Viktor Orbán, the economist and the foreign policy expert

The consensus in Hungary is that Viktor Orbán’s speech before the Hungarian diplomatic corps and representatives of the foreign embassies was more muddled than usual.

Contrary to what I thought yesterday, Orbán didn’t read his speech that lasted, by the way, almost an hour but spoke extemporaneously. Since he hardly ever dares to speak at such length without a written text, he has little practice in the art of spontaneous oration. That might be one reason for the confused nature of his message.

The second reason is, and I guess this is the real problem, that foreign policy, international relations, diplomacy are not strong suits of the Hungarian prime minister. Unfortunately, due to Viktor Orbán’s political omnipotence, Hungarian foreign policy is entirely within his purview. A mini foreign ministry was created inside the Office of the Prime Minister; Foreign Minister János Martonyi can either twiddle his thumbs or try to explain away Orbán’s alienating statements.

First, some general observations about the speech. Orbán looked less haggard than usual. Perhaps the reason for his healthier countenance was a four-day vacation in Croatia accompanied by his body guards. The newspaper report made no mention of his wife and children. What it did mention was that he insisted on having a room in which he could watch a Hungarian sports television station and MTV!

Viktor Orbán claimed that, before delivering the speech, he consulted with Péter Gottfried, an old hand at the Foreign Ministry who served almost all governments since the change of regime and currently foreign policy adviser to Orbán. Mind you, he was already in a high government position during the Kádár regime. Gottfried seems to have warned the prime minister to stay clear of certain subjects, but Orbán didn’t listen. Perhaps he should have.

I was somewhat surprised about Orbán’s repeated claim that those present, including he himself, were at one time or another “intellectuals,” “members of the intelligentsia.” The implication was that, due to his intellectual prowess, he is a better judge of the current economic and political situation in the world than (mercifully unnamed) others.

He also tried to be funny, but his sense of humor always has an edge to it. It often involves the degradation of someone else. In this case the butt of his jokes was János Martonyi. Right off the bat he announced that “the danger no longer exists that the foreign minister will give the prime minister’s speech [but] if some of the questions require his competence he should without any fear take part in this consultation.” Isn’t that generous of him!

At least this year he allowed the European Union flags to be displayed unlike last year / Népszabadság, Photo Simon Móricz

At least this year he allowed the European Union flags to be displayed, unlike last year Népszabadság, Photo Simon Móricz

The complete speech, unfortunately without his responses to the questions, is now available on the prime minister’s website. It is unfortunate because some of the juicier remarks about Russia, Germany, and the United States were delivered during the question-and-answer period.

In the body of the speech he spoke at length about the accomplishments of his government. Allegedly he dwelt on this subject only because he is supposed to follow tradition, but he is never shy when it comes to his alleged achievements. The list he offered to the ambassadors was the usual fare, complete with the usual lies.

We know that the national debt is not lower today than it was three years ago. We know that Hungary’s self-financing through the financial markets is more expensive than getting a loan from the IMF and the EU. We know that the IMF loan is not “dole.” We also know that the situation of the forex borrowers is not solved and that unemployment didn’t decrease.

After his lengthy introduction Orbán began talking about the financial and economic crisis of the European Union and pondered the nature of this long-lasting recession. The outstanding question, according to him, is whether this particular crisis is just one of those periodic crises characteristic of market economies or whether it is the beginning of a permanent and steady decline of the European Union. He didn’t give a specific answer to this question, but given Orbán’s earlier references to the decline of the West, we can be pretty confident that he considers the current economic situation in Europe the beginning of the end.

But if this is Orbán’s “Spenglerian” vision, the rest of the speech is pretty incomprehensible because he began talking about the necessity of a strong eurozone on which Hungary is economically dependent. Right now it is the sluggish eurozone that is holding Hungary back. In brief, Hungary’s poor economic performance in the last three years is due to the failures of those Brussels bureaucrats who don’t seem to understand that it is Viktor Orbán who has the key to success. They are stuck in the mud; they keep insisting on the same rules and regulations for everybody and they call this “predictability.”

Yes, we know that the unpredictability of Hungarian legislative moves over the last three years wreaked havoc on every facet of life in Hungary and that it especially did a lot of harm as far as foreign and domestic investments were concerned. Companies never knew what was coming next. One day levies on banks, the next day on telecommunication companies, the following day on utility companies, one can go on and on. But, claims Orbán, the crisis will never end without what he calls “selectivity.” You select your victims almost at random. According to Orbán, this unpredictable behavior is the secret of his success, without which the western nations will never in this stinking life (büdös életben) get out of this crisis.

