Let’s bring Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time up to date and look for a more contemporary champion. Let’s imagine ourselves in a television studio with all its tacky decorations, an in-your-face jury, a revved up audience, canned laughter and applause machines. Up they step, one after another in their fancy costumes, all those familiar faces with their dumb smiles stepping out along the shiny catwalk to the accompaniment of their own choice of music.
Please put your hands together for Recep Tayyib Erdogan (Anatolian metal), Donald J. Trump (western swing), Jaroslaw Kaczynski (polonaise), Benjamin Netanyahu (Hassidic hip hop), Vladimir Putin (we don’t know what the music will be but the Kremlin spokeperson Dmitry Peskov denies that it’s written by Pussy Riot), and finally the smallest of all, in every sense of the word, Viktor Orbán. He will be entering to music by Leslie Mandoki, the Hungarian-German brains behind Genghis Khan and Mandoki Soulmates.
Each robber baron has his own tune that fits their personalities and their sham arguments. Their harsh songs of discord seem to suit them well, and as they dance under the bright neon lights the audience’s response inspires a new fervour to their movements. Now it is down to the jury and the audience to decide who gets their vote.
For me, the most painful of the line-up is the last entry, for all sorts of reasons. His voice is false and falters, and he moves like an ageing amateur boxer, shaking his fists at the jury and the audience. “I am the Greatest,” he says, but he is nothing like Muhammad Ali. Nothing at all.
I did know this man once. We first met in 1988, and the last time we met properly was in 1990. At that time, during the dying days of the old regime, many were putting their money on him as a man to watch: he was young, from the countryside (in Hungarian terms that means not a central Budapest know-it-all with a Jewish background, but the type who goes down well with a small town/rural voters), he was dynamic, quick-witted and full of political ambition.
When I came home that year after doing a postgraduate sociology course in England, he and some others had formed Fidesz, an anti-establishment youth organisation that was radical and alternative but above all very liberal. In the autumn of 1989, I was asked to write Fidesz’s foreign policy. Some of the principles – Hungary should both leave Comecon and the Warsaw Pact, and should aim to join the European Community (as it was then) and NATO – were deemed too rash by many of the opposition. After all, the Soviet army had bases all over in Hungary, with its SS-20 nuclear rockets at the ready.
When the change of regime finally arrived, Fidesz won seats in the new parliament while I headed away from politics and into the media. In 1990, I set off to take up an intern post at The New York Times. One day in November, I got a call from Orbán in Budapest. He had been invited over by some American-Hungarian organisations and wanted to know if I could organise a press breakfast for him at the newspaper. “Listen, Viktor,” I said. “This is The New York Times. You are the head of a small youth party that got 7% of the vote in a country of just 10 million. That won’t be easy.”
I managed to arrange it: coffee, bagels, cream cheese, four colleagues with varying degrees of interest in Central Europe. Some of them might have read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being or seen the film with Daniel Day Lewis and Juliette Binoche, which lent the region’s dissidents a touch of chic in the West for a while. Afterwards, we walked around Manhattan together until the evening, but he did most of the talking: “I this... I that... I... I... I...”
When the great Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz behaved this way, he was being ironic. Viktor Orbán was deadly serious - and he has been expressing the same approach with every inch of his being ever since.
I was well aware that you don’t get a successful politician without a certain lust for power, but such ill-concealed egoism and powermania was initially embarrassing but then over time astonished me. That wicked, cynical smile brought to mind the nickname “Little Nero” that was pinned on him when he went to great lengths to win a game of headers against the dissident writer István Eörsi, a man some 30 years older than him.
“Little Nero” was a real TAP (as per Theodor Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality) from what I could see, but could these traits escalate into psychosis? Plenty has been written about Orbán’s political and psychological history, and his opportunist oscillations between ideologies, party groupings and political allies, so there is little new to say on that front.
At the end of Orbán’s first term of office in 2002, Václav Havel, the Czech writer and former president, said: “If this man ever gets back into power, God save Hungary – and God save Europe, too.” In 2010 he was reelected, and we know what that led to. The emerging autocratic bent, the undermining of the constitution, the destruction of a once diverse media, the pseudo-totalitarian propaganda, the crushing of judicial independence, the whipping up of racism, the Nazi-style hate mongering, the blacklisting of the so-called disloyal intelligentsia and the country’s decline into darkness. Not forgetting the neo-feudalism based on the social psychological reflexes of the Kádár era, skyrocketing corruption, the circle of friends and relations that have been fattened on EU cohesion funds and state commissions.
