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Dictator’s playground: inside Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

Once part of a great empire, Hungary has become used to standing alone. But as the prime minister prepares for re-election, his corrupt and puffed up regime is spreading fear and anxiety. 

The northbound train was due to depart Felcsút at 12.10pm. But ten-past and quarter-past came and went without any movement. Eventually the driver appeared along with the stationmaster, who walked with infinite stateliness, in a flame-red hussar-style cap, to wave the train away.

No one complained. The winter snows, turning grey with age, still lingered but the two carriages, heated by ancient woodburners, were toasty. There was only one passenger anyway; and I was very content.

One passenger per train is below average for the Vál Valley Light Railway, but not by much. It was opened in 2016 and links the Felcsút village station with the Puskás football academy two miles north and the Alcsútdoboz arboretum two miles south. There are a number of amazing coincidences involved here: Felcsút is the nondescript home village of Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister. The football academy and attendant grandiose stadium constitute one pet project of his. The arboretum reputedly belongs to Orbán’s father. And the railway linking the two, though pointless, was lucky enough to be majority funded by the EU.

Now there are those who see Orbán as a corrupt demagogue and quasi-dictator. But I can’t help thinking that anyone who abuses his office to give himself both his own giant Subbuteo stadium and a train set must in some way be endearingly human. There was also something charming about the way this master of vote-maximisation evidently overestimated about a hundredfold how many people wanted to play on his train set.

Actually, my splendid isolation was short-lived. At the terminus we did not wait in vain: a phalanx, about 40 strong, suddenly emerged from the stadium and headed towards us. Almost all were elderly and most were female. It was not easy to ascertain their purpose since my Hungarian vocabulary (four words) far outshone their combined stock of English (zero). But I gathered they had come from the Danube-side town of Szentendre, and they nodded approvingly when I mentioned the prime minister. Which was not surprising since they were spending their Sunday on the Viktor Orbán heritage trail.

They got off at papa’s arboretum and vanished into the mist. I went back to Felcsút and watched the next northbound service depart. This time it had no passengers at all.

When I told this story to contacts back in Budapest, they agreed that these must have been party supporters on a free day out. “The varicose squad!” laughed one. That was the term (“Krampfader Geschwader”) used by disrespectful SS men to describe the elderly women who, at Nazi rallies, gazed up so adoringly at the Führer. “Viktor is blessed with the same phenomenon.” The word varicose is normally applied to ageing veins, but an 18th-century dictionary defined it as meaning “puffed up and swollen more than ordinary with corrupt Blood”. Which might be a fair description of Hungary’s prime minister.

Hardly any real foreign tourists go to Felcsút, which is bypassed by the non-toy trains. And why would they leave Hungary’s beguiling capital? Lonely Planet calls Budapest “Europe’s most exciting city after dark”; that is, loud music and louder drunks, mostly British. But in daylight it is dreamy.

Its heyday came in the 19th century under the later Hapsburgs, and somehow wars, communism and capitalism have all failed to wreck it. The star turn is the parliament: an amazing vision, like the Palace of Westminster with St Paul’s on top, but in a more striking setting. It was finished in 1904 for a country that was still part of Austria-Hungary but thirsting for progress and power.

Those ambitions were scotched by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon – the afterthought to Versailles, forgotten by all except historians and Hungarians – which reduced the kingdom of Hungary to a fraction of its pre-war size, making it unusually homogenous. “The loneliest country in Europe,” someone called it; alone with its impenetrable language (its people are almost as bad as the British and French when it comes to learning others) and its tortured past.

Even so, the British-born writer Tibor Fischer sees his ancestors’ compatriots as the good-time Charlies of eastern Europe: “The stock figure of the carefree Hungarian hussar from operetta, carousing, sozzled, urging on gypsy violinists to greater excesses, has a fantastic amount of truth in it,” as he put it in his 2014 extended essay on Orbán, “The Hungarian Tiger”. Perhaps that is the only response to a millennium of defeat and conquest.

Fischer got to know the student politician Orbán in 1988, as communism began to totter. He spotted him at once as relentlessly focused and thus un-Hungarian, and has a splendid riff about being with him in a small town, where there was a bus but no easy way of buying a ticket. No one else seemed bothered, but Orbán spent ages trying to pay in case one of his opponents found out.

Orbán also understands the power of symbolism. In 2000, during his first term of office, he removed Hungary’s holiest relic, the Crown of St Stephen, from the national museum to a place of honour under the parliamentary dome, in an earthquake-proof case (though earthquakes are almost unknown), guarded by two soldiers with drawn swords, pretending to be waxworks. The crown is topped by a cross, damaged centuries ago so that it stands at a rakish angle, as though enjoying a private joke.

The relic’s provenance is uncertain, though it cannot be as phoney as St Stephen’s alleged right hand, housed in a reliquary in the cathedral, which for 200 forints (60p) in the slot lights up like a fairground attraction. Having paid my 60p, I found it looked more like a mummified giant spider.

Everything in Budapest seems more fantastic than truthful. A miasma of doubt hangs over the place like the lovely warm mists above the thermal baths. A sign in my apartment warned me against being picked up by “attractive-looking strangers”. Fat chance, but it is best not to be too beguiled.

Still, Fischer may have a point about the national character. The escalators in the Budapest metro are like precipices, as though overcompensating for all the mountains Hungary lost in 1920. After a night on the goose soup, suckling pig kaiser, Esterházy torte and Tokaj, one might try to lose weight by racing up one. But it’s impossible. The locals sprawl across them anarchically, with no regard to London-style etiquette. It seems like an act of small defiance, characteristic of a communist past and an increasingly dictatorial present. I’m not sure they bother much with tickets either.

