By his supporters, he is seen as a herald of a new era and the ideologue of the dawn of liberalism. He is regarded literally as a man ahead of his times, who by winning the constitutional majority three times in a row revolutionised contemporary politics. Orban is seen as an inspiration for Donald Trump, while being a spiritual heir of Charles de Gaulle and his idea of Europe of sovereign nations. Critics basically agree with this, but the things that the supporters consider an opportunity, they view as a threat. They have one thing in common though: they treat him more seriously than he deserves. Not only because the ecstatic reactions are reversely proportional to the political and economic significance of his country, but primarily because Orban did not devise anything new.
If one carefully follows through the changes introduced by Hungary’s prime minister and distils them from ideological imports, expectations, or fears, it will become evident that every decision of the Fidesz party – beginning with the first one, that is granting voting rights to the Hungarian minority in the neighbouring countries – had a straightforward goal: securing power for the years to come. Constitutional changes that extended the terms of bureaucrats installed by Fidesz, the takeover of media, public services centralisation, rapprochement with Russia, the campaign against the EU, Soros and migrants were all part of the same game.
Orban is no trailblazer. On the contrary, he took politics back on its preceding tracks, which had been smoothened by the mild 1990s with its high-minded objectives and grand projects. Historically, that time was an exception rather than a rule, though.
Under different circumstances, people who set the tone at that time – in Poland, Mazowiecki and Geremek, in the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel – would have been deemed merely harmless butterfingers. But after the transformation on 1989, social expectations favoured honourable men who would be able to dissociate politics from the communist hopelessness.
Meanwhile, other individuals of that trailblazing times – Lech Walesa and, to a much higher degree, Vladimir Meciar – came to understand that politics has always been a Shakespearean play where the overriding, if not exclusive, goal was seizing power, maintaining and then expanding it. No remorse, no highfalutin elites. Broad support of masses – that was the aim. What counted was flattery for simple emotions and basic instincts. Not for, but against. Both have gone in disgrace because they introduced their ideas too early. Orban meanwhile, came at the right time: time of anger. Time, in which, people have been united not by love, but by hate.
Politics has always been torn by conflicts, but never before had they been as destructive and personal. It has no longer been – like in the 90s – about differences in ideology, or political philosophy. In the new times, it was all about humiliating an enemy, distorting his weaknesses and taking him to the ground. It was all about petty issues that took control over public emotions. This was what the cohabitation of erstwhile allies – Lech Kaczynski and Donald Tusk; Mirek Topolanek and Vaclav Klaus; Viktor Yushchenko and Julia Timoshenko – looked like. Orban, as a leader of the opposition, stood on the sidelines and watched these boorish feuds.
In his own backyard, however, he did not stand idle. His fuel was called “Ferenc Gyurcsány”. In 2006, at the beginning of Gyurcsány’s second term, a famous scandal, in which incumbent prime minister admitted lying, broke out. Orban was gifted with four years during which he could attack socialist as he pleased. He did so with impunity and brutality. Gyurcsány behaved like a wounded animal. He sent police to disperse peaceful protests. He allowed Orban to call a referendum on health care and higher education reforms. Both were needed, but it didn’t matter. The only important thing was to annoy Gyurcsány. So the reforms were struck down. The prime minister lost control over the economy, which, additionally, had absorbed a fallout from the crisis in the USA.
There was a particular moment when both the socialists and his own men, pressed Orban to stop that embarrassing spectacle and agreed for early elections. He declined. He preferred to watch the enemy roll in convulsion, bleeding and falling, finally humiliated. Four years earlier, Gyurcsány was dubbed a Hungarian Tony Blair. In 2010, mothers did not want their children to see his face. Orban draws one conclusion which – as it later turned out – was to be the fuel of his domination: they can hate you, but you just have to show them that others are worse. That alone is sufficient to be seen as a statesman.