He outlined another theory of his, again connected to his being an intellectual. The European Union made a mistake when it waited until 2004 to allow the ten central-eastern European nations to join the Union. If it had moved in 1995, it is possible that the EU could have completely avoided the financial crisis brought over the Atlantic from the United States. He put forth this theory based on the current situation. If we look around in the European Union, only those countries that joined the Union later show any economic growth. (He conveniently forgot about Hungary’s track record.)

And finally, he talked about his conflicts over sovereignty with the European Union. The media describe this conflict as a war of independence. Actually he likes this term, but he is not fighting against the European Union but is fighting for the maintenance of a correct balance between union and national rights. The EU cannot change the rules. Right now a stealth attempt at federalization is taking place. Of course, this is also nonsense because the founders of the European Union from the very beginning envisaged ever closer relations among the member states that might eventually result in a United States of Europe.

Out of this mumbo jumbo I tried to figure out what Orbán really wanted to say. Basically, he condemned both the methods and the economic principles that politicians and economic experts in the European Union apply. They are dead wrong in demanding predictability and traditional remedies. With these policies they retard the Hungarian economy and the economies of other Eastern European nations that are the engines of growth in Europe.

With this attitude the cold war between Hungary and the rest of Europe will not come to an end any time soon. Unless, of course, the Hungarian people become tired of their intellectual prime minister next April.

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22 comments

  1. “But, claims Orbán, the crisis will never end without what he calls “selectivity.” You select your victims almost at random. According to Orbán, this unpredictable behavior is the secret of his success, without which the western nations will never in this stinking life (büdös életben) get out of this crisis. ”

    Well, this is pretty much a give-way to Orban’s personal philosophy. In a way it IS a successful strategy… It is a good strategy if your goal is to keep power by confusing and intimidating others. Nothing keeps “subjects” in check better than being “punished” randomly. But it is not a good strategy for building a stable and prosperous country.

  2. Sounds like a triage by clueless people. The wheel of fortune. Orban’s and Simicska’s fortunes.

  3. Foreign policy does not matter. It’s perhaps the only political domain that does not matter in Hungary — since it is only the Hungarian people who will vote for (or against) Orbán and not the citizens of Belgium or the US. Simple as that. This is the only rule Orbán follows re foreign policy and this is what he will always follow. Only the Left is weak enough to care about what foreigners say and are even willing to sacrifice domestic popularity to satisfy foreigners. Orbán knows better — hence his popularity ratings, which are improving by the day and the has not even started the engines (spending on popular issues).

    Gottfried is indeed nteresting. It is difficult to find a picture of him, but just looking very superficially his CV, several of his positions pre-1990, were probably intelligence related jobs under diplomatic/foreign trade cover. Exactly the type of person Orbán loves and trusts. Though he is probably smart too, to serve so many governments.

  4. @Zeman: “Only the Left is weak enough to care about what foreigners say and are even willing to sacrifice domestic popularity to satisfy foreigners. ”

    Sounds like you are buying into the Orban mantra that foreigners and foreign policy doesn’t matter. Yes, it’s true, but only if you are following a very short-sighted and very self-serving strategy with the single aim of maximizing your power… even at the cost of the country’s best interests.

    Wise politicians manage foreign relation to their countries’ advantage and not solely for their own political gains. Look at the foreign investment coming into Hungary… it’s paltry. Without EU money Orban would not be able sustain his feudal-lord system very long.The country is paying a high price for Orban’s “bravery”. The full effects of such a confrontational attitude and isolation take time to develop. Orban may be successful in inciting anti-foreign sentiments for the time being, but on the long run, politicians usually don’t survive if they ruin their country (and under politicians, I include wannabe dictators as well). And his self-serving ways that ALWAYS put his own interest (driven by his pathological need for power) above the country’s can only lead to a disaster.

  5. Simple physics for the followers of Victor The Intellectual:
    if you are being repelled on one side –the West–you are being propelled to the other–the East.

    Ahh, the fresh airs of Moscow!

  6. @Zeman33

    Why do you think OV did such a long speech at this meeting before election year?

    It isn’t a matter of right or left. If the current government was socialist, and triggering the same wave of international criticism as this one, the right would certainly exploit it.

    Now, I agree it has little *direct* impact on most voters. However, several categories are directly concerned. Very small ones, like the diplomatic corps, or other high-ranking civil servants. Influent ones, like business owners focused on exports, or people in businesses depending upon foreign investment. And maybe not-so-small ones like Hungarians making a living in ‘the West’.

    Remember, those people have friends, families, customers etc. With whom they do, from time to time, exchange views about the current state of the country. Much like shopkeepers. Their discontent alone isn’t enough, but when it corroborates the discontent of those who are not directly concerned with Foreign policy and the image of Hungary abroad, it isn’t good.

    If the majority and the opposition are otherwise neck-to-neck in an election, a strong lack of support from these categories may help swing the balance. A marginal effect, no doubt, but hard to dismiss entirely.

