the Berlin Wall. People were running toward symbols and making themselves into symbols. The best people under Communism were dissidents, and we need those people again.

Budapest, May 8, 2013