Commentary

Orbán Broke the Unspoken Rule That a Hungarian Prime Minister Must Not Be Rich

Now that the Hungarian PM was caught using a private jet and a yacht that may or may not be his, it is perhaps worth to take a look at a specifically Hungarian idiosyncrasy. Namely that a Hungarian leader must not be rich. It has to do with potato soup.  

A simple rule describes post-communist hypocrisy in Hungary: Whatever you do, you must not appear rich. Especially when you are the king. Hide your wealth and complain incessantly how expensive everything is.

The tradition goes back to Hungary’s last communist PM, János Kádár, who led a famously modest life, had no concept of personal wealth, and he wasn’t even hiding anything under the name of a straw man. In the system he inhabited, everything was dictated by an even higher power, down to the economic standing of everyone in the country. His comrades managed to squirrel nice little nest eggs for themselves and the family – but even they couldn’t dream of more than a big, black car for themselves. Communism made even the richest poor.

Kádár neatly summarized his own working class inclinations in the bon mot: “Let the potato soup be potatoes soup!” Meaning that the decent, basic provision must be honest and available. But he never mentioned caviar. Let alone private jets.

Fast forward 30 years after the fall of communism and we find Hungary’s current prime minister doing the unimaginable: showing off his wealth. Orbán is known as the grandstanding anti-communist in and outside of Hungary (but it didn’t stop him from using Kádár-era nostalgia to gather popular support. When he still needed popular support, that is.) He also didn’t do anything to relieve the country from it’s penetrative anti-entrepreneurial sentiment. If anything, he added to it during his populist, anti-business campaigns from opposition, and then by introducing the neofeudalist oligarchy when on government. The free market or pro-business reputation he is credited with abroad is a well-nurtured smokescreen.

But in the year 2018, and in the country where wealth of any kind is a proof of villainy, the prime minister let his wealth show. A year ago I would have been wondering if it might be his popular undoing, but one year is long time.

Until very recently Orbán lived by the rule of Kádár. On his official wealth declaration he had the cheek to admit less than 2000 euros on a shared account with his wife – after 30 years as a career politician and 12 years as prime minister. But he also sent his daughter to an pricey university in Switzerland and claimed to have traveled to the World Cup in Moscow on his own expenses. Last year, when his father and his son’s dog were caught living in a Habsburg manor that was formally on the name of Orbán’s gas repairman-turned-oligarch, I thought this might be too much. But there was one thing I forgot about: that thanks to Orbán’s hand on the media, very few Hungarians will ever hear about his ridiculous enrichment – let alone dare to be outraged by it.

Because that is the other thing. What is the point of getting outraged when there is nothing you can do about it. What do you do? Protest? Done that, hundreds of times, nothing ever happens. The prosecutor won’t even investigate, when everyone else in the world gets convicted for bribing Hungarian officials (see the Microsoft affair). What is the point of getting angry? Just accept it. Whatever your king does is like the weather. Foolish to resist or curse it.

In the elections in April Orbán had demonstrated us not just that the opposition is finished, but that some silly votes won’t stand in the way of his supermajority. Everyone got the message. Pollsters find renewed levels of public apathy and resignation, people withdraw from public affairs even deeper, and even those who had a slight hope that Orbán’s supermajority might be taken away at least (such us yours truly), have come to regret ever to hope.

And Orbán knows it. It is possibly the reason why he (and his circle of cronies) doesn’t care about letting their wealth show anymore. Two weeks ago in a splendid piece of investigative journalism, we have learned that Orbán spent (at least) the summer zigzagging on board of a private jet and used a luxury yacht (cheekily named “Lady Mrd”, which is short in Hungarian for “Lady Billion”, which, incidentally, is also the lowest amount of money a self-respecting oligarch would pick up on the street if a gust of public tender blew it his way).

 

Viktor Orbán leaves the jet OE-LEM at Budapest Airport, July 25, 2018. Photo: Átlátszó / Dániel Németh

 

 

But it wasn’t just Orbán. His elder daughter was photographed in an outfit that costs more than a dozen Hungarians’ annual salary, and Orbán’s younger daughter (14) was caught using an army aircraft on her way back from Cyprus.

Orbán’s reaction was as arrogant as only a self-assured autocrat can be: that he had always been flying on private jets and he always would. And his spokesman announced that the jet is owned by another tender-winning oligarch, nothing to see here. Now that’s not normal either, not that anyone believes it. Then Orbán went on to decorate said oligarch with a medal – just to rub it in.