But in the breakthrough elections of 2010, Orban won a constitutional majority, which meant that he remained alone on the political scene, surrounded by a platoon of meaningless individuals. Gyurcsány was no longer a threat, as he abandoned socialist party to establish another one, thereby throwing himself out of contention. In contrast to the Polish public, Hungarian society was not vindictive, and satisfied itself with Gyurcsány’s humiliation. The fuel Orban used to mobilise his supporters started to dry out. The opposition didn’t have a leader, because it existed only on paper. No president could have been accused of blocking reforms. There was no enemy. Orban needed to make one up.
At first, he went with the flow when the new EU’s countries started to opt for more self-reliance. After the years of knocking on the door of the European greats to pay old debts and enter into NATO and the EU, former Soviet republics began to find their own way in Brussels. When Orban entered the scene, Kaczynski brothers and Vaclav Klaus were already attacking the European status quo. Sometimes they were right, when Lech and Jaroslaw criticised Germany for its gas deal with Russia negotiated behind Poland’s back, but also when they struggled to maintain voting system inscribed in the Treaty of Nice. More often, they saw threats everywhere and succumbed to their own quirks. None of them hit as hard as Orban did, though.
Klaus’ Euroscepticism was academic and intellectual, Kaczynskis’ emotional, grounded in history, their own complexes and unfamiliarity with the West. Orban meanwhile, from the very beginning, behaved like a boxer-poet: he hit hard, stepped back and then reached out to the victim. The method was called “the peacock dance”. During the rallies in Budapest, Orban likened the EU to the Soviet Union. Then, he arrived in Brussels only to hang out with Barroso and Juncker and signed any document they presented him with.
Make up your enemy
Orban’s first victim was the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a symbol of Hungarian humiliation of previous years because that was where the policy of austerity – introduced by the socialists – had been conceived. The IMF was a natural enemy because even if its politics were successful in the macro scale, ordinary citizens were hit hard. The same was the case with foreign service companies, e.g. banks and energy providers, whose greed had been unmasked by the financial crisis. But something else was most interesting: the strategy of intimidation. In the privacy, delicate negotiations were underway, because Orban was ready to lose or overpay to get his way. On the outside, however, simple measures ruled: ads in friendly newspapers, party message in TV, large-format billboards, letters campaigns. No finesse. Uncompromising message: we – Hungarians, they – Europe. We defend, they humiliate. As they did in Trianon in 1920.
The trick is that the success can never be achieved. There must always be next step, a plan to realise, an enemy to fight. Peace makes the public ask questions – about the financial situation, about reforms that changed nothing. That’s why adequate management of collective emotions is so important. When minds sleep, demons wake up.
But Orban quickly recognised that European institutions don’t guarantee that the mobilisation will be sustained. In such a pro-European society like the one in Hungary, drawbacks could easily be compensated with obtained profits. Orban needed something that would be rooted in emotions pure and simple, something vague that would make defenceless any financial pundit who would embark on a mission to defend Brussels and its money transferred to Hungary.
The myth of the almighty George Soros, the Hungarian-born American financier, was created in the 90s, but it was reproduced by individuals such as István Csurka, a leading conspiracy theorist, something of an amalgamation of Antoni Macierewicz and Stanislaw Michalkiewicz. Orban dragged Soros into the spotlight and translated hatred towards him into a national religion. It was a cynical ploy, as Soros turned out to be accused of ridiculous things. One can, it turned out, even come up with “Soros plan” and sell it to the public with the warning that it aims to destroy the country. Likewise, one can prey on antipathy toward strangers. After all, Soros is a Hungarian only to a certain extent, not to mention that he’s a Jew.
He also makes quite a good reason to discard the straight jacket of political correctness. In the 90s., elites centred around Mazowiecki and Balcerowicz were saying: follow us, we will lead you out of the darkness. But Orban is like Kwasniewski dancing disco polo. He says to his voters: be as you are. Don’t be ashamed of your instincts. Cry out the things you were afraid to say aloud. Don’t be scared of conspiracy theories. The elites convinced you that these ideas are offensive and shameful. But the elites are gone. Soros vindicated Orban’s belief that the primary fault line today is not between communists and democrats, or nationalists and liberals. It is between elites and the people.
