Who is Viktor Orbán?

I must admit that yesterday I was mentally and physically exhausted after trying to follow the day’s events and attempting to make sense of all that happened. In the course of my research I gained the strong impression that Viktor Orbán is no longer capable of fooling the world. He may still have a dwindling group of true believers, but according to the latest polls even that is no more than 18% of the adult population of the country.

Today being Saturday, all is quiet and therefore I can spend a day writing about the man whom György Konrád called “rossz ember,” an evil man. “Anecdote” called my attention to the interview that took place yesterday. Today I had time to watch it, and I was struck by the animation Konrád exhibited during the conversation. He is normally very low keyed, but this time he hardly let Olga Kálmán get a word in edgewise. I would like to remind the readers of Hungarian Spectrum that Konrád was one of the very few people who in the late 1970s and 1980s actively opposed the Kádár regime. He is also one of the signatories of the New Year’s message published here on January 2. Konrád reminded Olga Kálmán that in the late 1980s the Democratic Opposition categorically announced that “Kádár must go.” His message today is “Orbán must go.”

But who is this man who many fear can bring only misfortune to the country? Even people who have known him for a long time can’t quite decide what makes Viktor Orbán tick. I have a whole folder entitled “Viktor Orbán–Portraits,” and going through it I find that there are two entirely different assessments of Viktor Orbán’s career. The first and the larger group consists of those who express great astonishment at the change-over of Orbán from liberal to right-wing nationalist. According to these people Viktor Orbán was a wonderful young man of great talent who was a “radical anti-authoritarian” and who a few years later became a “radical Christian conservative.” Both descriptions were offered by Miklós Haraszti, another member of the Democratic Opposition, from 2002.

Orban 89-ben

 Orbán, the radical anti-authoritarian

Then there are those who don’t really see any huge change in Orbán over the years. One of them is Attila Csernok, an economist by training who has been writing popular history books lately. He wrote a piece in today’s Népszava in which he collected bits and pieces of opinions about Viktor Orbán and his party from the earliest days. He claims that if one carefully combs through books and memoirs written about the early history of the movement, later called the Association of Young Democrats (Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége or Fidesz), one can discover telling signs of later developments. Some people found that “his eyes expressed a desire for power instead of compassion for those in the coffins” during the speech that made Orbán famous on June 16,1989. Indeed, even his speech wasn’t about the martyrs the nation was reburying but about his generation and their suffering during the Kádár regime.

His professor, László Kéri, discovered already in 1983 that “Viktor and his friends behave exactly like the Bolsheviks.” But even his fellow Fidesz leaders believed that Viktor Orbán’s leadership style was “somewhat Stalinist.” And who said that? Lajos Kósa, today’s deputy chairman of Fidesz and long-time mayor of Debrecen. Another member, Zsuzsa Szelényi, observed that “in Viktor’s thinking there is no room for consensus, only strength, fight, and victory.”

By 1993 the Fidesz leaders demonstrated that, after all, their socialization had taken place in the Kádár regime. During one of the conferences there was a secret voting procedure. One of László Kövér’s intimates said to the rest of the gang, “Come on, let’s go and vote and I hope you don’t mind if we see what you write on the ballot.” This is how voting usually took place in the Kádár regime. Klára Ungár, another early Fidesz politician, claims that “there was really no change in Viktor. He didn’t change from one day to the next as some people would like to believe … Instead he returned to his own true self…. Back to the roots that are getting their nourishment from smallholder values.”

I should note here that in the first half of the 1990s the smallholders were very much on the right of the political spectrum. At that time I was a member of an Internet political discussion group. One of our members said that he voted for the smallholders. Why the smallholders, I asked? Because the Smallholders Party was to the far right at the time of the first democratic elections in 1990!

Although Viktor Orbán as prime minister between 1998 and 2002 looked very much like a conservative gentleman in attire and demeanor, the general impression was that “Orbán’s government … behaved vis-à-vis the economy in a plundering way that was almost far-left in character. It re-nationalized much of the economy, and siphoned off immense resources of taxpayer money to the private accounts of ‘friendly’ companies, thus ending the possibility for the public to exert any control or supervision.” Again, the quotation is from Miklós Haraszti from 2002, right after Orbán lost the elections.

