The Viktator: Europe's enemy within
PUBLISHED: 13:00 01 December 2017
Viktor Orban, the Hungarian PM, is acting as a Trojan horse, disrupting the EU from within, argues PAUL KNOTT
When last in opposition, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán infamously said “we have only to win once, but then properly”.
True to his word, Orbán has, through extensive and controversial constitutional changes, hollowed out Hungary’s democratic system and eliminated the checks and balances on his personal power since returning to office in 2010. Orbán’s immense ambition appears to extend beyond perpetual rule and his country seems destined to continue its trajectory to one in which allegations of authoritarianism and corruption are commonplace.
At the same time, in his campaign of confrontation with ‘Brussels’ and provision of a bridgehead into the EU for Vladimir Putin, Orbán is, it seems, undermining Europe as a whole.
It all started so differently. Few outside observers would have predicted Orbán – nicknamed the Viktator by critics – turning out this way when he first shot to political prominence as a youthful pro-democracy activist.
In June 1989, the 26-year old Orbán was invited to speak at the massive, three decades-delayed funeral service for former Prime Minister Imre Nagy and the 300 freedom fighters executed by the Soviets and their Hungarian puppets in the aftermath of the 1956 uprising.
Orbán courageously invoked the spirit of ’56 by demanding an end to the communist dictatorship, free elections and withdrawal of Soviet troops. His speech electrified 250,000 in attendance and millions more watching on TV.
This boldness marked Orbán’s early years in politics, prompting widespread admiration for the skill and determination of a man who had emerged from childhood poverty in the village of Felcsút.
The Fidesz (the Hungarian acronym for ‘Alliance of Young Democrats’) party he founded with friends at Budapest’s Bibó College won 22 seats at the first free, post-communist elections in 1990.
In those early years of democracy, Orbán and his young colleagues attracted attention for their casual appearance and energetic approach. They used sparky communication skills to advocate liberal policies and attack nationalist undercurrents in other leading parties.
This all began to change in the mid-1990s, when personality clashes in Fidesz led to poor electoral results. Many of these disagreements were prompted by Orbán’s apparent quest for unchallenged leadership of the party and recognition a lurch to the right presented his best opportunity to win national power. Several of his estranged colleagues from the early days have suggested this was the first public indication that Orbán was driven by a lust for power.
Paul Lendvai’s excellent recent biography Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman quotes Orbán’s roommate at Bibó College and closest early political collaborator, Gábor Fodor, as saying “even as a young man in the 1980s, Orbán was already possessed of those domineering, intolerant ways of thinking and behaving that are all too evident in him today. There was also an expediency in him, one without any principles”.
Orbán went into overdrive after his first spell as Prime Minister, at the head of a coalition government from 1998-2002. Even during that period, Orbán took steps to concentrate power in the office of the Prime Minister. Lendvai explains how the Cabinet was reduced to a rubber stamp for approving decisions already taken by PM Orban and his office. There was little debate and minutes were no longer taken to record proceedings.
Orban also reduced the meetings at which the government presented its activities to Parliament from weekly to once every three weeks. This step restricted accountability and made it harder for Parliament to examine the government’s initiatives before they were enacted. During this period, people close to Orban were linked to several corruption scandals. But then he surprisingly lost the 2002 election.
Although it did not seem so at the time, the eight years Orbán subsequently spent out of office turned out to be fortunate for him. The left of centre Socialist Party which governed until 2010 had long been a nest of communist-era crooks. Those years in power exposed it as such and deeply discredited it.
The implosion of his main opposition highlighted how Orbán, to adapt Napoleon’s quote about generals, is both lucky and good. He used his formidable talent for politics to win a two-thirds majority at the 2010 election. This majority enabled Orbán to implement his notorious “only need to win once” vow.
Orbán rammed through a new constitution and dismantled Hungary’s separation of powers. He used his dominance of parliament and the executive branch of government to change laws and make appointments to positions of power in the judiciary, economy and media, where critics said broader changes represented a curb on freedom of expression.
Other elements tightened up the laws on higher education, homelessness, election campaigns and family rights. Some amendments enacted included provisions which had been previously deemed unconstitutional by the country’s Constitutional Court and critics argued they represented a dismantling of the architecture of democracy established since the fall of communism.
Thousands of Hungarians protested changes and European institutions and the US government expressed concern, as did human rights organisations such as Amnesty International.
Direct evidence to support the widespread belief that Orbán is the richest man in Hungary is hard to come by. But one MP, Viktor Szigetvári, has publicly estimated Orbán’s fortune at 650 million euros. What is clear is that some members of his family and inner circle have become phenomenally rich during his premiership.
Their enrichment has often been accomplished through the allocation of public contracts, including many supported with EU funds. Earlier this year, a study by Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based NGO, reported that in six years, four oligarchs with close links to Fidesz won 401 public contracts worth more than 1.8 billion euros. Among them was his son-in-law, István Tiborcz, whose energy company, Elios Innovativ, secured contracts for street lighting in more than two dozen towns and cities across Hungary.
