I often wonder where Viktor Orbán manages to find the characters he surrounds himself with. A former auto repairman is apparently the brains behind the Fidesz propaganda machine. Another new star is a man who knows practically nothing about either economics or business practices but who expounds daily about the blessings of lower utility prices. A former pastry chef is the chief spokesman for the party. The auto repairman is practically invisible, but the others are very much in the limelight.
Stars come and go in the world of Fidesz. Orbán often has a sudden new favorite who catches his eye, and in no time this person finds himself in a very important position. The former favorite is unceremoniously dropped. The chief is, however, generous with those who fall from grace. An important position in some office or state company is normally awarded as a consolation prize.
It was perhaps the rise of Péter Szijjártó that was the most spectacular. At the age of 20, straight out of high school, he became a member of the Győr City Council. A year later he established the local chapter of Fidelitas, the youth organization of the party. At the age of 23 he acquired a high position in the party hierarchy on the county level. During these years he also attended Corvinus University. Straight out of college he became the youngest member of the Hungarian Parliament in 2002.
After 2006 he was promoted to occupy the important position of Fidesz spokesman. He headed the “parrot commando,” as the Fidesz communication team was called by the party’s critics. He became Viktor Orbán’s voice since Orbán himself rarely spoke or gave interviews in those days. Szijjártó also often acted on behalf of the party chairman. For example, he was entrusted with answering a letter from Gordon Bajnai to Viktor Orbán, inviting him to discuss the economic program he was planning to introduce after he agreed to serve as prime minister. It was a rude, impertinent response to Bajnai’s polite letter. I suggest you take a look at that exchange because it tells a lot about Szijjártó, Orbán, and Fidesz. The picture is not pretty.
Once Fidesz won the election, Szijjártó became a personal spokesman for Viktor Orbán. Szijjártó accompanied Orbán everywhere he went. You could see him in Brussels as well as in Moscow, sitting right next to the prime minister. Obviously, he proved to be indispensable as a kind of negotiating partner because in May 2012 at the age of 33 Szijjártó was basically entrusted with Hungary’s foreign policy and trade relations. Foreign Minister János Martonyi is a figurehead; Szijjártó, by contrast, seems to spend more time on airplanes than on the ground. He is in charge of Orbán’s pet project: the opening to the East.
It is hard to tell how successful he is at convincing Far Eastern, Central Asian, and Near Eastern countries to extend trade relations with Hungary. Lots of travel, lots of boasting, a great forecast but apparently the results are meager. His age (after all, he is by now in his mid-thirties) shouldn’t be an obstacle, but unfortunately he looks a great deal younger and doesn’t give the impression of a serious and knowledgeable man. He looks like a punk and I fear he is a punk.
So, let’s see how Szijjártó operates on the ground. He just spent a couple of days in Israel where he gave an “exclusive” interview to The Jerusalem Post. It turns out that Szijjártó, in a meeting with Finance Minister Yair Lapid, “offered Israel access to Hungary’s 7 billion cubic meters of state-owned gas storage.” I assume he was talking about the storage the Hungarian government just bought way above market value from the German company E.on. And then came the usual boasting and exaggeration: “we could be a central European distribution hub for Israeli gas.” While at home the state-owned company just signed an agreement with Gazprom, Szijjártó in Israel complained about dependence on Russian gas which “means that we’re quite defenseless.”
While there, Szijjártó met with executives of Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., including the recently ousted CEO of the company Jeremy Levin who was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Merit Award, one of the highest civilian awards in Hungary. Bad timing, I would say.
I am not sure why Szijjártó felt it necessary to inform the Israeli public and perhaps even the government that Hungary often goes against the policies of the European Union. For example, on the issue of nuclear energy. While the rest of Europe wants to lower or even exclude nuclear energy by 2020, Hungary is moving in an entirely different direction. Right now 43% of electricity comes from nuclear energy in Hungary, and the Orbán government wants it to be 60-70%. Thanks to Szijjártó’s “exclusive” interview, at last the Hungarian people and politicians could learn about Viktor Orbán’s plans, which he hadn’t bothered to share with anyone at home.
He also told the reporter that “while the EU pushed a platform of human rights and diversity, Hungary was forcefully embracing its Christian heritage.” I bet that made a real impression in Israel, especially when in Eastern Europe the largest Jewish community can be found in Hungary. It is not terribly difficult to come to the conclusion that if a nation forcefully defines itself as Christian, the non-Christians might not be considered part of that nation.
Before the rise of Szijjártó to his current position of roving ambassador, Orbán tried to impress China and Russia without much success. The emissary then was Tamás Fellegi, Viktor Orbán’s senior adviser in law school. At least Fellegi looked like a serious negotiator with academic credentials and business experience in the United States and in Hungary. But he failed miserably and was packed away in Washington to head a Hungarian government lobbying group. Then came the “wonder boy.” I wonder how long he will last.