Fear and loathing in Hungary

October 9, 2015


Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán claims to be not only a good Christian, but the savior of Christian Europe.  And yet there is very little about his government’s policies that can be considered Christian.  It lies. It steals. It bears false witness. It sows rancor and division among its friends.  It sets convicted axe murderers free.  It perpetrates unconscionable acts of political revenge.  It distributes billions in EU and state subsidies to prominent Fidesz supporters even as it deprives millions of Hungarians of the means to feed their children.  It prosecutes civil society and political opposition leaders on trumped up charges, even as it turns a blind eye to ruling party politicians engaged in everything from influence peddling to prostitution to the systematic theft of state assets.  And it spends billions of forints every year deliberately manipulating and distorting the truth.  In short, there is very little about the current government that could be considered “Christian” and much that could be considered outright evil.

And yet the bulk of Hungarian society remains silent.  Why is that?  The answer is simple: fear.

Fear and loathing in the Carpathian basin

Hungarians fear losing their jobs.  They fear being stripped of their pensions.  They fear hostile government inspections resulting in draconian fines and business closures. They fear their personal and professional reputations being tried, condemned, and executed in the court of public opinion by state and pro-government media. They fear being denounced as “communists”, “internationalists” or “cosmopolitans” for daring to speak truth to power.

One would think that such an oppressive political climate combined with rising poverty levels would result in greater disaffection, if not open rebellion as it did in 1956.  But EU membership serves as an enormous safety valve on Hungarian society.  Anyone fed up with the “Christian nationalist” government of Viktor Orbán is at liberty to pack up and move to Germany or England, which is precisely what hundreds of thousands of Hungarians have done since Viktor Orbán and Fidesz returned to power in 2010.

For sure, the majority of those leaving Hungary today are economic migrants, for which the current government is not entirely to blame.  East-Central Europe was one of the regions worst affected by the global financial crisis of 2008.  But beyond the desire to make ends meet without having to resort to tax fraud or a life of crime is a desire to live in a “normal country” where one is not subjected to a continuous barrage of pro-government propaganda fundamentally at odds with Judaeo-Christian values.

Building an “illiberal” state

Viktor Orbán’s government spends vast sums of taxpayer and EU money telling Hungarians what to think and how to feel. The government constantly seeks to justify otherwise irrational and immoral policies by claiming they are part and parcel of building an “illiberal” state, which it claims is necessary if Hungary and the Hungarians are not only to survive but prosper in a dog-eat-dog world of nation-states relentlessly competing with one another to control scarce resources.  In fact, no consistent set of values–illiberal or otherwise–underlies the government’s contradictory and counterproductive policies.

In the absence of any moral absolutes, all decisions are taken on the basis of political expediency to which the government then seeks to ascribe a patina of moral legitimacy by invoking the necessity of building an “illiberal” state.


The “Christian nationalist” state

Viktor Orbán likes to remind people that his government is both “Christian” and “nationalist”.  But how does that translate into actual government policies and programs?

In Hungary today the children of those unable to work are either taken away from their parents or left to starve.  In the impoverished countryside, children unable to gain admission to parochial schools must settle for a second rate education in run down facilities that are literally falling apart.  Families are stripped of their livelihoods and entire private industries destroyed in order to make it possible for the government to award lucrative concessions to Fidesz supporters.  Even as legitimate refugees and asylum seekers are denied the right to enter Hungary, those prepared to purchase EUR 300,000 worth of government bonds (and pay a hefty commission to Antal Rogán’s business associates) are free to settle in Hungary.  Patients unable to afford private health care wait months, even years, for surgery for conditions deemed “non life-threatening” even as those admitted to hospital languish for weeks or months in decrepit, understaffed facilities, often without adequate medicine or food.

Viktor Orbán’s so-called “Christian nationalist” government is one where even fundamental considerations of right and wrong are subordinated to the overriding imperative of keeping Orbán and Fidesz in power.  It doesn’t matter how many university educated Hungarians are forced to endure demeaning public work for starvation wages.  It doesn’t matter how many underprivileged children go to bed hungry or drop out of school because their families cannot afford textbooks or proper clothing.  It doesn’t matter how many people are stripped of their retirement savings or their livelihoods.  All that matters is that no one be able to mount an effective political challenge to Viktor Orbán.

Elections that are “free but not fair”

The 2014 general elections, which OECD election monitors pronounced “free but not fair”, are an excellent case in point.  In the run up to the election the second Orbán government used every means, fair and foul, to retain its two-thirds parliamentary majority.  Beyond redistricting, it offered unprecedented financial inducements to parties enjoying no popular support to run candidates in order to further divide an already divided political opposition. It distributed over half a million Hungarian passports to people of Hungarian heritage living abroad in the belief they would all vote for Fidesz. Shockingly, it changed the method by which votes are tabulated so as to enable the Fidesz-KDNP political alliance to retain a two-thirds parliamentary majority with just 47 percent of the popular vote.

