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Hungary

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What Went Wrong in Eastern Europe?

I first met Viktor Orban, the not-quite-dictator of Hungary, in 1989 in Budapest – and the man who introduced us was none other than George Soros.

Orban was then a firebrand student leader, anti-Communist and keen for Hungary to join the West. Soros, a Hungarian refugee who became an American billionaire, was devoting his time and money to finding and subsiding young Eastern Europeans who would lead their countries into the European Union and a liberal democratic future.

But Orban is now the prime minister of an ‘illiberal’ Hungarian government that controls the mass media and regards the EU as the enemy. In last April’s election, he portrayed Soros as the Jewish evil genius who, with the EU’s help, was planning to flood Hungary with Muslim refugees and destroy the country’s culture and identity.

That’s ridiculous, but Orban won almost half the votes and more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament. Poland, a far bigger country, now also has a far-right, ‘illiberal’ government that is ultra-nationalist and hostile to the EU (although both countries depend heavily on EU subsidies).

The extremists are not yet in power in other Eastern European countries, but similar trends are visible in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania. The dreams and hopes that drove the anti-Communist revolutions of 1989 are not yet dead, but they are definitely fading. What went wrong?

These countries are among the most ethnically homogenous in the world (due to the Holocaust and the widespread ‘ethnic cleansing’ that followed both world wars). They have admitted almost no refugees, yet their politics is dominated by the fear of being swamped by them.

It’s beyond bizarre, but Bulgarian political philosopher Ivan Krastev has a persuasive explanation for it. He points out that the question “isn’t so much where the nationalism has come from, but where it’s been hiding all these years.” His answer is that it was hiding in plain sight.

During the 1970s and 1980s the nationalists who wanted independence from Soviet rule formed a close alliance with the pro-Western activists who wanted a liberal, democratic future. From Poland to Bulgaria the liberals and the nationalists worked together, and even after the overthrow of the Communists in 1989 they continued to believe (or at least hope) that democracy could accommodate them both.

Maybe it could have, but the nationalist wars that destroyed the former Yugoslav federation in the 1990s put an end to the partnership. As Krastev says, the violence there persuaded liberals that “nationalism was the very heart of darkness, and that flirting with it could only be sinful.”

So the liberals broke their alliances with the nationalists, and for a while the nationalists went very quiet. Nobody, not even Polish or Hungarian nationalists, wanted to be seen in the same light as monsters like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic.

But nationalism was the most powerful political force in Eastern Europe throughout the 20th century, and it wasn’t going to just fade away. It re-merged in the early 21st century, shorn of its liberal associations with tolerance and diversity, as a major political force in the region – and the driver behind it was what Krastev calls “demographic panic”.

After 1989 many people in Eastern Europe not only aspired to emulate the prosperous liberal democracies of Western Europe. They actually wanted to live in them, and when their countries joined the EU they acquired the right to free movement. If Poles thought that life would be better in England, for example, they could just move there and find work – and a million of them did.

Since 1989, 27 percent of Latvia’s population has emigrated to Western Europe, and Bulgaria has lost 21 percent. Hungary is not so hard hit, but it has lost 3 percent of its population to Western Europe in the past ten years – and almost all the emigrants are young, leaving behind an aging population with a low birth rate.

This is the real source of the demographic panic, but it finds its political expression in a paranoid fear that the country’s dwindling population will be overrun by immigrants with a radically different culture, particularly refugees. It doesn’t matter that there are virtually no immigrants in Hungary, and that it’s about the last place a refugee would want to go. In these matters, perception is all.

The anti-immigrant hysteria is almost universal in Eastern Europe, and it will bring more illiberal nationalist regimes to power before it is finished. The remedy, if there is one, is for the liberals to acknowledge the nationalists’ concerns and rebuild the old alliances with them without pandering to the panic.

That’s not easy to do, but it’s what every Western European democracy has actually been doing for generations. Although they’re not doing too well with it at the moment themselves.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“Since…rate”)

Hungary: Closing the Border

“Hungary is not far away from issuing orders to open fire on refugees,” said one of the European Union’s foreign ministers on Tuesday, and called for the country to be suspended or even expelled from the EU because of its “massive violation” of the EU’s fundamental values. And it’s true that Hungary has built a 175-km. razor-wire fence along its southern border to keep migrants out.

