Whom should Viktor Orbán fear? Not his former self but the rebellious students

I’m sure many of you are familiar with Attila Ara-Kovács’s name because I’ve written about him several times on this blog, but if anyone needs a refresher course here’s a brief description of his career from Cluj/Kolozsvár to Budapest where he joined the democratic opposition. In the late 1980s the democratic opposition worked side by side with Fidesz, then a youth organization, so Ara-Kovács had plenty of opportunity to get to know the young Viktor Orbán.

Ara-Kovács, who nowadays has a column (Diplomatic Notes) in the weekly Magyar Narancs, was inspired a couple of days ago to include a piece on domestic issues in his column: he decided to share the impression the democratic opposition gained of the young Viktor Orbán in those days.

Ara-Kovács discovered on YouTube a composed young woman, Réka Kinga Papp, who for two and a half minutes severely criticizes Hungary’s prime minister. She actually calls him a “mad dictator” who will be swept away by the wrath of the people. But she still gives him credit for the constructive role he played in the late eighties. Especially his famous speech at the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs that launched his spectacular political career. So did another new youthful opponent of the Orbán regime, Máté Ábrahám, who also expressed his admiration for the young Orbán. This young man said something to the effect that today’s Orbán would surely be afraid to meet his young self. These students suppose that in those days Orbán, Kövér, Deutsch, Áder, and the others were pure as the driven snow. They became corrupt only because politics and power corrupted them.

It is time to tell the truth, says Ara-Kovács, because it is essential that these youngsters don’t labor under false impressions of Fidesz’s role in the regime change. According to Ara-Kovács, Réka Kinga Papp’s young Orbán never existed. She talked about the “innovative, happy, well meaning will” that Orbán allegedly added to “the big Hungarian collective.” Ara-Kovács categorically denies that Orbán added anything of the sort. On the contrary, he decided to establish a second liberal party by which he divided “the camp of the most authentic opponents” of the Kádár regime.

Viktor Orbán broke his wordOn the reburial of Imre Nagy and other martyrs of 1956 / July 16, 1989

Viktor Orbán broke his word
at the reburial of Imre Nagy and other martyrs of 1956 / JuneLászló Kövér 16, 1989

As for Orbán’s famous speech in which he demanded the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, Ara-Kovács provides some background information. The so-called round table of the opposition made the decision not to mention this demand. First, because they knew that negotiations were already underway and second, because they didn’t want to trap Mikhail Gorbachev in “an impossible” situation. In addition, they didn’t want to provide additional ammunition to the hardliners in the Soviet bloc: the East Germans, the Czechoslovaks, and the Romanians. One must keep in mind that Václav Havel at this point was still in jail. Viktor Orbán and László Kövér, representing Fidesz, accepted this joint decision only for Orbán to break his word the next day. The impression created by that speech was that only Fidesz and Viktor Orbán were radical enough to dare to strive for complete independence while the others were political opportunists. “For him even the revolutionary moment of 1989 was no more than a question of power politics.

This was Viktor Orbán’s first betrayal that was  followed by many more. He betrayed his ally, SZDSZ, and three years later betrayed his own supporters when “he changed Fidesz from a radical liberal party into a party adopting an extreme nationalistic ideology.” No, says Ara-Kovács, these young university and high school students are not at all like the young Orbán, Kövér, Deutsch, Áder, and the others. “Viktor Orbán is not afraid of a meeting with his former self but he is afraid of you. And it is important for you to know that.”

Almost simultaneously with the appearance of Ara-Kovács’s article another news item caught my attention. It is an interview with László Kövér that will appear in tomorrow’s print edition of Heti Válasz. A short description of it is already available on the Internet. According to Kövér, there is no resemblance between today’s “rebels” and their former selves. Ever since the early 1980s they purposefully prepared themselves to accept a political role in the future. “We knew that belonging to the eight percent of the population who received an opportunity to become part of the elite by attending university entailed responsibility. It never occurred to us to leave this country although then there was a dictatorship in Hungary.”

Well, let’s dissect these sentences. Kövér talks about the early 1980s. In the early 1980s no one but no one had the slightest inkling that the days of the Soviet Union were numbered. That its empire would crumble by the end of the decade. Most of us didn’t even know it in 1987 or early 1988. So, if Kövér and Orbán were preparing themselves for political roles they were getting ready to join the socialist political elite of the Kádár regime. It cannot be interpreted in any other way. If that is the case, it is no wonder that they didn’t want to leave the country despite its being a dictatorship. No, they would have been an integral part of that dictatorship. Perhaps those who would actually steer the ship of that one-party regime. Everything Orbán, Kövér, Áder, and some of the others from the original crew are doing right now supports this hypothesis.


