Great was my surprise when I read a Reuters article the other day with the intriguing headline: “Poland’s markets losing luster as Hungary’s star shines.” The reporter noted that “it took more than three years for the ‘Orbanomics’ rally in Hungary’s markets to kick in,” but as a result of the unorthodox policies Hungary became a “star performer.” It’s too bad that the rosy picture painted in the article has little to do with reality, as the latest GDP figures indicate. Perhaps the Reuters journalist read too much government propaganda about the sterling performance of the Hungarian economy, as has been touted time and again by Viktor Orbán and slavishly repeated by his ministers, specifically by János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, and Mihály Varga, minister of economy.
János Lázár just celebrated his fiftieth “government info,” his regular Thursday afternoon marathon press conference. The government introduced these allegedly informative sessions to give the appearance of openness and transparency. Lázár has been trying to humor members of the media with his informal style, but often he ends up trading charm for arrogance. And what is even worse: Lázár is caught lying right and left. By now, journalists attending these press conferences refer to them as the “fairy tale programs.”
Lázár exudes self-confidence. He purports to be thoroughly familiar with the smallest details of every issue. If necessary, he will concoct evidence to prove to his listeners that he is absolutely on top of the situation. Such fabrications usually occur when journalists question the accuracy of one of his claims. He is ready to snap back that the information is based on hard facts when his intelligence came either from flawed media reports or from his imagination. One example was his reference to a non-existent police report dealing with the alleged molestation of teenage girls in Körmend by the newly arrived refugees. A couple of hours later the Körmend police announced that the story as reported in the media was false. A somewhat similar example, except much more serious, is Lázár’s claim that the Hungarian government has proof of George Soros’s hostile actions against the Hungarian government and that the evidence comes straight from the secret services. The result is that the parliamentary committee on national security is asking to see proof that the secret services are engaged in spying on civic groups.
And then there are the economic lies. Last week Lázár repeated the assertion, made earlier by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Mihály Varga, about the government’s remarkable reduction of the national debt. Eurostat figures, however, disprove Lázár’s assertion that the gross national debt of six years ago, which he said was 80%, has since been reduced by 10%. The fact is that at the end of December 2009 the gross national debt was not 80% but 78%, and at the end of December 2015 it was 75.3%, which is only 2.7% less. Nothing to brag about, especially in light of the tremendous amount of money confiscated from millions of ordinary Hungarian citizens’ private pension funds, allegedly to reduce the national debt.
These lies have to be perpetuated by ministers like Lázár or Varga because they cannot contradict the “boss,” who keeps repeating the same false numbers. At one point Varga found himself in a most embarrassing situation when he was giving a lecture in which he maintained that the Orbán government had reduced the gross national debt from 85% to 75% when behind him one could see the correct figures on the screen: in 2009 78%, in 2010 80.6%, in 2011 80.8%, etc. How discomfiting it had to be.
So, as we can see, Fidesz politicians are not terribly careful with their numbers. Sometimes, I assume, they simply get confused. It must be hard to keep the numbers straight when you’re keeping two or three sets of books. But they never “forget” that in 2010 Hungary was close to insolvency. They repeat this same story at every possible occasion. Last Thursday Lázár, in order to demonstrate the great accomplishments of the Orbán government, again returned to the allegedly dreadful state of the Hungarian economy after the 2010 elections. “We were not sure,” he said, “whether we’d have enough money to pay the pensioners.” Another dramatic claim that has no foundation in reality.
When György Matolcsy took over the ministry of the economy from Péter Oszkó, he himself admitted that “without further measures the deficit will be 4.3% of the GDP.” What made the situation critical was not any inherited fiscal irresponsibility but the alarming statements made by Lajos Kósa, a high Fidesz official, and Péter Szijjártó, at the time the personal spokesman of Viktor Orbán, about the disastrous financial conditions they were saddled with. In June 2010 both of them claimed that Hungary’s situation was as bad as that of Greece, then in the throes of a deep financial crisis. I assume it was Viktor Orbán, who was visiting Brussels at the time, who instructed them to exaggerate the country’s economic woes to strengthen his hand in his negotiations with José Manuel Barroso. The great ruse backfired, resulting in a disastrous fall in the forint, which then was followed by innumerable economic missteps that shook the financial world’s confidence in the Hungarian economy.
Lázár is a master of invention. He even lied about details of the Paks-II nuclear power plant. As is known, the European Commission has serious reservations about the Russian state company, Rosatom, receiving the tender to build the extension to the power plant without any competitive bidding. Lázár, without batting an eye, declared that “we cannot take responsibility for installing a different kind of technology alongside the Russian one.” Gábor Szabó of HVG suspects that Lázár told this same story to Elżbieta Bieńkowska, European Commissioner for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship, with whom Lázár met a couple of weeks ago. According to Szabó, there is general consensus among Hungarian experts that Hungary could have used French, American, or South Korean technology because Paks-II will operate completely separately from the existing plant. So, when Lázár said, after returning from Brussels where he negotiated with Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition, that the European Union is close to accepting the Hungarian side’s arguments, we’d better take this information with a very large grain of salt.