A Song About Orbán

15. 3. 2017

Igor Janke: “Napastnik. Opowieść o Viktorze Orbánie”. [A striker. A story of Viktor Orbán], Demart, Warszawa 2012.

Igor Janke wrote a fable. He beautifully composed not so much a new version of The Song of Roland but a ballad of Victor the Victorious, who led the Hungarians through the Red Sea, who was tough with the communists or, to paraphrase a motif from another story, he fought against them the more viciously the more they were not there. The enchanted Author compares his valiant Hero to protagonists of Western movies beloved by the Hungarian Prime Minister, he praises Orbán quite uncritically.

The song is interesting, excellently written, compelling but… fundamentally false. The reader gets a version written from the perspective of the recently triumphant Commander. One proof of that is a kind of pendant, a true blessing in the form of an interview with the Hero. And before that, as we may ascertain from the acknowledgments at the end of the book, efforts of many people were necessary to keep the narrative within the mandatory bounds. The result is that today’s Hungary, which as the Author himself notes and perceives is deeply divided, is presented in the book exclusively from the perspective of Viktor Orbán’s camp, while his sidelined opponents or rather enemies (this is an adequate term) are only a backdrop or villains and fall guys (more rarely girls).

The book makes for an interesting reading, for the protagonist is an unconventional figure, there is no denying that. A fool-proof recipe for publishing success, at least in one camp, which has emerged also in Poland. I would not be surprised if a Hungarian edition were to be published. Money for such purposes will be found even in a country struggling with enormous financial problems. For there are still many supporters of the admittedly quite original actions and rhetoric of the Hungarian Prime Minister, both in Hungary and recently also in Poland.

In other words, advocates of the concept of “Budapest inWarsaw” will read the book awash with excitement, looking for ideas and inspiration, while people opposed to or even terrified of this scenario will either bypass this publication or get irritated after a few paragraphs. Which is a pity, for one can both learn a lot and draw many important lessons from this interestingly written book.

Besides the one-sidedness, frankly smacking of hagiography, there is one aspect which should be strongly underlined. Janke concludes his work with the following words:“There are two possibilities. Either he is a leader from a previous epoch, the last relic of the 19th-century understanding of politics, which is a thing of the past. Or he is a visionary preceding his epoch and in a few or a dozen years the world will look like Viktor Orbán describes it today. Which of these versions is true? I don’t know the answer to this question. But I know one thing—for over a year I had an opportunity to take a close look at one of the most interesting contemporary politicians.”

It seems to me that perhaps the best solution would be to begin exactly where Janke ends his story. Where is Orbán leading Hungary and where is the country going to end up under his regime? What are the consequences of his “unorthodox” rule? How are his visionary ideas related to the future of his country, our region and entire Europe? Can you remain in the European Union with such a policy? Are his visions regarding the “twilight of Europe” and good winds blowing now from the East going to prove correct? Such questions, often of fundamental impact, are legion but we get no answers to them in this mythopoeic book. And the stormy elements which Orbán let loose around himself will not be easy to restrain. Things have gone too far.

If we go more deeply into the narrative, we will see a psychological portrait of this politician emerge. Orbán hates compromises, as a lover of Westerns he divides the world into evil and good, into us and them. He rewards those who are loyal and represses his opponents. His friends from the university campus govern the country today and former secretaries have become ministers. Those who dared to oppose him don’t exist today. He makes decisions on his own, as Janke himself confirms: “He personally decides who may run for mayor and in which city, who may run for parliament, who is to become the parliamentary whip and who is to become president of Hungary.” As a passionate player (footballer but not only) and great soloist, he creates confusion everywhere, preferably in the opponents’ penalty box. He believes in people rather than institutions. This is why he is opposed to the EU, the future of which he perceives pessimistically. He also believes in Great Hungary. As he said to the Author, “I always had an idea in my mind … that one day Hungary would be as strong as it could have been if World War I didn’t happen.”

When in 2010 he became a virtually absolute ruler of Hungary, being a fighter to the last particle of his being he again clashed with many interest groups and even with the outside world, symbolised by the European Commission, International Monetary Fund or the Council of Europe, not to mention the Americans, after all, the main allies of Hungary in NATO. For when listening to Orbán sometimes you get a feeling that the EU or NATO not only are of no use to him but actually stand in his way, while the IMF positively hampers his actions.

Never a stranger to populism, the Hungarian Prime Minister is deliberately playing these delicate and sensitive tones. He suggests to his countrymen that Hungary is again threatened by a foreign diktat, similar to the monstrous injustice of Trianon after World War I and of Paris after World War II. In other words, whatever we do is right and whatever they do is wrong. How does this dichotomy, this sometimes almost Manichean division, square with Hungarian obligations within the EU?

The case of Orbán after 2010, which I define as the “Orbán system,” for without it Hungarian politics and social reality would be completely different, poses the question of the limits of freedom and scope for sovereign action in our interconnected era, that is the era of globalisation. Can small Hungary with its 10 million inhabitants, largely on the instigation of Orbán dreaming about the former might and the return of Great Hungary, turn into an isolated island fundamentally different from the EU and the neighbouring countries? I daresay that it is doubtful. History, not only of Hungary, teaches us that misguidedly disproportional dreams and intentions, “imperial overstretch”in the case of great powers and “imperial insufficiency” in the case of states pretending to that role with more or less justification, usually carry a huge price.

