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In Their Own Words … László Kéri Gives a Glimpse into Viktor Orbán when a Student

László Kéri is a well known political scientist, academic, author and regular commentator on the Hungarian political scene.

Photo: László Kéri as a guest in ATV's Egyenes Beszéd political analysis programme.

The following is part of a long interview with Mr Kéri on 5th January, 2012 with Neil Buckley, then East European Editor at the Financial Times, and myself.

At that time, the Hungarian economy was under intense pressure, and with the forint close to record lows (then at around 325 to the euro) Viktor Orbán's government was in a series of talks about a possible bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Despite being on the brink of economic meltdown, the government stalled on any decision, the pressure eased and Hungary avoided IMF intervention. The principal negotiator with the IMF at that time was Tamás] Fellegi, minister without portfolio.

László Kéri: There are three most important elements of Orbán's personality. First, he likes to cause surprises for other people in any [situation]. He likes to cause surprises, both in small things and globally. He likes to play with people, and to cause surprises in a completely unexpected situation.

I don't understand why, but I've had a hundred such situations during the last 30 years.

I've known him since 1982, for 30 years, when he was a [fresher] student, at the faculty of law. And especially in the dormitory, which was the gathering place of the most talented young students.

There was a clear gap between the average students and the most ambitious ones, who mainly came from the countryside. The dormitory was the gathering point of these discontented people, and of those who were very ambitious, who wanted to change the entire university world.

I founded this dormitory, in Budaörsi út, that circle of students - so-called szakkollégium - as specialised dormitory for the volunteer students in 1978, with my talented students – [István] Stumpf, [János] Áder and [László] Kövér – these were my favourite students then.

Usually we organised an evening voluntary course for ourselves. But after four years, I was rather fed up with that, and I left it for Stumpf. Stumpf followed me, and started a new dormitory, in Ménesi út, and Stumpf started that with a new generation of Orbán, [Lajos] Simicska and [Tamás] Fellegi and others.

That's why my situation was rather curious among those, as I was the old fox, the founding father, but they wanted to make a clean break with the founding period. That's why there was a conflict between me and the new generation of Orbán's, because my side, and my helpers were Stumpf, Áder and Kövér, the elderly students, and they [Orbán et al] were the new generation.

I survived the first conflicts with Orbán in 1982-83, but that's why I left the dormitory as a teacher.

Neil Buckley: So even then he was a leader of this new generation?

LK: Yes. They definitely declared “We are against the regime.” My older generation, including Stumpt and the others, we were on the side of step-by-step, slow change, at the very beginning of the 80s.

Qn: What was he like then?

To sharpen the conflicts. I mentioned the three features. First was the surprise, the second feature was to sharpen conflicts, in every case. [His philosophy was:] I do not want to accept where the strong wall is. I have to test [it] personally. I'm not going to accept [any] other advice about the strength of the wall, about difficulties.

Even today, as a prime minister, you cannot understand the daily behaviour of Orbán without knowing his way of thinking: I have to control it [all by] myself, that wall!

As a private person, you can afford that, [but] as an international policy behaviour, it's ridiculous, it is dangerous. As a prime minister, it is outrageous to play with the 10 million people's fates. It is simply outrageous for me, both as an analysts and an average citizen. I consider that type of political behaviour as more than dangerous, as simply tragic.

Perhaps the third element, and this might be the most important. [He has] the special kind of … in Hungarian érzelgősség, specialHungarian emotional sentimentality … a historical way of thinking, to overestimate all the time the grievance, the bad fate of Hungarian history. It's very typical of the countryside, among the countryside people. [It is] a special kind of Hungarian exceptionalism. Hungary has suffered more than any other nation, in Europe.

It's ridiculous, because they don't know anything about the Irish, Finnish or Greek or Polish history, [but] it was the continuous topic of conversation among themselves in the 80s. I went up the wall whenever I heard this. We suffered more than any other people.

It had not been an official policy for 40 years. It was well known before the war, as a Trianon grievance, but it was pushed under the carpet for 40 years. But it was very popular with the people of the street, in the pubs.

It was a pub-like political culture – can you say that in English? I knew that kind of political culture, in my early childhood, whenever I spent my time with elderly people in a pub, but as an official policy, it was inconceivable.

I spent more than eight years in a dormitory together with students and with my colleagues, and that's why it was not unknown to me. I learned that lesson in the late 70s and early 80s, together with them, as a young teacher, but it was always unacceptable to me.

I'm also sure that it was unacceptable to Fellegi as well. Fellegi was born here in Budapest, in a typical Jewish, middle-class family. He was rather far from that kind of culture, but, he was invited to the dormitory and he became a favourite teacher of Orbán, and he became tutor to Orbán at that time, because Fellegi specialised as a teacher of Socialist crises.

That's why he was a favourite teacher among all the young students between 1983-87

because he was the only one person among my colleagues who dared to teach [about the] socialist crises.

He gave a semester [of lectures] on 56, 68 and 81. That was a comparison of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1981 .. And that's why Orbán chose the topic for his dissertation: The Polish Crisis in the Hungarian Mirror – the Polish crisis of the 80s, and the experiences of Solidarity, and how to use this here in Hungary.

You cannot imagine this in '87, when he was a graduate student. It was a big surprise, even for the teachers, to choose this dissertation thesis topic.

He worked on that topic for at least three years. Orbán started it in 1984, and they went together at least three times to Poland, Stumpf, Fellegi, were young academics and Orbán, as a student. They had a private connection with the Polish [dissidents], with Adam Michnik and [Bronisław] Geremek.

It was a very big surprise at that time at the university, this was a very brave gesture of Orbán, that he dared to choose that topic was enormously dangerous at that time.

(To be continued)

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