Washington Post
Hungary's young 'tiger' strong ally for West

Orban Plays Hard And Makes Enemies

By Peter Finn

Sunday, January 30, 2000

BUDAPEST—Victor Orban's soccer career is in decline. The once-dashing striker, who wore the coveted number 9 jersey, is now a slogging midfielder for his village team. And the 36-year-old battler has picked up two yellow cards for rough play this season. One more infraction and he'll be suspended.

"That's your fate in football," says Orban, "slower and slower."

Fortunately, Orban has a day job--prime minister of Hungary, one of three new central European members of NATO and the only country in the alliance that borders Yugoslavia. With the certain accession of this country of 10 million into the European Union because of its successful political and economic transformation from communism, it is likely to play a critical role as a front-line state for both NATO and the EU.

Already U.S. forces have a base in southern Hungary for logistical operations in the Balkans. And Hungary, which borders seven countries, including Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania and Croatia as well as Yugoslavia, will be the EU's gateway--and barrier--to much of the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

In contrast to his weary legs--retirement from Sunday soccer is looming, he says--Orban has established himself in the last 18 months as one of the West's sturdiest partners, his very youthfulness projecting an immediate sense of dynamism. But as a few of his opponents on the soccer field have discovered, the prime minister, whatever the sport, plays hard and makes enemies.

"For Victor Orban there are only victors and victims," said Laszlo Lengyel, a political analyst who once taught Orban political science at an elite college here before the fall of communism. "I once described him as a tiger. He is very focused, very smart. But a tiger can't retreat, doesn't know how to admit mistakes, and when smiling, the sharp teeth are visible."

After a long apprenticeship--student dissident, member of parliament, leader of the opposition--Orban came to power in 1998, his conservative Federation of Young Democrats (Fidesz)-Hungarian Civic Party forming a coalition with two other right-wing parties. It has been an eventful debut. Orban has successfully weathered a series of crises--including the Russian economic collapse that shook central Europe, and the war in the Serbian province of Kosovo. The latter was particularly sensitive for Hungary, a new member of NATO, because a large ethnic Hungarian minority lives in northern Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia. The economy righted itself and Hungary provided full logistical support for NATO operations against Yugoslavia.

"He's brave, controversial, but consistent," said one Western diplomat. "And, internationally, he found his voice at the NATO summit in Washington last April at the height of the Kosovo crisis."

Orban, with a modesty his political foes don't acknowledge, described himself as a student at the NATO summit, a young, untested leader watching how other heads of states behaved.

"It was very exciting for me," he said in an interview at the magnificent neo-Gothic parliament building by the Danube. "I was learning, not in terms of facts, but the way of thinking."

But Orban, who has feuded bitterly with the media, the head of the independent Central Bank and the mayor of Budapest, among many others, has roiled Hungarian politics with a confrontational style not on display on the international stage. The vitriol directed at him within Hungary is startling in this normally melancholy country.

"His political style has echoes of Meciar and Tudjman," said Gabor Demszky, the mayor of Budapest, referring to the former leaders of Slovakia and Croatia, Vladimir Meciar and the late Franjo Tudjman. "He has conservative, authoritarian tendencies."

Outside the hothouse of Hungary's domestic politics and the merits of any individual dispute, Orban's political battles, especially successive standoffs with Demszky over infrastructure projects in the capital, seem most revealing of the prime minister's ideological DNA: his abiding distrust of the left; his suspicion of the Budapest elite; his desire to cleave the country's politics into clear-cut left and right parties; and his willingness to get in anyone's face to achieve his goals.

And Orban relishes the combat.

"The people want leadership," Orban said. "Hungarians are never satisfied. We always try to reform, to rethink, to recalculate, to change. That is one of the reasons why the Hungarian brain is so sharp."

No one should be surprised that Orban is sharp to the point of cutting. He rose to prominence in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down.

At a reburial ceremony that year for leaders of the 1956 uprising, including Imre Nagy, Hungary's anti-Stalinist premier who was executed, Orban was chosen to address the crowd, which numbered close to 200,000. The event was mostly stage-managed by a group of older dissidents, and Orban, a law student, was the token speaker from the younger generation. His speech came to define the event with its bald, electrifying--and, for some, frightening--declaration: Russian troops must leave Hungary.

At the time, Orban was one of a group of young activists, many of them smart country boys who came to Budapest to study and formed a student group called Fidesz. Much of that 1989 coterie remains around Orban and it is still suspicious of Budapest's entrenched elites.

That has led to some fierce battles, particularly with Demszky. Orban unilaterally canceled state participation in a fourth subway line for the city and a new national theater, citing exorbitant costs. Demszky, in response, accused Orban of being indifferent to democratic decision-making.

"He wants to strangle the city, to punish it for the way it votes," Demszky said.

In the interview, Orban refused to dwell on criticism that he has a messianic streak, noting only that he generally forges consensus within the government but will force through decisions if he has to, because "the system demands a strong prime minister."

But the real source of the Orban-Demszky animus, analysts say, is the mayor's party's coalition with the Socialists, which Orban's grouping defeated in 1998. Many members of Demszky's Federation of Free Democrats, commonly known as the Liberal Party, are former urban dissidents. This includes the mayor, who was jailed for underground publishing by the communists. And Orban regards their union with the communist successor party a betrayal of old ideals.

"There is a lot of irrational emotion, as there is between a divorced couple," said one friend of the prime minister, who declined to be identified.

Orban would now like the Socialists to swallow the Liberals, effectively creating a political system dominated by two parties along the lines of Britain or Germany, observers here said.

"That is clearly his long-term vision," said a Western diplomat. "And he's a young man with a lot of time to see it through."


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