The Hungarian mafia war

As I reread yesterday’s post, I realized that I failed to capture both the tone and the importance of what happened yesterday in Hungary. Many commentators consider the “media war” between Viktor Orbán and Lajos Simicska to be the most serious political crisis of the last twenty-five years, a crisis that may cost Viktor Orbán his political career. I agree. February 6, 2015 was a critically important day.

Simicska’s outburst offered us an opportunity to peek behind the curtain of Viktor Orbán’s regime. What we see there is devastating. Hungary is being governed by a crime syndicate, something outsiders had told us, but until yesterday we had no inside confirmation. Now we know. If you try to leave, if you fall from grace, you can easily imagine that your life might be in danger. The members of this mafia family are immoral and dangerous thieves, ready to do anything. In fact, they are more dangerous than an ordinary mafia family because in their hands is the entire state apparatus–the power of legislation, the judiciary system, the police, the army. As Ildikó Lendvai said on Facebook, “Media war? Oh no, mafia war… War of gangsters broke out.”

Viktor Orbán in nice company Source: Die Welt / Photo Getty

Viktor Orbán among his friends and comrades
Source: Die Welt / Photo Getty

Yesterday I couldn’t quote Simicska’s exchanges with reporters at any length because of all his obscenities, some of which I simply didn’t know how to translate. The Budapest Beacon, however, took up the challenge and translated the interview between Simicska and József Nagy of Hír24 in its entirety. You might want to take a look.

Simicska seems determined to go all the way with his fight. He doesn’t hide the fact that he knows all the dirt behind the rise of the Young Democrats, the crew from the István Bibó College. If he decided to tell all, Viktor Orbán would immediately fall from grace. But can Simicska reveal everything he knows about the old crew–Viktor Orbán, László Kövér, János Áder, József Szájer, just to mention the top leadership that gathered in the second half of the 1980s? Simicska might be terribly upset at the moment, but once he has calmed down he should realize that he cannot reveal the criminal activities in which these men have been involved over the years without implicating himself. He must also have figured out long before he decided on an open attack that his decision will have severe financial consequences. He can say goodbye to his lucrative business ventures, which have been conducted exclusively with the government. Of course, it is possible that Simicska decided that he is rich enough and therefore no longer needs the prime minister’s help. Perhaps he stashed away his billions somewhere outside of Hungary. In any event, Viktor Orbán seems to have the upper hand here because behind him is the power of the state. But we shouldn’t underestimate Simicska, who is an exceedingly capable fellow and a skilled manipulator. Even his former friend Viktor Orbán had to admit that “Lajos is the cleverest among us.”

For the time being the top leaders of Fidesz decided to act as if nothing happened. They made sure that the state television’s evening news buried the “news of the day.” First they talked about the excellent performance of Hungarian industry. This was followed by a story on the government’s efforts to create more jobs. Next they announced that the government decided to have a “national consultation” to determine whether Hungarians want illegal immigrants or not. Only then came the news that the editors of Magyar Nemzet, HírTV, and Lánchíd Rádió had resigned and that Simicska gave several interviews, but what he said was not reported, allegedly because of the obscenities. Not a word about his disapproval of Orbán’s pro-Russian policies or his accusation that Hungary today is building another dictatorship.

In my opinion, those people, including the Fidesz leadership, who think that this whole thing will blow over are wrong. Their argument is that very few people will even hear about the incident. I disagree. Both Origo and HVG have close to a million readers a day, and the news about the Simicska-Orbán affair has been all over the internet. Those who don’t use the internet will hear the story from colleagues at work, from neighbors, or on the streets. Even a right-wing blog, Jobbegyenes (Straight right), argued that Orbán made a mistake in turning against the right-wing media developed and financed by Simicska. Both the Antall government and the first Orbán government tried to rely exclusively on state television and radio but both had to realize that this was not enough. Once Fidesz loses power, it will also lose MTV and MR and then what? It was Simicska who between 2002 and 2010 created the pro-Fidesz media empire that made the 2010 Fidesz victory possible.

I gather from an interview with Sándor Csintalan, who currently works for Lánchíd Rádió, that a certain percentage of Lajos Simicska’s business profits has been turned over to Fidesz for at least the last fifteen years. It was Simicska’s money that kept Fidesz financially comfortable. A great deal of that money, of course, came from the European Union. The EU not only kept the country afloat economically; it also unwittingly poured money into Fidesz coffers. But now, it seems, Viktor Orbán believes he no longer needs Simicska’s financial help, especially if that assistance comes at a price, meaning political influence.

