Orbán’s Hungary is haunted by its ghosts

The Magyar leader revels in his role as Europe’s Bad Boy, but he has failed to end a long Hungarian history of corruption and stagnation

Gerald Frost

Viktor Orbán: Self-confident leader of a sad and beautiful country (©Mateusz Wlodarczyk/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Hungary, complex and full of contradictions, is not an easy country to understand, and it is not clear that it wants to be understood. Its sense of isolation and its linguistic singularity have led to a wariness of foreigners which is compounded by a long history of military failure and tragic alliances. Arthur Koestler declared his fellow Hungarians to be the loneliest people on earth, adding for good measure, “To be a Hungarian is a particular neurosis.”

Hungary’s favourite poet, Sándor Petőfi, declared: “We are the most forsaken people on earth.” Few understand the fears and anxieties of ordinary Hungarians as well as Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister. It is this ability combined with his natural combativeness which explains his eagerness to pick fights with other EU leaders on an almost weekly basis. The supremely self-confident leader of a sad and beautiful country which famously lacks national self-confidence, Orbán is well aware that standing up to Brussels plays well with the electorate, notwithstanding the fact that Hungary is the biggest recipient of EU funds in per capita terms and has broken all records for infringing the rules governing their allocation. In typical vein he has recently implied that any outcome in next year’s general election other than a victory for Fidesz, the party which he created and has dominated since its inception, would represent a victory for foreign interests bent on the destruction of the Hungarian state. Such rhetoric is likely to be ratcheted up as we get closer to a campaign which Fidesz spokesmen have warned will be the dirtiest free election the country has known; and indeed, by using a government-friendly TV station to allege that Gábor Vona, the leader of Hungary’s second-biggest party, Jobbik, engaged in homosexual orgies while a student, Fidesz has already ensured that the campaign will fully live up to its low expectations.

Shortly after arriving in Budapest in 2013 to help establish a new political think-tank, I attended a lunch at which one of Orbán’s senior advisers told an interesting story. Just a few days earlier, he said, a left-wing journalist had submitted the draft of a highly critical book on the Orbán government to the prime minister’s office with a request that it should be checked for factual errors. Orbán had spotted the manuscript lying on a desk and had taken it home with him. Without quarrelling with the author’s critical judgments Orbán had gone through it correcting numerous errors of fact. Later, he asked his staff to find out when the book was to appear and, when inquiries revealed that the author was experiencing difficulty in getting the book published on a basis which made the publication financially viable, he asked his staff to find ways of providing financial support for his left-wing critic so that the book might appear. The prime minister’s adviser, suspecting correctly that I would be surprised by Orbán’s quixotic behaviour, concluded : “Are we a complex people, or are we a complex people?”

Such contradictions abound in a country in which individual brilliance is so often combined with collective failure. Hungarian society is indeed complex, which is one reason why its affairs are poorly reported. Supporters of Fidesz customarily attribute hostile coverage of its affairs to the liberal bias of the international media, a claim which may in part be true, but it is also the case that Fidesz and its leader frequently act in a way that would seem to provide confirmation of the allegations that they pay American PR companies to refute, namely that Orbán is an increasingly authoritarian far-right-wing figure bent on destroying democracy and civil society. Visiting journalists are apt to remind their readers of Senator John McCain’s description of Orbán as a “neo-fascist”and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s half-jocular greeting to Orbán of “Mr Dictator”.

Orbán’s many critics might find it easier to understand him if they looked beyond the clichés. It is most certainly true that Orbán has distanced himself from his early commitment to playing a leading role in integrating the Central European states into a wider Atlantic community based on the market economy, democracy and the rule of law. But the “far-right” label does as much to mislead as to inform; it is doubtful, for instance, whether Orbán’s highly interventionist and increasingly centralised economic policy, for example, can be so described. This has included bank nationalisation combined with anti-banker rhetoric, the almost complete state monopolisation of energy utilities, which has thereby reversed previous governments’ encouragement of foreign private investment in the sector, and the banning of private majority shareholding, both foreign and domestic, in environmental utilities such as water, wastewater and municipal waste management. Waste management is not a subject to which political analysts are apt to pay much attention, but a recent study of Hungary’s new waste management system show that this effectively removes powers from local authorities and is more centralised even than in Stalin’s day. One consequently feels a tinge of sympathy for Tamas Molnar, one of the leaders of Hungary’s fractious and ineffective socialist party, when he complains that that it is becoming difficult to devise credible populist left-wing economic policies because Orbán has already beaten the socialists to it.

