BUDAPEST, Hungary — Several hundred people rallied Saturday outside an office of Hungary’s governing Fidesz party after a journalist said she was assaulted at a party meeting by a government official.
Julia Halasz, a reporter with the 444.hu news site, said a meeting organizer took away her cellphone and dragged her down several flights of steps and out of a school by the arm while she was covering a Fidesz public forum.
Economy Minister Mihaly Varga and Defense Minister Istvan Simicsko spoke at Thursday’s forum promoting the government’s “Let’s Stop Brussels” campaign, which claims the European Union wants Hungary to raise taxes and energy prices and take in large numbers of migrants.
Halasz said Laszlo Szabo, who is also in charge of the government office arranging celebrations and remembrances, accused her of making a video during the forum, which she denied, and erased several photographs she took with her mobile phone.
Halasz reported the alleged assault to police, while Fidesz said it would file its own report, claiming libel.
Fidesz denied her claims, saying she failed to follow press rules at the meeting, disrupted the forum and argued loudly with audience members.
“It’s very frightening that they attack me just because I work for a medium which the government can’t influence,” Halasz told The Associated Press. “I have witnesses who can corroborate that none of their accusations are true.”
Participants at Saturday’s rally in Budapest shouted slogans in support of press freedom.
Since Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s return to power in 2010, his allies have greatly increased their ownership of newspapers, broadcasters and online media, turning the outlets into unquestioning supporters of the government. Hungary’s state media is also under strict political control.
The government has “clearly turned public service media into a tool of government propaganda,” media analyst Agnes Urban said at the rally.
Pressure is mounting on Hungary’s right-wing government after it adopted a law that would effectively shut down Central European University, an institution founded by the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros shortly after the fall of Communism.
An American official and a United Nations expert on Tuesday joined European Union officials in expressing grave concern about the law, which was rushed through Parliament by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Budapest on Sunday to urge President Janos Ader not to sign the law, but on Monday he did just that.
Corruption is a harmful, but widespread phenomenon in Hungary, which is part of the everyday life and the politics. It affects the government’s relationship with the EU, the USA and Russia too. But why is it growing nowadays? What is the role of bribery in Hungary, a country led by the prime minister Viktor Orbán since 2010?
Corruption or “mutyi”- a term recently popularised by the Hungarian media – is no longer considered an outstanding phenomenon in Hungary. With a silent consent of the Hungarian society, bribery became a part of everyday life during the soft dictatorship of the Kádár-era; people still pay additional sums to receive better service in hospitals or faster administration in offices.
In a dry clearing of woodland in southern Hungary, there is the drone of wood-chippers and rumble of earth movers. Dozens of men are clearing the ground for what Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, believes will be a solution to the country’s worsening migration crisis: a 175km steel and barbed wire fence along its flank with Serbia.
More than 80,000 migrants have crossed this stretch of land into Hungary — and the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone — so far this year, placing the country on the route of a trail that begins as far away as the fields of Kunduz in Afghanistan and the bombed-out streets of Aleppo in Syria.
But Hungary’s Balkan borderlands are now set to become the choke point for what has become Europe’s most heavily travelled migration route. Many expect the €20m fence — which should be finished by November — to trap thousands in neighbouring countries such as Serbia and Macedonia, where migrants say they face police violence and extortion.
The fence has attracted criticism from migrant rights groups, the UN’s refugee agency and the European Commission. Serbia’s government, which was not notified of the plans in advance, reacted with alarm to the decision to seal the border but has pledged to boost border security co-operation.
“I am not sure whether the fence between Serbia and Hungary will help that country protect itself against mass influx of asylum seekers,” said Nebojsa Stefanovic, Serbia’s minister of the interior. “However, we cannot interfere with decisions of neighbouring countries that are within their exclusive competence.”
Mr Orban, who has linked unmanaged immigration to terrorism, insists border security is a national obligation. But since the plan to build the fence was announced, the numbers detected crossing the border have only increased, sometimes reaching more than 1,500 a day.
