Although the financial problems of Greece have been the talk of the financial world for almost a year, Viktor Orbán spoke of them relatively rarely and when he did the emphasis was on the evils of sovereign debt. His government’s chief aim is, he often said, is lowering Hungary’s debt load. The sooner the better. Otherwise, the European Union’s struggle with the problem of Greece left the Hungarian prime minister cold. High level negotiations concerning the fate of Greece began around October 10 but I found no mention of the problem by the prime minister until it was time for him to depart for Brussels to attend the summit.
Orbán’s tentative answers to the crisis were simple-minded and misleading. On October 22, on the eve of the summit, he told Hungarian newspapermen in Brussels that in his opinion it was not fair that banks demand to be bailed out on taxpayers’ money. The banks bought Greek bonds “in order to increase their profits” and here is the result. They are the ones who should shoulder the losses. So, never mind that dozens of banks might go belly up, it was their fault. Interestingly enough, Orbán conveniently forgot about the time when his government had to bail out Hungary’s state-owned Postabank in 2000. He again stressed the superiority of Hungary over other European countries because “although we have many problems, behind us is a solid two-thirds unity and social harmony.” Well, on the same day these words were uttered there were 100,000 people on the street demonstrating against the government.
The next day Orbán gave another interview, also from Brussels, to Magyar Rádió. In this interview he attacked the banks even more vehemently. European countries “are courting the banks because if we don’t fulfill their expectations, they don’t give us money from which we can pay off our debts.” Quite aside from the primitiveness of his description of the situation, he was also misleading the Hungarian public. The Hungarian government hasn’t given a penny to banks; instead it took billions and billions from them as extra levies.
According to Orbán every country has to deal with its own banks. Each country must find its own solution to the problem. Hungary, for example, has often employed “solutions different from those offered by other European countries.” In any case, Hungary is in an enviable position because–and here comes another piece of misinformation–in Hungary there is “only one big Hungarian bank, OTP,” which is in excellent shape. Moreover, he added, “if there were problems the Hungarian budget could handle the situation.” First of all, OTP is not a Hungarian bank in the truest sense of the word. All that light blue signifies the shares of foreign investors. The Hungarian government owns 0.5% (see the slightly darker blue wedge).
In the same interview he misled the Hungarian public by talking as if the eurozone countries expected those members of the European Union who are outside the eurozone to contribute to the bailout of banks that are in trouble as a result of the Greek crisis. He spoke as if his mission in Brussels would be to fight for the interests of Hungarian taxpayers. As we know, that eventuality was never on the table.
On the same day he gave another press conference to Hungarian journalists in which he expressed his regret that he had to spend the national holiday abroad, but “our country is not in the position yet to fix the date and timetable of European politics.” Therefore he was obliged to conform and live with it. Otherwise he outlined a grim picture of European economic development and said that Hungary “will have to take independent steps that will ensure its economic growth.” In brief, instead of economic cooperation Hungary will seek economic and financial independence. He added that Hungary cannot count on anybody and in fact his government wants to go it alone, “not to be dependent on the European Union or the IMF. “We stand on our own two feet, we are able to finance the country from the international money markets.” A week later Hungary was planning to sell 40 billion forints worth of government bonds and for the first time in the longest while there were no buyers. So much for standing on their own feet.
After the summit, on Sunday night, in an interview on MTV Orbán again attacked the banks. He mentioned that they had already received money in 2008 but “we must have our doubts that the money received was well spent because here they are again knocking on our doors.”
By October 24 Orbán at last made it clear that the banks in Hungary didn’t receive a penny. In fact, they are the ones who contribute mightily to the fledgling Hungarian economy. But, they shouldn’t be praised because “the foreign banks are just bringing back the money they earlier carried abroad.” In parliament he used even stronger words by emphasizing that “no bank is irreplaceable.”
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It was at this point that the lights started to flicker and I was afraid to continue writing. In fact, I lost my intended last paragraph several times.
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With every word he uttered Orbán fueled Hungarians’ antagonism toward the banks, especially foreign banks. Speaking in the first person plural he announced that “it is not normal that we have to keep afloat banks that are very profitable.” Again, the impression he was conveying was that the poor Hungarian taxpayers are paying for the sins of the banks.
Orbán left the summit on October 23 even more convinced than before that Hungary must move away from the European Union whose mechanism is “slow and cumbersome.” Hungary’s dependence on the European Union “today is a disadvantage.” Hungary mustn’t be afraid of “brave and new solutions.” One mustn’t care what others say “especially those who are responsible for the indebtedness of Europe and Hungary.”
On October 27 Orbán was in Brussels again. The eurozone countries put the finishing touches on the deal on how to handle the Greek crisis. The prime ministers of those countries that don’t belong to the seventeen-member eurozone could go home early because their presence was not needed. Thus, the Hungarian prime minister was also on his way home, but just before embarking he gave an interview to the MTV reporter. I’m no stickler for etiquette or protocol but an untied necktie dangling, a bottle of beer in front of him and sitting in an unbecoming sprawling position was too much for me. But more importantly what he had to say was really outlandish. First, he wanted to make light of his “dismissal.” It will be good to sleep in his own bed, he announced. Just like last May when the Eastern Partnership Summit was cancelled he acted as if he were actually pleased because the summit would have created a huge traffic jam in Budapest!
And on top of everything else, he talked as if he were singlehandedly responsible for averting the non-eurozone countries’ financial contribution to the common cause. So much for Orbán’s truthfulness.