It has deployed ten thousand police and soldiers along that border, and is recruiting
3,000 “border-hunters” equipped with pepper-spray and loaded pistols to help them in their task. And on 2 October it will hold a special referendum asking Hungarians: “Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?”

The answer that Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants is“No”, and he is certain to get it. He was an anti-Communist student radical when I first interviewed him almost thirty years ago in the dying days of the Soviet empire. Now he is a right-wing demagogue – but he knew what Hungarians really thought about Communist rule then, and he understands what they think about giving asylum to Muslim refugees now.

The EU foreign minister who made that incendiary remark about Hungarians shooting refugees was Jean Asselborn of Luxembourg, the smallest of the EU’s 28 countries, and the foreign ministers of several bigger EU countries, including Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier, immediately condemned it.

Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, said that Asselborn has “long left the ranks of politicians who could be taken seriously,” and has become a “frivolous character” who is “patronising, arrogant and frustrated”. He also called Asselborn a “classic nihilist” who works tirelessly to destroy Europe’s security and culture.

Szijjarto will not be alone in his views on Friday, when 27 EU foreign ministers (the British foreign minister, Boris Johnson, was not invited) gather in Bratislava for an informal summit. The official topic is the European Union’s future post-Brexit, but they will also be debating what to do about the million-plus migrants, most of them Syrian, Iraq and Afghan refugees, who arrived in the EU in the past eighteen months.

It’s not just Hungarians who want to keep Muslim refugees out of the EU. Right-wing nationalists in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia and even Austria feel the same, and they dominate the governments in most of those countries. They see the more relaxed attitude of the big Western European members to “multi-culturalism” as a slow-motion form of cultural suicide (which is why Szijjarto called Asselborn a “classic nihilist”).

Most Eastern Europeans think this way because they have a different history. They experienced almost no immigration under four decades of Communist rule, and it is usually the places with few or no immigrants that are most terrified of them. They also remember centuries of being attacked and invaded by a Muslim great power, the Ottoman Empire (which ruled most of Hungary for more than 150 years).

This does not excuse their extreme views about Muslim refugees – “Calling someone a moderate Muslim is like calling someone a moderate Nazi,” said Czech President Milos Zeman five years ago – but it does explain them. They think the Germans are crazy to let a million Muslim migrants in, and they have no intention of sharing that burden even if Berlin and the other big Western capitals say they should.

You can and should condemn this attitude to desperate and mostly harmless refugees – even though there will inevitably be a few “sleepers” among them who are loyal to Islamic State – but you can’t just ignore it. Global refugees are more numerous today than at any other time since 1950, but in twenty years there will probably be five or ten times as many – and the borders will be slamming shut everywhere.

The immediate driver of this tsunami of refugees will often be wars, but what drives the wars will be climate change and runaway population growth. Africa’s population will double in the next thirty years, just as global warming cuts deeply into the continent’s food production.

The population growth rate of the greater Middle East, from Morocco to Pakistan, is lower than Africa’s but higher than any other region. Many countries can’t grow enough to feed their own people even now, and intense heat and semi-permanent drought will make the problem far worse.

There will be tens of millions of refugees, and their destination will be the relatively developed and well-fed countries of Europe (and, in the case of refugees from central and southern Africa, South Africa as well). Similar waves of climate refugees will be washing up against the southern border of the United States and the northern coast of Australia.

The Hungarians may not end up shooting refugees on their southern border this time around. It’s still a quite small problem: one or two million refugees in the European Union (pop. 500 million) is really only a drop in the bucket.

But with time the number of refugees will grow, and politics everywhere is vulnerable to demagogues. In 30 years’ time, and perhaps much sooner, there may be shooting along all these borders.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Most…should”)

Hungary’s Viktator

When I first interviewed Viktor Orban 25 years ago, he was an anti-Communist student firebrand whose whole purpose in life was to free Hungary from Soviet rule. But you can travel a long way in 25 years.

