FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
BERLIN – When I went to visit Ágnes Heller in his house in Budapest, on the eve of the Hungarian elections in 2018, the philosopher of “radical needs” was beside herself. “Viktor Orbán,” he said to me, “abolished press freedom, uses European funds to enrich friends and family, while schools and public health are in a tragic situation. And he also wants to control culture: do you know that in the only history book now in use in high schools, the last chapter is dedicated to him? Not even Janos Kádár had done it, at the time of the Communist regime. Orbán is now a tyrant».
Heller died in 2019, aged 89. But his grievance book about the Hungarian Prime Minister is more current than ever. Viktor Orbán boasts his authoritarian calling, for which he even coined the oxymoron “illiberal democracy”. In eleven years he has transformed Hungary into a country where the media are subjected to censorship, the rights of the opposition trampled on, the judiciary responds to the government, ethnic minorities are discriminated against, LGBT ones are effectively persecuted and anti-Semitism is artfully fueled .
Europe is finally indignant and acts in the face of the latest stunt of the Budapest provocateur: a law that prohibits discussing homosexuality with young people. But for years she has been neglectful and distracted, sometimes scolding him, most of the time flattering him. Orbán’s insurance policy was up until a few months ago membership in the EPP, from which he eventually left to avoid expulsion and to which he carried votes and weight in the European Parliamentdespite his and his Fidesz party’s obvious incompatibility with Christian Democrats and their values. Only since December 2020, bypassing Orbán’s veto, has the EU adopted the conditionality that binds the disbursement of European funds to respect for the rule of law, which in Hungary account for almost 8% of public spending.
but yet, Viktor Orbán was not born a tyrant. Indeed, the Communist tyrants fought them in the 1989 revolution, when he became the saving figure of the democratic movement. So charismatic and brilliant that when the Jewish-American philanthropist of Hungarian origin George Soros met him, he decided to finance his little party, Fidesz, and to pay him a scholarship to Oxford to do research on civil societies. He would have regretted it bitterly.
Evidence of authoritarianism
In 1998 Orbán was elected prime minister at the head of a liberal-democratic coalition. But the 2002 defeat takes him by surprise. From that moment on, he swears that he will never be beaten again at the polls: “We have to win once, then we will do the right thing,” he said in a speech behind closed doors that the then uncensored Hungarian media revealed. It has to wait until 2010, when its socialist opponents are overwhelmed by scandals and the recession. Orbán returns to power with a two-thirds majority, able to change the Constitution. And he immediately reinvents himself as champion of a battle of civilization, in defense of the family, of Christianity and of the nation against “the holy alliance of Brussels bureaucrats, progressive media and international capital”. In a few years, Orbán redesigns the constituencies to favor Fidesz, increases the number of constitutional judges and requires them to retire at 62 in order to fill the Supreme Court with loyalists, it creates a central media body controlled by the government, takes away university teaching from hundreds of liberal professors, changes theater directors to put men he can trust.
Its moment of glory comes in 2015, with the opening of the Balkan route and the arrival of thousands of Syrian refugees, who from Greece try to reach Germany via Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria. Orbán first blocks them, then sends them off when Chancellor Merkel announces that she will keep the German borders open. Then seal the borders with barbed wire. But above all it incites popular hysteria, describing the migratory wave as a hateful cabal, orchestrated by “an enemy different from us, not open but hidden, not direct but oblique, not honest but despicable, not national but international, who does not believe at work, but speculates with money ». All the stereotypes of the grossest anti-Semitism are evident. Not satisfied, Orbán also chooses a scapegoat, pointing to his former mentor, George Soros, as the head of the systemic conspiracy against Hungary. The campaign against Soros has a practical objective, the Central European University, the university that the philanthropist founded in Budapest after the end of the Cold War and has become one of the best study centers in Central Europe. Orbán, who considers her a subversive lair, forces her to dislodge, strangling her little by little through a succession of law changes and administrative acts.
Germany-Hungary, LGBT rights, Orban: the news
The attack on the media and the “kleptocracy”
There is not only censorship. A policy of pressure and rules on advertising has meant that since 2017 90% of private media belong to the state or to entrepreneurs close to Fidesz. “Cleptocracy” is the definition that the main international observers on corruption give of Hungary, where the Orbán government controls the entire economy and awards the most important public contracts by direct call. Who always go to friends of friends.