Sometimes, we read more into things than they actually contain. And sometimes we attribute more to an autocrat than he was actually aiming for. These instances may have a lesson for the future.
The first example is the tiny, little anti-corruption purge that was speculated to be an internal message to strongmen to take back from their faces and steal and bit more discretely – turns out it was just the suicide quest of two prosecutors to bring this case to courts despite pushback from their higher-ups. Both lost their jobs, one committed suicide.
In late 2019, Orbán seemed to have embarked upon a quest to quell the corruption that is inherent in his system of hand-picked oligarchs. Or at least to take it down a notch or to make it more discreet. The purge started before the October election defeat, it was tiny and only reached inconsequential characters, so we all assumed it must have been Orbán being confident in his seat and cleaning house.
Our assumptions were not completely outlandish. In the absence of independent prosecution, an anti-corruption drive generally serves as a message to the soldiers in an autocratic system, telling them that they, too, can be removed and have no control over their fate.
An anti-corruption case in an autocracy is never about the placation of the public opinion, even if it accidentally also serves that purpose. In fact, an autocrat might want to hold back on open anti-corruption measures, lest the public gets the idea that public opinion matters. The public opinion in an autocratic regime needs to be managed and influenced from the top down – not placated and vindicated.
The two Fidesz local strongmen, who got into the limelight because the prosecution, inexplicably, decided to move against them, were minor characters, just big (and stupid) enough to serve as a precedent. So we thought they did.
Speculation started why their prosecution was even allowed. In countries where authorities are perceived to follow orders rather than the law, legal action against politically connected strongmen appears like an internal issue within the party, rather than the regular course of the law. It looks like the license to hunt them down has been issued, and people wonder why. Is it a message within the Fidesz camp reminding them that their positions are at the mercy of the king – or is it a message to the public? Is the regime behaving alongside the logic of a democracy where public opinion matters – or an autocracy where competing gangs within the ruling party have conducted an assassination against each other? And most importantly – is it a beginning of a decline?
Turns out, it was neither.
The question we should have asked is how come Orbán would use the courts (still not completely submitted to his will) to send a message? Letting courts be the judge of anything is against his vision of the country.
He had also often proudly bragged that only the liberals squabble internally – Fideszniks move in unison, like an army, they show a united front and close ranks, especially when they have a murder to cover up. (And in the mind of an authoritarian submissive it is actually a reason to vote for him – not to shun his party that openly puts power above public interest – even the pretense of it.)
The answer came recently, when one of the heroic anti-corruption crusaders in the opposition, Ákos Hadházy revealed that this was not an internal purge but a glitch in Orbán’s well-oiled steal-and-bully mechanism called NER. Two prosecutors let their professional duty and conscientiousness run amok and pushed these cases along. They were both fired. One committed suicide. At the cost of the terrible personal and career damage they sustained, they managed to push the case far enough so that the chief prosecutor couldn’t stop it – not even by firing them.
And how do we know this? Because the defendant was caught on tape (again) bragging about it. The guy still can’t stop talking to the press and bragging about his impunity. Not only did he brag on record that the prosecutors who nailed him were fired – he even bragged that Orbán was still on his side. All Orbán asked from him was ‘How are you coping?‘ and reassured him.
The second example is about the assumed sophistication of Orbán’s culture war. Turns out, it is not sophisticated. It is blunt.
There used to be a policy in the pre-1989 autocracy called TTT. It stands for Support, Tolerate, Ban in Hungarian and it referred to the devilish culture policy of late (soft) communism: to apply a slightly more sophisticated approach to culture than just ham-handed ban.
According to TTT, the minister whose job was to keep culture tamed and in line with the rulers’ rule, allowed certain cultural phenomena to exist (Tolerate), even if they were not friendly to the Party. There was an approved comedian allowed to crack jokes at the Party. There were musicians who were not Party-conform, but they were tolerated nonetheless as long as they were really bad, inconsequential, or their reach was limited to a certain urban crowd that was untameable anyway. Let it look like there is dissidence here, it is totally allowed – people just don’t want it.
It was a sinister way of corrupting souls. No outright ban or violence would have achieved what soft communism did with its nuanced approach of divide and conquer – or in the case of culture: support-tolerate-ban.
And for a long time we assumes Orbán was applying what he learned in that era. Turns out, he just hasn’t got down to eliminate the smallest bits of independent media left.
We have assumed that some tiny, inconsequential, niche media outlets such as Klubrádió are allowed to exist because they are inconsequential and limited to a fringe, urban audience who are inconvertible anyway. Here, let the whole world see that we totally have dissenters here, people just don’t want to hear them.
Klubrádió has been in the crosshairs of authorities and lost its regional frequencies in 2011. The authorities also wanted to shut them up in Budapest (despite several court rulings in Klubrádió’s favor), but eventually granted a 7-year license in 2013. We all assumed that it was allowed to live because it is inconsequential and we are living in a neo-communist TTT era, when the pre-1989 autocracy’s culture policy has also returned alongside many other facets of pre-1989 life.
Turns out, Orbánist henchmen in the media council are too petty to be this sophisticated. Or maybe they just wanted cookie points. Or maybe they are scared that they accidentally don’t go far enough. At any rate, a few days after they shut down digital radio technology (because the new technology didn’t allow outright state control by the distribution of frequencies) they announced that Klubrádió’s license to broadcast will not be renewed.
Again, we assumed more sophistication from Orbán and Orbánists than they care to practice. Does it hold any lessons for the future?