Tag Archives: Paul Lendvai

Paul Lendvai, Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman. A review

Paul Lendvai latest book, which just appeared in English translation, Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman (London: Hurst & Co. and, soon to be released, Oxford University Press, 2017) is much more than the title suggests. It is a masterfully executed, concise yet complete political history of Hungary from the late 1980s to today. Anyone who’s interested in Hungarian affairs should have this book on hand. In it one can find almost everything that is critical to understanding the admittedly complicated and sometimes baffling recent events in the country. Viktor Orbán is the focus of the book; about half of its 250 pages deals with the Orbán years since 2010.

Although the book was released in England only a couple of weeks ago, several glowing reviews have already appeared, which annoyed the Orbán regime to no end. Zoltán Kovács, the  talented communication maverick in charge of misleading public opinion abroad, has not read the book yet, but he already attacked Paul Lendvai by going after The Financial Times’s reviewer for daring to call Orbán “lord and master of Hungary” when, in fact, he is a three-time democratically elected prime minister. I can well imagine what will happen when they get to the actual text.

The picture of Orbán that emerges from the pages of this book is not pretty. Lendvai acknowledges Viktor Orbán’s extraordinary talents as a politician, but what lies behind his success? Here are a few descriptions, some from Paul Lendvai himself and others from observers and people who knew Orbán personally. Ever since his student days an “absolute will to power molded his character.” One of his college friends described him as “domineering and intolerant.” There was also “an expediency about him, one without any principles.” He is a man “untroubled by any sense of scruple.” He is someone who with “grim determination and clever tactics” exploits the weaknesses of his opponents. He is a reckless opportunist with an “insatiable greed for power and money.” Igor Janke, a Polish journalist who wrote an admiring biography of Orbán (Forward!: The Story of Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban), cited unnamed staff members who described him as “a ruthless chess player of power politics, who has concentrated immense power in his own hands, power that he is unwilling to share, and that is extraordinarily dangerous. Inwardly he is full of passions which are not visible on the outside. Plays chess with people around him but in such a way that they cannot endanger his own position. He takes good care that all substantive decisions remain in his hands and he is not choosy about his methods.”

I was pleased to see that Lendvai dwelt at some length with Orbán’s troubled relations with those members of the Budapest intelligentsia who from the late 1970s had been involved in clandestine activities against the Kádár regime. These people came from professional families. They were well-groomed socially as well as intellectually, and they originally acted as tutors of sorts–politically, socially, and intellectually–to the young students who came from smaller towns or even villages. In 1993 Orbán said in an interview that “I am not a sensitive intellectual of the twentieth generation,” and “there is in me perhaps a roughness brought up from below. That is no disadvantage as we know that the majority of people come from below.” As Lendvai writes, these young students’ “initial admiration for the brilliance of some liberal and left-wing intellectuals evolved over the years into an aversion fed by inferiority complexes, later into almost open feelings of hatred.” This aversion eventually developed into “disdain for cosmopolitan Europhiles.” A “turning away from liberal positions and to the espousal of grassroots nationalist values, in contrast to the ‘alien’ left-liberal governments, has run like a thread through subsequent debates, peaking with Orbán’s open avowal of ‘illiberal democracy’ in the summer of 2014.”

Orbán grew up in irreligious surroundings. He was baptized, but as far as we know he didn’t receive any kind of religious education and refused to have a church wedding when he and Anikó Lévai got married in 1986. But once he moved Fidesz from the left to the right, his contacts with church dignitaries intensified. It was at this time that he met Zoltán Balog, the Hungarian Reformed minister who apparently took it upon himself to give religious guidance to Orbán, who had discovered that a knowledge of religion was essential for his political career. He apparently told Balog: “I was not aware that the Church is so important, such an important part of Hungarian life. I cannot talk to the people about politics if I don’t understand that!” So, it seems that it was politics that led to religiosity. Are these feelings genuine? It is hard to tell. József Debreczeni, the biographer who perhaps knows him best and whom Lendvai quotes, doubts it. As he says, “Viktor Orbán is a man who almost automatically believes in the veracity of whatever he considers to be politically useful to him.”