Orban, miniszterelnok

The outwardly conservative prime minister, 1998-2002

And finally there is the question of Viktor Orbán’s political abilities. The usual verdict is that he is an outstanding politician. Haraszti called him “Hungary’s most gifted post-modern politician.” However, I can recall the reaction of an ordinary caller to György Bolgár’s show that was a great deal less complimentary. The woman asked on what basis everybody considers Orbán to be an “outstanding politician.” Every time he was given the opportunity to form a government he made a mess of things. His first four years as prime minister were spent alienating practically everybody at home and abroad. His aggressive policies and the whole tone of his administration frightened the population. As a result he was voted out of office. His so-called political genius can be described as a constant striving for power and to this end he is ready to use any instrument, even the most vile. Blackmailing, character assassination, lying, cheating, you name it.

These are strong words and one could be more diplomatic just as György Konrád was in January 2010 in an interview with Le Croix, a French Catholic daily. Here he called Orbán “a hard-nosed Machiavellist who learned his trade early: strategy, rhetoric, and how one grabs power. He has the tendency to be a visionary who considers himself the source of all wisdom.” According to Konrád the leaders of Fidesz, including Orbán, inherited a kind of communist mentality that declares that the party, in this case his own Fidesz, is the repository of all power.

Orban ma

Prime Minister Orbán Viktor 2010-?

Konrád in the same interview talked about Orbán’s nationalism, adding that “even within the European Union one can remain a nationalist as long as that person doesn’t move beyond the level of verbal duels.” However, Orbán in the last year or so has been doing a little more than fighting verbal duels. He has been busily building a one-party system and undoing the democratic foundations of Hungary that were achieved unexpectedly, almost miraculously in 1989-1990. And this what the European Union mustn’t allow.

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January 7, 2012 6:17 pm

No wonder! I am always convinced that Stalinists and Fascists are just the same! Two sides of the same coin. My principle of trusting or mistrusting someone consists in looking at his characters. Those who are power hungry tend to extremities, they will become either extremists on the left or right side.
Just compare the buildings erected by Stalin and Hitler: they are astonishingly similar. Furthermore, both Stalinists and Facists/extreme right wingers stress Patriotism, Nationalism, “moral” etc. Not the ideology is what is decisive, but how the politicians treat their fellow human beings is what I find most important.
I oppose and despise both: the Fascists and extreme leftists, out of the same reason: they are despicable and very uncomfortable fellow human beings. If one happens to meet them in everyday life, one should just go out of their way. If they try to take over power, one must stand up and fight them.

January 7, 2012 6:48 pm

Excellent article, Éva – informative, thought provoking and well written. As I tried to say the other day in one of my posts – Orbán is the key. I know this sounds stupidly self-evident, but it really is that simple. Whatever he does next, and over the next few weeks/months, will largely determine the future of Hungary for years. He has created the situation where he has total power and how he uses that power determines what happens to Hungary. So far he has done pretty badly, but he hasn’t done anything that can’t be reversed or will have too serious a lasting effect. But what he does next could easily be catastrophic to Hungary. Just as we are starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel and beginning to wonder if these could be his last days, this is the very time when he could be at his most dangerous. I can only see three possible paths for Hungary in the next few months: 1. Orbán concedes as little as he can to the EU/IMF, the economy recovers and things carry on much as we feared. 2. Orbán turns out to be as psychotic as I… Read more »

January 7, 2012 7:32 pm

Paul, I would say exactly the opposite, the people are the key. OV is ONE person, he cannot ‘do’ anything unless OTHER people implement what he says. That is why I concentrate on the OTHERS. ‘Just say no’, this is what comes to my mind. Viktor Orban is not the sole person responsible for what has been made of him. There has been an astonishing lack of interest in and demand for centre-liberal parties and policies. SzDSz was not considered to represent more people than some ‘intellectuals’ in Budapest. Also, there might have been a rather ‘modern’ faction in MSzP but no more. I read here on the blog that the ‘left-wing’ of Fidesz (provided it exists) is the actual ‘centre’. I think that Fidesz may have just gone there where they were in higher ‘demand’. Even if people wish to be part of ‘Europe’, my experience is that at some point one will be offered statements relating to the greatness of the Hungarian nation, how hard life has been for Hungarians throughout the centuries, how badly Hungarians are treated in the neighbouring countries and the like. The usual folklore. For me there has not yet been found a synthesis… Read more »

January 7, 2012 7:59 pm

Everybody in his right mind knows and can see that Orbán is a megalomaniac power craver with no scruples. He seems to be gifted in building a power network, although otherwise he seems to be rather uneducated and unintelligent, especially when it comes to “the economy, stupid!” Everybody can also see that this regime is not sustainable. What nobody knows is how this regime will end – with a bang or a whimper? When will it crumble? Next April or will it drag on for another couple of years? Hitler’s war was basically lost in the winter of 1941. But it dragged on for another three years (industrial production of military ware was highest in 1945). In Hungary, the FDI part of the Hungarian dual economy and about 700 000 Hungarians are just doing fine. That goes a long way. The EU mills grind very slowly, although some people have finally woken up to the scandal in their midst. The money Orbán certainly won’t get from the EU and the IMF he will steal from the freezing widow in her unheated appartment, but also from savers, consumers, home owners, street users, etc. Just look into fiscal history how many things… Read more »