Orbán does not describe himself as a conservative, but shares the belief held by many conservatives that the institutions of international co-operation and the liberal ideology which sustains them are deeply flawed and in need of drastic revision or replacement. He is not entirely consistent about this — he has recently given rhetorical backing for the creation of a European army — but he believes that his conviction that the principal actors on the world stage will inevitably be nation-states is being demonstrated by the onward march of events.

On the issue of immigration he has surely been proved correct: EU policy is now in tatters. Few European leaders believe that new life can be breathed into Schengen, and an increasing number accept, however reluctantly, that the management of immigration inflows must be left to individual states. If they have not already done so, this will inevitably mean following Orbán’s example of fortifying their borders, as indeed Austria and France have done. The Hungarian leader’s deep conviction on this issue has coincided with self-interest. Hungary’s relationship with Germany is by far the most important of its economic ties, but had Orbán not acted swiftly and decisively to oppose Merkel’s initial open-door policy by blocking the arrival of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants seeking to enter Hungary via Croatia and Serbia from 2015 onwards he and his party would have been swept aside, and its imperfect democratic institutions with them. The consequences for Central Europe, where majority opinion strongly favours Orbán’s approach on the issue, would have been calamitous — and the resultant shock waves sufficient to produce a greater crisis in the EU than any it has known during its crisis-strewn history. It is one of the many ironies of the present situation that Europe’s Bad Boy should have acted in a way that helped save it from the consequences of its liberal internationalist instincts. The Western journalists who poured into Budapest in the late summer of 2015 concentrated on the often pitiable plight of the migrants, ignoring the physical and administrative problems their huge surge presented and the government’s determined attempt to uphold the Dublin Agreement (while largely ignoring the unreasonable demands of the migrants in seeking to use Hungary as a conduit to the nation of their choice as well as instances of violence and lawlessness). But they failed utterly to grasp the enormity of what was at stake.

None of this, however, is to justify his campaign of vilification of George Soros, the man who once provided Orbán with a scholarship to Oxford and who symbolises the liberal internationalism which Orbán despises, or indeed the pursuit of his vendetta against the financier through moves to close the Central European University, which Soros created and continues to fund.

Orbán is sometimes compared to Putin, but a more apt comparison may be with János Kádár, the Hungarian Communist chief who helped the Soviets to crush the 1956 revolution but who subsequently enjoyed a considerable degree of popularity within Hungary during his three decades of office. Indeed, Kádárism may still be the country’s strongest political tradition, as one perceptive Hungarian analyst has suggested.

As during the Kádár era, the authority of the leader remains unquestioned within a highly-disciplined party that gives every impression of lacking splinter groups, factions and dissent. The interests of the party and leader are identified with those of the nation; there is consequently a marked tendency to regard those who oppose the leader or party not merely as political opponents but as enemies of the people and the nation, and to treat them accordingly, which is how Orbán’s Communist predecessor regarded matters, only more so. Moreover, Orbán’s has an innate understanding of the public’s yearning for the stability and predictability of the Kádár years of goulash socialism, a period during which other central and east Europeans experienced socialism without the goulash.

This, however, is combined with a recognition of the enduring public regard and admiration for Admiral Horthy, the Hungarian regent from 1920-1944, among many Hungarians. Horthy struggled to restore lost Hungarian land, pride and identity following the Treaty of Trianon of 1920 which forced his country to cede two-thirds of its territory to its neighbours, but went on to forge an alliance with Nazi Germany when a determined attempt to bring about an alliance with the Western powers proved impossible. Orbán’s recent praise for Horthy’s patriotism, leadership and statesmanship has puzzled many observers since it did not appear to serve any obvious political purpose, but his exploitation of public attitudes to the two longest-serving Hungarian leaders of modern times is an important key to his political success. As Petho Tibor, a contributor to Magyar Nemzet, the Hungarian daily, put it: “The feelings of nostalgia for Horthy and Kádar are not mutually exclusive . . . they splendidly co-exist in the average Hungarian soul.”

The enduring regard for Horthy among elements of Hungarian society may reflect the fact that the Horthy era was one of rare national independence, a period of economic and industrial advance about which Hungarians may feel pride. It is understandable that Orbán should wish to acknowledge his contribution to history. But the Horthy years also witnessed the introduction of numerus clausus, restrictions placed on the entry of Jewish students into higher education, of which there was no mention in Orbán’s speech. It was inevitable, therefore, that Orbán’s description of Horthy as “an exceptional statesman” would provoke an outcry from Jewish groups within Hungary, despite the “clarification” issued subsequently by the foreign minister.