At the moment Simicska is spending a week abroad while his new editors are working hard to reshape the political messages of his television station and Magyar Nemzet. I watched HírTV ‘s newscast last night, and it seemed balanced and factual. In Magyar Nemzet an editorial appeared written by Attila Kristóf entitled “Whose responsibility?” in which he is critical of the Orbán government’s most recent unfortunate decisions. According to him, “some Fidesz politicians have a lifestyle that alienates some Fidesz loyalists.” There is already disappointment, a sentiment that might change into antipathy. Of course, at the moment there is no alternative to Fidesz. The author pessimistically remarks at the end that “we don’t know what kind of future is awaiting us.”

Neither does Lajos Simicska or, for that matter, Viktor Orbán.

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71 comments

  1. Merkel’s visit was accompanied by a raised level of terrorist threat – which justified calling off the protest in the morning which had been planned for at least a month. Apart from that the area was ‘sealed’ by police until around lunchtime – I assumed it was all a bit of a show, but we cannot know if there really was a threat or not. Given the Greek elections and the events in Paris, I am sure it was all done to make Hungary look like a nation which took the security of a visiting head of state seriously.

    In terms of the language that Simicska used – I agree that the Beacon’s translation did not reflect the depth of vulgarity or anger. The translation by the Canadians in Hungarian Free Press may have captured the sense slightly more accurately. In reality its hard to communicate the significance of the fall out – it doesn’t translate so easily, but I have to say that the Hungarian Spectrum gets as close as its possible to get.

    On the other hand, I suspect Hungary increasingly looks like some some minor ‘banana’ republic where its hard to distinguish between the ridiculousness of truth and fiction – rather Mr Bean than the Godfather.

    The shame is that so few people outside of Hungary understand enough Hungarian to really get the stupidity of it all, and the tragedy.

  2. “On the whole I’m quite a pessimist and tend to agree with Paul.”

    Thank you for your support, CC – but I would describe myself more as a realist. A true pessimist would have given up years ago, whereas I still hope there will be a miracle!

  3. BRITINBUDAPEST:
    In my opinion the real vulgar statement from Simicska was, that political murders are happening now in Hungary (they always had political murders in Hungary), he said, that he can be shot, run over by a car, etc.. Yes, this is very vulgar, because this is the truth.

  4. OT: Janos Kotel a member of ultra-right Jobbik party won the interim election in a small town.
    Let’s see one of Janos Kotel’s program on his Facebook account.
    Regarding the Gyongyospata atrocities: “Let’s finally kill them all, the son of a bitch GYPSIES!”
    A reply from one his supporters:
    “When I have lots of money, I will invest it in automatic weapons
    I purchase so much ammunition that it will not even fit in my arms
    wherever I go the gypsies will fall I will feel sorry for the ammunition that misses
    I do not mind all the ammunition, I WILL KILL ALL THE GYPSIES.”
    I tried to stay true to the original stanzas that are based on a popular Hungarian song.
    Can you imagine in any developed country with a political figure like that? There is no way, someone lie Kotel could even run after publishing dead threats.

  5. @Paul on swear words. I have a funny story. I was doing some research about a Hungarian teacher who taught biology in an elementary school. I wanted to know more about the school and I went to their webpage. It turned out that part of the website was done by the kids. One of the first sentences read something like this: “please don’t use bad words.” So comes the first comment: “This website is “kurva jó.” It simply means by now: very, very good.

  6. Éva: As you know, Europeans don’t have the same media law and guidelines as we do, that certain words cannot appear in the media, accessible for adults and kids without adult supervision in the daytime. The USA was founded largely by Puritans and on Puritan morals and this is still a strong influence here.

  7. We’re just watching the really funny or rather crazy Üveg Tigris 3 on MTV2 – probably even Rudolf Péter couldn’t have written a script for the “war” that’s started right now …

  8. The Germans don’t know either what to do with the obcenities. Here is an example: in Hungarian the sentences read:

    “De az kurvára nem volt benne ebben a szövetkezésben, hogy felépítünk helyette egy másik diktatúrát.”

    In German:

    „Aber bei diesem Bündnis war – zum Teufel! – nicht die Rede davon, dass wir stattdessen eine neue Diktatur errichten.“

    Quite a bit of difference.

    http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/ausland/europa/ungarn-orban-verliert-einen-engen-weggefaehrten-13415245.html

  9. CARPATHIAN ETHNOGRAPHY

    I don’t think people need to be de-programmed in order to vote out a government. They just need to know where to place (or not to place) an X.

    In Hungary, Orban controls almost all the programming media, the economy, the constitution, the parliament’s daily make-a-laws, the military, the police, the attorney-general (a Poltical [sic] appointee), the President, the ombudsman, and most (but not all) of the judges; and of course all the high crime franchise.

    His biggest ally in staying in power, however, is none of the above, but the Hungarian popular self-image, transmitted through word-of-mouth and example from generation to generation: a mix of self-pity, self-aggrandisement, and visceral resentments and recriminations against one and all (including fellow-Hungarians).