January 7, 2012 8:43 pm

Kirsten – I very much hope you are right and I am wrong.
Unfortunately, I fear that isn’t likely. The way you describe and analyse Hungary, Orbán, Fidesz, etc just doesn’t match up with what I see and hear there.
He hasn’t just taken power, before then he put considerable energy into creating an environment where he could take power – totally.
And that included destroying the opposition and creating an environment where the extreme right has legitimacy, anti-Semetic views can be expressed openly, and those who might normally disagree have been sociologically pressured into becoming anti-political and pessimistic.
And an environment where he is seen (still) by millions of voters as a Messiah figure, as Hungary’s only chance of salvation. Those people will stick with him to the very end. And, if he’s removed by the hated ‘politicians’, ‘outside forces’, etc, they will not suddenly wake, as if from a bad dream.
Orbán has created a seriously dysfunctional system, but, worse, he has engineered a seriously dysfunctional society.
And if you counter this by citing the recent protests, etc in Budapest, I simply reply “look East”. Any sign of protests there? Indeed any signs of protest anywhere outside Budapest?

January 7, 2012 8:47 pm

Minusio – I didn’t see your post until after I’d posted mine, so apologies for repeating some of your points.
I agree with much of what you say, except for one critical point – I’m not at all sure a referendum, such as you propose, would be won.
Hungarians are not exactly well known for calmly analysing what went wrong and coming to balanced conclusions!

January 7, 2012 9:07 pm

Paul wrote: “He hasn’t just taken power, before then he put considerable energy into creating an environment where he could take power – totally.
And that included destroying the opposition and creating an environment where the extreme right has legitimacy, anti-Semetic views can be expressed openly, and those who might normally disagree have been sociologically pressured into becoming anti-political and pessimistic.”
He may have destroyed the internal opposition but, when certain lines were crossed, the EU became the unofficial opposition. And it is an opposition you don’t fool around with, as I’m sure Orbán is about to find out.

January 7, 2012 11:23 pm

Minusio: “But what I could imagine is a government of experts (if there any left) which would as their first decision make a constitional and legal “reset” to April 2010 which could be put to a referendum. ”
Bad idea. Fidesz propaganda was at full force even under the MSZP. Most people are misinformed an uneducated about Fidesz and its economical and other policies. MTI regularly alters the news, misinterprets foreign feedback. News from liberal sources are gagged. Almost the whole countryside believes in some foreign conspiracy that only Fidesz is fighting with.
Until the truth does not get to people any outcome of ay referendum will be based on fairy tales.

January 8, 2012 2:32 am

Excellent portrait of Orban.
Viktor Orban has become a kind of Lex Luthor character, a master manipulator and terror planner. Luthor once stated: “The road to darkness is a journey, not a light switch”.
Orban’s journey is one “from anti-communist progressive to populist xenophobe” – (FT; A Hungarian coup worthy of Putin), and someone would wonder if his ambition is to become known as the latest European dictator…

January 8, 2012 3:03 am

Orbán is still the best Hungary can have. What about the MSZP “komcsi” gang the heirs of the communists? There is a new law looming for them. If peoples can be put to trial for Nazi past in Hungary (like the case of Képíró Sándor) the same will be true for communist bloodjudges and MSZMP party members who were stained by blood or wrong doings and who were protected and honoured by MSZP.

January 8, 2012 3:29 am

Off topic, but not really. Recently, I noticed that VO is wearing only blue ties (dark, light blue, lila blue)and wonder if there is any message.
Blue as tie color is a calming, soothing color which radiates peace and tranquility. If you are going into a hostile meeting with tense parties, then Blue is an excellent color choice.
Before mid-2011 red was VO’s tie color, which represents power and symbolize wealth, strength, and passion. Many cultures also find special meaning in the color red, such as good luck.
The people around VO wear the color black, which is considered a formal color.