If Viktor Orbán gets away with it domestically, it is largely because, in addition to state media, his party controls a large number of private media outlets whose owners are only too happy to toe the government line in exchange for advertising revenues and lucrative government contracts.

And if he gets away with it internationally, it is because Hungary’s cooperation is required in order for the European Union to implement urgent structural reforms necessary to prevent the whole experiment from imploding.

The closing of the Hungarian mind

Perhaps the most pernicious effect of the second and third Orbán governments is not the generations of Hungarians lost to emigration or condemned to a life of grinding poverty and unemployment.  It is the closing of the Hungarian mind to the very principles on which the European Union is based.

With the help of fringe academic “guns for hire” of the likes of Mária Schmidt and Sándor Szakály, the Orbán regime is actively rewriting the past to suit the present.   In addition to exonerating Hungary and the Hungarian people for their role in one of the worst crimes of the 20th century, the government reassures the Hungarian people that it is perfectly reasonable and acceptable to harbor feelings of resentment and ill-will towards others.

If one experiences a growing sense of national paranoia and xenophobia in Hungary today, it is largely due to the government’s habit of blaming its failures on the European Union, foreign governments, multinational corporations, and even international relief agencies.

A morally rudderless ship of state 

To live in Hungary today is to be forced to endure cognitive dissonance not known since the darkest days of Communism.   Everyone is expected to follow the letter of the law—everyone, that is, except for Fidesz politicians and their supporters who are virtually immune from prosecution.  New laws are adopted by the Fidesz controlled parliament in clear violation of existing laws and even the Basic Law bestowed on Hungary by Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz-KDNP alliance in 2011.  The government announces one day that state ownership of banks is a good thing, only to announce the next day that it’s a bad thing.  Viktor Orbán, who is half Roma, announces one day that his government is committed to combatting racism, only to announce the following week that it was a mistake to allow Roma to settle in Hungary in the first place.   Recently, the government lectured Hungarians on the importance of registering asylum seekers and keeping economic migrants out at any cost, only for the Hungarian people to learn the following week that the government had in the meantime allowed tens of thousands of migrants to pass through Hungary without registering them.

In such a topsy-turvy world, where fair is foul and foul is fair, Hungarians find themselves adrift in a morally rudderless ship of state.  Without a moral compass to guide them or a leader prepared to point in the direction of true north, Hungarians are condemned to be tossed about on a sea of interminable fear and loathing until they drown in a vortex of self-pity and resentment.

Ignorance is bliss

Unlike US President Barack Obama or German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who endeavor to educate the citizenry about what is happening at home and abroad, Orbán deliberately keeps Hungarians in the dark in order to exploit their deepest, darkest fears.

Europe’s refugee crisis is an excellent case in point.  Instead of explaining that the migrants are refugees fleeing overcrowded camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, Viktor Orbán told the Hungarian people they were “economic migrants” coming to take their jobs, disrespect their culture, violate their laws, vandalize public property, spread infectious diseases, and commit acts of terrorism.

Having spent over HUF 1 billion dehumanizing the “economic migrants” within the framework of the so-called “national consultation on immigration and terrorism”, the government felt at liberty to disregard its international obligations and do as it pleased.  Instead of investing in infrastructure necessary to receive and temporarily shelter tens of thousands of refugees, it spent that money on xenophobic propaganda and building a fence along the Serbian border.  It even forbade the Red Cross and other international and domestic aid organizations from aiding refugees outside of Hungary’s overcrowded, understaffed refugee camps.  As a result, thousands of refugees were forced to wait for days out in the open in so-called collection areas without food, water, shelter, or services of any kind.

After playing a cruel game of cat and mouse with migrants—telling them one day they could board trains to Austria, and the next day they couldn’t—the government deliberately staged an act of pre-meditated violence for the sake of demonstrating to the Hungarian people just how determined their government was to save them from the ravages of the economic migrants/terrorists.


A crime against humanity

On September 16th a phalanx of heavily armored Hungarian riot police deployed at the Hungarian-Serbian border at Röszke, reacted to a few cast stones by spraying a crowd of otherwise peaceful asylum seekers with pepper spray and water cannon.  Many were crushed as hundreds of men, women, and children, temporarily blinded, reeled back violently from the border crossing gate.

Not surprisingly, a dozen or so youth responded to this outright provocation by throwing rocks, bricks and just about anything they could get their hands on at the police on the other side of the border.

What followed was the worst violation of human rights to take place in Europe since the end of the Yugoslav civil war.

Withdrawing some 150 meters from the border, Hungarian riot police allowed thousands of refugees, including women and children to enter Hungary, only to launch an unprovoked, surprise attack on them by commandoes wielding rubber batons who “hit and beat everybody they could get their hands on” including members of the international press.

