Further and Further Away from Brussels

15. 3. 2017

It seems that the Fidesz-Jobbik fight may cast its shadow over the entire Hungarian political scene.

Unorthodox in his slogans, policies and behaviors, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán surprises us again. He initiates a debate on the death penalty, he firmly opposes bringing immigrants to his country through sending to the citizens a controversial—and highly populist— questionnaire on the matter, and in parliament he not only praises the illiberal democracy he has introduced, but he also points at blatantly nondemocratic countries as “more effective” economically. And in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, he emphasizes that he feels more at home there than in Brussels. What does the European Union have to say about that?

After three successive victories in parliamentary, European and local elections in the late autumn 2014, the ruling Fidesz party, as well as the prime minister himself, unexpectedly found themselves in retreat. Frictions appeared in their relations with the United States, which in an unprecedented manner barred several high representatives of the Hungarian administration (unmentioned by name, but it is known that one of them was the head of the central tax office Ildikó Vida) from entering their country. And an even greater surprise was the unexpected civil resistance to the top-down attempt at introducing a tax on Internet. Thousands of people, mostly young, took to the streets. The prime minister had to back off.

A Fallen Friendship

This, however, did not stop a rapid erosion of support for the government, as was shown by the results of three consecutive by-elections, when vacant seats were won by representatives of the opposition, thereby depriving the ruling coalition of a qualified majority. Moreover, in the last elections in the Tapolca region (previously the traditional base of Fidesz), and despite the— unprecedented—personal involvement of the prime minister in the campaign, the seat was won, also for the first time in individual constituencies vote, by a representative of a far right, racist and even fascist Jobbik party. It was no longer a yellow card, it was a sending-off for the rulers. What has happened? You can identify many reasons, but the most important one should be sought in the combination of political and economic power within Orbán’s System, equally unprecedented as the government policy.

If anyone had doubts about it, they certainly lost them on February 6, 2015, when there was a sudden public “divorce” between Viktor Orbán and his friend from high school years Lajos Simicska, who for decades had been building the business empire of Fidesz—and then his own. Many observers and analysts not unreasonably claimed, for example, that after 2010 we were dealing with an “Orbán—Simicska system” in Hungary, with the former wielding political power and the latter economic one. All this came to a sudden and brutal end.

The reasons for this incredible parting are not fully known. The event was incredible both in its form, because Simicska did not mince words, as well in its content, although we know that big-money was at stake. One of Simicska’s explanations was more than telling: “When we brought down Communism many years ago, the aim was not to rebuild dictatorship.” He also repeatedly states that “he did not like the rapprochement with Russians.”

The Fallen Axis

Meanwhile, the prime minister, ignoring the sanctions and the position of the West, on February 17 received President Vladimir Putin in Budapest, explaining that he still wanted to do business with him (in the end a €10 billion contract was signed for the modernization of the Soviet nuclear plant in Paks, supplemented by some gas contracts). The attention of the public opinion, this time not only Hungarian, but also European and international, was attracted by the fact that the host not only did not react to the aggressive statements of his guest targeted at the Ukraine, but even allowed him to put flowers on the graves of Soviet soldiers, including those killed during the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 – by the way, the renovated obelisk still refers to these events as a “counterrevolution,” as the old Soviet propaganda would have it.

Exactly how was Putin’s visit received abroad was Orbán able to see literarily one and a half days later, when—quite foolishly, as it turned out—he landed in Warsaw. As high-ranking representatives of the Polish administration emphasized, he received a “history lesson” from the Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, mostly about what Russian presence in our region of Central Europe meant.

No less painful for the guest was the fact that he was not received by the hitherto “spiritually close” opposition leader Jarosław Kaczyński. As a result, the “friendship trains” coming from Poland in the direction of Budapest on the anniversary of the Spring of Nations (the one from 1848) to support the “freedom ideals” promoted by Orbán stayed put this time. And thus, instead of the Budapest-Warsaw “axis” quite recently proposed by Orbán and targeted at the oppressive Brussels, instead of the declarations of Kaczyński that “we will still have Budapest in Warsaw,” both capitals slid into a veritable ice age in their relations, and in the context of the Ukraine crisis any warming up will be rather difficult. The Hungarian opening to the East (keleti nyitás), to Russia and to the authoritarian regimes from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, to China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, is frowned upon in the West and not well received in many circles in the country. This, however, is not the decisive factor of the erosion—observed with surprise after the previous successes—of support for the prime minister and his Fidesz.

The Fallen Investors

Once again, economic matters came to the fore, together with the sensitive issue of the regime-business connection. The question of the emergence of oligarchs living from this connection has long been the subject of political and media controversy. Besides Simicska, a notable figure here is Andrew Vajna, ruling single-handedly the world of Hungarian cinema by the decree of the prime minister, or György Fekete, in a similar way calling the shots in the artistic community, or the head of the Central Bank, György Matolcsy, ever loyal to the prime minister. Moreover, there are people directly associated with the prime minister, like his father Győző, his son-in-law István Tiborcz, or local mayor Lőrincz Mészáros, managing the extensive interests of Orbán’s family in his countryside home Felcsút, and getting rich fast in the process.

