As I read today a story in The Guardian on the imploding Hungarian economy, I couldn’t help thinking back to an editorial that I wrote almost exactly a year ago for TOL. The country was only a few days into its EU presidency, and like many others, I wondered why the Viktor Orban government had chosen such a high-publicity time to pass their controversial media law. It seemed so illogical. “Was it simply miscalculation, mismanagement, or just plain mischievousness?” I asked.

After speaking to a bunch of smart Hungarians, I concluded:

What should have been clear then, and has become abundantly clear these past few weeks, is that the Hungarian prime minister and his party feel that they cannot wait – time is of the essence, no matter the consequences. Soon after their victory, the new Hungarian authorities had ordered many public buildings to display a proclamation that declares, among other things: “In spring 2010, the Hungarian nation gathered its strength once again, and brought about a successful revolution in the polling booth.” Many abroad smirked at the rhetoric and self-congratulation and probably left it at that.

But Fidesz seems to take this revolution business very seriously. For the party and its supporters, this is a historic opportunity to redress the wrongs of the past 20 years, finally rid the country of ex-communists and liberal leftists, and remake the country in their image. They view their massive victory as a mandate to make sweeping changes that get to the core of Hungary’s democracy. And Orban, looking for this opening for years, is clearly the right man for such a job. Even his critics view him at least in part as a true believer with revolutionary zeal.

One year later, my first instinct was again to shake my head, perplexed at the government’s behavior. With the forint hitting a record low on Wednesday and Hungarian state bonds recently rated as junk, various officials still appeared defiant in the face of international demands to modify the government’s latest moves, this time to gain greater control over the central bank. Yes, some officials have appeared more conciliatory, but they have also talked of battling it out with the EU and IMF, with one Fidesz leader talking of exchanging a “few punches in the meantime.” State secretary Gyula Pleschinger, a member of Hungary’s negotiating team with the IMF, also claimed that it wouldn’t be a tragedy if the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement, saying the country has a Plan B.

What exactly is this Plan B? A Belarus-style bailout from Russia? A massive loan from China? Where would the country turn if a deal can’t be reached – with various analysts forecasting an economic meltdown?

Péter Krekó, research director of the Political Capital think tank, said that Orbán was committing “political suicide” by being so hostile to the EU and IMF, despite knowing full well that his country really needs the €15-20bn loan as a safety net.
“I don’t think the government – or Hungary – can survive without the IMF/EU loan,” he said. “The future of this country is bound up with that loan. Not accepting it, whatever conditions may be imposed, would be political suicide. In the short term, maybe six months or so, we’d be OK. But after that, Viktor Orbán cannot survive.”

At the end of my piece from last year, I also speculated that “Maybe, after all, Orban and his allies are intentionally antagonizing the outside world so as to come to the defense of Hungary and the Hungarians, applying a prototypical ‘us vs. them’ strategy to buoy their power at home.” But I don’t think that’s right, at least with my armchair psychology here in Prague.

It all apparently comes back to this revolutionary mindset, this messianic role that Orban and his circle feel. Just look also at one of the comments that The Guardian quotes to indicate why IMF officials supposedly now refuse to deal with Economic Minister György Matolcsy. Matolcsy has boasted that he is “working from an economics textbook that has not even been written yet” – not exactly the kind of statement to inspire confidence among his counterparts at international financial institutions.

These people really seem to believe that they can stick to their guns and re-make Hungary before it all falls apart economically, no matter the evidence to the contrary.

It’s times like this that make one wonder if sometimes countries aren’t better off having opportunistic crooks in power who take their share and leave after a single term than ideologues who seem to be willing to run their nations into the ground for the sake of their mission, threatening the fortunes of millions of their citizens for years to come.

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

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