BOOK REVIEW: Hungary – the “Post-Communist Mafia State”

BOOK REVIEW: Hungary – the “Post-Communist Mafia State”
Orban's Hungary is best compared with Russia under Putin.
By Kester Eddy in Budapest April 29, 2016

Question: what do the Hungarian Ramblers' Association, the Hungarian Tennis Association and the Hungarian Chess Federation – apart from the obvious – all have in common? Answer: these disparate bodies are all headed by friends or political associates of Viktor Orban, the firebrand Hungarian prime minister.

And the National Skating Federation? That's the purview of Lajos Kosa, a leading Fidesz MP. The Hungarian Triathlon Union? That's the under aegis of Bela Bartorfi, dentist to the Orban family and head of a state-funded project to develop dental tourism. The list goes on.

To be sure, only a handful of 10mn Hungarians would be aware of this; but equally, only a handful would be surprised if told, such is the acceptance of political influence penetrating what are, by comparison, normally totally apolitical positions in Western Europe.

Curious, perhaps, but does it matter? Balint Magyar, a former anti-communist dissident active when Orban was in short trousers, certainly thinks so. For Magyar, it is yet more evidence illustrating the thoroughness of Orban's efforts to dominate, control and exploit any position of influence in their common homeland, which is why Magyar published a list of national sporting institutions (13 in total) headed by the prime minister's associates in an annex to his latest book.

In “Post-Communist Mafia State – The Case of Hungary”, Magyar, a sociologist by training, seeks to explain, in sometimes grindingly fine detail, why and how Orban's regime today represents a new form of autocracy unlike any in the past. In Magyar's analysis, while it shares some similarities with both former communist and far-right regimes, it has evolved beyond such systems, most particularly in its ability to pose as a democratic state in order to attract and (mis)-use the generosity of the EU.

Magyar, who after the demise of communism moved into politics with the liberal Free Democrats and twice became minister of education in various Socialist-led coalitions between 1990-2008, builds his case well, beginning with transformation from communism in 1989-90.

“In East and Central Europe, the regime change brought about political institutional systems modelled on western democracy – truly exemplary in Hungary,” he writes. Yet the “eastern forms of behaviour” alien to liberal democracy “continued to thrive”, and from 1990-2010 “a western political establishment struggled with an eastern pattern of [unfettered desire for] wealth and property accumulation”.

“Thereby, the elections and changes of government were not merely the routine stages in a process of adjustment within a single value system – along the lines of a social model based on a single consensus – but the bitter battles of a war to secure property and the new positions generating wealth,” Magyar argues, and ultimately, in 2010, the eastern pattern, in the shape of Orban's Fidesz, won out.

This summation, on page 15, dovetails in many ways with a Fidesz-believer’s analysis: Orban and his allies repeatedly emphasised the need to smash the “post-communist” situation whereby, in their eyes, the exploitative red elite had merely swapped comfy seats in the politburo for others in boardrooms. (Naturally, this belief scenario omits any mention of the Fidesz elite amassing huge personal wealth, and it conveniently ignores former communist party members who had nimbly jumped ship and landed in privileged Fidesz ranks.)

The remaining 321 pages of the book essentially chronicle how (and in part due to the incompetence and corruption of the left-liberal coalitions) Orban went on to win a two-thirds majority in the 2010 elections and create what Magyar terms “a post-communist mafia state” which, for all its trappings of decency, democracy and rule of law, is in reality “best compared with… Russia under Putin” rather than a Western democracy.

“Organised overworld”

To prove his argument, Magyar describes how the Orban has, since 2010, used his parliamentary power to create his “organised overworld” by installing loyalists, cronies or stooges into each and every key position of power, from media and financial supervisory authorities to the judiciary, the prosecutor’s office and Constitutional Court, along with, naturally, taking control of – and indeed expanding – all companies in the state-owned sector.

Simultaneously, Magyar cites scores of cases where Fidesz-appointed officials or loyal oligarchs applied or manipulated the law – or sometimes just ignored it – to take control of institutions and commercial sectors, either for financial or political gain, or, eg. in the case of media, both.

The result is disheartening, to say the least. Today, “the Hungarian mafia state can manipulate democratic institutions, threaten and blackmail market players, subjugate various social groups [all] assisted by parliament, Fidesznik municipal governments, the tax authority… and even the Counter Terrorism Centre,” Magyar bleakly concludes. On the bright side, “Hungary's geographical position and EU and Nato membership prevents or restricts the regime from using tools of open violence, contrary to its eastern relatives”.

Hungary, he writes, “cannot be compared to Russia or the ex-Soviet Republics... in terms of the degree of open repression”, although the difference is “the threshold on the coercion or violence used”.

Indeed, Magyar is still a free man, living in his native Budapest – although he wouldn't bother applying for a job at any state-influenced institution.

“Post-Communist Mafia State” is not an easy read: at times, it is a struggle to get through a page. Chapter 5, entitled “Specific features of the mafia state”, can be particularly turgid. Comprising 128 pages, more than one-third of the volume, negotiating this can seem more like an endurance test.

As such, this book is really only suitable for hard-core Hungaro-philes, or those setting out to become so. Yet, for all its weaknesses, Magyar's 336-page volume, meticulously referenced with hundreds of original sources, represents a unique (and brave) explanation of the country's recent history, and its people’s struggle to understand, value and implement democracy.

Most critically of all, it details Orban's systematic, cynical (mis)use of power to enrich his “family” of blood relations and cronies to the long-term detriment of the average citizen, vast numbers of whom earn far less than the official average of €850 per month.

And it's in English: as such, it is, or surely will become, a standard work for any serious student of the country not fluent in the local vernacular.

“Post-Communist Mafia State – The Case of Hungary”, by Magyar Balint, 336pp published by CEU Press and Noran Libro.