Sometimes, Orban was just lucky. Let’s go back to the first months of 2015. A year after elections, Lajos Simicska, Orban’s school friend and the most essential Fidesz oligarch, repudiated his leadership, and the media take on the information about hidden fortunes of Fidesz’s elite. For the first time, Orban is forced to play in the defence. And then… migrants arrive in Europe. At first, a small wave from the Balkans. Suddenly, hundreds of illegal newcomers from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other war-torn countries cross Serb-Hungarian border. The culmination of the crisis occurred in September when three thousand migrants got stuck on the Budapest Keleti railway station.
They can’t go any further, because Hungarian national railway carrier halted departures of international trains. Images captured on TV will be shown for years. Was it all about that? No evidence to support this presumption. What is certain is that Orban turned inefficiency of his own state and helplessness of the EU to his own advantage. Although no serious incidents had been registered, Hungarians could themselves witness what the invasion means. It means chaos, uncertainty, fear.
Orban quickly realises that the crisis will set the tone of the discussions in Brussels for the years to come. That this is the fuel, the new Gyurcsány, that will allow him to forever stay in the campaign mode. Thus, there is no room for subtleties. He puts up the border fence. In no time, criminal code is being made more restrictive. Citizens are being alarmed. Orban declares that he defends Europe’s Christian legacy and that his government is favoured by God. He dehumanises the enemy and never allows to forget about him, even when the migrants are long gone from Hungary. He refrains from one thing only: he doesn’t offer anything positive. He knows well that more can be gained from the existence of the crisis than from its end.
The myth of the great reformer
What is that all for? Orban would say that the scale of the changes introduced by Fidesz was unacceptable for many. What was needed then, was a pre-emptive attack and convincing the public to embrace the stance of intransigent resistance. The truth is, Orban wanted to turn the whole system upside down. He didn’t wish to half-measures, he tried to hit right between the eyes. He didn’t focus on one thing at the time – his revolution was supposed to be all-encompassing. Fidesz’s reforms left its mark on health care, education, judiciary, economy, media and institutions. Orban saw himself as the great disruptor and the great builder. Blowing up the foundations of the old order, he strove to establish a new conservative one, which was to bear his name and outlive its creator.
After 20 years of independence, the Hungarian state worked more or less well. The most visible parts of its functioning were scandals and ubiquitous red tape. Orban knew he had social legitimacy to shake up the system. And contrary to his predecessors, he immediately got down to action. The public was presented with plans, just as it used to be in the Soviet Union. The plans were named after national heroes. Not just some random ones, but after liberal reformers of the turn of the 19th and 20th century. This, supposedly, was to give the Fidesz reforms clout of the continuation of the best Hungarian traditions.
The reforms were impressive. In the first year: media and judiciary acts. On the anniversary of the great electoral victory – a new constitution, which was amended a few times since then. On the eve of his first term, Orban boasted that almost four hundred bills went through the parliament. At the time, nobody asked why three or four well-written ones – instead of four hundred that needed constant amending – had not been signed into law.
Now, when the dust settled, another question can be asked: what was that all for? Does the state work more efficiently than eight years ago?
Let’s take a look at the judiciary reform. Judges have always been an easy target. In Hungary, additionally, the Supreme Court has been regarded as a formal heir to the institution established by the communists in 1949 under the same name. It was the primary mechanism of terror after the anti-Soviet uprising of 1956. This simple association of judges with communists and murderers stirred public imagination. It didn’t matter that in 2011, over 70% of active judges had started their careers after 1990, and those who sentenced opposition either died or failed the vetting process introduced by the governments of the Right at the beginning of the 90s.
To get rid of the leaders of the community, Fidesz lowered the retirement age from 70 to 62. As a result, some 300-people quit – that is one-tenth of all judges. The Constitutional Tribunal was deprived of its power to rule over supplementary budget laws. The number of its judges was increased, the rules of their selection were changed and Orban’s nominees – among them a former chief of his cabinet – had their terms extended from 9 to 12 years. In order to terminate the mandate of the head of the Supreme Court, his job title was changed. The National Council of the Judiciary was liquidated, and in its place, another body has been created. The head of this new institution is chosen by the parliament and – as it happens – the wife of a co-founder of Fidesz was handed his post.
