What happens to a successful gambler when he starts losing in his favourite game? One raises the stakes. There are considerable risks that Hungary is on the path of departing from the Western alliance and despite all logic, the driving factor can be the political psychology of the prime minister.

Viktor Orbán may feel like a real-life and political winner. Who knows whether or not he is God’s anointed. Wherever you look, Viktor is there. A successful family, with five children and grandchildren who are to quickly give him the next football team he wants, as he assured on Facebook while presenting his latest sprout.

In his hometown Felcsút, a remote village where he grew up as a child, he not only refurbished his family house but also built an indoor stadium on the other side of the street, with sprinkled turf as well as a leather and velvet-lined skybox that welcomes the country’s most influential and wealthy people.

It is in Felcsút where the national media speculate about who has the “prime minister’s ear” at the moment, based on the seating arrangement.

From rags to riches 

Illustration by Daniel Garcia

He himself often sits on this skybox with former village head and gas collector Lőrincz Mészáros, today widely regarded as one of the richest people in the country.

There are three basic reasons for his extraordinary, cosmic and straightforward business career: Divine Providence, his own talents, and – as he recognises less willingly, but still – acquaintance with the prime minister.

It is difficult to fully assess Mészáros’ property, as well as the details of ties with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, although rumour has it he is the “prime minister’s pillar”, just a substitute.

However, proof of how high the stakes are is media speculation that Mészáros is perhaps even richer than British Queen Elisabeth II.

Viktor Orbán also made other children’s dreams come true: next to the stadium in Felcsút, a few steps from his family home, he built a football academy named after Ferenc Puskás, probably the most famous Hungarian footballer in history.

Then, he launched – with EU money – a narrow-gauge railway connecting nearby towns. Hardly anyone uses it but Orbán, a frequent visitor here, has his reasons for personal satisfaction.

Similar successes can also be seen in the capital, where he not only built a large villa in the Buda hills but even moved – not without controversy and some resistance on the part of Budapest’s chief architect – his seat.

He moved from the Parliament building to the Buda hills, next to the Castle and the seat of the Hungarian president (formerly the seat of the prime ministers) to the spacious and carefully rebuilt former Carmelite monastery which is richly equipped also with works of art.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all

In this way, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has a wide panorama and wide views in front of him, just like in politics, where for a decade he has almost continuously held a qualified majority in parliament and the unquestionable position of the only leader, a true leader, both in the ranks of his own party and on the entire political palette.

An opponent is not even visible on the horizon. The party and the state are governed by the principle formulated long ago by Péter Tölgyessy, an insightful analyst of the Hungarian political scene: “one talks, the rest stands and claps.”

In such a situation, it is no wonder that Orbán aims high and sets himself greater and more ambitious goals. One thing is known: spiritually, he feels like the leader of all Hungarians, not just those confined within the borders of the state.

Not only did he refer to the once-loud statements of the first democratic prime minister after 1990, József Antall, but also strongly developed it by giving the representatives of the vast diaspora social and even electoral rights (which pays off, because most of them vote for Fidesz).

It was for this reason that in 2012 the Hungarian Constitution and the name of the state were changed. Hungary was born from the Republic of Hungary, because, of course, Hungary is everywhere where Hungarians live, not as the powers set out in Trianon and repeated in 1947 in Paris.

A return to the lands of the Crown of King Saint Stephen, not only in a spiritual sense, is another dream, as evidenced by the map of Greater Hungary in the former Carmelite monastery office, shown to guests but not without some controversy among neighbours.

Diaspora is one thing and great politics, far beyond the borders of little Hungary, is another. Orbán plays and bids much higher than the country’s potential would indicate. In the European Union, he performs the “peacock dance”, as he himself called it, that is, he plays as he is allowed there, interpreting the issues at home in a completely different way.

In Kazakhstan, as he said himself, he feels at home because no one teases him there and he is not picked on like those bureaucrats from Brussels,  created by billionaire George Soros and treated as the main enemy or a monster in Hungarian official media.