  7. To An: in a normal Western country you may be right. But, you see, even voters don’t care (hence Orbán’s increasing popularity). They adore Orbán even if the GDP has been declining for five years sraight (including surely 2013 even if in agriculture there will have a bumber harvest), that unemployment is stubbornly high, that investment figures have been declining and have been way beyond regional averages.

    They don’t care and – try to get this – most Hungarian seem to be happy (or at least content). And If that is the way most Hungarians (at least the most stable plurality, but sorry this is how the election system works now) can be made happy, then, well, Orbán is right: he only delivers what voters want. (Sure, he makes a bit for himself on the side, but everyone knows politicians are corrupt, so this is not a surprise.)

    And if there is a really big disaster, then we can still blame the EU, the US, the bankers, the Roma, the Jews etc.

    In politics, if you have the slightest inhibitions, you are lost. Orbán learnt that very early on, only the naive Western diplomats thought him to be the new hope, becaus they themselves wanted to believe that. Orbán knows that the EU or any the foreign countries such as Germany have no relevance whatsoever. I believe that the events of the last 2-3 years amply proved that, no further argument is necessary.

    What you argue is essentially what you would like to have in Hungary. It would be nice. But it works the other way round, as a politicians you try to understand what people want, and then try to achieve that even if there is an opposition from minority people (such as intellectuals who read leftist media who make up about 2% of the voting age population).

    Perhaps the strangest or most difficult conclusion is that people love what they have. They complain surely, as Hungarians always do, but at the end of the day, they are happy with the powerful Orbán. Thereby they can also feel powerful at least on a vicarious way: as against the banks (they need to pay more taxes), the EU (we are entitled to their money but we are sovereign and Brussels must respect that) etc.

  8. @Zeman 33

    Why do you think OV did such a long speech at this meeting before election year?

    It isn’t a matter of right or left. If the current government was socialist, and triggering the same wave of international criticism as this one, the right would certainly exploit it.

    Now, I agree it has little *direct* impact on most voters. However, several categories are directly concerned. Very small ones, like the diplomatic corps, or other high-ranking civil servants. Influent ones, like business owners focused on exports, or people in businesses depending upon foreign investment. And maybe not-so-small ones like Hungarians making a living in ‘the West’.

    Remember, those people have friends, families, customers etc. With whom they do, from time to time, exchange views about the current state of the country. Much like shopkeepers. Their discontent alone isn’t enough, but when it corroborates the discontent of those who are not directly concerned with Foreign policy and the image of Hungary abroad, it isn’t good.

    If the majority and the opposition are otherwise neck-to-neck in an election, a strong lack of support from these categories may help swing the balance. A marginal effect, no doubt, but hard to dismiss entirely.

  9. If the Parliament passes a new law on the FX loans, e.g. to enable borrowrs to repay them at original exchange rates, that will be a simple robbery as well as a de facto state bankruptcy. They could certainly achieve one thing: banks will make their list (at least those who stay in the country, if any) and will never to these people, nor to their families, never ever. Im not telling that it is a catastrophy, at least not for those who were taking risk in a reasonable manner and requested loans in HUF or for reasonable purposes and for the new suzuki just to have one or for a Caribbean holiday, or, for that matter a house bigger than otherwise ever could have been afforded. Citizen’s responsibility: that is which is missing here. Loss should be shared. If Hungary eliminates the responsibility of citizens entirely, then it puts oil to the fire feeding the Hungarian attitude which caused already many troubles.

  10. @Kiskomeny

    So..Hungarians like the present situation, do they? And, they’re pleased with a ‘strong’ leader, and the situation is stable, is it? Yeah, I’ll bet….

    Maybe we should ask the 40,000 small grocers who lost the right to sell cigarettes and saw their income drop by 30%. Or, perhaps, more precisely, we should
    ask the newspaper seller who’s shop near us was unceremoniously shut down, without warning, by the distributor because they lost the right to sell cigarettes.
    I wonder if that fellow appreciated the ‘stability’ of today’s Hungary. One day a job–for which he paid by depositing a huge sum in order to run the shop–and next day, nothing. (I have no idea how long the distributor will delay returning his deposit…)

    So, this is ‘strong’; this is ‘decisive’; and this is as stable as a grave.

    The only thing this government has achieved is a level of intimidation that reprises the Middle Ages. In fact,
    Hungary seems to have missed all the intermediary developments since. But, by golly, the Magyars are damn proud, ain’t they?

    HAJRA MAGYAROK! (–The dancing monkeys of the globe; and thanks to UFO’s, the cosmic laughing stock of the near-far…).

  11. @Kiskomény:

    You wrote: “most Hungarian seem to be happy (or at least content)”.