This pattern would be repeated in other areas – destroy old institutions and replace them with new ones, with a loyalist at the helm.
What did these changes bring? Did they make the courts’ work more efficient? Public trust to judges is just as it was before: low. Two years ago, World Justice Project, which – by interviews with citizens who had to do with courts – studied the condition of the rule of law, gave Hungary the lowest score among the EU countries, besides Bulgaria. It criticised Hungary’s judiciary system for, e.g. not sufficiently effective control over other powers, corruption, protracted criminal proceedings and difficulties with access.
Let’s move on to health care. National Health Care Service Centre has been created, and the employees were given a pay rise. It was all not sufficient, because according to recent available Eurostat data from 2015, health care expenditures amounted to 7.2% of the country’s GDP, while the EU’s average was approximately 8.5%. At the beginning of 2018, Euro Health Consumer Index (EHCI) put Hungarian system ex aequo with Polish one on 29th place out of 31. People complain about too long a period of waiting for a visit, and on the unavailability of doctors, as many of them went abroad. Only in Germany, according to German Medical Association), the number of doctors from Hungary tripled throughout the last six years.
Education? Local schools have been nationalised and subordinated to the new governmental institution named KLIK. The market for school books shared the same fate. A minister responsible for that reform is still remembered with distaste. Her adversaries joked that she created the education system similar to the one she remembered from the 60s. The situation was so grave that at the beginning of the year, students took to the streets demanding a systemic modernisation. Their demands included increasing expenditures for education, creating a fair promotion system for teachers, bringing back the free choice of school books and raising the quality of teaching. It is all hardly surprising: among the Shanghai ranking’s five hundred best universities in the world, Hungary is not represented (Poland has two universities in the top500).
Poverty? Orban likes to tell that he picked up the country from the crisis. Indeed, if one looks at statistics, this might be true. Economic growth at 4% of the GDP, unemployment also 4%. Public debt? 74% compared with 81% earlier. Low taxes, lots of tax credits for large families. And occasional gifts – lower gas price, or shopping vouchers – from the generous government. That’s impressive indeed.
At the same time, Hungary stalled and became the resource of cheap labour for automotive companies.
Average gross and net income is almost twice as low as in the Czech Republic, while Slovakia and Poland rank higher. Prices of real estate and the number of social exclusion areas are rising. In some north-east regions, the number of people living on the edge of the poverty line exceeds 20%. Rather than to eradicate poverty, the government introduces an absurd bill which liquidates homelessness. Economically, those who speak of Budapest in Warsaw, speak of going back at least a decade.
But tormenting the quality of public services in Central Europe is too easy. In this respect, Hungary is in regional average as it was eight years ago. This indicator is, however, the most brutal assessment of Orban’s time in power. Neither Tusk, Kaczynski, Fico, nor Babis got such an opportunity. Each of them had to face parliamentary opposition, they were blocked by fear or laziness. Orban had everything to create a modern, capable, fast-growing state out of post-communist antiquity. He had absolute power and was bold enough to destroy old structures. But he was not interested in reform, because, in the age of anger, elections are won not with improvements, but with sharp campaigns against Soros that cost taxpayers almost 50 million euro. Reforms are so 90s.
It turned out then that Orban is an outstanding party leader, but a mediocre prime minister. Years must have passed for everyone to see that. Fidesz changed only on the outside. It behaved exactly in the way the public wanted it to act. It ordered the change of cadres and centralisation, the things that always please masses.
New institutions have been created and named after patriotic heroes, events and places, new individuals have been hired, the puppet master had it all in his hands. Masses were pleased. In reality, the old order has been conserved and decorated with national ornaments. To stay as they were, things must have changed.
Eight rules of Orban’s private state
Orban managed to succeed at something else, though. He created the first European Union’s private state. It means that state elements cannot be discerned from party and family businesses. The state, party, family – they all interpenetrate. Adversaries speak of a mafia system, created in the mould of Cosa Nostra from The Godfather, Orban’s favourite film. Naturally, in Hungary nobody shoots, nobody receives an offer they can’t refuse; finally, nobody sends the message with a head of a dead horse in bed. Yet the system is very similar to the one from Mario Puzo’s novel.
