27th Feb 2024


Orbán's Budapest is decaying, literally and metaphorically

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At a book fair in Budapest at the end of September, a woman bought the Hungarian edition of my book comparing the European Union with the Habsburg Empire.

She asked me to dedicate it for her son. He was still at school, she said, but graduating he wants to study somewhere in western Europe and then "work for Europe". The more prime minister Viktor Orbán vilifies the EU, she added, the more the boy wants to "work for Europe".

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  • At a Budapest book fair, certain books on display were wrapped in plastic — as if the Iron Curtain was back, and we were all behind it again

I wrote in the book: "For Peter, Europe and Hungary need people like you". When she read it, her eyes filled with tears.

It is rare nowadays to experience these things elsewhere in Europe. Many Europeans are complaining about the cost of living and other problems, criticising the inability of politicians to do anything about it. But almost all of them live in democracies and are free — within the law — to say what they want.

In Hungary, however, this is less and less the case.

That same book fair, for instance, opened with a long speech on the functions of the thumb. Yes: the thumb. This was a political metaphor, which the speaker beautifully twisted and turned in countless literary dimensions. Handsomely done — but it gave me the goosebumps, because everything had to be read between the lines. Everything was there in the text, but hidden, implicit, because apparently it could not be spelled out.

This eerie scene reminded me of Kafka's Metamorphosis, a novel full of symbolism in which a man turns into a cockroach. The thumb speech managed to contain an allusion, for instance, to a bookshop that received a high fine because it had failed to wrap children's books containing any reference to gender or sexuality (banned in Hungary, nowadays, for anyone under 18) in plastic.

It also contained an indirect reference to a conservative organisation close to the government that had recently bought a major publishing house, and to the general expectation that it would soon stop publishing anything unwelcome to the Hungarian government — a situation many newspapers and radio and TV stations in Hungary experience nowadays.

At the book fair itself, certain books on display were wrapped in plastic. As if the Iron Curtain was back, and we were all behind it again.

And so it went on, for days.

I found Budapest impoverished and decayed. Each time you visit Prague or Warsaw, the roads seem better, houses cleaner and cars more modern than last time. In Budapest, it is the opposite.

Many buildings are dirty. The streets have potholes. The woodwork of the main station, Keleti, is literally crumbling.

The only part of town looking good is the 'golden mile' in the centre, where oligarchs invest in luxury tourist hotels and expensive fashion chains.

Capital voted the 'wrong' way

Some Hungarians explained to me why their capital is in such a bad state: the mayor belongs to the opposition, they said, and the government is punishing opposition mayors by slashing their revenues.

And so the stories continued.

People told me how, at that time, Orbán was helping Robert Fico win the elections by re-directing migrants normally ushered into Austria to eastern Slovakia. The idea supposedly was to scare voters in that rural region, with Fico exploiting this fear with tough anti-immigration slogans and promises to build high fences if they would vote for him (which happened a few weeks later).

Then, there were stories about the bullying of foreign companies in Hungary.

This always starts, people told me, with a phone call by a Hungarian offering to buy the company for a certain amount. If the foreign owner refuses, harassment starts. Licenses are suddenly revoked, the tax man bursts in with allegations of irregularities, bureaucratic demands pile up. Months later, when the company is already ailing under so much pressure: another call, from the same man. And another offer — 40 per cent lower, this time.

Are these fairy tales? No. These stories are well documented. Squeezing opposition cities: Euronews. Migrants to Slovakia: the Financial Times. Forced nationalisation of companies: Frankfurter Rundschau. Children's books that must be wrapped in plastic: Le Monde. These are just a few examples.

Many Hungarians feel increasingly powerless to fight this. Orbán has curtailed the independence of judges, and has manipulated the electoral system so that his Fidesz party has a comfortable majority in parliament. When opposition parties shut out by the media discover they can only advertise on lampposts during election campaigns, Orbán's party rushes a law through Parliament banning political ads on lampposts. This, too, has really happened: just read Zsuzsanna Szelenyi's book Tainted Democracy.

Until recently, the EU withheld €30bn in European subsidies because Hungary violates EU anti-corruption and rule of law requirements. In retaliation, Orbán blocked Sweden's accession to Nato, EU budgetary decisions, financial and military aid to Ukraine, the EU Commission president's reappointment, and a decision on accession talks with Ukraine.

This month, the commission released €13bn, after which Orbán lifted the veto against accession talks with Ukraine. He kept the other blockages in place.

In his book Orbán; Europe's New Strongman the Austrian journalist Paul Lendvai wrote that Orbán, after the conquest of power in Hungary, would set his eyes on power in Europe next. He wants to "emerge as a leadership personality on the European stage with the aim of starting what Jan-Werner Müller of Princeton University calls 'a pan-European culture war'." Orbán's ferocious battles with the European Commission and the 26 other member states suggest Lendvai may have been right on that point.

It is to be hoped that Brussels refuses to be blackmailed further, and does fight back.

This would not just be good for Europe, or for the schoolboy Peter and his mother. It would also be to the liking of another visitor at the Budapest book fair who bought my book and asked me for a dedication. This man sat down opposite me and whispered, in German: "May I ask you a question? Is it true that my prime minister is misbehaving in Brussels? I am asking you because we do not read this in our newspapers."

I told him that, yes, Hungary was annoying the other member states with increasingly unreasonable demands. And that this was getting worse. My visitor sighed and said: "Then, please accept my apologies on behalf of all the Hungarians who did not vote for Orbán."

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC. She is also a columnist for Foreign Policy and De Standaard. This piece is adapted from a column in NRC .


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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