Not surprisingly, the book Szüret (Grape Harvest) by the investigative journalist Krisztina Ferenczi published in 2006, speaking about the enrichment of the Orbán family in lush detail, initially passed unnoticed, but when released again after the Simicska-Orbán conflict broke out, it entered the bestseller lists. Also widely read, though academic in their character, are two lengthy volumes edited by Bálint Magyar, sociologist and minister of education in previous governments, under a telling title Magyar polip, that is the “Hungarian octopus” (the association with the film series about the Italian Mafia is quite justified).

But it is not this or any other book (which will at best be read by a narrow and usually opposition- oriented liberal elites from the capital) that shapes the nature of the Hungarian domestic discourse. Especially after 2010 an agenda is imposed on the public by the mainstream media fully controlled by the government, not without reason and sarcasm called “Royal.”

The growing dissatisfaction with the government, unprecedented after the great victory in April 2010, is also fed by—still far from concluded—scandal with the brokerage company Quaestor, created by Csaba Tarsoly, also associated with the prime minister. It turned out that major assets had been invested in that company by various ministries of prime minister’s cabinet, starting with the most involved Ministry of Foreign Trade and Foreign Affairs, run by Péter Szíjjártó, who is 36 years old, but already very rich and for a long time connected with the prime minister. Some local governments nominated by Fidesz were also involved. However, it turned out that Tarsoly was simply building a financial pyramid, whose shareholders at some point fell into trouble and the majority was threatened with financial collapse and even bankruptcy.

When the public realized that, prompted by the prime minister (how did he know about it?, asked the opposition media), ministries and local governments withdrew their money from Quaestor when the pyramid started shaking heavily, while minor savers and investors were left alone with their claims, the results of the already described by-elections in April in Tapolca had become more than clear: the opposition would win again. The novelty was that this time the winner was Jobbik, whose leader Gábor Vona, as charismatic as Orbán himself, is known for his bold and unequivocal views targeted at the “other” and therefore not “true” Hungarian. Moreover, Vona is ready to defend his beliefs with the aid of the armed wing of his party, which is the menacing-looking, uniformed and paramilitary Hungarian Guard (still not officially banned, despite the threats and complaints of the outside world). Viktor Orbán, an adroit unwavering politician who reacts fast to the changing situation (before the last parliamentary elections in April 2014 he appealed to the inhabitants of his native Felcsút: “Go to the polls, because the communists are already there.”) thus finally realized that he already had a different enemy, that is the Jobbik party, extreme in its views and behavior. And this is the source of yet another change in his rhetoric and policies. This time they target potential immigrants and not only, as before, foreign capital and “foreign interests.”

Let us note that at the moment nothing indicates a complete undermining of Orbán’s rule, for the opposition remains fragmented and sterile—apart from Jobbik. That is why a new battle has begun—the battle for the constituency of Jobbik, with Fidesz reaching for its policies and slogans. The previous tactic, based on propaganda of success and constant pointing-out at recent economic growth (3.6% in 2014), turned out to be insufficient. Everyday life differs too much from the reality conjured up by the government- controlled media.

It seems that the Fidesz-Jobbik fight may cast its shadow over the entire Hungarian political scene, which is a serious view.

A Collapsed Europe?

The fundamental problem is that this successive shift of the Hungarian regime to the right moves it even further away from the European and Western mainstream. This time it is not just about the economic crisis and the resultant lack of trust between Budapest and Brussels. We have entered the sphere of an axiological crisis, were the value systems promoted by different European capitals start to diverge widely.

When we add to this the clearly differing political and economic interests in the context of the Ukrainian crisis, which have already strongly divided if not buried the Visegrád Group—the flagship project of regional cooperation in the post-communist Europe, a new range of challenges is emerging before us. Two experts, Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard, are right when they claim in a recent issue of the Foreign Affairs magazine: “Neither European public nor EU elites are ready to abandon the hope that economic interdependence remains the most viable source of European security.”

Meanwhile, European security, axiology and the value system are at stake, as the case described here confirms. What is more, after 2014 is the time to forget the previous era focused on economic integration and cooperation. What we have here in Europe now is a plethora of new tasks, challenges and demands. It is time to face them, if we want to survive as a united entity known in colloquial speech as “common Europe,” which in official verbiage is defined as institutionalized European Union. “Where is the Union now?” is the crucial question that comes to mind while observing what is going on the current Hungarian domestic scene.

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.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

These web pages use cookies to provide their services. You get more information about the cookies after clicking on the button “Detailed setting”. You can set the cookies which we will be able to use, or you can give us your consent to use all the cookies by clicking on the button “Allow all”. You can change the setting of cookies at any time in the footer of our web pages.
Cookies are small files saved in your terminal equipment, into which certain settings and data are saved, which you exchange with our pages by means of your browser. The contents of these files are shared between your browser and our servers or the servers of our partners. We need some of the cookies so that our web page could function properly, we need others for analytical and marketing purposes.