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Three Myths About Viktor Orbán and His Remaking of Hungary

Even commentators who claim to be familiar with Hungary get some big things wrong.
September 21, 2021
Three Myths About Viktor Orbán and His Remaking of Hungary
Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban in Brussels, Belgium, on February 21, 2020 (Photo by Riccardo Pareggiani/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

When Hungarian armies invaded Europe around a.d. 900, shooting arrows from horseback and swirling like dervishes in their saddles, the terrified defenders of Western Christendom confused these “breeds of Satan” with descendants of Attila the Hun, the feared and famed enemy of the late Roman Empire. In truth, the Hungarians had just galloped in from the Russian steppes, where they spoke in a strange tongue unrelated to the other languages of Europe. Unkempt eaters of uncooked meat, they called themselves Magyars, but everyone else, not sure how to pronounce the name, called them Hungarians. Ever since, the misnamed Magyars have been an enigmatic people in the heart of Europe.

Hungary’s obscurity, often a disadvantage, has worked to the benefit of Viktor Orbán, who has disguised his dismemberment of democracy through a package of laws written in impenetrable Hungarian legalese that only a handful of experts can hope to decipher. Beyond that, he’s spent billions of dollars trying to win friends and influence people by touting Hungary as a Christian conservative Disneyland where the dreams of those who oppose gay marriage really do come true.

Thanks in part to Orbán’s PR efforts, even commentators who claim familiarity with Hungary are wrong about some big things. Here are three myths about Orbán and Hungary that should be shattered.

1. No, Viktor Orbán was not a political dissident.

Virtually every Western portrait of Viktor Orbán presents him as a former Soviet dissident turned conservative. Orbán’s politics have certainly changed over the years, but depicting him as a one-time dissident is misleading. Orbán’s father was a member of the Communist Party, and Orbán himself served as a local leader in the Communist Youth Alliance. Not that either fact means a whole lot. By the 1970s, most people who joined the party did so for practical reasons. But someone didn’t join the party if he was a dissident.

The real dissidents were part of what is called the democratic opposition, a group of liberal intelligentsia who published a regular samizdat, an underground journal called Beszélő. Beszélő was illegal and the dissidents who wrote for it did so at personal risk. They were harassed by the police, placed under surveillance, and subjected to random house searches. Orbán never took part in such risky and illegal activities.

According to biographer József Debreczeni, Orbán’s political awakening began in the mid-1980s by way of his involvement in a university collegium (szakkollégium). These collegia were somewhat like student co-ops, but centered on education. They were places for free intellectual exchange, affiliated with a state university but run by students and largely autonomous. They emerged in the 1980s as part of Hungary’s political liberalization.

Orbán joined one such collegium as a law student in 1983. Soon he dominated it. He demonstrated charisma and political talent from the start, but also a competitive and aggressive character. Students referred to Orbán and his small circle of friends as the “hard core.” A university professor nicknamed Orbán’s clique the “Lenin boys” because of their militant tactics.

Orbán used this collegium as the platform from which to create his proto-political party, Fidesz, in 1988. As a leader in Fidesz, Orbán played an important role in bringing down Hungarian communism. This cannot be denied. But neither does it make Orbán a “dissident.” Dissidents acted against the system illegally, while Orbán always acted within the bounds of what was tolerated. Indeed, the faculty sponsor of the collegium from which Orbán emerged was the son-in-law of Hungary’s minister of the interior and a member of the Communist Party. Orbán used the protection offered by the collegium to pressure the regime by pushing up against the boundaries of what was politically tolerated while always staying within the limits of the law. This quality—a readiness to take calculated risks in order to advance his ambitions—has defined his entire political career.

In June 1989 Orbán took a calculated risk and pushed the envelope big time. Responding to growing pressure, Hungary’s political leadership agreed to rebury Imre Nagy, hero of the 1956 Revolution. Members of the emerging political opposition, including Orbán, were invited to speak at the memorial. In a speech broadcast live on national TV, Orbán demanded Soviet troops leave the country. Although he was not the first to call for this, he was the first to do so in front of millions of people. Orbán became a household name overnight. The speech was a gutsy move, but hardly the act of a dissident. Instead of a dissident, Orbán was an exceptional talent who knew how to ride the political waves.