In the early stage of his second term in power—for he had been Prime Minister in 1998– 2002—Orbán was much liked by the citizens. Day after day the media, increasingly subservient to him, were revealing examples of corruption and scams as practiced by the previously governing socialists. He successfully executed a propaganda coup in putting all the blame for the sorry state of the Hungarian economy on his predecessors, although he too was very extravagant and generous in his pre-election promises, and when fighting for his return to power, he used all the dirty tricks in the book, including street politics. The claim, widely promoted by the ruling camp, that only the socialist and liberal elites were to blame for the wretched state of the country, is not quite true. It would be more correct to say that all Hungarian elites governing after 1990 have failed.

When Orbán reassumed power, he wasn’t an unknown quality but his uncompromising and expansive style was attractive for many confused and crisis-weary Hungarians. They wanted a Saviour and a new “Father of the Homeland,” so they elected him. And initially they were not disappointed. The Prime Minister gave foreign banks and big department stores a run for their money, imposing “crisis taxes” on them, and said “no” to the European Commission and the IMF, adding once that should the latter return to Hungary, “he would leave the country.” Unfortunately, in late 2011 the IMF did come back but the protracted talks with this institution, or rather lack of them, seem to suggest one thing: Prime Minister Orbán loyally accompanied by the Hungarian economic guru György Matolscy, conducting a “campaign for economic freedom” as Orbán calls it, still tries to avoid the “foreign diktat” at all costs.

Janke “overlooked”the other Hungary, which exists despite or side by side with the “Orbán system,” although the current government announced a System of National Cooperation, as notices posted in all government institutions remind the citizens all the time. What is worse, Janke didn’t try to understand the “Orbán system.” And so there is nothing in this “fable” about the doublespeak constantly utilised by the Hungarian Prime Minister, who uses one language when communicating with the Hungarian public, always playing on its nationalist emotions and national prejudices, and another in talks with foreigners, towards which he is “courteous,” as with the Author. There is nothing in Janke’s book about the permanent abuse of terms, about the utilitarian and populist—and at the same time ritualistic and apodictic—language, about constant manipulating criteria and words.

Hungary of the “Orbán system” means media subservient to the government and one line of thinking, it means full centralisation. It means accumulating power in the hands of one person, which doesn’t quite square with the EU Copenhagen Criteria. It means the Civic Union Party—Fidesz is ruled by Orbán with an iron fist and—according to an ideological opponent and popular essayist József Debreczeni—is remindful of a religious order, with the abbot speaking and the monks clapping. And the situation in the country under the rule of this party almost exactly fits the words of Orwell in the Animal Farm: “1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy. 2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.”

As Orbán writes in the book “There is one homeland”: “The functioning of democracy in everyday life means that we respect the decisions, rights, human dignity, property of others.” But an oppositionist András Bruck wrote in November 2012 in the Élet és irodalom weekly: “Quite recently we liberated ourselves from bondage and due to our own mistakes a threat of a new authoritarianism is hanging over us.” Examples of widely differing judgements on the current Hungarian reality could be quoted ad infinitum. And this leads to one conclusion: instead of the declared National Unity there is an unprecedented national disunity, a fracture of the nation in two halves—and that as a direct result of Orbán’s rule, for contrary to what he wishes and intends, he doesn’t unite the nation but divides it even more.”

But this part of the picture is missing from Janke’s narrative. Another thing he “overlooked.” Admittedly he speaks about the chaos caused by too quick legislative changes but there is almost nothing about the complete improvisation in running the economy, the machina tions around the election system, about the authorities entrenching themselves “for eternity” through introducing into key laws of the clause requiring a two thirds majority to amend them, about clashes with international institutions regarding dismissed judges, about the intrusive propaganda of success by the regime, about the confused, emigrating or increasingly radical young people, about the fact that despite Orbán’s promises the country slid into a recession in 2012 and the taxes previously imposed on foreigners are now burdening Hungarian citizens themselves, quite astonished and amazed by what is happening.

This also belongs to the picture of Hungary, alongside with the image emerging from these beautifully written and carefully edited pages. Only these two pictures of two camps fiercely fighting superimposed on each other offer some reflection of what is going on in the Hungary of the “Orbán system”—and pose even more important questions than the above mentioned final conclusions formulated by the Author.

Janke hardly speaks to the opposition and does not quote its publications. He fully trusts one side of the Hungarian political scene and he is enchanted with his own Hero, which he doesn’t attempt to hide. This is why he didn’t detect the basic mechanism driving the phenomenon and personality of Orbán, namely his insatiable appetite for power. This means that the Author presented to us only half of the polarised Hungarian scene— so he wrote a half-truth. And therefore both Janke and his Hero should be reminded of the immortal formula of Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”

Bogdan Góralczyk

is professor in Centre for Europe, University of Warsaw, since September 2016 also a director of the Center. Former Ambassador of Poland to Thailand, the Philippines, and Republic of the Union of Myanmar (Burma). He was also Chief of the Cabinet of Polish Foreign Minister and long-term diplomat in Hungary; a prolific writer, author of many books and articles in Polish, English, and Hungarian.

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