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Viktor Orban Wades into Hungary’s Dark Waters

Viktor Orban Wades into Hungary’s Dark Waters

BUDAPEST, Hungary — A specter is haunting Europe — the spirit of reactionary populism. Xenophobic parties are deeply entrenched in the politics of such staunchly democratic nations as France and Holland; but the greater danger lies to the east. Earlier this month, the anti-immigrant Freedom Party almost won provincial elections in reliably left-wing Vienna; in elections held Sunday, Poles gave a parliamentary majority to the right-wing Law and Justice party.

How worried should we be about the commitment to liberal democratic principles in Europe’s newest democracies? In order to address that question, I recently spent a week in Hungary, whose prime minister, Viktor Orban, has openly championed the idea of “illiberal democracy.” Orban has made himself notorious in recent months by ordering the construction of razor-wire-topped fences to prevent refugees from reaching Hungary and by loudly insisting that Hungary will not offer asylum to non-Christian refugees. I will write about Orban’s anti-refugee policies and rhetoric in a subsequent column. But Orban has been evincing his disdain for liberal values ever since his Fidesz party gained power five years ago. His contemptuous language — even more than the measures that have accompanied it — has made him as popular among his own voters as any other leader in Europe. Fidesz enjoys a two-thirds majority in Hungary’s parliament.

Orban’s Hungary is not Putin’s Russia, or even Erdogan’s Turkey, but it is a country where checks on the power of the state have been steadily eroding. “You now have an intrusion of the state into your every day life in a way that was not true before,” Laszlo Seres, a journalist for an opposition newsweekly, argues.

Government officials, he says, are now rewriting the history curriculum and appointing teachers; obscure right-wing authors from the past have suddenly been resurrected. Orban has appointed party officials to the Constitutional Court and the prosecutor’s office. In Freedom House’s most recent rankings, where 1 is most free and 7 least, Hungary scored a 2 for overall freedom, political rights, and civil liberties; Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, by contrast, got a 1 in all cases.

One of the first measures the Fidesz-controlled legislature passed in 2010 established a body, appointed by the parliament — and thus by Fidesz — to regulate the media. The law made it a crime, punishable by fines of up to $900,000, to publish “imbalanced news coverage” or material deemed “insulting” to a group or “the majority” or that insulted “public morality.” The law provoked outrage abroad just as Hungary was assuming the rotating presidency of the European Union. In what would become a pattern, Orban responded by submitting to parliament a slightly less onerous measure, which then passed muster with European authorities.

The most draconian elements of the law have not been applied. No media outlet has been fined or closed down for insulting Orban or Fidesz or the Hungarian people. Although Orban has turned public media into Fidesz propaganda organs, private newspapers and television stations remain critical of the government. Gergo Saling, editor of the investigative online news site Direkt36, told me that “the fear was much bigger than the reality.”

Yet that’s not the whole story. Saling had been editor of Origo, another leading news site. After he published an article describing allegations of corruption involving Janos Lazar, Orban’s influential chief of staff, he was called into his publisher’s office and fired. Several dozen journalists then quit Origo in protest. The site is owned by Magyar Telekom, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom. Saling was shocked, if only because he had imagined that a giant German firm would be immune from raw political pressure. (The chief executive of Magyar Telekom disputes Saling’s account.) Saling concluded that Orban can shape the news without having to shut down news outlets.

Orban seems to perpetually test the limits of European institutions — and his own. In 2011, parliament passed a law on the “Right of Freedom of Conscience and Religion,” which bore the same relation to freedom of conscience that the media law did to freedom of speech. The law required religious organizations to gain official approval through a two-thirds vote of parliament, thus creating separate classes of favored and non-favored faiths. Those that did not pass the threshold would lose tax advantages previously available to all churches. Hindus, Buddhists, Reform Jews, Methodists, and others failed to clear the bar. Hungary’s own Constitutional Court reinstated many of the groups. Orban, however, had made his implicit point: Hungary is a Christian nation.

Orban also believes, like Vladimir Putin, that NGOs constitute a potential fifth column that must be brought to heel. In a speech last summer, he described civil society groups that receive funding from abroad as “political activists paid by foreigners.” Therefore, he said, “we should make it clear that these are not civilians coming against us, opposing us, but political activists attempting to promote foreign interests.”

Orban did, indeed, make that clear last year when he staged a confrontation with Norway over that country’s funding of NGOs that promote civil and individual rights, including Transparency International. The Fidesz government alleged that Norway was trying to influence Hungarian politics by directing funds to groups affiliated with a left-wing opposition party and demanded that the money be paid directly to the government. Norway responded by suspending the funds. In September, prosecutors accused the groups of embezzlement and raided the office that administered the funds. And yet since the confrontation over the Norwegian grants, the government has done nothing to pursue NGOs that criticize Fidesz policies.