Even though the vast majority of those have left to try to reach Germany and other more prosperous countries, daily arrivals are straining Hungary.
The surge has become especially noticeable outside train and bus stations in towns such as Szeged in the country’s south, where city authorities have set up a makeshift help centre complete with fresh water taps, stocks of sandwiches and power sockets for migrants to charge their phones.
But not all are so welcoming. Anti-immigrant vigilantes have begun patrols along the border, in search of migrants who have escaped the attention of border police who use heat-seeking cameras, dogs and sometimes helicopters to monitor the area.
Just a few kilometres away, on the other side of the planned fence, dozens of Afghan migrants appear at an abandoned brick factory near the town of Subotica to receive food from Pastor Tibor Varga, who runs the Eastern European Mission, a Christian charity.
“I don’t know what will happen with this fence; I don’t think it will help Hungary stop the situation. It may mean more people being trapped here in Serbia and I don’t know how that will end,” says Pastor Varga.
One of the men at the factory, which migrants call “the jungle”, is Muhammed Bilal, a network engineer, who says he left Kunduz in Afghanistan because of violent attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis.
Mr Bilal and his friend Tlha Jan from Jalalabad have travelled for more than a month in the hope of reaching Germany. Mr Jan says Bulgarian police stole his phone and $500 in cash before breaking his ribs and beating his feet with hammers. His toes are black and swollen.
“Now our journey has gotten more dangerous,” says Mr Bilal. “This morning, a person told us the Hungarian government plans to make a fence along the border. But that takes time; we will get across in the next few days.” he adds.
Hungarian ministers say the country has less than 3,000 residential places for asylum seekers, while the number arriving this year alone is more than 20 times that figure.
Very few applications for asylum are completed as most abscond to continue their journey. Lawmakers in Budapest last week approved measures that could see asylum applicants pushed back to neighbouring countries such as Serbia.
But Amnesty International has warned that illegal migrants deported from Hungary face multiple human rights violations in Balkan countries.
Although the new rules and the planned fence have yet to stem the flow of migrants, observers say the government’s rhetoric has hardened the public’s attitude towards migrants.
A recent poll commissioned by conservative magazine Heti Válasz, showed 63 per cent of respondents believe immigration poses a threat to Hungary’s security.
Opinion polls also indicate another trend: since Mr Orban announced the planned border fence, support levels for his governing Fidesz party have risen at the expense of the radical rightwing Jobbik party, ending an eight-month trend of declining approval ratings.
Environmentalists in Hungary are hoping the European Commission will scupper a €12.5bn (£9bn) Hungarian-Russian deal to build two new 1,200 megawatt (MW) reactors at the Paks nuclear power station on the River Danube.
The expansion, they argue, will produce expensive energy, far beyond market prices, plunge Hungary into debt, and deepen dependence on Russia.
Viktor Orban’s Fidesz government insists the reactors are necessary to cover growing energy demand, and will actually increase the country’s energy independence.
The government also defends its decision to make the contracts for the new reactors secret for 30 years.
The existing four reactors at Paks generate 1,900 MW and cover 40% of Hungary’s electricity needs.
Mr Orban based his 2014 election victory on promises to keep utility prices low.
Months earlier he struck a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin that saw Russia agree to loan Hungary around 80% of the estimated construction cost of the new reactors at Paks. Hungary will pay Russia back from the electricity generated.
By the time Hungary has to start paying for this next generation of reactors, in 2025, Mr Orban should be in comfortable retirement.
Nevertheless, the decision to sign a deal with Russia took even his own Fidesz party by surprise.
Built by the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the working life of the four existing reactors at Paks will run out between 2032 and 2037.
That means that no new decision on replacing them would actually be necessary until 2020 at the earliest.
Experts are also concerned that the overlap period, when old and new reactors are operating, will overstrain the Hungarian grid, and drive renewable and conventional energy producers from a market distorted by what they see as the overproduction of nuclear energy.