As I said, this book is much more than a biography of Viktor Orbán. It is a masterful analysis of almost 30 years of Hungarian political history. Starting with a short description of the late Kádár years, Lendvai covers the key aspects of political life during this period. Lendvai’s personal contacts with the political actors are immensely valuable, whether this comes in the form of an interview with Kádár or impressions of Ferenc Gyurcsány. His harshest words are reserved for Orbánism, but he doesn’t spare the socialists either. He reports on conversations with Gyurcsány, during which “he tore the Socialist party to pieces, deriding it as a party incapable of deciding whom and what it represented.” Conversations with Gyurcsány, with his staffers and secret enemies, as well as with independent commentators, confirmed his suspicions that “the Socialist party was not one of common convictions, but rather a disgusting snake pit of old Communists and left-wing careerists posing as Social Democrats.”

Throughout the book Lendvai carefully dissects Orbán’s methods of elaborately constructing  a “bastion of power” that is “impregnable to external assault.” Lendvai agrees with the general view that after two overwhelming electoral victories “the Orbán regime cannot be defeated under ‘normal’ circumstances by any free and fair election in the foreseeable future.”

Here I could cover only snippets from this remarkable book, which I highly recommend. I especially urge “Brussels bureaucrats” to read it; they could learn a lot from Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman.

October 30, 2017

Negotiations between MSZP and Együtt 2014 began while left of center public figures gather in Szárszó

This weekend was dominated by the Hungarian opposition, a rare event nowadays. First, the long-awaited negotiations between Gordon Bajnai’s Együtt 2014-PM (E14) and the Attila Mesterházy-led MSZP began. I complained earlier that the scheduled meeting was fixed for Friday. Another week wasted. Then in the last minute it was again postponed due to the death of Gyula Horn, former MSZP prime minister internationally known for his role in the unification of Germany by allowing tens of thousands of East German refugees to leave Hungary and join their compatriots in the West. Naturally, MSZP MPs wanted to be present at the eulogies in parliament honoring their former leader.

So, it was only on Saturday morning that the MSZP delegation comprised of Attila Mesterházy, József Tóbiás, Tamás Harangozó, László Botka, Zoltán Lukács, and Zsolt Molnár arrived at E14’s headquarters. Waiting for them were Gordon Bajnai, Péter Juhász (Milla), Viktor Szigetvári, Péter Kónya (Solidarity), Szabó Tímea, and Benedek Jávor (Párbeszéd Magyarországért [PM]). The meeting lasted four hours although it was frequently interrupted for “cigarette breaks” for the smokers in the MSZP delegation.

According to several descriptions of the meeting, although it started off with socialist recriminations by Mesterházy about E14’s claim to be the exclusive herald of a new era, eventually the conversation became quite friendly. Most importantly, both Bajnai and Mesterházy announced that they are ready to step aside if circumstances so dictate and are ready to support whoever is chosen for the post of prime minister. They also outlined a timetable that will start with first agreeing to a common program but, I’m happy to announce, these talks will not drag out too long. By mid-July the agreement will be signed. In the fall they will start selecting common candidates and eventually will settle the issue of a candidate for the post of prime minister. The minimum requirement will be having only common candidates, but the socialists would also like to have a common list that in their opinion can assure the highest number of votes.

Finally, according to rumors the two parties “graciously” agreed to allow the Demokratikus Koalíció to join the unified opposition but only if Ferenc Gyurcsány does not run in the forthcoming election. He can’t even be an ordinary parliamentary candidate. As expected, DK has already posted a note on Facebook:

DK is a proud and strong party with a membership of 8,000. It won two local by-elections and at two others its candidates won 25% of the votes. It has ten members in parliament which is currently the second largest opposition party. DK is the greatest opponent of the Orbán dictatorship.

No one should doubt that Ferenc Gyurcsány, the last active politician who defeated Viktor Orbán, will run in the 2014 elections.

And now let’s move on to the next event that may have some influence on Hungary’s political future. Hungary’s leading left-of-center public figures, businessmen, politicians, artists, writers, philosophers, and political scientists gathered for a “picnic” or as one newspaper called it a “jamboree” at Tivadar (Teddy) Farkasházy’s house in Balatonszárszó (Szárszó for short). Farkasházy, a writer and humorist, is the great-great-grandson of Móric Fischer von Farkasházy, founder of the Herend porcelain factory in 1830.

It was in 1993 that Farkasházy first invited the cream of Hungarian society to a get-together to discuss matters of importance. At this first meeting Viktor Orbán and several other people from the right were among the invited guests.

These yearly gatherings continued for ten years, but after 2003 they were no longer held. Perhaps because then came eight years of socialist-liberal rule. But Farkasházy came to the conclusion that it was time to revive the tradition. A couple of days ago Népszava predicted that although more than 400 people were invited, most likely many of them will be afraid to attend. Well, they were not. According to some estimates there might have been 600 guests. Naturally, Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy attended in addition to two former prime ministers, Péter Medgyessy and Ferenc Gyurcsány.

