Viktor Orban has come a long way since 1989, but Istvan Hegedus still sees glimpses of the anti-communist tyro in the abrasive leader now tightening the screws on civil society in pursuit of an "illiberal" Hungary.
“There is consistency there,” says Hegedus, who was a leading light in Orban’s Fidesz party from soon after its formation in 1988 until his departure in 1994, when Hungary’s current prime minister started his drift to the right.
“But he has become more and more radical. The lesson he always drew from failures and election defeats was that he had not been strong or rough enough. He did not accept that he had made mistakes, but thought his enemies had been too strong and that he should have done more against them,” Hegedus explains.
“So when he got a chance to destroy them after 2010, he started to do it.”
That was when Orban and Fidesz finally regained power after successive election defeats to the Socialists, capitalising on the left’s disarray to take a two-thirds majority in parliament that gave them a free hand to remodel Hungary.
Brushing aside rising concern from the European Union, Orban rewrote Hungary's constitution, overhauled the justice system and weakened the constitutional court and put loyalists in charge of previously independent institutions, removing checks and balances on his growing power.
Orban claimed to be sweeping out the remains of the old communist system, finally finishing the task he set himself as an activist in the late 1980s.
Over time, however, he has set his sights far higher and wider, and now portrays himself as the chief defender of Hungary and Europe from the dangers of immigration, overweening Brussels bureaucracy and a global liberal conspiracy.
He built border fences to keep out refugees and migrants, introduced a draconian asylum policy and defied and denounced the EU on a host of issues, before launching his current legislative assault on Budapest's Central European University (CEU) – which was founded by his bete noire, liberal billionaire George Soros – and on NGOs that receive funding from abroad.
“Some think Orban is a very pragmatic politician, who just moves to where there is a political space. . . but he is also ideologically driven,” says Hegedus, who was a Fidesz deputy and its top foreign policy expert until he left the party in 1994.
“Orban has a kind of ‘negative’ identity. He hates the old European elites, human rights activists who he thinks are idiots or are making money from the migration business. In his mind everything comes together. His attacks are often ideologically driven, against people he thinks are his real enemies,” Hegedus adds.
“He believes that in the early 1990s the liberals in Hungary blocked him, stopped him getting power. . . and he sees the EU as similar to them and he cannot accept it, so this is a sort of revenge against those people.”
Other associates of Orban (53) have said the man from the provinces always resented the Budapest elite, and he now faces a challenge from major street protests in the capital against laws that could force CEU to close and increase state oversight of many NGOs – reforms that remind critics of Kremlin moves to silence dissent.
"We are worried about Hungary's future, about our place in the European Union and about Russia. It has a too much influence here," said Botond (34), an engineer attending a recent protest in central Budapest.
He declined to give his surname, but joked: “Call me ‘Soros’. We are all Soros here, of course. We all get money from him, my private jet is over there.”
The protests are expected to continue, but Orban has given no hint that he will scrap the "lex CEU" or withdraw his Bill on NGOs – despite failing to get the kind of support he apparently expected from new US president Donald Trump, many of whose supporters also see Soros as the prime mover in a global liberal conspiracy.
Orban’s NGO law could ensnare the Hungarian Europe Society, an organisation chaired by Hegedus, his former ally from the heady days of 1989 and the transition from communism to democracy.
“The regime built by Orban and his supporters here is a new sort of political enterprise, somehow between democracy and dictatorship. It is in a grey zone, a populist regime with a lot of authoritarian tendencies,” Hegedus says.
He urged the European People's Party – which includes Fine Gael – to exclude Fidesz from its ranks "to show that the centre-right political family has finally had enough of the Hungarian situation".
“This would send a message to the Hungarian people that Orban doesn’t belong to those political forces that are pro-European. It would show he is not the critical voice in the EPP that he claims to be, but is actually an outsider, politically and ideologically isolated.”