I have always wondered how you prepare for a major diplomatic meeting. How you list all the issues between two players (political, diplomatic, cultural, culinary) and decide what you can ask for – and what you can offer in exchange.
Now I know what Orbán asked for on his long-awaited, but brief meeting with Trump – and it should scare you, too. Not because it’s vile and it shows the utter disdain autocrats have for their own people, that goes without saying. But because it is so petty.
And because there is apparently no bigger problem for Orbán left.
Orbán has spent three long years salivating to finally meet “the highest secular place” in the world (as he calls Trump), he even kicked out the Central European University to call for attention for himself. He would have fired missiles into the sea, North Korea-style – if we had sea or missiles. He fired his trusted US ambassador because the woman couldn’t get him invited to the White House, then he paid every ideologically damaged US republican and corrupt Washington lobbyist he could find to make his existence be noticed by King Trump.
But he had to wait until the US got its appetite for Eastern Europe back. In early 2019 Mike Pompeo toured Eastern Europe and sold plenty of arms (because that’s how you make sure countries break away from Russia: you bankrupt them yourself). Once the deals were agreed on, all the affected Eastern European leaders got an invitation as a reward.
And how did Orbán use his precious few minutes with his idol?
What did he choose to ask for when he finally met the man whose elections he had such high hopes for? What was it he wanted so badly he used his one and only audience to secure it?
Apparently, he was asking Trump to put pressure on Norway to stop funding Hungarian civil society. In exchange, Orbán offered not to block an arms deal between the US and Norway.
Yes, he is that petty.
But even more importantly: that is the biggest problem he had left. The biggest obstacle he hasn’t overcome. Or the last vengeance he couldn’t secure himself: taking away the last 3 million euros of funding from a few citizens who don’t line up behind him.
“According to Hungarian and foreign diplomatic sources, Orban tried to persuade Trump to help the Hungarian government’s efforts against independent Hungarian civil society organizations. In return, he suggested that he would not obstruct ongoing negotiations over a lucrative U.S. arms deal.”
As direkt36.hu leaked it, the US-Norway arms deal in question is between US’s Raytheon and Kongsberg, a Norwegian defense group that jointly produce an air defense missile system Hungary would then buy. The deal was officially announced during Pompeo’s visit to Budapest in February 2019.
This is the deal Orbán threatened to blow up if Trump doesn’t link it to stripping Hungarian NGOs of their last lifeline, the grants of the Norwegian Grant Fund.
Or 10% of the grant, to be precise, because the rest of the money can already be spend by Orbán. If he even allows it into the country. But he would rather forego over 200 million euros (between 2014-21) than to allow a bit of it – roughly 3 million euros a year – to be distributed by non-loyalists.
Let me spell out once again: not a penny is allowed to go to non-loyalists. The economic backbone of a successful autocrat is having everyone on his payroll – and reversely, letting no one to have an income that is not dependent from him. Even if you get money from the Norway Grant Fund, Orbán wants to be able to take it away from you. This is how they make people shut up, not with guns.
Norway has been supporting NGOs in new EU member states as part of its contribution for access to the EU single market, despite not being an EU-member. (So do Iceland and Liechtenstein). The money allocated to this purpose is the EEA and Norway Grants, from which Hungary is supposed to get about 214.6 million euros between 2014-2021. But Norway is not as dumb as the rest of the EU that allow Orbán to enrich himself (and his family and loyalists) by distributing the development funds himself. Norway requires 10% of the money to be distributed by an institution that is independent of Hungary’s government. Not opposing, just independent.
But Orbán wants that money for himself as well. That means the last 3 million euros per year – supposedly to distribute it to “civilians” he likes. Like the infamous faux-civilians, the so-called Peace March movement, which is at its core a bunch of hardcore, bile-spitting old men ready to summon tens of thousands from the countryside to come to Budapest (expenses covered, buses lent by Orbán’s football clubs) and protest in defense of poor, much-beleaguered Orbán. (And many of those people know better than to refuse to go.)
But Norway said no in 2016, and still wants this money to be distributed by an independent organization. Ökotárs, the foundation that has been serving this function has been under attack. (A spectacular police ambush was staged back in 2016, to apprehend that scary-looking lady, who leads the organization and keeps impeccable paperwork with a degree of transparency authorities haven’t even heard of.)
Civil society, media, judicial independence, or independence of any kind is under the final attacks by Orbán, and not even a few million could be allowed to go to them. They really must starve to death. The pond is that shallow.
It is easy to be critical of the power when the worst thing that can befall you is not getting juicy positions. It is quite a different story when being independent is unpaid – and working for a non-profit means increasingly that. And something you probably haven’t encountered and don’t believe it could happen: when you are not allowed to get paid anywhere else either. Anyone trying to silence their consciousness by blaming “Hungarians” (as such) for “not protesting” (they do) or “not doing anything” (they do) should practice a little intellectual humility and assume that the decline into autocracy is a bit more gradual and insidious than that. If it were so obvious and if resistance were easy and if it worked, people would do it more and more often. The essence of oppression is not fear – it is learned helplessness. An autocrat has to induce that in you – and then his path will get more and more smooth. And even if you feel you don’t care – is there any point in resisting when you don’t believe others would?
Plenty of people who blame the victims for not resisting just because they would lose their livelihood would do even worse things if they were facing the same pressure. And their friends and families. (This is not an excuse, but an explanation for those, who occupy the moral high ground without ever having to make the choice between making a living and raising his voice. Paying his mortgage and resisting wrong. Feeding his family and voting against the strongman.)
We have even had a propaganda, billboard and media campaign, complete with direct marketing mail into every Hungarian household, demonizing “civilians”. On more taxpayer money that these organizations could ever raise from Norway or any other source. When the US refused to link the arms deal with starving NGOs, Orbán called them a “maffia-like Soros-organization”. We are moments away from being called rats and cockroaches – “enemies of the people” is old news.
And this, the last 3 million euros going to non-loyalist civil society, this was the thing Orbán wanted out of his once-in-a-lifetime meeting with Trump. This.
To eliminate the last few pesky civilians and NGOs, who may dare to investigate his cronyism or to volunteer to help the hopelessly poor. Or try to help running schools when the state fails. Or rescue accident victims when the state facilities are rotting and overburdened. To provide legal aid for human rights abuse victims, who couldn’t possibly afford to defend themselves. Orbán even has his parallel human rights NGO – presumably against civil liberties. Look, I have already found one recipient for his largess.
Let us savor this: Orbán has apparently nothing else missing from his contentment, he has no bigger enemies to eliminate. And he is really this petty.
This is what I mean when I keep saying that the slippery slope to autocracy begins with the state keeping everyone financed – and reversely, that no one can be allowed to have a livelihood independent from the strongman.
But to understand the real tragedy of Orbán, you must savor Trump’s well-thought-out answer:
“I really like Norway.”