György Konrád, the well known writer, was one of the main speakers. He made no secret of his conviction that the next prime minister of Hungary should be Gordon Bajnai because he has “already proved himself.” But Attila Mesterházy should be there assisting him. It should be like a tandem bicycle: Bajnai at the handlebar and Mesterházy pushing the pedals. People present wondered how Mesterházy must have felt listening to Konrád’s advice, but apparently Mesterházy took it in stride and in fact even thanked Konrád for some of the praise he received from the writer.

Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy received mountain bikes as a gift from Teddy Farkasházy

Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy received mountain bikes as a gift from Teddy Farkasházy / Népszava

Paul Lendvai struck a rather pessimistic note, announcing that  in his opinion the opposition couldn’t possibly win the next election. Well, that got to fiery Ágnes Heller, who gave such an inspiring speech urging people to do everything possible that she received a standing ovation. Both Bajnai and Mesterházy spoke, the former in his usual measured manner and the latter in a more populist vein.

The real value of such a gathering lies not the speeches but in the opportunity it offers important people from many walks of life to gather in small groups and exchange ideas. There is an excellent picture gallery in Népszava, from which it is clear that everybody who’s anybody in leftist circles was at Farkasházy’s house in Szárszó.

Farkasházy might be a humorist, but he has no taste for the snide kind of humor Index’s reporter displayed in his early reports of the event and he was subsequently barred from the premises. HírTV fared worse. Farkasházy didn’t even let them in. On the other hand, ATV’s crew was there, and tomorrow after Egyenes beszéd we will be able to see the most important parts of the program.

Magyar Hírlap triumphantly announced that Ferenc Gyurcsány left early “because he wasn’t allowed to speak.” Of course, this is nonsense. The program was fixed ahead of time, so Gyurcsány knew that he would not be one of the speakers. This is a small thing but it says a lot about the unprofessionalism of the journalists who gather at the right-wing publications. And, as long as I’m lashing out at journalists, some young ones (in their early 20s) are simply supercilious and write dumb little snippets like the one in today’s 444.hu where the reporter calls the new formation “a coalition of clowns.”

I don’t know how important this meeting of like-minded people was, but I don’t think that it was totally useless. It might mend fences between the Hungarian liberals and socialists on the one hand and left-leaning intellectuals on the other. Let’s hope that this gathering was the start of closer cooperation between them.

Viviane Reding is the target in the Hungarian “war of independence”

It is truly amazing how fast “scandals” can break out in Hungary especially if, as I suspect, there is a concerted effort on the part of the government to create them. Here I was without a computer for two days and almost missed “the greatest scandal of the European Union.” Or at least this is what Fidesz MEP László Surján claims. He was talking about accusations originating in Hungarian circles about Viviane Reding, European Commissioner  for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. She is accused of trying to cast a shadow on the outcome of next year’s national election. Of course, the assumption is that Fidesz will again win the election, but the “enemies of Hungary” led by Viviane Reding herself will question the validity of this outcome.

What happened? On the morning of June 18 Magyar Nemzet came out with a news item that began an avalanche of articles, to be precise fifteen in number, within two and a half days. According to the article, the paper received information from Brussels that Reding along with José Manuel Barroso had attended the Bilderberg Conference held in England between June 6 and 9. The Bilderberg Group which organizes these conferences was created with a view to building bridges between the United States and the European Union. It is often the target of far-right groups in the U.S. as well as in Europe.

At the conference allegedly fifteen minutes were devoted to the case of Hungary during which Reding informed her audience of her efforts on behalf of the Hungarian opposition to cast a shadow on the purity of the forthcoming Hungarian elections. These opposition forces are allegedly being financed by the United States. In no time it also became clear that Gordon Bajnai and Ferenc Gyurcsány are involved in this plot as well. At this point Magyar Nemzet didn’t reveal the origin of its story but later we found out that the source was an unnamed Italian “official.”

By the afternoon the Fidesz script was already written. It was most likely also decided that it will be the Christian Democrats who will lead the charge against Reding. I guess the Fidesz strategists remain convinced that those “ignorant bureaucrats” in Brussels don’t realize that Fidesz and KDNP are one and the same. Occasionally there is a division of labor depending on the issue. In any case, a few hours after the first article appeared on June 18 the Christian Democrats already had a communiqué ready. They will sue Reding and everybody else involved. By the next day they demanded her resignation. A Christian Democrat MEP, László Surján, officially approached the appropriate committee to investigate her case. He also called for her resignation.