Moreover, what the country likes and what is heavily exposed in the government-controlled media are the prime minister’s talks with Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and recently even Donald Trump – in person and by phone – almost on an equal footing. Here is the leader, the Father of the Nation that Hungarians deserve. The father of Hungarian victories, who has various victories in his genes, because his father, a successful businessman in recent times, enriched on public procurement (who remembers his former membership in the Kádár party, and even a contract in Libya at that time) is named Győző, so also a Viktor, only more homely, in Hungarian.

No wonder that Paul Lendvai, who comes from Hungary and lives in Austria, gave his Orbán biography in Hungarian the meaningful title: “The Second Occupation of the Homeland”. According to the author, his hero changed the reality in the country (not necessarily for good), almost to the same extent as when the Magyars entered the Carpathian Basin and the Pannonian Valley.

With such references and experiences, Viktor Orbán, a boy from the poor Hungarian countryside, conquers the world and feels like a first-rate leader, much larger than the potential of Hungary and Hungarians, along with those scattered throughout the diaspora. So many of his predictions came true, he won so many things that now it is time to play for higher stakes.

Bullying boys club

He has good relations with Vladimir Putin, which are unmatched within the EU. They are bound by interests, gas contracts and the nuclear power plant in Paks (the content of the agreement remains classified) on the Hungarian side and the will to play a role on Russia’s behalf within the EU.

In addition, the Hungarian Prime Minister has excellent relations with Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli advisers appointed by Israel’s prime minister were helping Orbán to fight the hated Soros.

There is also a close relationship with Recep Tayyip Erodgan on his list. They visited each other and Erdogan personally participated in the unveiling of the mausoleum of the first Turkish governor in Buda.

At the same time, the tomb of dervish Gül Baba was recently restored with Turkish money and ceremonially put into service in the presence of both of them. Despite Orbán is known for often quoting anti-Muslim slogans he has carefully put those behind a mask of a diplomat and Turkish ally.

Prime Minister Orbán has also built the best relations with China, next to Serbia the best in the entire region. He regularly travels to China and meets with Xi Jinping, with whom in spring this year, taking advantage of the turmoil surrounding the ongoing pandemic, he finally signed a secret contract for the completion of a long-lasting project to build a Chinese high-speed railway connecting Budapest with Belgrade, to which the European Commission has not agreed due to a lack of transparency.

Routing for Trump while there was no plan B

David Cornstein

It was in this context that Viktor Orbán made the bid again: as the first and for a long time the only leader in the EU (then he found a follower in Slovenia) in September this year, he openly placed a bet on Donald Trump as the future US president (for a second term).

Orbán even insisted that “there is no plan B”. He did not hide it, either on Twitter or in a direct telephone conversation with Donald Trump or during public statements, including when saying goodbye to 81-year-old US ambassador to Hungary, David Cornstein, who after years of drought greatly helped Orbán.

Being more in the United States than in Hungary, Cornstein not only was key to the visit of the head of the Hungarian government to the White House but also helped in combating – widely hated in the Hungarian government media – George Soros, his foundation and the Central European University.

After an eventful two and a half years in office, Cornstein left the Hungarian capital on 1 November this year. Not only did he receive a high Hungarian state decoration, but also open praise from Hungary’s prime minister.

Earlier, the US ambassador visited the prime minister’s private residence. Orbán, saying goodbye to him and addressing the ambassador as “Dear David”, said in a special laudation on October 27 that “thanks to him, Hungarian-American relations regained their previous splendour”.

A second occasion, unveiling a monument to former American President George H. Bush on Liberty Square in Budapest, turned out to be a little less happy. For this monument was installed right next to the image of Ronald Reagan, placed here earlier. Both life-size figures were placed so that they face the lofty monument to the heroes of the Soviet Army standing right next to it (on the other side of it is the US Embassy building).

Under these circumstances, Viktor Orbán praised America as an “oasis of freedom” and likewise he compared the German and Soviet occupations, to which Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova reacted sharply, writing that “the statement of the Hungarian prime minister strongly violated the historical truth”.

There is no denying that there was a diplomatic glitch. But what will happen in relations with the Americans after the Hungarian government media, following the administration and the prime minister, so unequivocally supported Donald Trump in the US electoral campaign?

