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Viktor Orbán: Self-confident leader of a sad and beautiful country (©Mateusz Wlodarczyk/NurPhoto via Getty Images)


Hungary, complex and full of contradictions, is not an easy country to understand, and it is not clear that it wants to be understood. Its sense of isolation and its linguistic singularity have led to a wariness of foreigners which is compounded by a long history of military failure and tragic alliances. Arthur Koestler declared his fellow Hungarians to be the loneliest people on earth, adding for good measure, “To be a Hungarian is a particular neurosis.”

Hungary’s favourite poet, Sándor Petőfi, declared: “We are the most forsaken people on earth.” Few understand the fears and anxieties of ordinary Hungarians as well as Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister. It is this ability combined with his natural combativeness which explains his eagerness to pick fights with other EU leaders on an almost weekly basis. The supremely self-confident leader of a sad and beautiful country which famously lacks national self-confidence, Orbán is well aware that standing up to Brussels plays well with the electorate, notwithstanding the fact that Hungary is the biggest recipient of EU funds in per capita terms and has broken all records for infringing the rules governing their allocation. In typical vein he has recently implied that any outcome in next year's general election other than a victory for Fidesz, the party which he created and has dominated since its inception, would represent a victory for foreign interests bent on the destruction of the Hungarian state. Such rhetoric is likely to be ratcheted up as we get closer to a campaign which Fidesz spokesmen have warned will be the dirtiest free election the country has known; and indeed, by using a government-friendly TV station to allege that Gábor Vona, the leader of Hungary’s second-biggest party, Jobbik, engaged in homosexual orgies while a student, Fidesz has already ensured that the campaign will fully live up to its low expectations.

Shortly after arriving in Budapest in 2013 to help establish a new political think-tank, I attended a lunch at which one of Orbán’s senior advisers told an interesting story. Just a few days earlier, he said, a left-wing journalist had submitted the draft of a highly critical book on the Orbán government to the prime minister’s office with a request that it should be checked for factual errors. Orbán had spotted the manuscript lying on a desk and had taken it home with him. Without quarrelling with the author’s critical judgments Orbán had gone through it correcting numerous errors of fact. Later, he asked his staff to find out when the book was to appear and, when inquiries revealed that the author was experiencing difficulty in getting the book published on a basis which made the publication financially viable, he asked his staff to find ways of providing financial support for his left-wing critic so that the book might appear. The prime minister’s adviser, suspecting correctly that I would be surprised by Orbán’s quixotic behaviour, concluded : “Are we a complex people, or are we a complex people?”

Such contradictions abound in a country in which individual brilliance is so often combined with collective failure. Hungarian society is indeed complex, which is one reason why its affairs are poorly reported. Supporters of Fidesz customarily attribute hostile coverage of its affairs to the liberal bias of the international media, a claim which may in part be true, but it is also the case that Fidesz and its leader frequently act in a way that would seem to provide confirmation of the allegations that they pay American PR companies to refute, namely that Orbán is an increasingly authoritarian far-right-wing figure bent on destroying democracy and civil society. Visiting journalists are apt to remind their readers of Senator John McCain’s description of Orbán as a “neo-fascist”and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s half-jocular greeting to Orbán of “Mr Dictator”.

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