In many respects, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has emerged as the political victor in the refugee crisis. Voters support his hardline stance and other Eastern European countries are following his suit.
On Monday, Hungary closed the last remaining hole in the 175-kilometer (109 mile) fence it has been built along the southern border to Serbia, one of the final stations on the Western Balkan route to Europe that has been the focal point in recent days of tens of thousands of refugees making their way from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Africa. On Tuesday, a new law went into effect in Hungary making illegal border crossings an offense punishable by up to three years in jail. The developments came as Germany and Austria both imposed border controls to stem the massive influx of refugees on the final leg of the path to Western Europe.
Hungary’s closure of its border with Serbia has led to confusion and desperation among refugees who had hoped to cross into Europe there. For the moment, nobody is being let through at all and Hungary has declared a state of emergency in two counties bordering Serbia to allow for the deployment of the military to assist police there. As part of its new crackdown, Hungary says it has arrested 60 people for damaging the border fence or attempting to cross.
The scenes of chaos the border closure has generated are consistent with those that have played out in Hungary over much of the last couple of weeks. And the cause is clear. The country, under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, is downright inhospitable — even hostile — toward refugees.
In the town of Röszke, on the Hungarian border to Serbia, police could be seen in recent days wearing face masks and rubber gloves as they herded together thousands of new arrivals into registration camps that looked very much like improvised jails. The facilities have tents without rain protection, a lack of blankets, little food and medicines and a dearth of portable toilets, not to mention frequent tensions between refugees and police.
Hungary in recent days has been showing its ugly side to the world. Videos made the rounds of a Hungarian camera women for a right-wing TV broadcaster tripping two children and kicking a refugee father as he held his child. She quickly became the public face of the nastiness emerging from Hungary. And although her employer has since fired her, the images remain.
Orbán: Criticism from Abroad ‘Dishonest’
Anger is growing among Western European governments about Hungary’s politics, but for Orbán, 52, who has been in office for five years, the predominent emotion seems to be self-satisfaction. During a meeting with Hungarian ambassadors on Sept. 8, Orbán said Hungary’s response — the construction of an anti-refugee fence of steel and razor wire — was exemplary and he dismissed criticism from abroad as “dishonest.”
Soon, Orbán said, Western governments in the European Union would recognize that the people of their countries no longer want to take in Muslim refugees. Just under 70 percent of Hungarians support Orbán’s hardline approach. Indeed, when Orbán coopts issues like immigration from the far-right, it actually helps his party take votes away from the extremist Jobbik, which is currently stagnating in polls.
Just a short time ago, thousands of refugees could be seen crowding into Budapest’s Keleti train station. For a brief window, they were able to travel freely to Austria and Germany with the support of the governments in Berlin and Vienna, but that came to an end on Sunday, when both countries reinstanted border controls. Officials in Germany have said the controls are temporary, set up in order to give the states necessary breathing room to manage the refugees who have already arrived. But it is also clearly intended as a political message to other EU countries that German will insist that they share the burden of hosting refugees.
At a meeting Monday of EU interior ministers, officials agreed to distribute 40,000 migrants currently in Greece and Italy, but only on a voluntary basis. No deal is in sight for a further 120,000 asylum-seekers the European Commission would like to spread out among all EU member states.
Orbán may be leading the opposition, it’s not as if he’s isolated in Europe. Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic also continue to reject the idea of mandatory EU quotas.
Indeed, the Hungarian prime minister has so far emerged as the political victor in the European refugee crisis. But who is this man who has inflamed Brussels and yet has the enthusiastic support of voters at home?
A Politician Who Loves Conflict
“He’s highly intelligent and he has a strong instinct for the mood in his country,” says former Orbán confidant Gábor Fodor. “And he loves conflict — that’s where he excels as a politician.” Fodor once shared a room with Orbán as a university student. Together, the two founded Fidesz, originally the “Alliance of Young Democrats,” which today forms Hungary’s nationalist-conservative government.
“Back then, though, we were alternative, liberal and radical,” says Fodor, who is today a member of the Hungarian Liberal Party, part of a parliamentary opposition so hopelessly splintered that it represents no threat to Fidesz. “We rebelled against the Communist Party, and also against the church — and Orbán was responsible for the radical elements.”
Photos taken at the time show today’s prime minister wearing his hair long and sporting sideburns. “He came from the countryside, he was the first person in his family to go to college and he wanted to get ahead,” Fodor recalls.
But after the fall of the Iron Curtain, ideological divides began to emerge. “Orbán recognized that Hungary was lacking a modern conservative party and began steering Fidesz in that direction. One has to recognize that now as having been very far-sighted.” Today, Fodor and Orbán are no longer on speaking terms. “Orbán is leading Hungary in the wrong direction,” Fodor says.
Orbán was first elected to parliament in 1998. Initially, he didn’t attract much attention in Europe, but that would change after the 2010 national election. Orbán secured a two-thirds majority for his party and began consolidating power in the political system around himself. He brought the public broadcasting system under his control, he curbed the Constitutional Court’s power and he pushed through a new constitution with a nationalist preamble.
‘Hungary Will Not Be a Colony!’
