BUDAPEST, Hungary — The European response to the refugee crisis that escalated this August has two poles: Germany’s Angela Merkel and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Merkel has consistently maintained that the immense flow of refugees from Middle Eastern war zones constitutes a collective moral obligation for Europe; Orban has called this view a species of madness. Orban is as powerful a spokesman for nativism and xenophobia as Merkel is for universalism.
And Orban got there first. In mid-January, after attending a mass rally in Paris honoring the victims of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket, Orban said in an interview, “We should not look at economic immigration as if it had any use, because it only brings trouble and threats to European people. Therefore, immigration must be stopped.” Orban was quite explicit about the kind of immigration he especially opposed. “We do not want to see a significant minority among ourselves that has different cultural characteristics and background,” he said. “We would like to keep Hungary as Hungary.” That was the lesson he took from Charlie Hebdo.
Orban is fully prepared to wade into the darkest pools of the Hungarian psyche. In April, still well before the refugee flood, Orban’s government distributed a questionnaire to all adult Hungarians which stated, among other things, “Some people believe that the mishandling of immigration issues in Brussels and the spread of terrorism are connected.” It then went on to ask, “Do you agree with this opinion?” Citizens were also told, “Some people say that immigrants threaten the jobs and livelihood of Hungarians,” then asked, “Do you agree?” The U.N.’s human rights commission condemned the questionnaire as “extremely biased” and “absolutely shocking.” Nevertheless, most of those who bothered to answer did, of course, agree. Having thus manufactured a show of public support, Orban’s Fidesz party posted billboards around the country with messages like, “If you come to Hungary, you cannot take the jobs of Hungarians.”
Orban had prepared the Hungarian people in advance for the Biblical tide of refugees who began pouring through Hungary on their way to Germany or Sweden. The fences he ordered built at the border with Serbia and then with Croatia; his use of the army to turn back refugees; his scathing rhetoric; his passage of emergency laws that criminalized the very act of seeking asylum — all have been denounced across Europe, but they’ve done wonders for his standing at home. In recent years, support had been steadily draining from Fidesz to the ultranationalist Jobbik party, but by September of this year the trend had begun to reverse.
Why is Hungary different? To be fair, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic have all resisted the idea of accepting Muslim refugees, but unlike Hungary they don’t have to deal with 300,000 refugees crossing their territory and overwhelming their infrastructure. Yet both Croatia and Slovenia, which have had to deal with refugees diverted from Hungary, have behaved and sounded more like Germany than Hungary. In Slovenia, the army fed the refugees and walked them to the Austrian border. Croatia’s interior minister explained his country’s policy by saying, “Nobody can stop this flow without shooting.”
That is not the view I heard in Budapest, including from people otherwise suspicious of Orban. Istvan Gyarmati, a retired diplomat who now runs a democracy promotion institute in Budapest, told me that “now everyone agrees that Orban was right about the refugees.” It would not be long, he predicted, before Merkel realized that she had a policy and political catastrophe on her hands. I asked Gyarmati how he thought the problem should be resolved. That was easy: “The alternative is to keep them out of Europe.” Once they had fled the war zone for the safety of Turkey or Jordan, they no longer needed asylum or could legally claim such status. They were just migrants. I heard the same argument — which does, in fact, correspond to the letter, if not the spirit, of the Geneva Conventions — from several government officials. When I pointed out that this meant building a wall around Europe, they shrugged.
After Gyarmati had finished blaming the refugee problem on Merkel, he then admitted that there was a reason Hungarians were behaving differently from Croatians or Slovenians. “Hungary is intolerant,” he said. “In the past, our rulers turned the people against Jews, against Slovaks, or Germans.” He cited a poll in which Hungarians were asked how they felt about various minorities. Most respondents didn’t like them. The pollsters included the “Pirezians,” a made-up group. Hungarians didn’t like them either. Orban thus stands at the end of a long line of exploiters of Hungarian nativism.
Perhaps a more generous way of describing the problem is that “diversity” appears to be a virtue only to people who live in diverse societies. Like much of Eastern Europe, Hungary is a monoethnic society. Only 1.5 percent of Hungary’s population has foreign citizenship, and one-third of these people are ethnic Hungarians. Outside of tourist districts, you don’t see black or Asian or Arab people on the streets of Budapest — not to mention in the rest of the country. That struck most people I spoke to as a precious asset to be preserved. Hungarians look at Germany and France and see what they call “parallel societies,” where Turks or Algerians live in their own worlds, suspicious of their hosts and threatening to them. And those are rich countries; Hungary has a stagnant economy that cannot offer jobs to newcomers. Why would Hungary want immigrants who don’t want to integrate or simply can’t?
One good rejoinder to that question is: The refugees pose no danger to Hungary, since none of them want to stay there. It’s one of the great ironies of the current situation; the countries that have the least to fear from the newcomers have objected the most violently, while the most popular destinations have been the most welcoming. But — and this is the Hungarian trump card — refugees who register for asylum status in Hungary, where they first reach the EU, and are then rejected by countries further west could return to Hungary.
So it still needs to be acknowledged that resistance to accepting and resettling refugees from Middle Eastern wars, at least in the monoethnic societies of Eastern Europe, is natural, logical, and inevitable. Making a home for these desperate wanderers may be the right thing to do, and it may remind the world of all that is best in Europe, but you will not convince people in such countries that it is good for them. They will have to be convinced, rather, that it is necessary and that the alleged alternatives, such as a Fortress Europe, are worse. Merkel has shown great political courage in making precisely this case. Germany must change, she has said, and, “We want the change to be positive.”
Perhaps Hungarians really are unusually resistant to outsiders, but the Hungarian difference probably has much more to do with Orban himself. He has abetted and legitimated the national fear of the outsider — and thus made it worse. Perhaps, as Gyarmati says, Orban is simply playing the same cynical game that so many of his predecessors have. If so, that is an explanation but not an excuse.
Europe is now facing a crisis that asks more of political leaders than it is safe to ask. Committing suicide in the name of principle is not in the job description. The fact that Switzerland’s anti-immigrant People’s Party won the largest share of votes in last week’s parliamentary elections will not help stiffen European spines. Right now it is not clear if Merkel or Orban is winning this debate. But if current attempts to stanch the refugee flow do not succeed, Orban’s line of least resistance is likely to look increasingly tempting.
This article is part two in a five-part series on Hungary’s rightward shift. For part one, click here. Check back tomorrow for part three, on Hungary’s historical victim complex.
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