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.