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To Viktor Go the Spoils

Is Europe right to distrust Hungary’s prime minister?

Oct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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In retrospect, Hungary had a couple of specific problems that made its transition out of communism tricky. If you look out the windows of Orbán’s offices you can see the Budapest Hilton across the Danube. Building began on it in 1972, in the depths of the Brezhnevian freeze in the Cold War. Joint ventures to bring in foreign expertise and hard currency were a Hungarian specialty. The uprising of 1956 had left the Soviet Union solicitous to keep conditions in Hungary as comfortable as possible. One result was a relative openness to business—for state bureaucrats at first, and then, by the 1980s, for entrepreneurs. There was more consumer choice here than elsewhere in the East Bloc. The novelist György Dalos referred sardonically to his country as the “Goulash Archipelago.” This not-quite-totally-Communist economy never really worked. The government of János Kádár borrowed, and overborrowed, to meet expectations. In 1982, Hungary negotiated a deal with the IMF.

But Goulash communism had an important political consequence when the Wall came down. In the 1990s, there was not, as happened elsewhere, a purge of Communists by new elites with ties to international business. In Hungary, Communists were the elites with ties to international business. That gave the country an economic jump on its neighbors—in the early 1990s it was getting more direct foreign investment than the rest of the East Bloc countries combined—but this proved a political liability. That is why, when you ask Orbán what strain of anti-communism he belongs to, he likens himself to Lech Walesa rather than Solzhenitsyn or Havel. “Okay, I’m a guy from university,” he says, “but I belong to the plebeian tradition of Hungarian politics.” He is not of the nomenklatura.

In this sense, Orbán’s “revolution at the ballot box” has something in common with what Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his twin brother, the late Lech Kaczynski, did over the past decade in Poland. Tardily, quixotically, and sometimes unreasonably, he aims to deprive post-Communist elites of every legacy advantage they carried away from authoritarian rule. As in Kaczynski-era Poland, political rhetoric has taken a turn for the divisive and denunciatory. Fidesz has carried out a wave of renamings. Ferihegy Airport is now named after Ferenc (Franz) Liszt. Moscow Square has been renamed for turn-of-the-century prime minister Kálmán Széll. A square named after Franklin Delano Roosevelt has also been renamed, although a Ronald Reagan monument went up in Freedom Square last year.

Hungarians have chosen the MSzP, successor party to the Communists, to lead them (in coalition) for most of the period since the Cold War. Voters never took the party to their hearts, but they trusted it to do something about those million jobs that had gone missing. The MSzP, alas, showed a gift for running the economy into the ground. The Soviet-educated Gyula Horn, a backer of the Russians in the 1956 uprising, was forced to accept a grinding austerity package as prime minister in 1995. After 2002, Péter Medgyessy, a lover of Cuba who was revealed during his term to have been a high-level intelligence operative under communism, raised public salaries 50 percent and added a “thirteenth month” to pensions. 

But it was in 2006 that politics in Hungary really fell to pieces. By then, the Hungarian economy was hurtling towards disaster. The charismatic socialist Ferenc Gyurcsány (pronounced roughly “Dear-join”), a millionaire businessman married to a Politburo member’s granddaughter, defeated Orbán in a close-fought race. A few weeks later he gave a speech to a closed meeting of MSzP leaders. It was secretly recorded, and the bits leaked to the press over the coming days changed the course of Hungarian history. On the tape, Gyurcsány confides to his colleagues:

We did whatever was possible to do in secret in the preceding months, making sure that papers on what we were preparing for would not surface in the last weeks of the election campaign. .  .  . We have screwed up. Not a little but a lot. No country in Europe has screwed up as much as we have. It can be explained. We have obviously lied throughout the past 18 to 24 months. It was perfectly clear that what we were saying was not true. .  .  . And in the meantime we did not actually do anything for four years. Nothing. .  .  . I almost perished because I had to pretend for 18 months that we were governing. Instead, we lied morning, noon, and night. I do not want to carry on with this. 

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