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A reflection of the modern populist

A review of Orbán. Europe’s New Strongman. By: Paul Lendvai. Publisher: Hurst & Company. London, United Kingdom, 2018.

At the end of November last year, a video of a meeting between Chuck Norris, the legendary Hollywood action film star, and Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, went viral. The video depicts the meeting of the two figures and includes a scene where Orbán is driving Norris (and his wife Gena O’Kelley) to visit a counter-terrorism training centre. During the drive, Orbán admits to Norris, “I am a street fighter, basically. I’m not coming from the elite. I’m coming from a small village 40 kilometres from here.”

January 2, 2019 - Adam Reichardt - Books and ReviewsIssue 1 2019Magazine

This image of a country’s strongman cosying up with Hollywood action stars is nothing new. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has an ongoing bromance with Steven Seagal – and recently named Seagal the Kremlin’s special envoy to the United States. A few years ago Belarus’s Alyaksandr Lukashenka was filmed working in a field with the French actor Gérard Depardieu (albeit not a Hollywood action hero). Depardieu later moved on to live in Russia and eventually was named a cultural ambassador to Montenegro. Hence, Orbán’s outing with Norris fits the archetype already established by other strongmen in the East. The video ends with an embrace of Orbán and Norris, with Norris’s wife O’Kelley remarking, “Friends forever”.

Acute observer

Recent developments with Hungary have reinforced the image of Orbán as a strongman inside the European Union. In September 2018 he defied the recommendation of the European Parliament to the European Council to investigate Hungary and determine whether the country is in breach of European law and values. “The report in front of you insults Hungary and insults the honour of the Hungarian nation,” Orbán defiantly exclaimed in front of the European Parliament. In December 2018 the final decision to close the prestigious Central European University and move the majority of its programmes to Vienna was another indication that Hungary, under Orbán’s leadership, will not back down in the face of pressure coming from what Orbán and his ruling party, Fidesz, see as an attack from liberal globalists led by the Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros.

To the casual observer, it is often challenging to comprehend why such developments are taking place in Hungary. After all, it is a country that peacefully made the transition from being a socialist state behind the Iron Curtain to a full member of NATO and the European Union. Yet, the populist rhetoric, oligarchic consolidation and seemingly lack of political pluralism mirror its peers in the post-Soviet space rather than those in Western Europe. Thankfully, there are some rather acute observers of Hungary who help explain its state of affairs by going beyond the liberal vs illiberal analysis that we are often confronted with in international mainstream media.

The Hungarian-born Austrian journalist and public intellectual, Paul Lendvai, is one such observer. His newest book Orbán. Europe’s New Strongman takes us deep through the origins of Viktor Orbán and how he masterfully overtook and crafted Hungary’s new political system. It is not only a political biography of the strongman, but a peek inside the life events that shaped Orbán as a person and the opportunities and circumstances that he recognised in order to recreate Hungary in his image. In essence, Lendvai describes the phenomenon that is Viktor Orbán. He describes in detail how the prime minister spectacularly rose from an impoverished, backward village, to become the most powerful man in the country, “supreme and unchallenged”.

As readers, we are introduced to many of Orbán’s childhood and university friends – most of whom have become part of his inner circle or business supporters and with some of whom he had a falling out. Probably one of the most important figures is Lőrinc Mészáros – who is now the mayor of Felcsút – Orbán’s childhood village (which he described to Chuck Norris in that viral video). Lendvai describes the close relationship that formed between the two men, who attended primary school together and reconnected in 1999 during football matches in Orbán’s home town. After the friendship is forged, Mészáros goes from being a one-time gas-fitter to one of the richest and most powerful men in Hungary. Many accuse Mészáros of being not only an Orbán crony (who consistently wins government construction contracts), but also a strawman – a depository of Orbán’s undeclared wealth. Like Putin, there are speculations that Orbán is by far the richest Hungarian alive today.