First: the primate of old comrades. The key to understanding Hungarian private state lies in the very nature of Fidesz. Created 30 years ago as a youth movement, it is more than a party. The most important posts are occupied by Orban’s university and childhood friends, or youngsters who joined the power base in the mid 90. There is also a place for family members, e.g. for Itsvan Tiborcz, the most favourite son-in-law of Orban’s eldest daughter. Party elite is composed of a hermetic community of close friends, in which seniority, past dependencies, informal connections and loyalty to the chief play a fundamental role.
Second: loyalty above all else. It is astounding that in the age of gossip, tabloids and Twitter we know so little about the internal operations of Fidesz. No one complains about the autocratic way the party is ruled. Voices about counsels’ negative impact, or progressing madness of the leader are not to be heard. The last time the party broke over ideology was 25 years ago, when a group of liberals, led by an erstwhile Orban’s friend, quit protesting against party’s turn to the right. In the subsequent years, fate was sometimes on Orban’s side, as in the times of his first government (1998-2002), sometimes – during eight years in opposition – not. And yet, nobody ever tried to undermine Orban’s leadership, and no one from the party elite left its ranks.
And while we’re here, rule number three: you don’t quit the party. There were times when Orban eliminated weak or unpopular associates. But – contrary to Kaczynski or Tusk – rarely did he decide to humiliate them publicly. The guy who lost his trust was moved to another post. A former Orban’s lecturer and minister in his second government could not handle negotiations with the IMF and today, he earns a fortune in Hungarian-American foundation established by Orban himself. A co-founder of Fidesz – disappointed with the lack of nomination for the minister of foreign affairs – became the head of a parliamentary commission. A former minister of foreign affairs quickly adapted to the role of the director of Museum of Literature.
The party’s message is clear. Even if you failed, we take care of you. You’re still one of us. We know too much about you – and you know too much about us – so we can’t let you loose. One of the most prominent examples of divorce with the party concerned a former ambassador to the USA. She stood by Orban’s side since the 90s. And always staunchly defended each of his decisions. But a year ago, during the students’ protest, she was dismissed. Orban – normally cool – commented on the case in a not-so-subtle manner: “I don’t bother myself with women’s issues”. Today, the ambassador works in a prestigious American think tank. It is symptomatic, however, that even now, when she is no longer in Fidesz’s orbit, she doesn’t criticise Orban.
Rule four: no mercy for internal enemies. Lajos Simicska, a trusted Orban’s consigliere, his dorm mate, media mogul and the owner of building company which made over a billion euro a year, felt it most painfully. Over three years ago, a spectacular argument broke out between them. Simicska’s media started to attack the prime minister, and he was involved in opposition’s actions. Orban replied accordingly. And he won. A few hours after this year’s Fidesz’s elections success, Simicska must have jettisoned his media portfolio and disappeared from the front line.
Rule five: politics is business. Wealthy individuals, like Gyurcsány, did play a role in public life, but they usually entered the frame with an already accumulated wealth. Under Orban, politics became the tool of wealth accumulation. An essential postulate of rehungarization of large businesses was, in fact, utilised to divide the spoils between the trusted associates. An oligarchy-like system has been created, but oligarchy is not the best term here, because oligarchy in its classic sense has an impact on politics and economy.
Meanwhile, in Hungary, Fidesz’s businessmen keep the distance from politics. They’re interested in media and public bidding. In short, big money.
What’s the origin of these fortunes? Istvan Janos Toth, a director of Centre of Corruption Studies, a think tank, told me about it. After the examination of over 126 thousand public orders from years 2010-2016, he discovered that Orban’s people made some 8-12 billion dollars, mostly on the money from the EU.
„All actors taking part in the bidding: states agency that orders the service, agents, winner of the bidding, and even those who lost, are in a relation of dependency. Everybody benefits”, he insisted. Thanks to this mechanism, Lorinc Meszaros, a plumber by trade and a childhood friend of Orban, increased his fortune fifteen times in the space of three years.