“Hungary is denying itself the opportunity to take into consideration at least six years’ scientific development” by opting for nuclear expansion now, the Universities Student Committee established to debate the Paks expansion has just concluded.
The falling cost of renewable energy sources could make the cost solar energy comparable with that from nuclear and fossil fuels very soon, opponents of Paks expansion believe.
“Hungary’s energy needs can be supplied in 2030 without the ‘Paks2’ reactors,” says Zsuzsanna Koritar of Energieaklub, a Budapest-based think tank.
“Nonsense,” counters Attila Aszodi, the nuclear ‘tsar’ appointed by the Orban government, who says the expansion decision is both sensible and timely.
Hungary’s electricity demands can be expected to grow by 1% each year, he says. And 7,300 MW of the current 9,000 MW capacity of the country’s 18 power stations will need replacing by 2030.
Meanwhile his own figures suggest that electricity from Paks would be 10 to 15% cheaper than solar.
Balazs Felsmann of the Corvinus University Research Centre says electricity prices would need to triple on the European market to make the new reactors economically feasible.
And there are concerns that the project deadline might slip, meaning Hungary would have to start paying interest on the €10bn loan to Russia from 2025, while the project is still a building site.
Mr Aszodi says there are agreements in place to stop this happening, and he rejects claims that the decision to expand the power station was made largely in secret.
“The expansion of Paks was debated and agreed in the Hungarian parliament many times,” he says.
His opponents hope the European Commission will rule that Hungary’s 20% share of the construction costs will be judged to be a direct subsidy, which is illegal under competition rules.
European Union leaders face many intractable problems: what to do about Russia, the growing Islamist threat within and beyond its borders, and last but not least the populist backlash shaking the political landscape in a number of countries.
In this last respect, Hungary, and the rise in political extremism there, is a case in point.
Europe has a problem with Hungary, so much so that the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, was recently overheard calling Hungary’s leader a “dictator” upon his arrival at an EU summit.
The remark was hastily dismissed as a joke, even though it betrays wider European concerns about an apparent weakening of civil institutions and a backlash against civic groups in the country.
Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, is an interesting political case study.
He began as a darling of those on the side of political freedoms, with his strident anti-Communist background.
Yet that all seems a long time ago now.
He hasn’t been helped by Hungary’s economic problems.
The global economic crisis of 2008 hit Hungary hard, leading to an international bailout.
His ruling Fidesz party insists on a version of Hungarian history that stresses Hungary’s fate as a victim of World War Two – although government ministers have also acknowledged the country’s shared responsibility for the Holocaust.
All this helps garner support in Hungary itself, and not just from those who are attracted to the political extremes.
Many Hungarians approve of Mr Orban’s populist and Eurosceptic approach.
They believe Brussels has no real idea of the scale of the challenges facing the country and the institutional and social legacy left behind by decades of political and social neglect under Communist rule.
They argue that one-size-fits-all solutions and liberal orthodoxies are too simplistic and one-dimensional.
And yet, rather paradoxically, overall support for the EU remains strong among Hungarians.
That must be in part due to the financial realities.
The EU gives more than €5bn (£3.7bn) in financial support to Budapest – some 6% of Hungarian GDP.
But the question for some is what does the EU get in return?
The Orban government, like those of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, is a sharp critic of EU sanctions against Russia over the conflict in Ukraine.
More recently, Hungary’s leader attacked fellow EU leaders for what he called their “absurd, bordering on insanity” proposals for migrant quotas.
To his European critics, Mr Orban is a serial offender when it comes to what they call European values, such as respect for human rights.
The row with Europe over the possible return of the death penalty in Hungary is just the latest example. It won’t be the last skirmish of its kind.
In the wings lurks the increasingly popular nationalist party, Jobbik, which has openly anti-Semitic supporters.
A Jobbik MP came to wider public attention a little while back for openly spitting on a Budapest Holocaust memorial.