    That is not “programming” (at least not by Orban). It’s called *culture* (or lack thereof). And it’s so firmly rooted in enough Hungarians that it is still there, in full bloom, in a strikingly large proportion of even the expat community that has been living in the free-thinking world for decades, or even lifelong.

    And Orban is not another one of the Carpathian “geniuses.” He just lacks all scruples, so does not hesitate to play on this entrenched (and odious) cultural quirk of his (willing) audience.

    Simicska is every bit as much of a scumbag (probably the closest gloss for the seminal meme now getting all the get-sees, to the eternal glory of latter-day Pannonian culture planet-wide) as Orban. But maybe a vile (or violent) rumble among the capi will — per impossibile — rattle the culture too, this time.

    (Apart from that, both dons seem to have a goodly dose of psychopathology. Looks like some sort of personality disorder with paranoid features in Orban; Simicska has kept too low a profile to confirm whether he too is a vindictive control freak with delusions of grandeur or just an alcoholic capo with far too much loot and pull, answerable to no one. But I’m not a clinician…)

  10. It always make me laugh when people talk about media like Hír TV in the context of political influence.
    Neither Magyar Nemzet nor Hír TV wield any real political power to influence the electorate. Hír TV’s audience is tiny (around the 1% of viewing mark) and I forget how many people read Nemzet but it’s a few tens of thousands. Simicska’s radio interests are lot stronger but the jewel in his crown is the poster business. At election time Hungary looks just like an advertisment for fidesz with Orban smiling serenely down upon the entire nation with the tricolour flying behing him – a most disturbing image of it just came into my head.
    However with most of his poster sites siting on the property of local government and state owned companies like MAV that are still firmly in the hands of fidesz the business is vulnerable to state interference which in this mafia state means that local town halls will be instructed to start taking them down.

  11. But that’s Johnson, CC, and it was only ‘wankers’ – and not directed at fellow politicians. Not quite up there with the Hungarians!

    Now, if he’d called Cameron a wanker, then I would be impressed!

  12. A little OT, but continuing with the same theme:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-31168246

    I can’t imagine a serious UK politician, even one from the far-right, making statements like this about the Roma – or anyone else. They may think it, but they know they would lose all credibility if they said it.

    And yet in Hungary, not only do politicians openly say these awful, racist things, but no one seems particularly bothered about it.

    When you consider episodes like this, and what they tell us about Hungarians, I often wonder if Hungary is really fit to be part of the EU. The consensus in the UK is that countries like Serbia and Turkey aren’t yet ready for EU membership – pretty much for the same reasons.

  13. The translation in the Budapest Beacon does not kind convey the meaning of the keyword of the Simicska rants about Orban last Friday. The word “geci” is a slang for sperm that is understood by everyone, and is used frequently (indeed mostly) by people who use millions of swearwords as a filler. The meaning is usually figurative and refers to the moral inferiority/objectionable nature of someone, typically suggesting that the person is mean, cynical, or ill-intended. Of course it is offensive to be called a “geci”. At a press conference on Monday Orban refused to comment, and in fact smiled when he was asked about Simicska’s rant. This is probably the best they can do now but it is also a kind of admission – yes, we are the kind of half-infantile half-immoral lot who are used to engage in talk like this.

  14. My German/Hungarian slang dictionary has a second meaning for geci:
    Scheißkerl i e really horrible, absolutely unscrupulous bad man …

  15. But the most important part of the whole Simicska story is that Orban apparently finished building up an alternative supply route for vast amounts of embezzled money leading to unknown pockets that may include party coffers as well as his own family account and thus he can afford a breakup with Simicska. If you search for articles on the Hungarian news portals with the keywords “MET”, “gas import”, and “Garancsi”, you will find many details about this. The key implications are (1) Orban has a more direct control over the dirty money that feeds his political empire than in the past; and (2) there is a price for that though, which is that this route only works as long as he makes political favors to Putin and remains in control of the Hungarian state. Hence at the end Simicska is in a way right when he suggests that his own diminishing personal influence means less democracy in Hungary.

  16. After reading an article on the etymology and usage of the word “geci,” I am still pleased with my translation of it as “prick” which means “a person considered to be mean or contemptible, especially a man.” According to the article I read it is used in Hungarian very much in the same meaning: “malevolent, evil person, someone who treats others badly.”

  17. Interesting that, when ‘we’ want to really insult someone, we invariably refer to them by comparison to a sexual organ.

    What on earth does that say about us?

  18. @Paul:
    Maybe because many children were taught that sex is something “dirty”?
    Interestingly enough in German the excretive functions are used more often in this respect.

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