Lendvai also tells the tale of another childhood friend – Lajos Simicska, who after three and a half decades of personal friendship publically denounced Orbán for betraying their ideals. Simicska can be credited as being one of the architects of Fidesz and the Orbán persona. Their spectacular falling out in 2015 played out in Hungarian press with Simicska accusing Orbán of trying to establish a dictatorship in the country. Lendvai describes the public feud as an “all-out war between the closest of friends”. In response to what Orbán perceived as a complete defection, he went after Simicska’s media empire – a move which we recognise throughout Orbán’s life as reflected in his adage: “If I am hit once, then I hit back twice.” The result of the fallout led to the final consolidation of media into the hands of government or pro-government forces, as described recently by Szabolcs Vörös in New Eastern Europe (“A Clockwork Orange”, Issue 5/2018).

Not a man of conviction

I had the opportunity to meet the author, Paul Lendvai, in Kraków in 2016. He was visiting Poland to promote the Polish translation of his epic book, The Hungarians: A thousand years of victory in defeat. He had also just finished Orbán. Europe’s New Strongman which was first published in German under the title Orbáns Ungarn. During our discussion, I asked Lendvai about Orbán pursuing stronger ties with Putin and Russia. Hungary was a NATO ally at the end of the day and after the aggression in Ukraine, most of Europe had supported sanctions (including Hungary, officially) against Russia, which are still in place today.

“It is very simple,” Lendvai told me. “Orbán is not a man of conviction. He is one of the most cynical politicians alive today.” This certainly comes out in the book. In fact, Lendvai’s portrayal of Orbán is not only extremely detailed but also terrifying. It is an illustration of a man who has become obsessed with power not tied to any ideology (which makes him incredibly flexible) and overcome with cynicism. The enemies that show up in Orbán’s Hungary are well-known and in fact not exclusive to conservative Hungarians. The abovementioned Soros is, as Lendvai describes, “enemy number one”. Other known enemies of populists also pop up in Orbán’s rhetoric such as western liberalism and the so-called globalism, etc.

Orbán truly is a reflection of the modern populist. Indeed, the growing popularity of populism throughout Europe and the United States makes one wonder whether Orbán is a Hungarian peculiarity or a man ahead of his time? Nevertheless, despite the European Parliament’s concerns, the Hungarian prime minister has little reason to worry about firm and consequential international pushback. As Lendvai himself notes, “emboldened by the election of Donald Trump as US president in 2016, whose candidacy Orbán was the only head of government to publicly support … the Hungarian premier can now operate with boundless self-confidence in his perpetual war against liberal western values.”

Country of surprises

There is no doubt that in order to understand contemporary Hungary, one must truly understand Viktor Orbán. Lendvai’s latest book is a must-read for those attempting to undertake this quest. The author provides insight into the prime minister and those closest to him and describes in detail the process of building the Orbán regime (i.e., Orbánisation); something that did not happen overnight and was a result of Orbán’s unique personality but also coincidence and some Hungarian-specific circumstances.

Is Orbánisation here to stay? Viktor Orbán is only 57 years old and despite some conspiracy theories, he appears to be in good health. The resounding Fidesz victory in April 2018, which saw Orbán’s party win nearly 45 per cent of the vote after a toxic anti-immigrant campaign, indicates no fatigue among Hungarians nor an opposition with any strength. Indeed, Lendvai himself does not give us a positive answer to this question. He admits that the end of Orbán’s rule which “is entirely unprecedented in Hungarian history … cannot be foreseen”.

Yet in a few places in the book, he does offer a glimmer of hope, perhaps not consciously. In accounting not only Fidesz’s successes but also failures, Lendvai notes that despite the level of autocracy established by Orbán, “Hungary is a country of surprises”. There is no doubt that the best medicine for cynicism is hope and optimism. Lendvai doesn’t convincingly provide this antidote, but his detailed accounts certainly offer a starting point in the search for a new hope that Hungary can be more than an autocratic oligarchic state on the edge of the EU.

Adam Reichardt is the editor in chief of New Eastern Europe.

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