Stefano Bottoni’s book offers an in-depth investigation of Viktor Orbán’s political career and a multi-layered depiction of the foundations and trajectory of the regime he has come to build in Hungary since 2010.
A widely published and internationally respected contemporary historian and public intellectual, Bottoni has arguably been ideally positioned to write such an interpretative history of Hungary, its democratic decline and the emergence of its self-styled “system of national cooperation.”
Based at the University of Florence, Stefano Bottoni is a former employee of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and has been a resident of Budapest. Next to his broad horizons and detached analytical perspective, he thus also qualifies as a cultural and political insider.
Orbán. Un despota in Europa not only presents plentiful relevant data on Hungary but also embeds its own interpretation in a broad variety of secondary literature to develop a complex and nuanced interpretation.
Between comprehension and critique
The starting point of Bottoni’s reflections is a deceptively simple question: why has Orbán succeeded in building an autocratic system by largely democratic means and with such limited opposition?
The approach the author employs to answer this puzzling question is primarily historical-sociological; the volume’s methodological premise is that political action matters much more than rhetorical bravado.
Bottoni complains that many previous analysts have succumbed to the temptation of restricting their focus to the regime’s vocal identity politics and controversial assertions. He justifiably laments that few attempts have been made to grasp the internal logic, transnational embeddedness and mechanisms of legitimation of Hungary’s new political system that have ensured its political successes and relative stability over the past decade.
More specifically, Orbán. Un despota in Europa elaborates two key theses.
First, Bottoni suggests that Orbán has been able to build his new system on the ruins of Hungarian democracy – the Hungarian masses did not rush to defend a democracy whose institutions they had not cherished and whose values they had largely failed to internalise, but one which nonetheless gravely disappointed them by the spring of 2010.
Pre-dating the decline of Hungarian democracy to the years of left-liberal rule between 2002 and 2010 may seem close to reproducing Fidesz’ own preferred narrative, however, Bottoni is clear and explicit on Orbán and Fidesz having been chiefly responsible for laying the foundations for the sixth authoritarian model in Hungary within a century.
Second, Bottoni argues that Orbán’s “system of national cooperation”, its rather intuitive choices and ad hoc decisions notwithstanding, should be viewed as the result of decades of intense political and intellectual preparation.
In other words, even if the spirit of liberal democracy had been gravely weakened by 2010, there was a premeditated murder of its body afterwards.
Formation and political agenda
Bottoni depicts Viktor Orbán as a pragmatic populist who possesses unusual political talents but may also be viewed as a radical embodiment of wider generational patterns. His youthful revolt against the gerontocratic Soviet regime was followed, just like in the case of numerous others, by the desire to integrate into Euro-Atlantic structures and then by a repudiation of a strategy of imitation.
In other words, Orbán’s personal trajectory could be said to reflect the growing disillusionment on the European periphery with the promises of liberal democracy and Western prosperity.
At the same time, as Bottoni notes, Orbán qualifies as the only significant protagonist of the 1989 refolutions (Timothy Garton Ash) who has subsequently managed to create – through a strategic retreat involving the crucial support of “uncivil society” (Stephen Kotkin) – his own system of government.
With undeniable skill and subversive originality, Orbán has made the crisis of democratic representation particularly acute in Hungary, coming to establish what the author calls an “extremely disfigured” form of representative democracy – a hybrid regime in the language of political science.
The book’s narrative begins by sketching Orbán’s youth and political formation. Illuminating passages explain that Orbán was born at a liminal moment in the history of the rural world of Transdanubia. No longer consisting of peasants, Orbán’s milieu was culturally and sociologically almost undefinable – young Viktor certainly never had to face political pasts or the weight of a family tradition. His father, who acted as the manager of the local cooperative, was a rather typical representative of his times: integrated into the regime and largely indifferent to politics, upwardly mobile but hesitant to adopt modern worldviews and attitudes, wilful, even violent.
As the confident and rebellious Viktor – a product of late socialism’s social mobility and soon a courageous opponent of the dictatorship – reached adult age in the early 1980s and moved to Budapest to study, Hungary was already experiencing a worsening crisis. Pessimism about the future was becoming rampant just when his metropolitan environment began to pose existential challenges to this talented youth from “nowhere specific.”
As Bottoni convincingly argues, it was in this context that strength and sovereignty first became key concepts for Orbán.
