It’s almost impossible to keep up with all the news that one encounters daily in the Hungarian media. In the past, I tried a couple of times to cover two items in a single post, but I always ran out of time and/or space.
At present there are several exciting topics. The most important event, today’s EU summit on the refugee crisis, hasn’t ended yet, so I will have to postpone writing about it. Another intriguing piece of domestic news is Lajos Simicska’s masterful acquisition of TV2 (if it stands up in court), which Andy Vajna, one of Orbán’s favorite American-Hungarian oligarchs, was supposed to purchase. Vajna’s ownership of Hungary’s second most watched commercial television station would have meant further domination of the media by the Orbán government and Fidesz. But more about that in the coming days.
So, let’s go back to March 2015 when the Hungarian prime minister paid a visit to his old college dormitory where Fidesz was born in 1988. Yesterday I summarized and commented on Viktor Orbán’s attitude toward women and their place in politics. On Monday, October 12, 444.hu, an internet site specializing in investigative journalism, released a second article on this unofficial chat of the prime minister with the current students of the dormitory. Orbán covered a wide range of topics, often as responses to questions coming from the audience.
Discussion of a possible successor to Victor Orbán was prompted by a student who wanted to know whether the prime minister sees his possible successor among the present Fidesz leaders. The answer he received didn’t actually address the question. After all, it would have been enough to say something banal like: “There are many talented young politicians in Fidesz and surely when the time comes there will be several who would make an excellent prime minister.” Instead, Orbán claimed that he is actively looking for a successor, revealing a highly undemocratic attitude toward politics. Prime ministers are not designated by their predecessors. As one sharp-tongued blogger said, the only thing Orbán can decide is who can inherit his house in Felcsút.
That he would be actively looking for a young, talented politician who could continue his work as party chairman and prime minister is a laugh because Viktor Orbán has no intention of retiring any time soon. As he modestly announced, he still has “one or two good years left,” which should be interpreted as ten or twenty. Among world leaders, Orbán at the age of 52 is considered young. And Orbán himself ought to know that if he disappeared from politics it would mean the end of Fidesz. Without Orbán there is no Fidesz, just as with the downfall of Silvio Berlusconi his creation, Forza Italia, also disappeared.
Otherwise, he described in some detail the requisite characteristics of the perfect prime minister.
(1) Politics is a continual battle where one must be able to take the punches and hit back twice as hard. “If I stand with a large sword in my hand in the middle of a field and three men attack me, I can’t moralize or argue but must just kill all three of them. No nonsense (nincsen mese).”
(2) He must be brave. The reason for this required trait is worth analyzing. “Our big problem is that we are only as big as we are and all around us there are much bigger countries. Our natural resources after Trianon ended up outside the borders. There are twice as many Romanians as Hungarians. The Slavic people, if they unite against us, are even more numerous. If those under the crescent begin to move northward there is trouble. There is trouble if the Germans move. It is also a problem if the Russians get across the Carpathian Mountains.” An incredible worldview in 2015. Clearly, Orbán hasn’t moved from the thinking of Hungarian politicians of the interwar era when this was a fairly accurate description of the situation in Central Europe. But in 2015 when Hungary and her neighbors are members of the European Union?
(3) A good prime minister must have natural smarts. Schooling doesn’t hurt, but obviously for Orbán that is not important. What, on the other hand, is important is that he should be foxy (dörzsölt). It is also important that he can play the card game called “ulti” or “ultimó,” which seems to be a true Hungaricum. Anyone who’s interested in the game can learn about it here. It sounds pretty complicated to me. Matolcsy claims that bridge is even better for sharpening one’s mind, but bridge, which is by now an international game of decidedly foreign origin, wouldn’t be Orbán’s choice. A short time ago Orbán lost 50,000 forints (€160) to Csaba Hende, then still minister of defense. My own image of “ulti” comes from nineteenth-century novels that depicted Hungarian politicians playing the game in smoke-filled rooms.
(4) One doesn’t need deep knowledge of specific subjects because the prime minister can rely on “the valuable knowledge of the ministers and the top civil servants.” One can rightfully ask: And what happens when the foxy prime minister with smarts appoints ministers and high government officials who are dolts and who have no knowledge of the fields they are responsible for? Because, unfortunately, with very few exceptions, this is the situation now. Appointments depend on loyalty, not on ability.
In addition, one can trust only “decent Hungarian men who don’t philosophize about such things as whether there is such a thing as “Hungarian,” or “nation,” or “fatherland.” The whole thing is a waste of time. The important thing is that “we are here, we speak Hungarian, and we have to carry on.”
As for when his retirement will come, I wouldn’t keep my fingers crossed that it will be in the near future: “When I feel that I cannot come out with anything new, when I cannot correct my own mistakes, then perhaps I will have to retire.” But for the time being “I see enormous opportunities and these may last for years. That’s what I reassure myself with.”
As an example of the foxiness necessary for a prime minister, Orbán related the story of the sudden and unexpected announcement in November 2011 by György Matolcsy, who was then minister of the economy, that Hungary will, after all, turn to the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan. To refresh your memory I suggest that you read some of the posts I wrote on the subject during November 2011 and after. The one from November 18, a day after the announcement, is perhaps the most detailed.
Eventually, we all suspected that the Orbán government never wanted to negotiate a loan. It was a hoax from day one in order to quiet the market and ease the financial pressure on Hungary. Now we can learn the story from the horse’s mouth.
In Orbán’s version, the Hungarian government was close to default. The financial world had closed ranks against the country, and these financial players received assistance from the European Union. The price of a credit default swap (CDS) was “perhaps over 700, now it is 150.” The forint was falling, and the Austrian banks created a panic against the Hungarian banks. Because of these pressures, it could easily have happened that Hungary wouldn’t have been able to meet its debt obligations. According to Orbán, “we were not far.” They had only 5-6 hours. Clearly an exaggeration.
So, the foxy guys Matolcsy and Orbán held a quick conference and came up with a ruse. “We announced that, given the financial situation, we are turning to the IMF for assistance. At that point the pressure eased, and when the boot was no longer on my neck, we didn’t agree on a loan…. We announced that we were thinking of a loan called a Flexible Credit Line, which Poland got. They said ‘well, you can’t get that.’ And I said ‘I’m so sorry.’And they accepted the original budget figures, including the extra levies on banks.”
Surely, Viktor Orbán is very proud of himself. He managed to fool everybody. Well, yes, there have been other countries, most notably Turkey which used the same trick when it was in similar trouble in 2009. But too many tricks can destroy a politician’s credibility. And this particular case was not a unique occurrence in Orbán’s dealings with the outside world. I still vividly remember when through some indiscretion the world learned of Orbán’s delight that every time the Venice Commission demanded changes in the new constitution, the government managed to smuggle in other provisions, even more objectionable than the original ones.
The European Commission’s patience hasn’t run out yet, although there were several instances when we were sure that “this is the last straw.” I wonder when Orbán’s luck will run out.