2. No, Orbán’s illiberalism did not originate with the 2015 migrant crisis.

In late summer 2015, refugees from Syria and elsewhere began pouring into Hungary through Serbia. Orbán refused to grant them asylum and quickly built an industrial barbed-wire fence along Hungary’s southern border. Orbán refused, also, to participate in a European refugee resettlement plan proposed by Angela Merkel. Apologists for Orbán like to suggest that this crisis was the event that caused his conflict with the EU and led left-wing opponents to label him illiberal—but the chronology doesn’t bear out the apologists.

Orbán himself was the one who first chose to call his regime illiberal. In a speech delivered in 2014, Orbán compared the financial crisis of 2008 to the three “major regime changes” of the twentieth century brought on by World War I, World War II, and the fall of communism. He predicted the collapse of the liberal world order, and pointed to China, Turkey, and Russia as successful models to follow. Then he boldly announced, “The state we are building is an illiberal state.” Not once did he mention Muslim immigration. The reason was simple. The migrant crisis had yet to occur.

The origins of Orbán’s anti-liberalism trace all the way back to 2002, when after only four years as prime minister, he was unexpectedly voted out of office. Polls had given him a slight edge, and Orbán was not just surprised, he was thoroughly devastated. His followers demanded a recount of the vote on the basis of election fraud claims that were bogus. Orbán himself equivocated about the new government’s legitimacy, and continued to hold rallies even though the election was over. At one he told his followers, “It might be the case that in Parliament our party and our representatives are in opposition, but those of us gathered here will never be, we cannot be, in opposition; because the nation cannot be in opposition.” Even in defeat Orbán considered himself the true leader of Hungary.

In 2006 Orbán lost in national elections again. Rather than reevaluating his politics, however, Orbán turned against democracy itself. Several months after the 2006 election, a secret recording of a speech delivered by the prime minister at the time, Ferenc Gyurcsány, was leaked to the press. Speaking to a closed meeting of his party, Gyurcsány had told them they lied in order to win the election and needed to change course. Orbán seized on the leaked recording, particularly the phrase “I lied” (which was played repeatedly on the news), to challenge the legitimacy of the recent election. Even worse, he used the tape to challenge the legitimacy of Hungary’s entire constitutional order. Orbán worried out loud about the possibility of political violence, saying things like, “Revolt is a serious word to use in Hungarian public life. For this reason I would like to avoid it, but people have a right to resist.” Then on the fiftieth anniversary of the ’56 Hungarian Revolution, Orbán delivered a fiery speech at a rally in downtown Budapest. A few hours later, the city erupted in riots. With a kick and shove from the self-designated leader of the nation, Hungary had plunged into crisis.

Four years later a landslide election swept Orbán into power. Defects in the political settlement negotiated in 1989 made dismantling Hungary’s democracy easy, a situation about which commentators like János Széky have written. Hungary has a unicameral parliament. With a two-thirds vote in the single chamber, the legislature can repeal the constitution and pass a new one. New legislation must be signed by the president, but he is appointed by parliament rather than elected by the people. Hungary’s electoral system had been designed in 1989 to keep small radical parties from gaining entrance into parliament. It did so by generating disproportional representation among the winners, on the assumption that mainstream parties would be responsible and democratic. In 2010 Fidesz secured 68 percent of the seats in parliament with only 53 percent of the vote, giving the anti-liberal party free rein to transform the constitutional order. Orbán took care of the courts by forcing judges to retire and creating a National Judicial Office, headed by a single person, with the power to appoint judges and determine dockets. He rewrote the electoral law to make it even more disproportionate and also gerrymandered. He created a Media Council to control the press. He passed a church law stripping religious minorities of legal personality. He assaulted the free market in order to build a cadre of oligarchs.

