The first act of the drama is over, but I’m almost sure that more will follow since the participants in the recent massive demonstrations know Viktor Orbán only too well. Moreover, in his interview today on Magyar Rádió, he was quite blunt about his resolve to reintroduce the tax. The tax will be adopted “but not this way,” “not in this form.” That’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it?
The problem, according to the prime minister, is that once again the people “misunderstood” the original proposal because there was never any talk about an “internet tax.” The proposed tax was simply an extension of the already existing “telecommunication tax.” Again the same old story: all controversial pieces of legislation are misunderstood by the domestic opposition. And naturally they are misconstrued by the antagonistic domestic and foreign media.
People who know Viktor Orbán are only too aware of his absolute intolerance of contrary opinions. We were reminded of this character trait only today when Tamás Mellár, the conservative economist who worked at Századvég for a year until he resigned in disgust, told the following story to a Népszabadság reporter. One day, when four or five economic experts gathered for a meeting with Orbán, he dared say to the prime minister: “Forgive me, but you are wrong in that.” A deathly silence followed, during which Mihály Varga, minister of national economy, “pulled” Mellár’s hand under the table, signaling to him that such a thing is simply not done.
So, you can imagine the scene when the normally servile reporter who conducts Orbán’s Friday morning radio interviews had the audacity to say that it doesn’t matter whether we call the disputed tax an “internet tax” or a “telecommunication tax”–it is only “playing with words.” A brief silence followed, and one could feel the stunned surprise and wrath of the prime minister. It was a frightening moment. But that was not the only awkward exchange in the conversation. The reporter mistakenly thought that Orbán had exhausted the topic of the internet aka telecommunication tax and wanted to switch over to foreign criticism of Hungarian policies, which he thought was somewhat connected to the upheaval over the internet tax. Orbán snapped at him again. First of all, these two things don’t have anything to do with one another, he claimed, and, second, he does not want to talk about this now. What he wants to bring up and what is very important is that the Hungarian government has an understanding with internet providers to make the whole country internet ready by 2020. This is what is important.
As for the criticisms, Orbán had a very simple answer. Naturally, the accusations of Hungarian wrongdoing have nothing to do with the facts. It is noticeable that criticisms multiply when the government stands up for the Hungarian people which in turn hurts foreign business interests. Right now, for example, after the parliament passed a piece of legislation that forces mostly foreign banks to lighten the burden on Forex borrowers, foreign governments are trying to put pressure on Budapest. Falling into the same category are the mostly foreign internet providers who don’t carry their fair share of the tax burden. They make enormous “extra profits” that they take out of the country. These extra profits disappear into thin air. He leveled this charge despite the fact that earlier in the interview he praised the same foreign internet providers for continuing to pour enormous sums of money into the development of broadband service.
Finally, Orbán announced a “national consultation” on the subject of the non-“internet tax.” Tamás Deutsch, a member of the European Parliament who hangs out on Twitter all day long entertaining people with his obscenities, will be in charge of this grand consultation. Although Deutsch thinks that the tax is “stupid,” he called the protesters “ragamuffins” and “stink bugs.” As for the so-called “national consultation,” we have witnessed a few of these in the past and we know that they are a farce. Viktor Orbán sends out millions of questionnaires to voters containing questions that beg for affirmative answers that justify the government’s position. For example, “internet dependency is a serious psychological illness” or “the internet is dangerous to young people because of pedophiles roaming the Net.”
As for the mysterious “extra profit,” I get annoyed every time I hear someone use the term. And unfortunately one hears it far too often. It stirs up old memories of a compulsory university course called “political economy.” In it one learned the Leninist definition of extra profit. According to Lenin, extra profit derives from the exploitation of workers in the colonies. These extra profits are then distributed at home to raise the living standard of the working class in order to keep them quiet. According to Marxist-Leninist theory, all profit is based on exploitation of the workers but the extra profit is achieved by taking exploitation beyond the normal level. The notion of extra profit in today’s public discourse makes not the slightest sense. Viktor Orbán is taking advantage of the Hungarian people’s discomfort with capitalism and what it entails–including competition and profit–and invoking concepts from the very same communism he wants to banish once and for all from the country. And, by the way, the profit these providers earn is apparently rather low.
So, will Viktor Orbán’s announcement this morning quiet the protesters? It looks as if Viktor Orbán’s interview, widely reported in the foreign press as announcing a withdrawal of the tax–a capitulation by the prime minister, did not impress Hungarians. Tonight József nádor tér was still full of demonstrators, and the slogans and posters highlighted various “sins” of the government. For example: “Viktor, you will find the extra profit in Felcsút.” Norwegian and EU flags were seen everywhere. The speakers announced that there is no need for “national consultation” because that already took place in the last few days on the streets of Budapest and other Hungarian cities. The speakers argued that the government needs extra taxes because of the corrupt tax authorities.
In Szeged a very large crowd gathered tonight. Here the speakers covered several topics, including corruption and the lack of media freedom. The internet is the only “free island which the government hasn’t occupied yet.” It is, one speaker claimed, the most significant invention since the discovery of fire and the wheel and the symbol of Hungarians’ tie to Europe. “We cannot stop at the internet tax, let’s demolish the walls while they are not yet plastered and painted. … Long live freedom and the fatherland!”