Viktor Orban – a fence too far

Viktor Orban – a fence too far


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Viktor Orban is fencing off the refugees and most Hungarians are solidly behind him.

Hungarians, with their aura of melancholy and one the world’s highest suicide rates, are expected to be short-tempered. Still, when I once interviewed Viktor Orban, years ago, I was surprised to discover how easily he can become ostensibly irate. I got him at some EPP event, when his party Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats) was in the opposition back home, with Orban eager for all the publicity he could muster. An interview arranged through an EPP official, a friend who wanted to please both of us.

Orban had by then managed to persuade the EPP to accept his Fidesz as a member, although he had just villainously left the Liberal International, of which he had been vice chairman since 1992.

Rules were lax then for entering the EPP, which had become a vast political dumping ground, functioning by the logic of numbers. Led by the late Wilfried Martens, the EPP was accepting anyone, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia for instance, or of Ivo Sanader’s Croatian HDZ, provided they claimed to be right-leaning. Orban didn’t need to display much Christian, or even democratic credentials.

I asked Orban what qualified him to claim a christian-democrat identity, and also about his position concerning relations with neighbouring countries, especially with Romania, a country with a sizeable Hungarian minority… and he got irritated. He answered the questions, but showed that he was angry not only with me, but also with the person who mediated the interview. He felt “tricked”, I was told. He hadn’t expected a “hostile” interview.

Orban hates being contradicted. In January 2007 already The Economist criticised him for his “cynical populism and mystifyingly authoritarian socialist-style policies”.

Urban uses Hungarian nationalism and harangues the neighbouring countries in order to maintain himself in power. He prefers to cultivate cold relationships with all Hungary’s neighbours. He even darkly hinted at “autonomy“ for ethnic Hungarians living in Romania, Slovakia, Serbia and Ukraine. Hungary has also granted ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries Hungarian citizenship since 2010.

But nationalism is for Orban just a tool. In order to take absolute power, he was also able to contort Hungary’s electoral system in such a way, that in 2014, Fidesz managed to win two-thirds of all seats in the parliament with only 45 % of the vote.

Orban’s government has in recent years imposed special taxes on the banking, retail and energy sectors as well as on telecommunications providers to keep the budget deficit in check, jeopardising profits in some sectors of the economy and unnerving international investors.

He tried to introduce an”internet tax”W, something that even the ultra-liberal Barroso Commission called a “terrible idea”. He dropped that “terrible idea” only after tens of thousands of Internet users, activist groups and opposition parties manifested against the plan.

He got criticism from the EU, the US and others on his new laws regulating everything from the media to churches, for intimidating independent civic groups, including corruption watchdogs and minority advocates, and also for his efforts to deepen ties with Russia.

Initially Hungary backed the EU sanctions against Russia over the conflict in Ukraine, but then Orban became a vociferous critic of the EU‘s stance against Moscow. He said the EU was “shooting itself in the foot” by implementing the sanctions.

He then had Putin come to Budapest and signed with him a 12 billion euros contract for the building of a nuclear plant, but the clauses remain strictly secret and classified for the next 25 years. Russia will lend 10 billion, and 40% of the work will be done by Hungarian enterprises, but the contracts will be awarded by Orban himself, in Russian style, to companies controlled by his cronies.

But he had after all clearly spelled out his plans, by saying he wants to abandon liberal democracy in favor of an “illiberal state,” citing Russia, China and Turkey as examples. That means he can’t be blamed for his illiberal drift. It was announced. Try criticising him and he will get angry.

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