3. No, Orbán is not building a right-wing totalitarian state—he’s building a kleptocracy.

Orbán’s liberal critics often accuse him of fascism. This is off the mark. The experiences of the twentieth century have created a view that political oppression always takes a totalitarian form. But oppression has not been that way through most of history. America’s founding fathers knew nothing about totalitarianism when they signed the Declaration of Independence and wrote the U.S. Constitution. They did, however, know about tyranny, and the subtle ways a tyrant can repress a people.

To get a sense of what Orbán is up to in Hungary it might help to think of the British Stamp Act of 1765. The Stamp Act required American colonists to purchase and affix stamps on both paper and commercial goods. A tax by another name, these stamps did more than raise revenue. They imposed burdens on free speech and free exchange in ways intended to protect Britain’s political and economic interests. It was an act of tyranny that helped to spark the American Revolution.

Orbán may not be oppressing his people with stamps, but the spirit of King George lives on in him with maniacal vengeance. He has used the power of the state to burden his enemies, abet his friends, and subvert public liberty. Once in power he passed complicated regulations which targeted specific business sectors, placing them at a competitive disadvantage against his chosen oligarchs. He weaponized the tax authority, harassing non-Fidesz businesses unable to comply with the ever more Byzantine tax code. He nationalized Hungarian banks and other private businesses, then reprivatized them through non-competitive bidding processes won by his friends.

Several times while visiting Hungary I’ve heard stories that go like this: An aspiring and resourceful entrepreneur develops a product or service that begins to achieve success in the Hungarian market. One day he’s visited by businessmen with Fidesz connections who offer to buy his company. Should he refuse to sell, he can expect to be audited by the tax authority, and perhaps discover that his clients are wary of doing business with him. These kinds of stories are, for obvious reasons, difficult to verify, but they appear to be increasingly typical.

The mafia state Orbán has created is a vehicle for political oppression. Through it Orbán controls the pursuit of happiness. To a greater or lesser extent virtually everyone in Hungary lives in a relationship of political patronage. To offend the patron is to risk one’s livelihood. Hungarians even have a word for the process by which that livelihood is taken away, ellehetetlenít, which can only be expressed in English through a clumsy phrase, “to render unsustainable.”

“To render unsustainable” is what Orbán has done to Hungary’s once free and independent civil society. He started with the media, by letting businesses know that placing advertisements in certain news outlets was a risky proposition. Deprived of important revenue streams, the newspapers became unsustainable and eventually sold to Fidesz oligarchs.

“To render unsustainable” is what Orbán did to numerous small churches and religious communities, by stripping them of legal status and forcing them to enter into protracted battles in court for which they lacked resources.

“To render unsustainable” is what Orbán attempted to do to Central European University, forcing the George Soros-founded school to move to Vienna.

“To render unsustainable” is what Orbán wants to do to Hungary’s independent NGOs, placing transparency requirements on them which do not apply to government-sponsored NGOs, in an effort to starve them of donors and financial resources.

Still, unless they are outspoken critics of the regime or prominent in some other way, Hungarians need not worry about being harassed by authorities. They do not live in fear of arbitrary detentions, forced resettlements, or life in the gulag. To a considerable degree, however, they have lost the freedom to choose their own projects and build futures of their making. Not unlike medieval serfs, they must chart a life path within the confines established by their lord’s dominion. Those who would not fain to serve the lord can always leave the country. Such is life in a kleptocracy. A visitor to Hungary today will not see visible signs of political repression like in the days of communism. But tyranny need not be blatant and glaring. Like freedom, it reigns first in the soul, turning a proud nation subservient, evoking repugnance in those who love liberty, and making an enemy out of all who revere the dignity which arises from the achievements of free people everywhere.

H. David Baer

H. David Baer is the Pastor Gerhard A. and Marion Poehlmann Professor in Theology at Texas Lutheran University. Twitter: @h_david_baer.