He would soon come to lead Fidesz, a surprisingly professional anti-communist youth movement propagating generational rupture, a rupture not only with the formal structures of the regime but also with its financial, information and cultural networks.
A new type of East European politician
Although co-shaping 1989 as a new pro-democracy movement, Fidesz chose not to join what Bottoni calls the ensuing “great compromise” between reform-oriented economists, technocrats, diplomats and the leaders of the democratic opposition that came to define Hungary’s post-89 transformation.
As Bottoni emphasises, Orbán could be labelled a broadly liberal politician around 1989 but he was certainly not left-leaning: hostile to collectivist ideals, his vision of society was close to the neoliberal one. At the same time, the young politician would insist that every individual had the right to feel part of a national community.
This nationally charged neo-liberalism clearly set him apart from leading former dissidents belonging to older generations. Again, unlike most of them, Orbán conceived of politics not as another form of moral activity but rather as the rational and ruthless pursuit of political hegemony.
Beyond this nuanced and insightful portrait of a budding politician, Bottoni’s book also places due emphasis on the fact that Fidesz gathered excellent skills in foreign and security policy already in the 1990s, and that Orbán showed an unusually vivid personal interest in international relations and geopolitical questions.
As president of the parliamentary commission on European integration after 1994, Orbán dedicated time and energy to critically analyse the European decision-making process and soon came to conceive of European integration as a means rather than an end. The creation of Hungarian capitalism led by a national bourgeoisie soon emerged as one of his chief goals: the combative pragmatist that he was now started to conceive of himself as a visionary strategist focused on “the national interest.”
Practically as soon as he first assumed power in 1998 at the age of 35, Orbán was intent on asserting the primacy of politics over the power of the judiciary, multinational companies and international financial institutions. As he aimed to liberate the country from its traumas and complexes and restore national pride, he would soon formulate an agenda of conquering cultural hegemony at the expense of the vocal and often sophisticated Hungarian liberal intelligentsia.
As the new millennium dawned, Orbán was already widely seen as a new type of East European politician, someone with administrative experience and skill, a dense network of international contacts and a good command of English: not a political pariah by any means, but a potentially subversive influence on the European stage.
As Bottoni shows, an experienced and influential politician by the early 21st century, Orbán continued to draw quick and radical conclusions – and repeatedly had strategically sound intuitions. Orbán saw his 2002 defeat as the end of his polgári (civic-bourgeois) project and came to believe that the decisive part of Hungarian society was looking for more safety and less individual responsibility – basically a more national and less ideological version of Kádárism.
Orbán was also quick to judge that the dramatic 2008-09 crisis greatly weakened the trust in neoliberal elites as well as democratic institutions. He concluded that in such a context he should be able to undermine his opponents in the name of a total political regeneration and mount challenges to the liberal international order concerning issues that used to be regarded as consensual.
Similarly, around 2014-15, Orbán’s ever bolder and controversial declarations and policies anticipated the explosion of political anger and resentment and the rise of the authoritarian right in the West. The latter precursor role would make the Hungarian prime minister into a divisive international celebrity and a bête noire of liberal public opinion across the globe – with more than a decade of delay as compared to Hungary.
Stefano Bottoni’s coverage of Orbán’s post-2010 steps to reshape Hungary is comprehensive, though it arguably amounts to one of the less original parts of the book.
What strikes the reader about Bottoni’s apt depiction of this decade of encompassing institutional and political-cultural transformation from above is the continuous “forward flight” of a regime caught in a vortex of conflicts – a regime that has made numerous authoritarian gains since 2010 without giving the impression of wishing to switch to a mode of consolidation.
Transnational connections and international embeddedness
Orbán. Un despota in Europa does especially well at probing the transnational connections and international embeddedness of a regime that has too often been viewed, both by supporters and critics, as something of a Hungarian speciality and essentially internally determined. To counter that facile perception, Bottoni refers to a host of cases where Orbán drew on controversial practices in Western democracies only to develop them in a more authoritarian direction.
The author argues that when Orbán strengthened the Prime Minister’s Office upon first assuming power in 1998, he partly copied the German model of chancellorship, however, he would soon combine such a powerful institution with a weak Parliament tasked with little more than ratification.