For weeks, in the main news broadcasts of Hungarian TV as well as in the reports of the MTI press agency and the publications of the now chief press body of the government, the daily Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian people), there was no doubt that the only right candidate was Donald Trump – with Joe Biden as a representative of the same obsolete and cosmopolitan elite as the hated George Soros.

Independent weeklies and Radio Free Europe’s recently resumed Hungarian-language broadcasts did what they could to show the advantages of the other candidate as well, but the dominance of government media (beyond the internet) is now overwhelming in Hungary.

Orbán’s stake in Trump results from experience and above all ideological assumptions. In terms of personal experience, previous administrations refused to accept him; he was not welcomed in American salons, as shown by one of David Cornstein’s predecessors, US ambassador Eleni T. Kounalakis (2010-13), who revealed in a book how distrustful Americans were of Orbán, because of his one-person government and the introduction of an illiberal order in Hungary.

Limited options to manoeuvre

It was precisely the issue of ‘illiberal democracy’, so widely promoted since 2014 by Viktor Orbán, that was a real bone of contention in Budapest’s relations with Washington. It stopped being one under the Trump administration, which – as you know – turned values ​​into interests. Thus, it was not the Hungarian system and the nature of the government, but the purchases of US military equipment that became the subject of discussions.

The presidency of ‘leftist’ Joe Biden, as it was propagated, on whom no one in Budapest was betting, will be a serious challenge for the local authorities once again.

Will Viktor Orbán, having on the agenda a non-compliance procedure over the rule of law in relation to the EU and a completely different vision and political philosophy from the next American president, on whom he did not bet, completely turn away from the West and go to Recep Erdogan, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping?

Will Orbán, like them, point to the deep polarisation and divisions in the US, while also hinting that the system there is sick? Will he repeat the formula of Mao Zedong, according to which “the wind from the East will prevail the wind from the West”, which he has already experienced?

Will he also turn away, as Wojciech Przybylski suggests, from the countries of the region, including Poland? Especially since the Slovak authorities are openly in favour of liberalism and the eurozone, and many leaders in the region have welcomed Joe Biden much more favourably?

On top of many troubles and fundamental questions, another serious challenge is the coronavirus pandemic, because the number of infected people and deaths is growing dangerously despite political assurances that it would not.

Learning how to lose again

So far, always victorious on the national stage and international salons, the all-powerful and charismatic Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has found himself at a serious turn. How will he deal with the EU, the long-term budget and emergency measures for COVID-19, when it has so openly challenged the Union in the context of non-compliance with procedures and the rule of law and threatened with a veto?

How will he deal with the new US administration that will remind him again of values instead of interests, like it was for years before Trump? It seems that this time the ‘peacock dance’ will not be is not enough.

It seems that playing the ‘Trump Card’ may prove to be both painful and costly. Because of the return to an agenda of values and multilateral solutions, which Orbán like Trump hates allergically.

Time will show what the consequences of the hitherto openly anti-liberal policy in the (Western) world are. Thanks to Joe Biden’s victory, liberalism, previously beset by populists, demagogues and even liars, has returned to the game.

– Donald Trump’s defeat in the elections may be the beginning of the end of the triumph of far-right populism also in Europe? –  Donald Tusk wrote on Twitter:

But Viktor Orbán does not seem to read the memo and is ready to play new tricks. Yet, his best working strategy – the best form of defence is an attack – may not be effective. It is hard to deal with failure when you are used to winning.

As explained in the Central Europe fractured scenario it could be high time for Orbán to part with the West and embrace the dictators. Having Warsaw as the only ally is not enough. This is a moment when a B plan will have to be found very quickly while Mr Orbán has not been used to making decisions in such a rush.



This article is part of the #DemocraCE project. A Polish version is available on Res Publica Nowa.

Bogdan J. Góralczyk is Professor and former Director of the Centre for Europe, University of Warsaw, a political scientist and sinologist and an expert on Hungary, where he served as a senior diplomat in the years 1991–98 (afterwards a book was published both in Poland and Hungary). His recent book "Hungarian Syndrome: Trianon" has been published on the anniversary of the treaty

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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