January 8, 2012 3:52 am

Off topic also… Viktor Orban is born on May 31, the same day as Clint Eastwood.
The Fidesz gang often complaints that nobody understands their Big Leader, while Orban actually just mixes the performances of anti-heroes and outlaws in Clintwood flicks as Revenge of the Creature/Tarantula/The Enemy Below/ A Fistful of Dollars/For a Few Dollars More/The Outlaw/The Enforcer/Firefox/Unforgiven/Blood Work/True Crime & last but not least Absolute Power.
It’s as simple as something that nobody knows :)

January 8, 2012 3:57 am

I would recommend you to read the piece of Tibor Fischer on Orbán Viktor in The Telegraph

January 8, 2012 4:03 am
January 8, 2012 4:11 am

Very nice post.

Eva S. Balogh
January 8, 2012 5:00 am

Here is a Nick Thorpe piece from the Guardian. He is trying, trying but even he has difficulty selling that all’s well. He quotes, by the way, almost all right-of center comments. Schopflin is Fidesz EP member, Ablonczy works for Heti Válasz. The only exception is Hack, but he is occasionally too optimistic in his predictions:

January 8, 2012 5:20 am

Interesting comment by FullGrill: “It is ironic that Fidesz continues to be the most popular political party (although its popularity has been cut in half to 20%), while its economic policies are going to leave Hungarians in worse shape than the incompetent Socialists, who at least were able to secure an IMF loan in 2008 and started Hungary down the only path that was available to it economically. At the same time, they have entrenched themselves in power, severely restricting democratic means for the population to seek alternative leadership in the future (what ever happened with the idea of having good policies so that you’ll get re-elected based on merit??). That Jobbik is second in popularity only goes to show how depraved the national dialogue in Hungary has become (the party really is nationalist socialist). After all, just because you are poor, does not mean you have to be extremist. Both Fidesz and Jobbik are the products of ninety years of victimhood based on Trianon and a mythos of nationalistic exceptionalism that goes beyond patriotism and in its ugly extreme has brought about anti-Semitic and anti-Gypsy rhetoric and action. Now it has brought about anti-democratic and anti-Europe rhetoric and action… Read more »

January 8, 2012 5:44 am
January 8, 2012 5:51 am

I see we are attracting trolls from other sites now. Another sign that the end-game is approching?
I love the way that ‘Eric’ posts Fischer’s Telegraph article as a means of proving his point. No troll has ever blown their ‘credibility’ so fast!

January 8, 2012 5:56 am

Paul, if you create an environment where you can take over power totally and you are not about to shoot people by the thousands, you have to use other means. This is what I am speaking about (so I think we just emphasise different points). OV has taken over without any fatal victims. Just by people complying. I am fascinated by this part. OV’s character can do harm to the nation, but it would not be the case in the way it is harming it now if people were not supporting him. Minusio wrote: ‘the opposition is completely unprepared’, which is in some way similar to what I wrote. Arguing that there is a part of the population that is not politically sophisticated cannot explain it as these were around also before, during MSzP rule. It is the politically interested and reasonably informed who are caught ‘by surprise’ and unprepared. Unprepared that OV will use the insufficient interest of MSzP for it’s own past (entirely valid argument if only his party were not full of MSzMP people too, and unable to face up to other periods in the past) combined with the national feelings of Hungarians. As it will be… Read more »

January 8, 2012 6:13 am

Thanks for the link, Éva – intersesting to see Thorpe struggling so hard not to criticise Orbán.
One point you may have missed though – although this is on the Guardian web site, the article was actually published in today’s Observer (the ‘sister’ Sunday paper to the Guardian).
Being one of the established Sunday papers (and I think the oldest in the UK), the Observer has a bigger circulation than the Guardian. And, because it’s a Sunday paper, it tends to be read in more depth.
A pity then that they chose the Thorpe piece for the Observer and not the excellent article by Helen Pidd in yesterday’s Guardian.

Karl Pfeifer
January 8, 2012 6:20 am

Will Orbán resign like Gyurcsány did? I do not believe. He will try to blackmail the EU like Austria did 2000. Will EU be blackmailed? The majority belongs to conservative parties. In Austria our conservative ÖVP is criticized not to do enough to protect the Austrian banks which are subject to discrimination in Hungary. If Austrian taxpayers have to pay the losses of Austrian banks, the ÖVP will not even have 20% voters. ÖVP is already prepared to be the junior partner of the extreme right FPÖ. FPÖ is full of admiration for Orbán.
Germany will play a crucial role. The German Media from the left (TAZ) to the liberal-conservative papers like FAZ and Die Welt are fed up with Orbán.
So Orbán can take the risk and try to blackmail, but he has not the same chances as Schüssel in 2000.
So probably he will capitulate and try to sell his capitulation as a great victory.