***

Corruption is hardly new in Hungary. Neal Ascherson, the former Observer correspondent who spent much of his career in central Europe, says that if you were in trouble in the Iron Curtain days, there was a reasonable though not certain chance of bribing an Eastern Bloc border guard or cop. The exceptions were East Germany, where the idea would be met with outrage, and Hungary, where it was always accepted “in a friendly, routine sort of way, without fuss, threats or hypocrisy”. There is also an ancient tradition of tipping one’s doctor.

Communist ways have died hard here, because there was no final catharsis. The benchmark year in Hungary, aside from 1920, is 1956, when the heroic failed revolution took place. Once vengeance was brutally completed, the new leader, János Kádár, spent his 32 years in power allowing not-too-bad times to roll within Soviet-imposed limits. He is remembered quite fondly. Communism then morphed into presumed democracy, without purges or serious recriminations. This was perhaps a mistake.

Orbán, aged 26, made his name with a stunning speech at the reburial of the executed 1956 leader, Imre Nagy, in 1989. Nine years later he was prime minister. His Fidesz party was a chumocracy, dominated by old student comrades, though the chums slowly became either acolytes or enemies: his imperious tendencies were noted at the time. His first term was generally well regarded, however, and his defeat in 2002 was a surprise.

He spent the next eight years in opposition learning lessons, shifting the party ever further right. “The key to Orbán is his anti-communism,” says John O’Sullivan, the British president of the Danube Institute, a right-of-centre think tank based in Budapest and Washington. Less charitable souls saw the ideological shift as a marketing ploy, designed to mop up the votes of the varicose, the re-emerging bourgeoisie, and the countryside. Which it did.

Orbán was also appalled by the corruption of the socialist (largely ex-communist) government that replaced him. Hindsight suggests his objections were to its amateurish nature. Back in office in 2010 he showed everyone how to do things properly: centralise power in a single individual, spread wealth among his friends, and neutralise his enemies. And on 8 April, almost all the evidence suggests, he will win a fourth term with another large majority among the 199 pliant and/or cowed MPs, rattling around their huge building.

Tibor Fischer thinks Western journalists talk rot about Orbán. “The socialists are more market-minded than he is. He has often scourged the fat cats. He is very, very good at what he does. The opposition is very, very bad. There are about 90 political parties registered so there’s plenty of choice. The elections are fair: there’s no more skulduggery than in Britain. And the idea that he controls the media is simply absurd. There are plenty of media outlets that spend 24 hours a day shitting on him.”

There is much truth in what Fischer says. Indeed, the foreign press gets fooled by Orbán’s grandstanding about immigrants, Jews in general, George Soros in particular, the EU and the UN, none of which has translated into a traditional reign of terror – midnight knocks and torture chambers – that might awaken even the dozy EU. It is intended to frighten, in different ways, both his enemies and his political base. Hungary is never going to be overrun by migrants because a) the wages are terrible; b) the language is terrifying; and c) the lack of welcome is notorious.

***

But the bland version is not the whole truth. The anti-Orbán media have been rendered almost invisible and inaudible. And the worst is below the radar. Ferenc Takács is a retired professor of English in Budapest, witty, urbane and past-caring enough to go on the record. “The worst feature is the general fear in the country,” he told me. “People won’t express views on Facebook. Teachers are afraid to say critical things about their head teacher or the government.

“There is an unpredictability about the whole thing. Someone somewhere thinks you are a nuisance. So someone tells the tax authorities: ‘Look into their business and find something.’ Most cases end up being dropped but it can take years. The thing has an effect. It’s devilishly ingenious.”

Others were far more nervous. Some planned meetings with me were cancelled at short notice on flimsy excuses. Anonymity was a condition of nearly all the conversations I did have. “People do feel threatened,” one woman told me. “I don’t know how real that is. But if you are a public employee you cannot be on the opposition side.

“What is also definitely frightening is the way friends of the state are buying up everything. There is no such thing as public interest any more. If you have a business with ambitions, they will try to buy it. If you refuse, they’ll say, ‘Or we’ll buy it for two forints tomorrow’. Meaning they’ll make it worth two forints.”

The rhetoric has been successful enough to cut the oxygen supply even from the far-rightists of Jobbik. In February the opposition parties united in a municipal by-election and beat Fidesz. Some optimistically see this as a template for local deals before 8 April. But Orbán saw opportunity, warning that Hungary would be filled with immigrants and that “women and girls would no longer be safe”.

In the middle-sized, Fidesz-dominated city of Kecskemét, I met the socialist candidate, József Király, a local builder. It is too late for him to seek anonymity: he says his activism has long since damaged his business: “I hardly get any jobs in the city. If they see my van outside their house they’re scared.” I ask him if he employs many people. “Not these days. It used to be 50. Now it’s 20.”

There are signs that the arrogance of power is making Orbán careless. The Felcsút train is one example; the Trumpian enrichment of his son-in-law is another. (For a full analysis, I commend Paul Lendvai’s Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman.) But I would not be too hopeful of change.

Szentendre, home of my fellow passengers on Orbán’s toy train, turned out to be a lovely riverine town, full of knick-knack shops and the bourgeois elderly, all terrified of non-existent immigrants. Spring was in the air by now, and the small and leftish Democratic Coalition was in town, giving away little pots of pansies for International Women’s Day. How could any woman refuse? Many did, with a shudder.

Hungary’s biggest problem is not immigration but emigration: as happened after 1956, the best and brightest are already leaving for better money and more congenial regimes. Orbán’s fourth term will be vile. He said last week of his opponents: “After the election, we will seek satisfaction: moral, political and legal.” One of my interviewees finally sighed: “It’s an old east European story. Such a promising young revolutionary. Now look at him. This is his tragedy. And ours.” 

For the next article in our “Lost Continent” series, Matthew Engel will visit Berlin

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special