The former EU Commissioner, Lászlo Andor, recently told Social Europe Journal that “EU funds are integrated into the political food chain” of Orbán’s Fidesz government. Similar concerns have been raised widely. The American NGO Freedom House has declared: “Politically organised high-level corruption has become a key feature of the regime.”
A 2015 Forbes report about a quarry acquired by Orbán’s father and younger brothers put their wealth at 23 million euros. Of Orbán’s allies, Lendvai cites the case, amongst many others, of the mayor of the Prime Minister’s home village, Felcsút, Lorinc Mészáros.
The former gas-fitter Mészáros became mayor in 2010. He first attracted attention by helping his old football team-mate Orbán to construct a plush stadium with a capacity double the population of the village, adjacent to the Prime Minister’s house there.
Mészáros’ personal wealth tripled to 80 million euros in 2015/16 alone. With surprising openness, he puts his rise down to “the good Lord, good luck and the person of Viktor Orbán”.
Not all friends have remained so close though. Lajos Simicska, a childhood friend turned billionaire, was a close ally of Orbán but the two have had an acrimonious split. Simicska blames this the growing closeness in recent years between Orbán – the one-time campaigner for ending Moscow’s control over his country – and Vladimir Putin. The relationship is toxic for some Hungarians, given the history of brutal Russian repression.
The Putin-Orbán relationship directly threatens the EU. Russia’s overt and covert attempts to undermine EU member states are well documented. Now, Orbán appears to be acting as the Kremlin’s Trojan horse within Europe.
As well as mimicking Putin’s undermining of liberal democracy, he has strongly opposed EU sanctions imposed on Russia for invading Ukraine.
At a time when the EU is reducing its reliance on Russian energy supplies for strategic reasons, Orbán has led Hungary in the opposite direction. Russian gas supplies to Hungary have increased recently, via arrangements between Hungarian gas trading companies and Russia’s state gas exporter, Gazprom.
One particular deal that requires further investigation is the 12.5 billion euros contract Orbán signed with Rosatom in 2014 to expand the Paks nuclear plant. Officials in Moscow and Budapest say the deal was concluded purely on commercial and energy grounds and was good for both countries, but it is seen by some as part of an undeclared struggle for influence by the Kremlin.
There was initially a plan to put the contract out to tender, and some Western firms, along with Rosatom, showed an interest. But, according to Reuters, the idea of a tender was abruptly dropped and a small group close to Prime Minister Orban chose to award the contract to Rosatom. The move could represent a possible breach of EU laws.
Orbán has openly defied other EU rules and decisions, including the rejection of a court ruling backing a plan for member states to take “quotas” of refugees.
The refugee crisis shows how Orbán has been able to strengthen his grasp on power. Modestly-sized Hungary has a distinct language and culture that bear little relation to others in its region. It is proud of having survived the challenges of history but resentful of some of its outcomes, notably the post-First World War Treaty of Trianon that picked up the pieces of the shattered Austro-Hungarian empire. This treaty allocated chunks of Hungary’s former territory to its neighbours, Romania and modern-day Serbia and Slovakia.
These senses of uniqueness, survival and grievance make Hungary vulnerable to xenophobia and allow Orbán to be portrayed as the nation’s ‘protector’, even while he is sidling up to its historic foe, Russia.
Clearly, Orbán opposing the EU and advancing Russia’s interests instead is not a situation the EU can tolerate indefinitely without incurring harm.
Fortunately, there are pressure points to target. Siding with Hungary’s most recent occupier, Russia, is risky for a supposed ultra-patriot. The EU can call Orbán’s bluff by shining a light on his links to Putin.
Asking the Hungarian people whether they would rather return to the embrace of the Kremlin than stay with free and democratic Europe might be illuminating.
This question might best be posed by the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) grouping in the European Parliament.
Orbán’s Fidesz party has inexplicably been allowed to remain part of this group, despite repeatedly contradicting its values and insulting its leaders.
The EPP should expel Fidesz immediately.
Above all, the EU should suspend its spending programmes in Hungary, pending a full investigation by its tough, independent Court of Auditors or OLAF anti-fraud agency.
The latest available EU funding figures are for 2015. They show Hungary received 5.63 billion euros in EU spending during that year alone, representing 5.32% of the country’s gross national income.
There are numerous credible allegations for an investigation to address about Orbán co-opting Hungary’s EU funding for his patronage network. These include the loss-making ‘tourist train’ built to his nondescript home village. The suspension of EU funds would stop Orbán bestowing largesse on his allies and squeeze the Hungarian economy enough to concentrate minds on meeting its responsibilities as an EU member state.
Whilst Orbán is a ruthless political operator, his Russian connections and reliance on EU funding leave him vulnerable. For as long as Hungary remains disruptive and serves Russia in damaging the EU, it brings nothing useful to the organisation. The EU can afford to come down hard on it. Indeed, as the Union rebuilds its collective strength to face bigger challenges, it cannot afford not to.
Paul Knott is a former British diplomat and the author of The Accidental Diplomat; he lives in Switzerland