A few years ago, another leading Jobbik figure claimed, during a debate on the Middle East, that people in authority of Jewish ancestry “pose a national security risk”.
The party has contributed to a worsening of relations with the Roma, Hungary’s biggest ethnic minority community.
The Roma population, which lives on the fringes of Hungarian society, has faced persecution and discrimination for centuries.
Jobbik’s success continues to rattle the government of Hungary.
As recently as April, Jobbik won a parliamentary seat previously held by the ruling Fidesz party.
All in all, the political momentum appears to be with Jobbik. And as the party gets stronger and nearer to its ultimate goal of supreme power, it appears to be cleaning up its act.
The party’s leader, Gabor Vona, insists he is determined to rid the party of its unsavoury elements and reposition it as a people’s party like the German CDU or CSU, in a bid to win outright power in the next general elections, due in 2018.
He has been turning down the volume when it comes to the party rhetoric.
“Whoever has a romantic Nazi yearning… has no place in this party,” he declared at a recent political gathering.
Mr Vona appears to want to shed the party’s extremist origins, stay in the EU and work with foreign businesses.
Critics say this is a sham, a cynical ploy to win votes.
In a recent speech in Budapest, the World Jewish Congress leader, Ronald Lauder, said Jobbik’s rise was hurting Hungary’s image abroad.
His voice matters: Hungary is home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities, but one recent poll suggested a third of Hungarians expressed anti-Semitic views.
None of this is necessarily helping Hungary’s position in the group of EU nations.
It is worth remembering what happened when a far-right party entered into a governing coalition in Austria, back in 2000.
The Freedom Party’s success led the rest of Europe to give Vienna the cold shoulder.
That political reality is probably one of the strongest cards left in the hands of the Hungarian leader.
His combination of nationalist populism and state control of key areas of the economy still rules the roost, for now at least.
When, in 2010 and 2012, Hungary passed laws entitling Hungarians living abroad to Hungarian passports and then the right to vote in Hungarian elections, it seemed to fan dangerous nationalistic flames and fueled fears of secessionist movements in Hungarian communities beyond the country’s border. Indeed,
Hungary’s illiberal Prime Minister Viktor Orban has frequently stated that the Hungarian nation does not end at the borders of the state; rather, it ends with those Hungarians who were stranded in Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, and Ukraine when the Treaty of Versailles lopped off two-thirds of the Hungarian territory.
Given the parallels to Russia, where granting Russian citizenship to Ukrainians and Abkhazians has been a precursor to invasion, observers can be forgiven for feeling chilled.
Although Orban is certainly tapping into nationalist nostalgia when he talks about Hungarians abroad, his purposes are not the same as those of Russian President Vladimir Putin. More than irredentism, Orban is thinking about votes. In fact, since he returned to power in 2010, he has done everything possible to avoid ever losing another election.
He has proven to be a world-class virtuoso of gerrymandering; after he pulled in a supermajority of votes in 2010, he was able to contort Hungary’s electoral system so much that in 2014, Fidesz, his party, was able to win two-thirds of all seats in the parliament with only 45 percent of the vote. And even if Fidesz does lose an election,
Orban has manipulated the system so that Fidesz appointees in the media office, the prosecutor’s office, the state audit office, the central bank, and the presidency would continue to wield substantial power.
Orban’s dealings with Hungarians abroad should likewise be seen as an electoral strategy. Since Fidesz passed the 2010 law, 675,000 and counting ethnic Hungarians have taken advantage of the opportunity. Fewer than 130,000 of these new dual citizens voted in 2014, but 95 percent of those who did vote picked Fidesz.
Although 130,000 may not seem a lot in a country of eight million eligible voters, the votes did give Fidesz an extra seat in the parliament to hold on to its narrow two-thirds majority—a small advantage, but one that meant a lot.