Orbán’s first larger intervention in ministerial apparatuses was, in turn, inspired by the practices of incoming US administrations. Such politically motivated changes were then accompanied by a substantial centralisation of the Hungarian bureaucratic apparatuses to the point where political loyalty and informal influence have become decisive criteria within them.
Upon Fidesz’ surprise 2002 electoral defeat and modelled, above all, on entrepreneur-politician Silvio Berlusconi’s sprawling possessions, Orbán and his then close ally Lajos Simicska dedicated themselves to building up a private-political media empire, which would soon function as a transmission belt of the newest party line.
Simultaneously, Orbán saw in Austria and Bavaria rather traditionalist societies with globalised economies which combined impressive wealth with semi-authoritarian politics under the rule of “old-fashioned Christian Democracy.”
As Bottoni notes, Orbán openly supported the Austrian government led by Wolfgang Schüssel and joined by the far-right FPÖ that was formed in early 2000 – a government the EU at first attempted to boycott.
The Hungarian politician thereby foreshadowed his recent and till now largely unsuccessful European strategy of creating a new alliance between the centre-right and the far right. Equally importantly, he also acquired a personal ally in Schüssel who some two decades later would oppose, in his role as one of EPP’s “wise old men,” Fidesz’ expulsion from the party family.
New entanglements with Russia
Having said all that about Fidesz’ Western, primarily Central European political models and affiliations, Bottoni is clear that Hungary’s relationship with Russia should be central to any understanding of the country’s recent political evolution. Intending to widen his scope for international action upon acquiring his supermajority in 2010, Orbán chose to further deepen the country’s connections to Russia – which, as Bottoni rightly emphasises, had become dangerously close for Western tastes already under the premiership of Ferenc Gyurcsány between 2004 and 2009.
As he shows, Hungary’s new entanglements with Russia in the energy sector and even in the realm of security were also based on affinities and drives that went beyond the merely pragmatic and oligarchic: Russia’s “sovereign and managed democracy” with its power vertical clearly held considerable appeal for Viktor Orbán and Putinist “political technology” soon started to be applied in Hungarian garb.
Three important differences, however, have remained between the two countries. Orbán has not used physical violence in his exercise of power, his country’s sovereignty is in many ways conditioned by the European Union (even if the EU has proven a rather comfortable critic) and the electoral support of oppositional forces in Hungary, unlike in Russia, remains closely comparable to that of the ruling party.
Hungary indeed has a competitive authoritarian regime: the playing field is highly uneven, but the rulers need to worry about the outcome of upcoming elections.
Bottoni perceptively notes that the opposition to Orbán’s system currently finds itself in a situation comparable to that of Putin’s opposition back around 2004 when the Russian regime began to force all political alternatives to the margins of public life and the problem of co-option emerged as an existential dilemma for many.
On the new German–Russian axis?
Repeated acts of cosying up to Putin’s Russia and Hungary’s broader strategy of Eastern opening (announced with much fanfare in the early 2010s but bringing few tangible results) should not distract us from the fact that Germany has continued to be the main investor in the country and at least indirectly, i.e. through European subsidies, also the largest financial supporter of Orbán’s regime, Bottoni reminds us.
In his striking interpretation, there has been a convergence of interest not only between Hungary and Russia but – as Orbán’s bombastic “struggle for economic freedom” has gradually been replaced by an implicit agreement between national authorities and multinational companies that they would each control about half of the Hungarian economy – also with Germany.
Having aligned itself with what Bottoni labels the German–Russian axis, Orbán’s regime appears to have fit right into the balance of forces in today’s Europe. As a crucial part of that story, the “system of national cooperation” has proven by and large compatible, if not with then abstract values, then certainly with the actual governing practices of the EU.
As Bottoni underlines, with their cynical pragmatism Hungarian governments under Orbán have specified the logic of exchange as adherence to international economic and financial parameters in exchange for non-interference in national social and cultural policies.
Maintaining a curious balance with being embedded in Western structures while shifting towards the East and cultivating pragmatic nationalist allies and protégés especially in South-eastern Europe, Orbán has deepened the East-West divide within the EU at the price of losing his powerful allies in Western and Northern Europe.
Having become a divisive international celebrity, the Hungarian prime minister has succeeded at placing his country on the global political map.
However, after a decade of proudly positioning Hungary on the periphery of European political integration but also of the European economy, his regime now faces the threat of marginalisation – just as Hungarian society faces the acute risk of Western acquiescence in that marginalisation.