Leading Fidesz politics had problems related to financial obscurities. The powerful prime minister’s chief of staff wasn’t able to explain why he bought a vineyard and a 120-square metre apartment through his son. The leader of the party in the parliament and minister of foreign affairs also had to explain their luxury apartments. Interior minister was sure that it was a coincidence that his former guard company was winning government bids. When accused of financial fraud, an informal counsel to the prime minister and his PR man, told that he didn’t have to explain himself, because he didn’t serve in the official capacity. Orban himself also had to face questions about his luxury houses, which he signed over to his father.
Business imperative is particularly visible in the fact that Orban’s Hungary doesn’t have a foreign policy. It has a trading policy. The primary task of the minister of foreign affairs is to attract new investments and cheap credits and, additionally, to create new business ties. Hence the opening for China, or Russia. On the one hand, dialogue with the countries of the East is more natural, because they – unlike the EU – are not interested in Budapest’s constitutional reforms. On the other, it leads to humiliating compromises, such as the agreement for the development of a nuclear plant in Paks, whereby Russians gained a de facto control over the institution in exchange for 100 billion euro.
Rule seven: the media are the tool of politics. Before Orban, the scale of domination of foreign actors was unhealthy. For example, paper media were in the hands of either Axel Springer or Sanoma. Orban turned it upside down. When the businessmen close to him bought back the shares, he didn’t even mention the aim of creating a local BBC, an ever-present idea in Central Europe. Instead, he chose simplicity. He transferred media into the party megaphone, which uses a blunt language, very much similar to the one used in the happily bygone era. He showed appreciation for con artists specialising in a tawdry entertainment, who make the party’s obtuse propaganda a little bit lighter with their soap operas, sport and quiz shows.
In the private state, journalists are public enemies. Orban acknowledged that during the most recent campaign. What can be done to stop them? Fidesz’s businessmen buy out independent media and change their profile, or just close them, as was the case with the main opposition daily Népszabadság. Besides, ads of ministries and state-owned companies are broadcast in the favourite media channels. The government restricted the right to public information. Journalists are threatened with trials, and the parliament-chosen Media Council may deny the renewing of a license, as a few years ago, was the case of Klubradio.
Rule eighth: no reason to fight corruption. Once, I asked a director of Fidesz-linked think tank if he considers the system, in which donations or competitions are decided by prime minister’s personal sympathies, corruption-free? He shrugs his shoulders and said “In Central Europe, corruption has always been present. Creation of national capital was more important for this country”. Hungarians seem to like this explanation. Transparency International ranking, in which their country is considered to be more corrupt than Greece, or Montenegro, doesn’t make any impression here. The attitude towards corruption may be best summed up by the bon mot of legendary parodist Geza Hofi, who once perversely said that “corruption here is an act of respect for our traditions”. Orban knows this and senses the public mood better than anyone before him.
Where does Fidesz stop?
He is a child of the age of irrationalism, anger and flattering of masses. He proved that the public loves not the peacefulness, but the condition of a permanent electoral campaign with its idle promises, name-calling and passionate speeches. His strategy is straightforward, and it is surprising that no one used it before. Blunt propaganda in the media? Wasting state fortune on an incomparable scale? Corruption as a primary loyalty tool? Hermetic elite? Centralisation? Humiliating billion-dollar deals with Russia? Many tried, but at the last moment they backed down. Some were too weak or were blocked by institutions, most found it repugnant. They thought that society was too smart to buy it. It wasn’t.
Orban had no illusions. He backed down only once. In autumn of 2014, the government declared that it worked on the proposal of introduction of an Internet tax. In itself, it was an act of desperation, which showed how poor the condition of the state’s budget was. Over 100 hundred thousand people took to the streets, but it wasn’t the reason why Orban decided to dump the proposal. The real reason was the fact that the province has also revolted. He didn’t care for the capital city, he had bad memories from his time at the university. But the province mattered to him.
Hungarian policy experts often make a mistake by looking at the country from the perspective of Budapest, a cosmopolitan city filled with cafes. But Budapest is an island on the Hungarian plain. Orban knows that it is surrounded by the sea of obscurantism, small deals and Balkan climate. And he likes that.