January 8, 2012 6:21 am

Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi told a few days ago: “The world will never understand our pains and spiritual wounds.”
To me -currently 950 km from Hungary- it seems that the pain arises from an oversized national ego & a lack of historical knowledge.
And hey, the Treaty of Trianon was passed 92 years ago – it’s time to get a grip on reality & become accountable to yourself!

Eva S. Balogh
January 8, 2012 6:28 am

Robert Johnson: “Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi told a few days ago: “The world will never understand our pains and spiritual wounds.”
Great minds!!! I am planning to write about Martonyi and this speech of his today. It will not be a kind post.

January 8, 2012 6:30 am

“Thanks for the link, Éva – intersesting to see Thorpe struggling so hard not to criticise Orbán.”
I heard this week that Thorpe wife could be accurately placed on the more radical wing of Hungarian conservatism. Which is perfectly her right ans own business obviously but I think her influence is apparent in his own material.
Which is fine when he’s doing pieces for the Observer but not fine when he is doing material for the BBC as it operates under a very strict code of impartiality.

Joseph Simon
January 8, 2012 6:39 am

So much nonsense! Advice to Eva: ne foglalkozz politikával. Take up knitting instead. Hungary’s problems are immense. Just one example: many doctors have already left. Recently two thousand seven hundred gave notice to the government of their intention to leave, because of low wages. The old industrial regions of Hungary are economic wastelands, the result of decades of misguided policies. And the country is poor, with limited resources. Orbán is trying to shake up the country, restoring some confidence. No one in sight to do better.

Eva S. Balogh
January 8, 2012 7:40 am

Karl Pfeifer: “Will EU be blackmailed? The majority belongs to conservative parties.”
Yes, but the European People’s Party changed its tune. They say that they will support the Commission whatever its decision will be against Orbán. That’s something, don’t you think?

January 8, 2012 7:46 am

@Joseph Simon
If Orban was interested in restoring confidence in the country then why is he placing Fidesz Kontrol in charge of every hospital? We all know the basic result of this approach in Hungary is to ensure money flows into the pockets of party loyalists and not the patients or doctors. Been this way for the past 20+ years. Which is the crux of the health care problem in Hungary. This is why you have to “tip”(bribe) your doctors and nurses for proper care. Orban is doing nothing to fix health care. He is not putting transparency in the health care system. He is not putting competent professional administrators in charge of the hospitals. He is actually making the original problem far worse by institutionalizing it in law and thus destroying any remaining confidence. In the future only people who are party loyalist will be get proper care. By his actions Orban is the Communist Leader Hungary has ever seen. I guess if someone is fundamentally incompetent, is a natural born sycophant and is on the Fidesz payroll then this is not such a bad thing…

January 8, 2012 8:24 am

Joseph Simon wrote: “So much nonsense! Advice to Eva: ne foglalkozz politikával. Take up knitting instead. Hungary’s problems are immense.” So, with such immense problems, why didn’t you suggest to your master that he take up politics instead of piddling around with non-issues? Why did Orbán waste the first part of his mandate re-naming stuff? Why did he waste his time stirring up trouble in Slovakia and Romania? How are those ethnic Hungarians helping Hungary today? Why did he waste time attacking liberal artists and intellectuals when there were so many more important things to do? Why did Orbán waste his time limiting the rights of the LGBTQ community? There is no threat to the economy by two guys getting married to each other! Why did Orbán embarrass Hungary when Hungary held the EU presidency? How helpful were those nationalist gimmicks? Did it help reduce the debt that has been increasing for such a long time? And finally, your comment to Eva to take up knitting instead of politics is indicative of the rotting mind-set of too many Hungarians. My dear Joseph Simon, have you not noticed that it’s been men who have been in charge since forever? But it… Read more »

January 8, 2012 8:25 am

I really am going to throw down three genuine anecdotes here. I am not going to say anything about about them: perhaps somebody else can add to these. — About 15 years ago I remember examining (in a language examination, for the record)alongside a woman with whom I was only faintly familiar as a colleague. The examinees had 15 mniutes to talk about various social science topics. After one of the examinees had completed the 15 minutes and left the examination room, my fellow examiner became very irritated. “Did you hear what what he (the examinee) said about Orbán?”. I replied that the language was alright and the interpretation seemed quite balanced (not that we were supposed to give marks on the basis of opinions…strictly just the language!). My colleague then began to tell me that, from what she claimed were very reliable sources, Orbán had regular sessions for what I supposed one might call “megalomania management”. At the time I did not attach much import to this. What do you fellow commentors think? Can anyone add to this? (Don’t forget, the British public were quite shocked to find out more about the mental state of one-time UK Prime Minister,… Read more »