Meanwhile back home Zsolt Semjén, chairman of the party and deputy prime minister; Péter Harrach, whip of the Christian Democratic caucus; and the spokesman of the party, István Pálffy, did the talking. They were everywhere, but HírTV, the pro-government television station owned by the same group that is in charge of Magyar Nemzet, was especially full of interviews. By the time the Christian Democrats began talking in the electronic media there was no doubt in their minds that Reding is guilty of the charge. She really did reveal that she was conspiring with the Hungarian opposition against the rightful government of the country.  Harrach was especially adamant. Perhaps they will not be able to prove it, but they are convinced that the report coming from Brussels is “true.” Reding should not only be removed but should disappear altogether from the political life of her country and the Union. Pálffy even went so far as to talk about possible withdrawal from the Union if the present structure of the EU is changed in 2020.

Goddess Diana hunting / Wikipedia

Goddess Diana hunting / Wikipedia

On what basis does the Hungarian government hiding behind the nonexistent Christian Democratic party accuse Viviane Reding of criminal behavior? The man who first reported that Reding would attend the Bilderberg Conference was István Lovas, Magyar Nemzet‘s correspondent in Brussels. The readers of Hungarian Spectrum are most likely unfamiliar with his name because lately he hasn’t been in the limelight unlike during the 1998-2002 period when he had a rather unsavory reputation. At that time he was in charge of creating a right-wing pro-Fidesz corps of journalists. His students were told to keep lists of “unreliable” foreign journalists who were critical of the first Orbán government. Altogether he has a murky past. As a young man in Hungary he was accused of rape. Later he illegally left Hungary and worked for Radio Free Europe in Munich for a while, but apparently he couldn’t get along with anyone. He also spent some time in California where he left behind a wife and child whom he refused to support.

In any case, Lovas claims that sometime in April a mysterious Italian official approached him with the news that Reding would be attending the Bilderberg Conference. Lovas approached Reding’s spokeswoman who told him that this was the first time she had heard about such a trip. So he dropped the story, but the journalists at Magyar Nemzet didn’t. They madly tried to learn something about the Bilderberg Group and were happy to discover that an economist known for her far-right views was the first in Hungary to call attention to this evil secret organization. Then they approached the liberal Paul Lendvai who attended three of these conferences between 1968 and 1993. Lendvai assured them that there was nothing sinister about these meetings between politicians and influential European and American businessmen. I’m certain that the Magyar Nemzet journalists opted to believe the right-leaning economist and not Paul Lendvai, whom they consider “an enemy of the country.” Obviously the Bilderberg Group and Reding interested them greatly, and they published a number of articles about the Bilderberg conferences.

Then came June 5 when Lovas’s mysterious informer, the Italian official,  told him that the conference would have a 15-minute discussion on Hungary. The conference ended on June 10, and I assume that further details about this 15-minute discussion must have reached Lovas soon thereafter. So why the long wait to break the story? My guess is that Magyar Nemzet withheld it until Fidesz-KDNP could create its own version.

What most likely helped their work was that during the weekend both Gordon Bajnai and Ferenc Gyurcsány talked about the growing fear that is gripping the country and about stories circulating of hidden cameras above the voting booths. With that the connection between Reding and the opposition could easily be established.

Reding categorically denied the story and the European Commission announced that it has no intention of investigating Reding’s alleged criminal activity.

By the way, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Hungary actually came up in the discussion. After all, the Hungarian government’s behavior in the European Union has been causing considerable headache for the EU leadership and parliament lately. Reding may even have described the general atmosphere in Hungary and the fear of political retribution spreading in the country. However, the rest of the story is simply unbelievable. Reding is a seasoned politician who has been in political life since 1979; she wouldn’t share such a bizarre story even if it were true. As I said, she may have talked about the fear of possible electoral fraud and/or fear of the almighty and very aggressive Fidesz. But the rest of the story was concocted somewhere in the witches’ kitchen of Fidesz-KDNP’s strategists.

But this is a dangerous game. Both Barroso and Reding are members of the European People’s party. What do the Hungarian Christians want to achieve with this frontal attack on a fellow Christian Democrat? I can’t imagine that this attack could possibly help the Hungarian cause. But perhaps their minds work differently from mine.