By 2014, it had become clear that he was Putin’s lapdog in the hybrid war being fought by a neo-imperialist Russia against the West. When Orbán celebrated his third consecutive election victory in 2018, once again with an overwhelming parliamentary majority – we’ll come back to how he achieved that – it was clear that this little country was too small for him: he has set his sights on a bigger European role. The dangers here are indescribable.
One of the experts on the region, Timothy Garton Ash, wrote last year that the main opposition to the Merkel-Macron leadership of Europe is “Orbvini”, the tandem of Orbán and Matteo Salvini, the Italian interior minister and head of the Northern League. Orbán met Salvini in Milan in September, and despite their numerous differences, clearly bonded.
Before the meeting, Orbán discussed Salvini with his old friend Silvio Berlusconi, who was keen on their rapprochement. Back in 2006, I told the French newspaper Libération that Orbán was halfway between Berlusconi and Putin, and not just geographically speaking. Alas, the intervening 12 years have only strengthened my opinion.
The continent’s future is at stake in the May 2019 European parliamentary elections. In Germany, the engine of Europe, the Merkel era is coming to an end. With the UK absorbed in its stupid, self-harming Brexit, the leadership of the EU will fall to Emmanuel Macron’s France.
After Brexit, Italy will be Europe’s third largest economy - in spite of its political instability. Hungary, however, with its population of just 10 million and falling, comes in the bottom third of the EU states in every respect, although geo-strategically speaking, it is in an important position. In addition, Orbán’s third consecutive election victory, however he managed it, gives him a certain clout. (How did he manage it? Let’s just say thanks to a brutal media superiority, outrageous scaremongering, propaganda that would have impressed even Dr Goebbels, and the “Himmler trick”, to use the term coined by Zsuzsa Selyem in the 2015 immigration crisis: pity yourself for having to witness the suffering of others.)
Orbán’s political appetite knows no limits. His dreams are simple dreams; the dreams you might hear voiced in any bar or football stadium. There should be power (lots of it), money (lots of that too), the Olympics or the World Cup. In fact, any mega event will do to further the development of the neo-feudalist regime. This would inflict still further damage on the wounded social and psychological fabric of the country, with its ethos of silent surrender and petty jealousy. It is astonishing to see how Orbán, in spite of the size and limited resources of his country, has managed to become such a big player on the international stage.
He is like the youngest son in the fairy tales who, in his cunning and care-free way, smashes down everything to gain revenge. He has followers from Poland to Slovenia and North Macedonia, and his destructive work is celebrated in Bavaria, Italy and Austria. He thinks he can bamboozle everyone from Trump to Xi Jinping
It is a matter of zeitgeist too, the mood of the times.
And what dirty times these are. Today, the pressing issue is the nightmare world which Vladislav Surkov (Putin’s spin doctor), Breitbart, Steve Bannon and other ultra-Trumpist outlets, Gazeta Polska or even the Hungarian Árpád Habony (Orbán’s spin doctor) are spinning around us. The fight against this is a question of both hardware and software. Around 1989, the Hungarian press and most of its media took note of the warnings that the opposition intellectuals in Budapest sounded in their samizdat publications.
They received support from the Munich-based Radio Free Europe, which was financed by the US Congress and supported the liberal line. Orbán understood this, bulldozing the contemporary media scene aside and after 2010, seizing control of all media that had a mass reach. If we don’t want a world built on Putin’s will and Surkov’s representation then we urgently need the hardware to reach people and the software to lure them away from the dark forces.
But who cares? Orbán’s skill and demonic abilities mean this is not just a Hungarian problem. The opportunists of the European People’s Party grouping in the European Parliament were reluctant to turn against Orbán, but that has hopefully changed with the publication of a report by the Dutch Green party member, Judith Sargentini. Orbán may flaunt himself and move with the Salvini-style Eurosceptics but let’s not be in any doubt; he will strike out at the May 2019 European elections and aim to take a leading role on the European scene.
The New York Times columnist and Nobel prize-winner Paul Krugman recently quoted a cynic who joked after the Berlin Wall fell: “Now that Eastern Europe is free from the alien ideology of Communism, it can return to its true path: fascism.” This is spot on, even if painfully simplistic.