He is not a sophisticated politician. His supporters – especially in Poland – see him as a prophet and look for a hidden agenda in his speeches. But truth be told, Orban doesn’t have intellectual ambitions. He despises intellectuals and is afraid of them. He likes locker room jokes and simple entertainment, such as football. He lacks the erudition of Kaczynski and brilliance and personal charm of Tusk. Instead, he has simplicity, natural ease and audacity of a village boy. It is quite telling that in a one-on-one he loses confidence, which could be seen during television debates with the leaders of socialists in 2002 and 2006. He makes a good impression when he talks to masses, though. There, he can use the language that may not be to the liking of the elites, but the one that appeals to the province. And people who live there feel that Orban is one of them.
The paradox is that Orban is regarded as a herald of a new age, but the measures he uses aren’t new at all. It is with great disbelief that many in the EU recognise that in the second decade of the 21st century, in the heart of Europe, there appeared a state that shares more similarities with satrapies of Central Asia than with Western-style democracies. Some would say, and rightly so that Orban’s idea of state is very much similar to the one of the communist years. Others would add – also not without reason – that its roots are even more in-depth and go back to Horthy’s Hungary, that is to a pre-war wreck pared down in Trianon, whose rulers put all their efforts to conserve an Austro-Hungarian model.
Power centralized in the authority of reagent or party’s secretary general, centralized economy, caste social system with alienated state-party elite, ubiquitous corruption and an ever-present conviction that it is better to “have” than to “be” – these are Hungarian state traditions from both the first and the second half of 20th century. From the pre-war years, Orban took an affection to national and Christian values. From the post-war ones: a conviction that it is easier to make deals with authoritarian Russian than with chaotic West. This is what the Orban system – a national post-communism – is built on building on the past ideas and adequate identification of social emotions.
It is too early for any final assessments – after all, Orban’s government is still in place and – barring some random incident or a whim of history – will be there at least for another term. In this apparent stability lies the gravest threat, because Orban is not content with a Tusk-style relaxed lingering. It is not an option in the system he created. In Poland, Civic Platform (PO) justified lingering with weak government, helpless bureaucracy, administrative difficulties and concern for reputation. None of these problems is present in Hungary. If not resisted, an unchecked power presses ever harder, gaining more and more ground. It can’t back down, it can’t stop. It loses its instinct, it is thirsty for blood.
It crosses every possible line. Who could have suspected that Orban would close the biggest opposition newspaper? Or perform a brutal attack on the Central European University and NGOs? These are methods used by Putin, not by the EU member states. If somebody told that Orban, who began his career as an anti-communist activist, would be much more subordinate to Moscow than his leftist predecessors, he would be considered a daydreamer. What’s going to be next? Immediately after the elections of 2018, he announced the retaliation against Hungary’s enemies. Who did he mean? Maybe investigative journalists who research his fortune?
Eight years ago Orban said: respect us, and if not, you will have Jobbik with its fascist militias and burned EU flags. You don’t have to like us, but, like it or not, we, the conservatists, are the only thing that secures you from the black plague. Today, he no longer pretends. He just doesn’t care. He became worse than Jobbik, which changed positions and moved to the pro-European ones. After the third great victory, Orban was exhilarated.
Additionally, the great policeman – the United States, which used to humiliate him openly – disappeared. Trump prefers to make deals with Orban, but, in fact, in his mercantilist thinking, Hungary is meaningless. He doesn’t care about Hungary.
An unchecked power – after taking over the whole state – goes beyond its borders. It starts innocently: with buying right-wing media in the Balkans. Orban’s businessmen took over television and news sites in Macedonia, television station and a tabloid in Slovenia. For years, they have supported Romania’s media broadcast in Hungarian. Following the dreams of Steve Bannon, they think of creating a powerful right-wing media conglomerate, with Orban in the role of the prophet.
Moreover, frozen conflicts over Hungarian minority are being revived. Dispute with Ukraine, which is as weak as never before, and didn’t help itself with the introduction of the new education bill, can only get sharper. Where will it all go? Not easy to tell. For Hungary, it would be better if someone stopped Orban and said: basta.
Translation from Polish: Łukasz Gadzała. Polish version is available here.