Is Orbán anti-Semitic? During the first Orbán government, in 2001, Hungary established the Memorial Day for the Hungarian Victims of the Holocaust and the Holocaust Museum. During his second administration, in 2012, the Fundamental Law entered into force, recognising Hungarian Jewry as an inseparable part of the Hungarian nation. The Orbán government also announced what it described as a zero-tolerance policy on anti-Semitism, effectively banning paramilitary groups intimidating Jewish and Roma citizens. Further, Orbán has acknowledged, and apologised for, the role of the Hungarian state in the Holocaust. Recently he has warmly welcomed the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who shares his obsessive hatred of George Soros and the activities of his Open Society institutes.

Moreover, although charges of anti-Semitism against Orbán persist, it is impossible to find a single statement or direct action that could be so characterised. At the same time, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he is perfectly willing to exploit anti-Semitism in others for political advantage even if not harbouring such sentiments himself. Last year, more than 40 holders of the Knight’s Cross, Hungary’s third-highest honour, returned their medals when the award was given to the journalist, publicist and Fidesz co-founder Zsolt Bayer, whose views on Jewish issues and on Hungary’s Roma minority — “animals with whom it is impossible to co-exist” — have caused widespread offence, while an award for journalistic excellence to the Hungarian broadcaster Ferenc Szaniszlo seemed even more extraordinary given the latter’s rabid anti-Semitic and anti-Roma opinions. Following protests from the Israeli and American ambassadors, the Hungarian government asked for the award to be given back. Szaniszlo meekly obliged.

Orbán is too acute a political operator not to grasp the political capital such gestures, even when subsequently rescinded, can yield: failure to exploit the vein of xenophobia which runs through Hungarian society would hand an advantage to Jobbik, which has a long record of anti-Semitism and anti-Roma activism. When he describes Soros as “an international financial speculator, ” as he repeatedly does, he is fully aware of the thoughts that are likely to pass through the minds of many. Similarly, he cannot have been unaware of the likely fate of the thousand government posters depicting Soros’s face which urged support for its anti-immigrant stand, upon which anti-Jewish slogans were daubed. Such are the vagaries of Hungarian politics that Jobbik has recently cleaned up its act: there are no more anti-Semitic or anti-Roma declarations. In a bid to widen its appeal, especially among the young, the party leader’s rhetoric is not more nationalistic in tone than that of Orbán, perhaps less so, while those within the party deemed guilty of anti-Roma sentiment have been disciplined or demoted; no one knows for sure for sure how genuine the transformation is, or how long it will last, or whether it will achieve its purpose.

If the accusation that Orbán is anti-Semitic requires a comprehensive response the charge of fascism can be swiftly dealt with: Orbán is insufficiently principled to merit the term. He is careful to ensure that political ideology, in which he may have some superficial intellectual interest, plays no part in his deliberations or in his policies; he is both nationalist and pragmatist, one who believes that it does not pay to take too high a view of his fellow countrymen (many of whom are all too ready to believe that the world is against them), and in whom the desire to win and to slay enemies is unusually pronounced even for a front-line political leader.

The attempts to stifle the media which have so outraged Western commentators are not part of a carefully orchestrated plan of press control or part of a wider bid to build a corporate state, but a reflection of the deep animosity and unresolved conflict that exist between the country’s political parties and social groupings, along with the ingrained Fidesz habit of seizing all opportunities to silence and defeat enemies. Such attempts have not invariably achieved their objectives, however. When under pressure from the government the owners of Origo, a popular online news portal, pressed the editor to adopt a more Fidesz-friendly line, he and seven of his colleagues resigned in order to launch an investigative news portal called Direkt36 with the aim of revealing graft in high places, economic cronyism and the abuse of power. So far, Direkt36 has exposed corruption in Budapest’s municipal government, publishing embarrassing details of state contracts won by companies owned by members of Orbán’s family, including his father, brothers and son-in-law, and of a prostitution ring that reportedly catered to legislators and senior government officials, as well as describing the use of offshore accounts by MPs.