Without proper spin, this unprovoked attack might have cast the Orbán government in a negative light.  Fortunately, international government spokesman Zoltán Kovács was on hand with a MTI television crew.  To the moans of the scores of people wounded in the attack Kovács proudly announced that the Hungarian police had “defended the country with their bodies”.

Bombarded that evening in their living rooms with images of angry Arab males throwing rocks at police, it is little wonder the majority of Hungarians agreed that police had somehow reacted in a “measured and proportionate manner” as announced that afternoon by the national police magistrate’s office.

Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány was the only opposition leader to denounce this unconscionable act for what it was: a crime against humanity.  But even then, one suspects Gyurcsány did so primarily for personal political reasons, as he himself was accused by Fidesz of violating the human rights of anti-government demonstrators in 2006.

Apart from Gyurcsány’s press conference of Friday, September 18th, neither the former prime minister nor any other member of the political opposition has dared to criticize the government for what really happened at Röszke, despite appalling accounts of police brutality offered by Australian photographer Warren Richardson and other members of the international press.

Pandering to the radical right

Apart from not wanting to be burdened with caring for tens of thousands of refugees, the only plausible explanation for Viktor Orbán’s actions is the desire to win over supporters from Jobbik, Hungary’s radical right wing party.  From this point of view, Orbán’s position was a resounding success, but one secured at a very high price in terms of Hungary’s reputation abroad and its relations with its neighbors.

Instead of acting in a cooperative and concerted manner with other EU members, Hungary rejected an earlier EC proposal, electing instead to build fences, first along the Serbian border and then along the Romanian, Croatian and even Slovenian borders.  In other words, instead of acting in a concerted manner with Hungary’s allies, Viktor Orbán decided to dump the problem on neighboring Croatia and Slovenia.   What he did not count on was Croatia responding to this unneighborly act by bussing refugees en masse to the Hungarian border, where they were met with border guards and soldiers armed with semi-automatic machine guns.  Fortunately, they didn’t shoot.  This time.

Fair is foul and foul is fair

Even as the government tried to present its harsh treatment of refugees and asylum seekers as a virtuous defense of Christian Europe, it ignored and even discouraged genuinely virtuous, Christian behavior on the part of civil society.

In response to government inaction, the Hungarian people took it upon themselves to feed, clothe, and even shelter the tens of thousands of refugees passing through their country.  Migration Aid volunteer Edit Frenyó recounts how anonymous donors provided a steady flow of food, clothing, shoes, bus and train tickets, sleeping bags, tents, and personal hygiene products to hundreds of volunteers across the country for distribution to the migrants.

At the main transit station at Budapest’s Keleti station, hot and cold food prepared by volunteers at nearby soup kitchens was distributed daily to the thousands of migrants arriving on trains from Szeged and Debrecen. Even pensioners living on fixed incomes brought bread and milk because, unlike the “Christian nationalist” government of Viktor Orbán, they could not bear the sight of hungry children.

The miracle at Herceghalom

On September 4th, the day thousands of migrants stranded in Budapest decided to walk to Austria, hundreds of volunteers lined the road to provide them with food and water.  That night, as the exhausted migrants bedded down by the M1 motorway in the vicinity of Herceghalom, hundreds of volunteers appeared out of nowhere to distribute food, clothing, blankets, even push carts and baby strollers.

Perhaps it was this spontaneous demonstration of sympathy for the refugees that induced the government to send hundreds of busses to transport them to the Austrian border.  In Hungary, however, Christian charity has its limits.  Despite the pleas of Austrian authorities, the Hungarian bus drivers refused to cross into Austria, thereby leaving the exhausted refugees no choice but to walk the final few kilometers to safety in the pouring rain.

Perhaps not since the aftermath of the Second World War, when tens of thousands of Hungarians were driven from their homes in neighboring countries, has there been such a spontaneous demonstration of compassion and solidarity on the part of ordinary Hungarians.   And yet not one word of praise or recognition had been bestowed on them by the government.  Instead, jealous of anything that might detract from the great leader’s image as the sole wellspring of all that is good and just, the government of Viktor Orbán has sought to take credit for their actions.

Enough is enough

The time has come for Viktor Orbán and his fellow kleptocrats in the guise of illiberal Christian crusaders to make way for a new generation of leaders–one committed to the liberal values underpinning the European Union and to promoting the public weal instead of lining their own pockets.  Unfortunately, given the extent to which Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz minions have completely taken over Hungary economically, socially and culturally—right down to when and where you can purchase groceries or cigarettes and what textbooks your children may study from—one wonders whether such changes will come about in Viktor Orbán’s lifetime.

The author is the managing editor of the Budapest Beacon and the chairman of the American House Foundation which supplies food to the Hungarian Red Cross for distribution to poor Hungarians in Budapest and the countryside and to Migration Aid for distribution to refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants.

Justice for the victims at Röszke!