International reputation of Fidesz: Now anti-Semitism

 

The criticism of the Hungarian media law has subsided somewhat. The western media are waiting for the second chapter: the Hungarian government’s “corrections” demanded by the European Union. At roughly the same time came another international outcry when it became known that Magyar Nemzet, almost an official paper of Fidesz, launched an attack against a group of eminent philosophers who happened to be of liberal persuasion and Jewish. And again about the same time Zsolt Bayer, a so-called journalist and one of the founders of Fidesz who is employed by Magyar Hírlap, a newspaper that can be labelled as an extreme-right publication, wrote an article in which he in so many words admitted his disappointment that not all Jews were killed during the white terror of 1919 and 1920.

That was the last straw for some Jewish Hungarians, among them András Schiff, the famous concert pianist, who gave several interviews in well-known Western European papers, and Ádám Fischer, formerly the music director of the Hungarian Opera House, who also called attention to the growing anti-Semitism in Hungary. In Brussels at a press conference Fischer called upon Bayer to resign from Fidesz. The Hungarian right was outraged. They accused Fischer of spreading false rumors about the Hungarian government’s anti-Semitism. Fischer didn’t leave it at that. A few days later he wrote an article in Népszabadság in which he pointed out that Fidesz politicians protest against the accusation of anti-Semitism while an important Fidesz politician, János Halász, praised Bayer and his work on the occasion of his winning, on a Fidesz suggestion, the literary Madách Prize.

All this was fairly well covered in the foreign press, and eventually the leaders of the European Jewish Congress asked for a meeting with Viktor Orbán in Brussels where naturally he assured them that all is well in Hungary. The Hungarian government doesn’t tolerate anti-Semitism, which in any case has subsided since Fidesz won the elections, a statement without any foundation. We don’t know what the Hungarian Jewish leaders had to say during the meeting, but my feeling is that they were fairly quiet.

As for Bayer’s presence in Fidesz, there might be a simple explanation for not removing him. People who studied Hungarian anti-Semitism seem to know that within Fidesz there are a fair number of people who share Bayer’s antipathy of the Jews. As for Viktor Orbán himself, almost everybody claims that he is free of prejudice. On the other hand, he occasionally makes certain statements that can be interpreted in a way that might show some traces of anti-Jewish bias. For example, when in his last speech he talked about “certain people who feel that their crimes can be excused because of lineage (származás), difficult financial circumstances, good political connections or an internationally embedded professional network.” I don’t think that one needs much imagination to think that those in difficult financial circumstances are the Gypsies; the internationally embedded professional network are the philosophers and the musicians. As for “származás” I think that it is a not terribly veiled reference to Jews.

Yesterday in the conservative Welt a long article appeared by Paul Lendvai, a Hungarian-born journalist who lives in Austria. The title of his piece is telling: “Hungary marches toward the right.” In it Lendvai claims that Fidesz has for a long time allowed anti-Semitism to flourish and it isn’t making any effort to put an end to it. According to Lendvai even the more moderate Fidesz supporters are outraged when foreign friends or visitors call attention to the worrisome picture painted of Hungary in the international press. In the right-wing Hungarian media there is a campaign against the international companies that want to buy up Hungary and against Hungarians of mostly Jewish origin who purposely mislead foreign newspapermen about the state of affairs at home.

It is hard not to worry about the growth of anti-Semitism in Hungary when according to the latest study by Political Capital the group of people who sympathize with the anti-Semitic far-right grew from 10 to 21 percent between 2002 and 2009. This is not entirely surprising given the extreme ignorance, especially among young people, of history. Only 4% of people between ages of 18 and 30 knew the meaning of the word “holocaust” and only 13% could name the approximate number of Jewish victims in 1944-45. According to another sociological study by Mária Vásárhelyi the percentage of those who think that Jews have too great a role in the business world is almost 70%, an increase of 7% in the last two years, and 40% of the people claim that for Jewish Hungarians the fate of Israel is more important than that of Hungary.

At the last elections, especially among the younger generation, the anti-Semitic far-right Jobbik was very popular. Every fourth person between the ages of 18 and 29 voted for Jobbik. There are estimates that about 40% of university students studying history are anti-Semitic. I myself checked the list of Jobbik candidates and found a very large number of historians among them.

Lendvai finished his article by saying that “twenty years after the change of regime a massive, worrisome, hardly disguised anti-Semitism can be found in Hungary. This creates an atmosphere of fear and exclusion in the small Jewish community. So far, neither Viktor Orbán nor his closest colleagues have done anything either directly or through media outlets close to the party to put an end to this anti-Semitic propaganda. It would be high time to do so. In case Orbán remains quiet that will also mean something.”