Corruption is a serious problem throughout central and eastern Europe; according to Attila Chikán, an economist and former Hungarian economics minister, it constitutes the biggest single constraint on Hungary’s economic development. Together with the growing centralisation of economic decision-making, it explains why the country’s economy has grown less rapidly than those of other Central and East European countries, despite the fact that it was the best-off in per capita terms when Communism collapsed and initially attracted higher levels of foreign investment than its Communist neighbours. When casting judgments on a society in which it was necessary to offer a “gift” in order to get one’s child medical treatment, or to receive the degree for which one had worked, or to obtain benefits to which there was a legal entitlement, Western observers should perhaps go easy on expressions of moral indignation. It is the direction of travel which matters.

In Hungary the direction of travel is far from encouraging, as the tolerance shown towards ministers and officials who have found ingenious ways of continuing their business careers while in office, as well as Hungary’s falling position in Transparency International’s corruption league table, bear depressing witness. Earlier this year, government spokesmen brushed aside Hungary’s poor ranking in the latter by suggesting that this was due to the malign influence of Orbán’s arch-enemy George Soros, who is known to have contributed to TI’s funding and who has described Hungary as “a mafia state”. But it is not necessary to be an admirer of Soros to acknowledge the mounting evidence that the country’s public procurement system suffers from endemic corruption, and that this discourages the foreign investment which the country still badly needs if the pitifully low level of wages — among the lowest in the EU — are to rise. Between 65 and 70 per cent of public tenders are believed to involve corrupt transactions, with the government handing out public funds to those with close ties to the ruling party. More than half of companies expect to give “gifts” to procurement officials to secure contracts.

Ordinary Hungarians are not surprised when examples of corruption come to light; according to a recent opinion poll, 60 per cent of voters believe their government to be corrupt, but this has not stopped them voting for it, and it is unlikely to stop them doing so in the future. Such is the deep streak of pessimism which runs through Hungarian society, reflected in the pervasive can’t-do philosophy that one encounters almost everywhere — as well as in one of the highest suicide rates in Europe — that most assume that business success is likely to be rooted in criminality or nepotism, and that life generally — not just economic life — is bound to be a zero-sum affair.

Corruption feeds the national sense of despair, discourages trust (a commodity which is in short supply in all ex-Communist states), encourages the departure of many of the best and brightest — remarkably, London is now Hungary’s second-biggest city and according to Hungary’s Central Statistical Office a further 360,000 Hungarians are actively planning to leave in the next two years — while also discouraging foreign investors.

It was not always like this. For a brief few years in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Communism, it was possible to believe that despite short term hardships, inflation and rising unemployment, the process of political transition would mean that Hungary would rapidly take strides to catch up with its prosperous Austrian neighbour, while establishing a system of robust democratic pluralism. The government headed by Jozsef Antall from 1990-94 gave grounds for hope, but subsequent governments, of both of Left and Right, have not delivered the dream. Indeed, it is impossible to work in modern-day Hungary without recognising the emergence of a new post-Communist nomenklatura, akin to the privileged members of the Communist elites first described by Milovan Djilas in The New Class: individuals whose wealth and prospects are determined by their place in the party hierarchy. Its members occupy the top positions in public administration, journalism, broadcasting, the boards of think-tanks, research organisation, employers’ organisations and even sports bodies. Societies, clubs, institutes which describe themselves as NGOs all too often turn out on inspection to exist only because they are propped up by government. Genuine non-governmental organisations, most poorly funded, do exist, but those which criticise aspects of government policy may find that their financial backers come under pressure to withdraw their support.

Historically, Hungary’s middle class has been small and weak; when Communism collapsed it was widely recognised that it would need to grow in size and confidence if the country’s new political institutions were to be strengthened and civic consciousness to grow. Orbán set out to create an expanded middle class, not by allowing it the space in which to flourish and grow, but through top-down state patronage, handouts and favours — all in return for political loyalty. Those who have not met the loyalty test have mostly found themselves excluded.

The case against Orbán is not that he is authoritarian, or that he is right-wing, or that his attempts to protect his country’s borders are harsh or inhumane, but that he has failed to use his considerable political gifts to discourage tendencies which ensure that in important respects modern Hungary bears an unfortunate resemblance to the system from which, as a young man, he promised to rescue it.

A vibrant and expanding economy with a growing population, such as those which exist in parts of Asia, may not be held back much by a degree of graft and cronyism, although Singapore, which largely eradicated these under Lee Kuan Yew, has prospered more than any. The corrosive impact of these on a society which is shrinking demographically, has failed to come to terms with its troubled past and, perversely, places its reliance on big government and on politicians whom it nevertheless believes to be corrupt, is quite a different matter.

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