It is impossible to explain Orban’s deft mixture of toxic rhetoric and measured action without reference to Jobbik, Hungary’s extreme-right party. Jobbik came to prominence in the 2010 election with an anti-Roma, anti-Semitic platform. At that time, it won nearly 17 percent of the vote. In 2014, it won nearly 21 percent, gaining as Fidesz slipped. Jobbik has increasingly spruced up its image, trying to erase memories of its role as the political wing of the Hungarian Guard, a now-banned paramilitary group. There is a theory, especially common among Orban’s more nervous supporters, that Hungary’s prime minister is doing his best to cut out the ground from under the explicit xenophobes.

This will not be easy to do. Jobbik has increasingly gained the support of well-educated young people, sick of all the traditional parties, including Fidesz. The single smoothest person I met in Hungary was a Jobbik legislator, Marton Gyongyosi, a 38-year-old graduate of Trinity College Dublin, who sat with me on a crimson velvet bench in the misleadingly named Press Room (in fact, no press was normally allowed — I was an exception) in Budapest’s magnificent 1904 parliament building. Gyongyosi demurred when I described Jobbik as a “conservative” party.

“For the Hungarian people,” he said, “conservative parties in Western Europe are also liberal.” Both the left and the right in Europe, he said, were secular heirs of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Hungary, he said, was struggling to “defend its sovereignty” in the face of post-Christian European values.

Gyongyosi struck me as a thoroughly reasonable and even erudite figure until we started talking about Jews. I asked why he had demanded that all parliamentarians who hold passports from Israel, as well as Hungary, publicly identify themselves. For a moment, the silky skein of Gyongyosi’s rhetoric frayed. Then he told me about a speech that then-Israeli President Shimon Peres had given to an Israeli business group in October 2007 in which he had allegedly said that colonialism was no longer spread through cannons but through finance and that Israel had successfully colonized, among other places, Hungary, Poland, and Manhattan. (For Peres’s actual words, which amount to a single sentence celebrating the influence abroad of Israeli business and finance, see this YouTube clip). Gyongyosi conceded that talking about Israeli conspiracies in a country that had deported 600,000 Jews to the gas chambers was difficult. But, he said, “I have a problem with Zionism, not with the Jewish people.”

Jobbik is anti-Israel and pro-Russian. Gyongyosi was kicked out of Ukraine in November 2014 when he traveled there as a self-appointed observer for the elections held by rebels in the eastern Donbass region. In his view, he told me, the United States was “moving its puppets” from Georgia, which it already controlled, to Ukraine, leaving Putin little choice but to fight back. Gyongyosi also told me that Jobbik had gone Orban one better on NGOs, submitting a bill that would require groups that receive funding from abroad to be labeled “foreign agents,” as they are in Russia. I asked if he was accusing such groups of being traitors. “Absolutely,” said this dapper gentleman in a fine navy suit.

So, yes, Viktor Orban has a Jobbik problem. The more professional Jobbik becomes, the more digestible their vitriol will be. And yet Orban has not so much fended off Jobbik as assimilated it. Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital Institute, a think tank in Budapest, argues that Orban uses Jobbik as “a scout or a pioneer,” exploring dangerous territory on migrants or relations with Russia in order to accustom Hungarians to extremist ideas — and thus make it safe for Orban himself to express them. Kreko and his colleagues constantly debate whether Orban actually means what he says. Kreko believes, or rather hopes, that even if Orban means the worst, “there is a moderating influence, and that is the EU.” Russia doesn’t need the EU and its good opinion; Hungary, which as a weak economy is set to receive $29 billion in EU funds for development over the next seven years, does.

But Kreko admits that he has been deeply alarmed by the racial rhetoric Orban and his chief lieutenants have been using since the refugee crisis began. And he is worried that it works. “At bottom,” he says, “the real source of Orban’s power is the popularity of his ideas.” In that sense, the problem lies with the Hungarian people. Not long ago, Hungary was widely considered the most progressive of the ex-Soviet states. Kreko fears that growing disillusionment with democracy and the free market over the last 15 or so years has made Hungarians receptive to ideas they once would have rejected. The same, he notes, is true in Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. Hungary’s prime minister, he says, is “the model for a new politics.” And that is a frightening thought.

This article is part one in a five-part series on Hungary’s rightward shift. Check back tomorrow for a piece that looks at what’s behind the country’s disquieting response to the current influx of asylum-seekers.

Photo credit: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images