It’s really only the Hungarian people who can topple Orbán, yet he represents a threat to Europe as a whole. In Hungary, the bulk of the opposition parties have adopted shades of Orbánism, either as a group or out of self-interest. But any intellectual and political forces that have a sense of responsibility for Europe cannot abandon those intellectual and political forces in Hungary that are opposing Orbán. This is not just a matter of general ethics, but of pure self-preservation.
History teaches us that in the case of both Stalin, a Georgian from the margins of the Russian empire, and Hitler, an Austrian from the margins of the German empire, their minority complex only increased their original brutality. But the historical comparison doesn’t quite work.
Hungary is an “illiberal” democracy (that is to say, autocracy), or in the most recent formulation, a “Christian democracy” with a one-party system that is formally a multiparty system. Like the multiparty system in pre-1989 Poland, the Hungarian opposition parties are – with notable exceptions – “transmission belts” stuffed with agents and held in check first by being starved, and then being led forwards with carrots.
You could say Hungary is a 21st-century dictatorship, from where you can still escape and where torture is very refined. Among the intellectuals who aren’t targeted by the ongoing culture wars, there are plenty who collaborate with agents from the dark side - or just keep their heads in the sand. There is also a stealthy “population exchange” going on here. Independent-minded Hungarians emigrate westwards (their numbers could reach 10% of the population) while members of the Hungarian minorities in the surrounding countries (the legacy of the post-First World War border changes) are taking up double citizenship.
That was one of Orbán’s clever maneouvres since most of the new citizens will vote for Fidesz. In the case of the minority in Romania, this process is hastened by the Kulturkampf, the cultural struggle that is being waged with particular aggression by the Orbán’s cultural mercenaries among Transylvanian Hungarians, who were socialised under Ceausescu’s disctatorship. Orbán wants to give his domestic Kulturkampf a continent-wide dimension - and he may yet get his chance.
Orbán revels in the self-image of being the big prime minister of a small country who earns the ire of the small leaders of bigger countries because ‘he dares to speak the truth”. As the website Politico put it, “he clearly wakes up every morning thinking that he is Hunyadi, the hero of the 15th-century wars with the Ottomans.”
However, Orbán has chosen the losing side. Putin may be displaying his skill as a fisherman, standing on the jetty with his ten lines, seeing which has caught the prize-winning perch. But all his tricks and fakery can only bring temporary changes to the balance of power. He is more of a Pablo Escobar than a Stalin. Orbán has adopted a political culture where decisions are made purely on practical considerations without any moral inhibitions. Often, it is not efficiency that is the driving force behind his actions but the preservation of power.
Orbán is a lawyer. He is the kind of person who, if he comes second behind his wife Anikó in a skiing competition, would ensure that men’s and women’s results are announced separately. Misogyny is close to the surface – after all, he thinks women have no role in politics so all his ministers are men. “In this part of Europe, men know that they are on this earth to stake their lives on something. Something big. Something bigger and more important than our personal lives,” said a misty-eyed Orbán recently at the funeral of one of his old drinking companions.
Of course, he was lying. Kis, the philosopher and first chairman of the true liberal party in post-1989 Hungary (the Free Democrats), described Orbán as a “spoilt kid” because he was almost sick with a desperation for power. That sickness which has already infected the country must not be allowed to spread to Europe.
The crisis does offer the chance of a new start. The EU lacks a federal strategy to develop stronger integration and internal solidarity. So its defence is reliant on the aid of a now stumbling America (Trump is so close to Russian interests that he might start to dismantle NATO but hopefully this is just a temporary break in the Atlantic bridge). The Sargentini Report, which was approved by the European parliament, does indeed serve the interests of the Hungarian people.
At the “Orbvini” meeting in Milan in September, they kept their dogs on a leash (they won’t form a new Eurosceptic party alliance in the parliament until after the elections) but they did name their main enemy: Emmanuel Macron. And Macron took up the challenge. So, the real winner of the Hero of Our Time talent show is the leader who can bring Europe closer together, who takes responsibility for the continent as a whole and makes the EU a responsive competitor against rivals near and far.
And for the European elections, a leader that could form a political alliance that says yes to Europe and Hungary. For me, the clear winner is Monsieur Macron.
András B. Vágvölgyi is a writer, journalist, film director, former Fidesz foreign policy expert and author of the party’s first foreign policy program.