Kester Eddy in Budapest -
Lajos Simicska, a media mogul long seen as one of the closest oligarchs to Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, and his ruling Fidesz party, has lashed out at his one-time schoolboy friend in an unprecedented series of media interviews that could cause lasting damage to Orban's political future.
Simicska, who shared a college dormitory room with Orban in the 1980s, accused the mercurial prime minister of seeking to build a dictatorship, muzzle independent media and of leading Hungary into a dangerous liaison with Russia in a flurry of expletive-rich media interviews published on February 6.
“Viktor Orban is spunk,” he declared, in his most outrageous comments, to two Hungarian news portals, incensed at what he views as the “traitorous” defection of senior editors at his three principal media outlets – television news channel HirTV, Magyar Nemzet, the leading rightwing daily, and Lanchid Radio.
“This is by far the biggest story [in Hungary] in a very long time,” Andras Petho, co-founder of Direkt36, an investigative website, told bne IntelliNews.
“Orban and Simicska have been friends since high school: they built Fidesz together. Orban took care of the politics, Simicska took care of the finances. There have been rumours since the April elections that this alliance had broken up, but there was no hard evidence. The events of February 6 made it clear in a very spectacular way that these rumours are true,” Petho said.
Quite what sparked the origin of the schism remains unclear, although various pundits have mused that Orban, high on confidence after his second consecutive (and resounding) victory in elections last spring, was keen to reduce his financial dependency on Simicska.
Speculation of a rift built up last month after news reports spoke of a meeting between Orban and pro-government media owners in which the prime minister declared that the government would drastically reduce its advertising spending in private media channels.
Added to this, news in early February of proposed changes to the controversial advertising tax appeared to finally tip Orban's trusted ally over the edge. The tax, introduced last summer, was progressive and levied on advertising revenues (rather than profit): small media outlets paid nothing, or minimal sums, while RTL Klub, Hungary's biggest, and most popular TV station, contributed roughly half of the total levy.
RTL responded with a relentless barrage of stories highly critical of the government. With its popularity waning in the opinion polls, Orban reportedly sought peace with RTL in behind-the-scenes deal thrashed out in January.
But Orban would not capitulate entirely: the advertising tax would stay, except that instead of being progressive, it will be levied at 5.3% on all media advertising, regardless of turnover. According to the daily Nepszava, this move will raise Simicska's media businesses tax by a factor of five.
It was this that appears to have precipitated Simicska's declaration of a “media war” against Orban – a declaration which in turn triggered the defections of Simicska's leading editorial staff, who appear loyal to the prime minister.
Simicska, however, appeared indifferent in his various media outbursts to any future financial worries caused by the modified tax: rather, he voiced various, hitherto unexpressed, political and moral concerns.
“You may think it funny, but I am a committed democrat. I don't fucking like the methods the boys [ie Orban and his government] are using in this country,” he told Magyar Narancs, a current affairs weekly.
“You can believe it or not, but my alliance with Orban started out because we wanted to demolish the [communist] dictatorship and post-communist system. It turned out that was no easy thing, we had to sweat at that. But no fucking way was there the intention of raising another dictatorship in its place. I'm no partner in that,” he said.
Thus far the prime minister and government have avoided any comment on Simicska's derogatory outbursts, which have set new highs – or lows – in personal insults in the media.
“Spunk is probably the worst thing you can call someone in Hungarian. That word is so nasty that you would hardly ever see it in newspapers, until now,” Petho said.
Reporters also questioned Simicka's about the risk of potential reprisals by Orban, given the former party treasurer's intimate knowledge of Fidesz's economic history.
As he noted to Magyar Narancs: “I've known him [Orban] thirty-five years, does that tell you something? I know him, and I know a lot about him, sure. And? What are they going to do, shoot me? Let's hope it doesn't come to that.”
Whatever, Simicska told the paper he'd be going on holiday for a week. Perhaps just in case.
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