Bálint Magyar: Viktor Orbán’s post-communist mafia state, Part I

In the past few years I’ve often written about Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ), one of the few active opposition leaders during the Kádár regime. After the change of regime he became a member of parliament and served twice as minister of education in the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition governments. The Fidesz-Christian Democrats who are now running the Hungarian educational establishment have singled him out as their bête noire, responsible for the “deplorable” state of Hungarian education. Magyar stood for everything Rózsa Hoffmann finds wrong with Hungarian education. He tried to bring Hungarian education closer to western models by liberating it from its nineteenth-century shackles. He also had the “temerity” to focus on the child.

But here I don’t want to talk about Magyar’s educational philosophy but rather his latest analysis of the Orbán regime. He began writing about the nature of the Orbán government as early as 2001–that is, during the first Orbán government. This first article in a series over the years showed that Bálint Magyar has a very sharp eye. Already then he noticed that Fidesz functioned as “an organized upperworld” as opposed to an underworld. He called it the “Hungarian octopus.”

His latest thoughts on the subject were published just a few days ago in Élet és Irodalom (June 14, 2013) available only to subscribers. The article is actually an interview he gave to Eszter Rádai. Once again the topic is the nature of the Orbán regime, now full-blown. According to Magyar, the present Hungarian regime is “a post-communist mafia state.”

Bálint Magyar / HVG

Bálint Magyar / HVG

What are the antecedents of this regime? Some political scientists and historians try to find its archetype in the past but, according to Magyar, such comparisons are futile because it is an entirely new phenomenon. In vain can we look to the Horthy regime, to Mussolini’s corporative state, or to Franco’s Spain. We will not find Viktor Orbán’s real inspiration for his regime in any of these systems. None of these earlier models can describe in a comprehensive way the nature of today’s Hungary. It is an entirely new system because, after all, it is post-communist. It cannot be analyzed along the lines of democracy versus dictatorship. Trying to place it along the coordinates of corruption is also mistaken because the Hungarian government’s corruption cannot be measured simply by its degree. It is qualitatively different from the ordinary, garden variety of corruption.

After describing the different stages and degrees of corruption, Magyar arrives at the current Hungarian situation “which the West cannot comprehend and handle.” It is an intricate matrix of a centralized monopoly of corruption by a mafia-like political elite. This elite manages to end the anarchic world of the oligarchs and make them dependent on them. Western observers are not familiar with this kind of mafia state where “a political enterprise becomes an economic enterprise which captures the world of politics as well as the economy with the help of the complete arsenal of the power of the state.”

Magyar shows the difference between ordinary corruption and the mafia-state’s corruption by comparing the building of a football stadium in the 1990s by József Stadler, who became a billionaire by tax evasion, with Orbán’s personal football “empire”. Stadler’s dream was to build a stadium in the middle of nowhere, but eventually he was caught and jailed. The stadium still stands unused. But in today’s Hungary state-owned land is passed on to a middleman called the Ferenc Puskás Football Academy; the parliament sanctions a law allowing tax-free contributions to sports clubs, and, behold, three-quarters of the gifts go to the fourth-rate team of the godfather, i.e. Viktor Orbán. The rich contributors naturally know that if they want to receive state orders and EU monies they’d better support the club of the godfather.

How is this mafia-like political elite organized? Very much like its non-political counterpart. It is based on family and loyalty. It is a clan-like organization in which the family adopts its members. One can see in the latest scandals of the tobacconist shops or the land lease program that loyalty is mixed with family relations. One loyal Fidesz member’s whole extended family gets a piece of the pie.

As for the members of the civil service, their relation to the “family” is somewhat similar to the “service nobility” of Russia. Those of you who studied Russian history are familiar with the tsarist practice of demanding either military or some other kind of state service from members of the lower nobility.

How do these people build the mafia state? First, they make sure that local governments become powerless. Second, they transform parliament into a pseudo-representative body where laws are enacted serving the needs of the “political family.” Third, they limit the power of the opposition parties by not allowing them to campaign, withdrawing financial support, and depriving them of media exposure. Fourth, they put “family members” into important positions. After all this, everything runs smoothly. For the time being they have managed to tame only some of the judges, but it is clear that they are making a serious effort at cleansing their ranks.

According to Magyar, this mafia-state as long as it still belongs to the European Union cannot introduce dictatorship outright. But it doesn’t even need to. Political observers go wrong when they talk about a “concentration of power” on the one hand and corruption on the other. Because these two cannot be divided in this new mafia state since “the system is a centrally directed, rationally executed robbery.”

To be continued