  1. @ Ron. I only wanted to reply to Paul that in my eyes Orbán lost three elections (and not just two) – and went into deep depressions each time which had to be clinically treated in Austria. But your details are interesting as I didn’t know them.

  2. So, here is how the Orban PR works. THe government started a a program (Zoltan Balog) to help the poorer families. THe program is a “complex location program” (komplex telepprogram. They allocated 410,000,000 forint (less than 1.5 million euros). They also received some Union Grant that various municipalities can apply for to receive money in order to help the super poor families (including Roma families) to “catch up” to society.
    So, the Hungarian government money for a program is 1.4 million euro. THe EU money that is the “continuation” (as Balogh sad) of the government program is 15.4 million euro.
    Of course at the same time they are firing up the Hungarians against the EU, and they keep quite about this kind of help.
    So, if anyone wonders where is the money coming from for football stadiums, please do not look any further. It is coming from the EU. Less money Fidesz has to spend on the poor more money can go for new stadiums as payoff for football hooligans who keep peaceful demonstrators away from Fidesz and more.

  3. @Some1

    It’s probably worse than you think…it seems as if you believe that the government uses EU money for the welfare program. I’d doubt that. How about this: they even use the EU money for the stadiums! Would that surprise you?

  4. @Charlie H…”How can you treat the poor so badly…”

    I remember a time back in Africa when an agronomist friend of mine took me 30 miles out of the city to a flat area. There was a plaque– it was to be the site of a new university. The country’s politicos used to ferry dignitaries (European/American) and proudly declare their plans…but they needed money. This went on for a number of years when finally the gig was up. I’ll be damned if they didn’t raise double the amount they needed!…And the field still lies there, the ground unturned; but the plaque has been removed–apparently, it works really well as a barbecuing plate.

  5. The first time Orban lost the elections was indeed in 1994. Mid-cycle (1992) they lead the polls, and – as always – he overestimated his talent and his chances. He had thought they would win the elections as the only party in government.
    Fidesz members who later left the party wrote books about how he had ignored and sacked all his previous political advisors. One of the things these advisors had suggested he abandons the constant “komcsizas”, always cursing the socialists, as it was becoming counter-effective. He was traumatized by the failure but a lot of Fidesz politicians were not at all surprised.

  6. Minusio:
    “To me as an informed outsider it looks more like the usual consumer habit of choosing what he/she likes and discarding the rest as worthless. – That democracy needs active participation and some knowledge seems to be foreign to the majority”

    Hungarians have a tendency to think that democracy is about the ability to discard (punish) a government.

    How people thought that a guy who attacks ringfences by hand and announces “We will not negotiate!” (Nem targyalunk!) when in oppositon will be different as a prime minister is beyond me. 😦

  7. The Financial Times has a nice story about VO and the rest regarding the re-nationalization of EON.

    I wonder of the statement in today’s FT-blog http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2013/03/28/hungary-renationalisation-gathers-pace/#axzz2OrtxQzHE is a correct statement.

    “Today the Hungarian state is paying for the transfer of energy assets. But it seems strange that the former anti-communist Orban and Fidesz supporters – all of whom loathe communism and the inefficiencies (and corruption) of the state-owned companies of those times – forget that state companies can quickly become big drains for subsidies funded by taxpayers’ money.”

  8. @Ron: “But it seems strange that the former anti-communist Orban and Fidesz supporters –….– forget that state companies can quickly become big drains for subsidies funded by taxpayers’ money.”

    That’s exactly the point… this way the money can go to their own pockets. They don’t care about the inefficiencies; that will only be a problem on the long run. They are robbing the country blind.

  9. tappanch :
    Religious self-declaration of the population of Budapest, 2011
    no religion+ won’t say 56.79%
    Roman Catholic 28.98%
    Calvinist 8.49%
    Lutheran 1.75%
    Greek Catholic 0.94%
    Jewish 0.46%
    Greek Orthodox 0.21%
    Other 2.38%

    Do you know the old joke about the army (in Hungary)?

    The drill sergeant tells the new recruits: Catholics to the left, protestants to the right, Jews to the back. They all comply except one guy. The sergeant asked him, why he didn’t join any of the groups. The guy replies:
    -I am an atheist.
    The sergeant: Mars a zsidok koze! (You belong with the Jews!)

  10. Minusio :
    @ Paul. What about 1994 when Fidesz got a meager 7.02% of the votes, even less than the 8.95% in the 1990 elections? Orbán had been party chief since 1993. So this must have hit him as a personal failure, I’d have thought.

    It must have done. He would have expected to have raised his party’s vote once he took over, it must have been this that convinced him to switch from liberal to right-wing.