And looking toward the next election in 2018, Fidesz could get even more out of this group by motivating more ethnic Hungarians to apply for passports and to vote, especially in pro-Fidesz areas. Orban’s government can also set up more ballots and polling stations, for example, in surrounding countries where voters tend to support his party—as opposed to London and elsewhere, where Fidesz did not rush to make it easier for Hungarians to vote.
Beyond votes, Orban also sees Hungarians abroad as a way to solve his country’s demographic problems. A nation of 10.6 million in 1988, Hungary has lost 700,000 people over the 27 years since, mostly from out-migration and lower birth rates. It is true that Orban, like many other right-wing politicians in Europe (but in a more radical tone), generally opposes immigration, especially of people from different cultural backgrounds.
For instance, he spoke out sharply after the Charlie Hebdoattack in Paris, stating, “We do not want to see a significant minority among ourselves that has different cultural characteristics and background. We would like to keep Hungary as Hungary.
” But the Hungarian diaspora can help Orban square the circle. Here, his strategy is similar to that of Russia, which has also encouraged Russians abroad to come home from other republics of the former Soviet Union.
Orban also sees Hungarians abroad as a way to solve his country’s demographic problems.
Although Orban does not intend to stir up real trouble, he frequently uses strongly nationalist messages in his speeches. For example, he encourages “autonomy” and talks about a nation that goes beyond current borders.
One possible explanation for the mismatch is that he is preparing for a Russian-dominated Europe, in which Hungary might gain back (at least symbolically) some of its former territories. Orban might have some hopes that Putin will do what Adolf Hitler did in 1938: give Hungary back the territories that were lost at Trianon. That is unrealistic; borders in Europe do seem to be more flexible than before after Crimea.
But most ethnic Hungarians abroad are not supportive of aggressive autonomy movements, as they understand that they would be the first victims of irredentism. They tend to support political forces that are working toward peaceful cooperation among Hungarian, Romanian, Serbian, and Slovakian political forces.
Polls by Political Capital, a Budapest think tank, have shown that enthusiastic Fidesz supporters compose only one-fourth of the Hungarians in Transylvania, the part of Romania where many Hungarians are concentrated.
This silent majority has neither applied for dual citizenship nor voted in Hungarian elections. Meanwhile, Hungary’s radical, right-wing, fascist, and irredentist party, Jobbik, has virtually no support among Hungarians abroad, despite its attempts to build up networks in the Hungarian communities and fuel secessionist movements.
This does not mean, however, that aggressive separatist political movements, especially those with external political support, could not act as though they have a majority behind them, as in eastern Ukraine.
That hasn’t happened so far, but any nationalist political use of Hungarians abroad in Hungary could set the stage for such extremism and instability in neighboring countries.
Nowhere are these dangers more evident than in Ukraine, where Orban has taken advantage of political chaos to press Hungarian minority issues (about 200,000 Hungarians live in Ukraine) in the sub-Carpathian region of western Ukraine, adjacent to Hungary.
Here, Orban has echoed Russian nationalists, calling for increased autonomy for national minorities in Ukraine. In his inauguration speech on May 10, 2014, Orban stated that “the Hungarians in the Carpathian basin deserve dual citizenship, rights, and even autonomy. . . .
This is our clear expectation toward the newly forming Ukraine.” This speech, not surprisingly, resulted in some diplomatic turbulence.
Similar calls had landed Hungary in trouble before: in a 1996 treaty, it was forced to cease and desist making calls for autonomy for Hungarians living in Romania as a condition of membership in the European Union. The European Union may keep the peace among its member states, but Ukraine lies outside the EU.
In his approach to politics, Orban may stretch the limits of democratic respectability, but so far, he has not fully let go of European norms. His approach to Hungarians abroad fits this pattern.
He toys with soft revisionist policies (they are not unique: dual citizenship with voting rights is a practice in Croatia and Romania as well). But he does so mainly to win votes at home, not to foment serious ethnic conflict. So far, his strategy has worked. But the delicate balance could easily topple.
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