If you get worked up about their reactions, good. That’s what they wanted. Get outraged, over and over again, and then watch as nothing happens, over and over again. We have been doing this for 8 years. Outrage is Orbán’s best friend in cementing himself in power – and Trump is a beginner compared to him.

The not-yet-Fidesz-owned part of the media is very thin to begin with and doesn’t have the time and manpower to go after a story – especially after they break it. So scandals are outshined by even greater scandals, day in, day out. This private jet scandal reached only a fraction of Hungarians as a consequence – and a few days later an even bigger blow put it off the agenda altogether. We are on the thousandth such scandal since 2010, and many of these scandals would be enough to topple a first world government. (Even though those are less and less ashamed these days.)

The media has been understandably cautious investigating Orbán’s financial affairs (although that didn’t save them from being attacked).  They only went as far as to report about the astronomical enrichment of Orbán’s former gas repairman turned top oligarch (who is widely believed to be Orbán’s front) and Orbán’s son-in-law, the 20-something business genius who simply can’t stop winning tenders – often in collaboration with the aforementioned gas repairman. They don’t go closer than that.

Before 2015 Orbán’s has been building a Party-based patronage and clientelist system with the help of his former top oligarch, who also got rich in the process. But since their public fallout in 2015, Orbán changed strategy. It is now family wealth he is after. And they are hiding it less and less.

Mészáros, Orbán’s business alter ego, lent himself to public scrutiny by going public with one of his holding companies and producing the world’s hottest stock of 2017 (and counting), richly beating Bitcoin. And – unlike Bitcoin – it never stopped rising.

The royal son-in-law was investigated by OLAF, who found such glaring negligence in the submitted paperwork for his EU-funded projects, I was wondering if they even bothered to hide the overpricing and cartelling. Even secondary evidence in the submitted tender documents were enough for OLAf to suggest the clawback of some 40 million euros in EU funds, and that was just Tiborcz’s street light business. His software business was even more embarrassing, if at all possible. It was investigated by Microsoft and everyone was fired who was related to the dealings. At Microsoft. Hungarian prosecutors found nothing to investigate, as usual. Orbán was smart enough to take over the prosecutor’s office among the first things.

But Orbán is not the first to accept huge gifts. His deputy, the chief christian democrat has been caught shooting domesticated reindeer in Sweden from a helicopter – the trip paid for by a beneficiary of his political clout. Only the Swedish police was interested in his shenanigans. The Hungarian prosecutor found nothing to investigate, even though Semjén himself mentioned African and Canadian hunts in his response.

Orbán Sees No More Reason To Hide His Wealth

After all, what is wealth for if not to show off? Every village boy who ever felt downtrodden and wants his comeback, in every walk of life, can tell you that they are doing it for the sweet revenge. Orbán had voiced numerous times how inferior he felt compared to his more cultured, urban fellow liberals during his university years. He didn’t even want to study law, but he wasn’t allowed to be a footballer.

Later on this rhetoric was enriched and made appetizing with communist-bashing. It is not the hurt feelings talking. It is anti-communism. Which really just meant hatred for those particular people who benefited from communism – not the autocratic, one-party system that benefits Party members and is centrally controlled from just one hand that feeds and punishes everyone. Orbán simply rebuilt the latter.

He also got his way with football eventually. He became the fairy godfather of Hungarian football, bringing wads of taxpayers’ cash into the sport and leaving high-maintenance stadiums and massive, sport-related corruption in his wake. So I guess that dream is also checked off.

When Kádár was dismissed, he fully expected to be carted off to some allocated housing with the other have-beens. He knew that in an authoritarian system you are either on top or lose everything. There is no life after power, there is no place for opposition, no financial lifeline in the private sector for your life after power. If you are lucky, you can leave power with your life. That’s what Kádár was expecting when power left him (as much outside of his power as he got it). Luckily for him, the end of his reign also meant the end of authoritarianism, so he received an allowance and died undisturbed of old age. What happens after Orbán’s new authoritarianism is anyone’s guess, but the oligarchs (and Orbán himself) are sure to prepare for it. They will be the richest Hungarians for decades – if not centuries – after his regime ends. Thanks to EU funds.

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Featured image: BBC

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