In 1991 Orban celebrated the collapse of the Soviet Union, but now he says: “We Europeans need Russia. We need sooner or later – rather sooner than later – a strategic alliance with Russia.” Prime Minister Viktor Orban has become the odd man out in the European Union, putting a close relationship with Russia well ahead of any concerns about what is happening to Ukraine.

When Russia’s President Vladimir Putin came to Budapest last week to sign a new contract for supplying gas to Hungary, Orban said: “We are convinced that locking Russia out of Europe is not rational. Whoever thinks that Europe can be competitive…without economic cooperation with Russia…is chasing ghosts.” And Putin, standing next to Orban, said that the war in Ukraine was all the Ukrainian government’s fault.

But it’s not just a pragmatic decision by Orban to keep the country’s main energy supplier sweet. (Hungary has also ordered new nuclear reactors from Russia.) Other members of the European Union and NATO that also depend heavily on Russian gas have nevertheless condemned Putin’s actions in Ukraine. Viktor Orban has been on a philosophical journey, and it has delivered him to a strange place.

In a speech last July, he declared the western democratic model dead and argued that authoritarian regimes like those in Russia, China and Turkey pointed the way to the future. “We have to abandon liberal methods and principles of organising a society,” he said. “The new state we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state, because liberal values (in the West) today incorporate corruption, sex and violence.”

Orban is not just talking. Since the 2010 election he has had a two-thirds “super-majority” in parliament that lets him amend the constitution as he likes. (Theoretically the supreme court might overrule him, but he has also chosen eleven of the fifteen supreme court judges.) New media laws have turned public television into a government mouthpiece, and he has ruthlessly gerrymandered electoral boundaries to guarantee victory for his Fidesz Party.

Other familiar elements of authoritarian nationalist regimes have also begun to appear in Hungary. Non-governmental organisations are under attack as foreign agents, and foreign-owned banks are to be partly nationalised. Land leased by foreigners any time in the past 20 years must be returned to its Hungarian owners. Every one of these arbitrary changes creates opportunities for corruption that rarely go unexploited by those close to the regime.

The problem has grown so severe that last year the US government, in an initiative unprecedented against an EU member country, blacklisted ten Hungarian officials, banning them from entering the United States on the grounds of corruption. And President Barack Obama, discussing corrupt, authoritarian governments, bracketed Hungary with Azerbaijan, Russia and Venezuela.

Victoria Nuland, the US assistant secretary of state for European affairs, went further, asking Orban “How can you sleep under your NATO blanket at night while pushing “illiberal democracy” by day, whipping up nationalism, restricting free press, or demonising civil society?” But she asked him from a safe distance (Washington: about 7,000 km.), and he didn’t bother to reply. And the Hungarians went on voting for him.

Yet in last April’s parliamentary election, Orban’s “big tent” Fidesz Party won two-thirds of the seats in parliament again (though only by one seat this time). In the European elections in June they won 12 of Hungary’s 21 seats. And in local elections in October, they won 19 of Hungary’s 21 larger towns and cities, including the capital, Budapest. Why do a majority of Hungary’s ten million people go on voting for him?

Well, actually, they don’t. In the April parliamentary elections, 2.8 million people voted for other parties, and only 2.3 million for Fidesz. But the opposition parties are weak and divided (except for the neo-fascist Jobbik movement, which has 14 percent popular support). Fidesz wins partly by gerrymandering, and partly by default – but that’s good enough for Orban, who enjoys his position as an illiberal yet democratically elected strongman.

Orban is a skilled demagogue, and Hungarians are as susceptible to nationalist rabble-rousing as any other people. But he cannot be completely secure so long as the democratic electoral system survives: a big enough swing of public opinion against him would win even despite the gerrymandering.

He has no immediate worries: the next parliamentary election is not due until 2018. But last Sunday Fidesz lost a single by-election, and suddenly its “super-majority” in parliament vanished. Viktor Orban said it didn’t matter, since he had already pushed through all the constitutional changes he wanted, and for the moment that’s probably true.

However, if dissatisfaction with his rule continues to grow (he’s now being called the “Viktator”), he may one day wish he had it back. Just in case he needs to change the constitution again.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“The problem…for him”)