The 2008 economic crisis, which hit Hungary with a particular vengeance, contributed to Orbán’s victory. The International Monetary Fund had to intervene with emergency loans, which Orbán paid back with great fanfare. “We solve our problems with a Hungarian heart and mind,” he said again and again. He also stated that Hungarians are allergic to advice from other countries. “Hungary will not be a colony!” he said in March 2012. “We are more than familiar with the character of unsolicited comradely assistance, even if it comes wearing a finely tailored suit and not a uniform with shoulder patches.”
It was a play on the old days of the Austrian Empire and the Soviet times, eras during which Hungary often had to take measures to defend itself against the influenes of much greater powers. This time, it was Orbán defending his country against the paternalism of foreign powers. It’s a message that has struck a chord among many voters. Orbán has done much to anger officials in Europe during his time as prime minister, but he has also been adept at shifting course in the face of criticism from Brussels just in time to prevent the EU from being able to take legal measures against Budapest’s creeping attacks on democracy.
Throughout, Orbán has presented himself as being calm, confident and composed. He shuns folklore as a path to popularity, instead presenting himself as a pious church-goer. It is rare for Orbán to lash out at his domestic detractors, but when it comes to the EU, he can be quite fierce and sharp-tongued. One of Orbán’s ruling principles is that of knowing where his enemies are. Sometimes he lashes out at the banks and others at energy utility companies if there’s some way he can reduce financial burdens for his people. Orbán wants to be a fatherly leader — strict domestically, upholding Christian traditions, and strong abroad, defending his country against the upheavals of globalization.
After his reelection in 2014, however, Orbán’s public opinion numbers soon began tumbling. The economy grew only slowly, and allegations of corruption began to haunt the Fidesz party. The right-wing extremist Jobbik party managed to drive out a few Fidesz mayors in elections, but then the refugees came to Orbán’s aid. Hungary lies at the end of the Western Balkans route, and an estimated 167,000 people have crossed the country so far this year on their way to Western Europe.
‘You Cannot Take Away Hungarians’ Jobs’
At first, in the context of a “national consultation,” Orbán sent a questionnaire out to Hungarian citizens addressing the issue of foreigners. Around 1 million Hungarians responded, which Orbán interpreted as support for his hardline course.
In a second step, he had signs put up that were aimed at refugees, with slogans like, “If you come to Hungary, you cannot take away Hungarians’ jobs.” The signs were all in Hungarian, making it clear that the message was directed domestically, as if to reassure voters that the government was taking action.
Orbán’s third and most spectacular step was the construction of the razor-wire fence along the Serbian border. The plan is to reinforce the bulwark as quickly as possible by enhancing it with four-meter (13 foot) steel fence.
The fourth step took place a week ago Friday, when Orbán met with his colleagues from Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, countries that hold similar views on the refugee issue. Now, a new, anti-immigration eastern bloc is forming within the EU. And Orbán is its leader.
“We believe in values like patriotism, country, family, nation,” says Gergely Gulyás, a Fidesz parliamentarian who briefly studied law in Hamburg and who speaks German and English. “I know we get bad press outside the country,” Gulyás says. “In the media landscape, the left-wing and liberals dominate. They have zeroed in on us.”
Gulyás, who is dressed in a dark blue banker’s suit and has a giant office decorated with an EU flag, admires Orbán. When it comes to refugee policy, he claims, the prime minister took exactly the right action. “We want to decide ourselves how many Muslims we live with.”
In order to put an end to the ugly scenes and the suffering at the border, he claims, Hungary “finally” needs to better secure its borders. The completion of the border fence this week and the new law on illegal crossings as well as a newly formed battalion of “border guards” who can arrest the refugees in certain areas are all part of the strategy.
‘Orbán Is a Man of War’
There are some in Hungary who say it’s the wrong strategy. “That will make everything even worse — tens of thousands of people will be stuck on the Serbian side. How will the police keep these people from simply tearing down the fence?” asks Ferenc Gyurcsány.
Gyurcsány, who is on the opposite side of the political spectrum from Orbán, preceeded him as prime minister. Nevertheless, he admires Orbán’s hardness and political finesse. “Orbán is a man of war,” he says.
Having become rich in the unregulated years of privatization, Gyurcsány has a mansion at the foot of Budapest’s Castle Hill, two rooms of which he has emptied to accomodate refugees. Every evening at around 6 p.m., the people from a Budapest organization assisting refugees calls him in search of emergency housing. So far, he’s had 36 guests. “They all continued onwards to Germany,” he says.
Last week, Gyurcsány visited the overflowing Bicske refugee camp. Even though several thousand people cross the border every day, Hungary officially has little more than 6,000 spots available in refugee camps. “Orbán’s government deliberately allowed the problem to get worse,” says Gyurcsány.
It wouldn’t have cost much to put up a few hundred more tents and print out some brochures in Arabic, Gyurcsány says. But Orbán instead focused on deterrence.
Gyurcsány leans back and says he still has hope. “Something has changed. The people have become more willing to help,” he says. “It seems as though the mood is changing in Hungary. The photo of the drowned boy on the Turkish beach also touched the people here.” Orbán, he claims, shouldn’t be so heartless. “Otherwise he’ll lose his fatherly aura.”
But the prime minister has often shown that he can be flexible when it comes to his power. He told his ambassadors last Monday that he is not all that opposed to the EU refugee quota. Now, he claims, is simply not the time to discuss it. The diplomats were astounded.