    Are you sure ? Even here around the affluent Hévíz many people complain about their finances and in Eastern Hungary (where we just visited my wife’s family) things don’t only look really bad but people also – we heard about a lot of burglaries, people are afraid, business is bad/non-existent.

    BTW the latest polls all had a majority on “Hungary is getting worse”, “things have to change” etc – but still Orbán is liked by so many.

    I just don’t get it …

  12. Re the Forex loans:

    Those people who took out those loans had the advantage at first of paying much lower interest rates than they would have had to pay on a loan in HUF – so that should be calculated too …

    Whatever the “solution” of the Fidesz government for this will be – I’m sure that it will be ridiculous, expensive and unjust for most of the borrowers!

    OT re the tobacco shops:

    I#ve already seen a lot of angry faces this week – people at their old shops/gas stations etc complaining and swearing …

  13. I think the current poll results (assuming they are correct) show the following: People are unsatisfied with the government, but not as they were with MSZP.

    You don’t feel (for whatever reason, maybe they are afraid to show that of course) that people would want Fidesz to go away by any means, although partly because 4 years ago it was (and had been) clear what the solution was: Fidesz., it was a slam dunk.

    Now, it is unclear, perhaps even to Fidesz and so hope and expectations are not concentrated and therefore the expression of the dissatisfaction is also weaker. But equally importantly, Fidesz is still, by far the strongest block of voters (with huge reserves at Jobbik) with an extremely formidably get out the vote organisation, with unlimited funds and media access.

    If you add these things up, you have to conclude that that people deep down like Fidesz, perhaps they also love to hate them, as all feelings are ambivalent and people are full of contradictions. But in the absence of a clear winner and an opportunity to focus hope on, people are OK with Fidesz, after all Fidesz delivers (or at least that is the perception, which is the same in politics) what people – that is the majority, who are not intellectuals, who have zero idea about the economy or foreign policy or constitution – want: cheaper energy, feeling of strength against the banks, foreigners, the imagined enemies, regulation of the untamable Romas (through public works) etc.

    It is also a very clear strategy: if you are ‘enthusiastic’ enough about Fidesz and willing to work hard to support the party, you will get rewarded, you will get a tobacco shop, state subsidies for your business, agricultural lease opportunities etc. No public procurement whatsoever is awareded to supposed opposition sysmpathizers, even the smallest state-related business gets decided on political grounds. This provides Fidesz with a great opportunity to build its base, its network of supporters in rural (outside Budapest) areas, exactly where the election gets decided.

    So I think the polls show it correctly that people are not fed up with Fidesz (although MSZP, besides lacking media which is the result of its own visionlessness, is simply too feeble to incite hatred like Fidesz could). People may have problems with Fidesz, but presently they don’t want supposed Commies to come back (but they would like to see Jobbik in a stronger position, though). Since commies, leftists, liberals are simply symbols for badness, you cannot want them to return and so people don’t.

  14. @FoxiMaxi, I don’t that the the polls show what you think they show. The most important message is that a large segment of voters (1.5 millions) are still undecided. However, given the presence of other indicators it looks to me that this group is rather against Fidesz than for it one there is a united opposition they might find their party.

    As for Jobbik, sure. It is a reserve alright except I don’t believe that Orbán will dare to form a coalition with Vona.

  15. Eva S. Balogh :
    @FoxiMaxi, I don’t that the the polls show what you think they show. The most important message is that a large segment of voters (1.5 millions) are still undecided. However, given the presence of other indicators it looks to me that this group is rather against Fidesz than for it one there is a united opposition they might find their party.
    As for Jobbik, sure. It is a reserve alright except I don’t believe that Orbán will dare to form a coalition with Vona.

    I beg to disagree: he’ll do it, and rejoice at the consequent commotion. Anyway, Jobbik is his creation and he plays it like Putin does United Russia–lessons learned on the knee of the master…

  16. Now for something totally OT:

    We went to the local OBI and they showed the latest product by BOSCH:

    A lawnmower robot – 400 000 Forint is the price (including battery charger).

    Who in Hungary is going to buy this ?

  17. Eva: I don’t think OV will form a coalition with Jobbik either. That would be very inconvenient for both parties (especially for Jobbik!). I think he will rather form a minority government with outside Jobbik support. And if the polls indicate that a hung parliament is about to happen, I’m sure he’ll do some constitutional amendment, that even governing in minority shouldn’t be a problem.

  18. “..I don’t believe that Orbán will dare to form a coalition with Vona.”

    Eva, Orbán will dare to do everything to keep his empire, no reservations.
    We haven’t seen half of it what he’s capable of, I’m afraid.

  19. Well, the great idol, Horthy managed to bury Hungary.
    Anybody would notice it today that he failed the nation?
    Orban has failed the people.
    No difference, the liars of sort of journalists, and reporters will deny it for eternity.
    Bartus! Galamus! Balogh! are the exceptions.

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