Contradictions of a seemingly stable regime
In Bottoni’s depiction, Orbán’s regime has offered a new and relatively stable variant of capitalism on the European periphery throughout the 2010s, one that continues to be neoliberal in its economic policies, heavily dependent on foreign investment and European funds but one that pursues an authoritarian program of hegemony and domination.
Bottoni thereby maintains that the recurrent reports on the Hungarian regime’s grave vulnerability should strike us as premature: as the book aims to demonstrate, Orbán’s system has in fact generated sufficient degrees of internal consensus while also establishing a symbiotic relationship with the EU and transnational capitalism more generally.
At the same time, Orbán. Un despota in Europa also sheds light on the numerous contradictions behind Orbán’s rule. Perhaps most importantly, the regime has combined its eagerness to satisfy investors with populist rhetorical moves and the raising of nationalist expectations. As Bottoni explains, Orbán’s regime may have branded itself patriotic and protectionist but it has, by and large, been operating on the basis of social Darwinian principles. While projecting an image of being the protector of the weak, it has applied the principle of protection highly selectively.
Orbán’s consecutive governments have in fact gravely underfunded several essential public services, from education and health care to housing – even the resources devoted to public administration were significantly decreased after 2010. Fidesz’ uninterrupted decade in power has also worsened the underlying tension between the neoliberal insistence on economic efficiency and the statist tendency to centralise and control.
The regime has also placed a marked emphasis on emotional subjects and questions of identity but the vision of society it offers has rather limited appeal: how far a Christian-national ideology can succeed in a rather secularised and highly individualistic society remains doubtful.
Moreover, Fidesz’ strict opposition to migration may be assessed as sheer propaganda, if unfortunately, not one without detrimental effect.
After all, xenophobia has been strengthened while the mass emigration of Hungarians in the past decade has led to a labour shortage in the most varied sectors of the economy and significant labour immigration in more recent years – a blatant self-contradiction of an ethnicist regime that now tries to keep its actual labour policies secret.
A similar recklessness and overreach can be said to characterise Hungarian foreign policy. Orbán’s regime has unscrupulously exploited popular grievances by turning them against international financial and political institutions. The ambition to synchronise anti-internationalist posturing with what is essentially a realist and business-oriented foreign policy of a small state in a globalised environment has generated unnecessary conflicts – and yielded unresolved dilemmas.
The regime’s bold diplomatic manoeuvres may admittedly have paid some dividends on the short-term but the worsening impression further West of Hungary being an unreliable partner may come to haunt the country on the mid-term.
Effective political strategy without a vision of the future
While, as Bottoni critically remarks, the Hungarian middle classes closely tied to Western structures and enjoying such lifestyles have by and large tolerated the regime’s anti-Western propaganda for years, Orbán betrayal of conservative values such as moderation, anti-populism and respect for existing institutions has alienated many of them by now.
Nonetheless, after a decade of being in power, Fidesz continues to have a compact and motivated social base.
However, the characteristics of the party’s electorate have changed since 2010. Not only has political polarisation become much deeper in the country but Fidesz’ core electorate increasingly consists of older and less educated people residing in smaller localities – not a promising development for the party, especially when one recalls how educated and dynamic its supporters tended to be some two decades ago.
Social Darwinism clothed in populist garb, propagation of a Christian-national ideology that, if imposed further, is bound to clash with social realities, and the aforementioned changes in the ruling party’s electorate point to a regime that may possess an effective political strategy but no appealing vision of the future.
Orbán in effect rules over a society which is not only increasingly unequal but which also gravely limits mobility and marginalises about one-third of the population.
According to current prognoses, by 2050 no less than about half of the country’s shrinking population would come from a background of social deprivation – a grave prospect indeed which Orbán’s extended and heavy-handed rule has done little to alleviate.
Transnational champion of political restoration
Ultimately, Stefano Bottoni’s dissection of the regime’s contradictions amounts to a diagnosis similar to Gábor Scheiring’s in his The Retreat of Liberal Democracy: the Orbán regime is a transnational champion of political restoration intent on accumulating capital and providing preferential treatment to a national bourgeoisie but one that lacks a broader developmentist agenda.
As Hungarian society gets exposed to conflicting impulses from the liberal West and the world of authoritarianism, the system of national cooperation only really serves those who serve it.