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Hungary has survived war, isolation and foreign occupation. Can it survive Viktor Orban?

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In this Wednesday, March 20, 2019 file photo, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, center, arrives to a European People's Party's meeting in Brussels.
In this Wednesday, March 20, 2019 file photo, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, center, arrives to a European People's Party's meeting in Brussels.   -   Copyright  Francisco Seco/Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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Hungarian-born Austrian journalist Paul Lendvai was sat in a television studio in Vienna on June 16, 1989, commentating live on the funeral of Imre Nagy, executed by Hungary’s Soviet-backed government after the failure of the 1956 revolution and buried in an unmarked grave.

Like 180,000 other Hungarians, Lendvai had fled his country for Austria after the failed revolution and was working as a journalist and author in Vienna, writing and giving analysis on the epochal changes taking place in his country as communist regimes collapsed across Europe.

Nagy had been a reformist who, as prime minister, had angered Moscow with democratic reforms and the dissolution of Hungary’s hated secret police. On November 1, 1956, he withdrew Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. Three days later, Soviet tanks moved into Budapest and crushed the revolution on the orders of Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev.

As many as 200,000 Hungarians attended the reinterment in Budapest, listening to speeches from anti-Communist activists in Heroes’ Square. As Lendvai watched on television, an unknown 26-year-old anti-Communist activist took to the stage and gave a six-and-a-half-minute speech, calling for Soviet troops to leave Hungary, national independence and freedom.

His name was Viktor Orban.

'A courageous move'

Reflecting 32 years later and with the benefit of hindsight, Lendvai dismisses the idea that he had any inkling of who Orban would become.

“I mean, it was just a young man’s speech. One shouldn’t exaggerate and dramatise it,” he told Euronews. “[But] it was a courageous move, and clever.”

Orban’s trajectory from liberal anti-Communist to nationalist ideologue, Vladimir Putin-ally and, his critics allege, autocrat has been a calculated one, as Lendvai documents in his 2017 book Orban: Europe’s New Strongman.

Orban’s Fidesz party started life on the pro-European centre-right, veering towards right-wing populism as that was where its leader saw the best prospect of success.

Fidesz has dominated Hungarian politics since 2010, securing huge parliamentary majorities in both 2014 and 2018 that have allowed Orban to institute constitutional reforms and massively enhance his personal power. Meanwhile, Fidesz’s 12 MEPs and Orban’s unabashed Euroscepticism have been a constant thorn in the side of the European parliament.

It is a gloomy period in Hungarian history.
Paul Lendvai
Author and journalist

On 3 March 2021, Orban withdrew from the European People's Party (EPP) in protest against changes to internal rules that would have enabled MEPs to further sanctions against Fidesz for the erosion of democracy under his leadership in Hungary. Fidesz’s unpopularity even amongst Europe’s centre-right was demonstrated by the 82% of EPP MEPs that voted for the new rules.

Lendvai is buoyed by the consensus against Orban within the EPP, but fears that Fidesz will quickly replace the moderate EPP with a closer alliance with the European Parliament’s extreme right. On March 4, Jörg Meuthen, the head of the far-right Alliance for Deutschland (AfD) said Fidesz would be welcome to join its Identity and Democracy (ID) faction in Brussels.

“It is of course, too late. It would have been better if the conservatives had done it earlier. But it is better late than never,” he said.

As for Orban’s decision to withdraw from the EPP before the rules were changed and the bloc moved to further sanction Fidesz, Lendvai says that it in keeping with the Hungarian prime minister’s strategy from the earliest days of his political life.

“He is a fighter. He attacks rather than defends,” he said.

Born in 1929, Lendvai survived the Second World War, when 600,000 Hungarian Jews were deported and murdered under the Nazi-allied regime of Miklos Horthy. He experienced first-hand this country's slide into Soviet dictatorship after its liberation by the Red Army in 1945.

In Lendvai's lifetime, Hungary has been ruled by many autocrats: from Horthy to Communist leaders Mátyás Rákosi and János Kádár. The country transitioned from Soviet rule to democracy between 1989 and 1991, and just seven years later Orban was first elected prime minister.

In and out of power

He lost power in 2002 to a liberal coalition but his time in opposition only strengthened his hand. Battered by the financial crisis and shocked by the spectacular collapse of Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány in 2009, Hungarian voters brought Orban and Fidesz back to power in 2010 and in 2014 and 2018 gave them a two-thirds super-majority in parliament.

That majority has made Fidesz the undisputed masters of Hungarian politics, with Orban, who is 57, openly admitting that he could remain in power for 15 years or more. Hungary’s opposition was buoyed in 2019 when an opposition candidate, Gergely Karacsony, defeated Fidesz's candidate for mayor of Budapest, but such defeats are few and far between.

Hungary’s next election is in 2022 and despite the recent announcement from six opposition parties that they will unite to try and defeat Fidesz and Orban, Lendvai is sceptical that the Hungarian opposition can maintain their good relations. Meanwhile, if the European Union imposes sanctions on Budapest they are unlikely to have an effect before the elections.

Viktor Orban, aged 26, addressing crowds in Heroes' Square, Budapest, in 1989.

And even if the majority of European Union countries opted to impose sanctions on Hungary over Orban’s anti-democratic reforms, it would have to be passed by a unanimous vote of all EU states. Poland, under the right-wing Law and Justice Party, would almost certainly vote against it.

“It will be a test, the elections of 2022, but the prospects are not so good [...]. I won’t exclude anything, but you have to take into account that this is a man who is 58 years old, compared to Biden and these people, he could stay in power for another 20 years,” he said.

Lendvai’s latest book, The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat, was originally written in the 1990s and documented Hungarian history from the medieval era through to the end of Communism. It told of Hungary’s survival as a nation-state despite cultural and linguistic isolation and centuries of occupation by the Ottomans, Hapsburgs, Nazis and the Soviet Union.

‘Fuhrerdemocracy’

The book was republished in 2021 with two chapters that covered the last thirty years and the descent from fledgeling democratic state into ‘Fuhrerdemocracy’ under Orban. The title of the book, with its reference to victory in defeat, struck an optimistic chord when it was first published. It is not an optimism that Lendvai feels two decades later.

“It is a bleak period. Probably the country and the nation will survive, but I don’t know how and what the price will be," he said.

While Orban often shocks Europe with his pronouncements about illiberal democracy, endorsement of dictators and autocrats, or his brazen moves against democratic norms in Hungary, Lendvai warns that the worst may yet be to come. It is when Orban fears that he and his supporters could lose power that he will hit back hardest.

“Until now it was a regime with gloves. When it is about his personal survival, his friends and his cronies [...] he may take off the gloves. In the same way as Lukashenko or Putin,” Lendvai said.

For the time being, Fidesz’s near-total domination of the Hungarian media means that there is little to challenge Orban’s narrative. Lendvai references Polish poet Adam Wazyk, who wrote of life in Stalinist Poland in his 1955 ‘Poem for Adults’: “They drink sea-water crying: lemonade! Returning home secretly to vomit.”

“This is the situation. It is based on a lie,” he said, “it is a very bad period, a sombre, gloomy period in Hungarian history.”

The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat is out now, published by Hurst.

Orban's office responds

In a statement to Euronews, a spokesperson for Orban said: "Among Prime Minister Orban’s detractors, there is a special group on the extreme end of the spectrum that harbour an irrational fear and contempt. Paul Lendvai and many of his comrades often see it as a competition. What we see is pure Orbanophobia and a race to the bottom."

"Mr Lendvai has become notorious for his polemics against Orban, struggling to ground his sensational claims in facts and deliberately omitting important details."

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