Among the regular cast of characters who populate the pages of Hungary’s newspapers and magazines, the one whose fame is hardest to understand, in a country long proud of its disproportionate share of Olympic medals and Nobel Prizes, may be the man usually identified simply as the prime minister’s dentist.
Bela Batorfi’s rise to fame can be traced to the 2010 electoral victory of the conservative Fidesz party after eight years of Socialist Party dominance. Batorfi, then 41 years old, had a thriving practice in a posh residential corner of the capital with a clientele that included an impressive slice of the Budapest political elite. Among his longtime clients was the new prime minister, Viktor Orban, who had been his patient for almost 20 years. Orban quickly developed a reputation for ruthlessly punishing opponents and rewarding supporters, naming Fidesz loyalists to posts in the central bank and office of the chief prosecutor—departments that had been previously immune to partisan politics. “‘Orban is putting his people everywhere,’ is a constant lament in Budapest,” the Economist itself lamented early in his term. Even the man who tended to the first family’s teeth stood to benefit.
Batorfi is a specialist in oral surgery; he is also the face of one of the most unexpectedly shimmering sectors of Hungary’s post-communist economy. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of dentists in Hungary per capita increased by 56 percent. Hungary has more dentists per person than any other country, according to London journalist David Hancock, who in 2006 wrote a guide for British patients called The Complete Medical Tourist. “And since the country joined the European Union [in 2004] their fellow Europeans have had plenty to smile about, too, because prices are considerably cheaper there than in neighboring countries like Austria and Germany,” Hancock wrote.