    He was probably right, too – being a second liberal party was never going to lead to anything. But I think Fidesz were actually innocent victims of the reaction against the MDF government and the problems of the early post-regime change years, and the ‘natural’ swing back to the party identified with the ‘good old days’. They were squeezed by political forces completely out of their control.

    And they then benefitted from the huge anti-MSzP reaction four years later. Maybe after losing again in 2002, Orbán finally realised that he hadn’t been able to control whether he won or lost and decided next time he would make sure he won, and this time he would be in control? He missed (just) in 2006, but he made damned sure of it 4 years later.

  11. @ Paul. “But I think Fidesz were actually innocent victims of the reaction against the MDF government and the problems of the early post-regime change years, and the ‘natural’ swing back to the party identified with the ‘good old days’. They were squeezed by political forces completely out of their control.”

    Well, well. I have some issue with “innocent victims”. If what we can read in the thread of this post is true, the Orbán-Köver gang was only out to get power – and keep it. Basically regardless of any system – communist, democratic, “guided-democratic”, you name it. And as far as I can see (and expected), this is what Orbán contrived to get successfully for many a year. And I am sure he used a history table that just described the first year when Hitler was installed Chancellor of Germany. The similarities are just too striking.

    In the early years after 1989, Hungary was the darling of Western investors and had the highest growth rates, despite the fact that it already had the highest debt amongst the ex-Soviet satellites (there is no free lunch, and to maintain the “happiest barrack in the socialist camp” didn’t come cheaply).

    The early years of transition were “financed” by inflation. Inflation is paid for by people who cannot adjust their income (like shop owners could by chalking up their price tags): pensioners, state employees, savers. But I think Hungary did quite well in slowly reducing the inflation rate to below 10% and attracting FDI on a large scale. It was Orbán’s disruptive behaviour that finally split the country that has always been prone to polarisation.

    My two cents’ worth.

  12. ‘Innocent victims’ should have been in quotes. I didn’t mean they were innocent, just that they ended up in power almost by accident – and lost again for much the same reason. Politics ebbed and flowed around them. But Orbán obviously believed he had won because the people wanted him, and it must have hurt when (apparently) they didn’t want him after all, and kicked him out.

    And 2006 must have hurt even more, especially after being made to look a fool by Gy on TV.

    We are where we are because of one small minded, little man’s wounded ego.

  13. @ Paul. “We are where we are because of one small minded, little man’s wounded ego.”

    Yes, this is almost true. Short politicians have rarely been a fortune for their countries (Napoleon, Sarkozy, Berlusconi, Orbán, almost all with less than brilliant education to compensate for their lack in stature – have you ever seen pictures of the footwear of these people?). It’s even worse when all men in a family are called “Victor”, only in different languages (as is the case with Orbán: father, brother, he himself).

    But the lack of a notable civic culture in Hungary is not all Orbán’s fault. He is a product of it. But whose fault is it? Or is it the typical country of slaves let free to burn down their former masters’ houses and then expect their usual lunch pail?

    If it were not for Tusk, we would have seen more of the irrationality of these ghosts (“Poland needs more votes in the EU because of the many dead people it suffered in all these wars.”)

    You know, I only became interested in Hungary in 1993 when I met my Hungarian girlfriend. But we didn’t watch TV much because she could receive only very few channels, all in Hungarian. She didn’t even have a phone then, but not for not trying. But then one day in 1998 we saw the news on the new TV (with a dish) I had brought her from Switzerland and we saw a lot of people who were all introduced in Hungarian, of course. And when I saw a man with interesting, but not politician-like features, I asked my girlfriend: “Is this the national football coach?” No, she said, this Orbán, our new Prime Minister.

    From then on I knew that things would go wrong.

  14. petofi :
    It’s probably worse than you think…it seems as if you believe that the government uses EU money for the welfare program. I’d doubt that. How about this: they even use the EU money for the stadiums! Would that surprise you?

    I think you misunderstood my point. THey have money for the stadiums as they do not have to spend it on the welfare of the people. THere is an idiom “Robs Peter to pay Paul”. THis is what the government is doing with the help of the EU, so as they do not look so bad. THey can build stadiums for money that should of been allocated to the poor because the EU will patch up the money holes created by the stadium projects.

  15. For the record, it was not on June 16th, 1989, that Orbán first talked about the problem of Russian troops being stationed in Hungary. He had actually raised the issue in a speech delivered to a crowd on Kossuth tér three months earlier, on March 15th. (It is worth noting that even the partial pull-out of Soviet forces would not begin until April 25th, not to mention full withdrawal, which only began in 1990.) That March address contained a number of other elements that might be familiar from the more famous June 16th speech. Hungarian speakers can listen in on a five-minute part of the March 15th address here:


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