People & Power

Hungary: Europe’s Bad Boy

We investigate why Hungary, under its authoritarian leader Viktor Orban, has repeatedly clashed with the European Union.

In his youth, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was hailed as a champion of freedom, a key figure in the generation of pro-democracy activists who stood up to the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War.

These days he is routinely characterised as an authoritarian, far-right nationalist figure, a demagogue whose migrant-bashing agenda poses a significant threat to Western democratic norms.

Some of the loudest complaints about him come from fellow leaders of European Union member states – an institution with which he is increasingly at odds.

So what brought this hostility on and why exactly is Orban now seen by many as Europe‘s bad boy?

We sent filmmakers Glenn Ellis and Viktoryia Kolchyna to find out.


By Glenn Ellis

It is hard to think of a more picturesque capital than Budapest. The palaces that line the Danube are the stuff of fairy tales; the parliament – possibly the continent’s prettiest – is straight from Brothers Grimm; and there is even a pantomime villain, in the shape of the prime minister. Viktor Orban, Europe’s Bad Boy, rules Hungary from his new office high up in the medieval castle district of old Buda, that looks down on the capital’s inhabitants hundreds of feet below.

But listen to the Fidesz government and its countless media outlets and they would have you believe that the real villain is Hungarian-born American financier and philanthropist, George Soros, who through his Open Society Foundation, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars funding civil society and education projects in Hungary.

“I would say that about 75-80 percent of the media is under the control of Orban,” says Peter Kreko, an analyst at Political Capital. “And it has a huge impact on the public opinion. George Soros for example, when they started the campaign against him a few years ago, was an unknown and neutral figure. But he has become a figure that everybody knows and everybody hates.”

As unlikely as it sounds, Soros has been partly blamed for the refugee crisis that shook Europe back in 2015, and since then Orban’s government has maintained that Hungary is in great peril from hordes of migrants massing on its borders.

People and Power - Hungary: Europe's Bad Boy
Hopeful asylum seekers wait at a refugee centre in Serbia, close to the border with Hungary [Al Jazeera]

While Soros advocated a more humane European policy towards asylum seekers, Orban ordered the construction of a massive border fence along the frontier with Serbia stretching some 175km long.

“We have demonstrated for the past three years that if there’s a political will, illegal migration can be stopped. And that’s what really matters,” government spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs, tells Al Jazeera. But when we visited the border we found only two asylum seekers waiting for a chance to enter Hungary, at one of only two transit zones along the length of the fence.

Anti-immigrant sentiment

“In reality we have about 150 people detained in the transit zones,” says Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. “If the Hungarian government would actually examine their asylum claims on substance, they would have a good chance of getting international protection because of the situations they come from: civil war, torture, political persecution.”

This might be the direction that we are heading, where independent institutions that speak out for human rights and for the general equality of citizens in our country, are being chased away.

by Orsolya Sudar, student

“But at the same time the Hungarian government has poured tens of millions of euros into making sure that the average Hungarian citizen would only think of security, of fears, of a threat to cultural identity, when they hear the word ‘migrant’. It has literally brainwashed the minds of the Hungarian population, so that the only saviour would be Mr Orban and the government,” she adds.

Last year Orban’s government passed the Stop Soros law under which, ostensibly, individuals or groups that help undocumented migrants gain status to stay in Hungary will be liable to prison terms.

“Even without being implemented the law creates this kind of chilling effect,” says Lydia Gall, a Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Basically, if you aid asylum seekers or migrants, you might be held criminally responsible. And that’s specifically targeting lawyers because at this point in time they’re the only ones that will actually be in contact with asylum seekers in Hungary.”

The Stop Soros law is just one in a series of moves by Orban that appear to target the philanthropist. Two years ago Orban decided to close the Central European University (CEU) which was established by Soros in 1991.

“Mr Orban has given many different explanations why they decided to close us down and force us out of the country,” says Liviu Matei, provost of the CEU. “So, it’s not easy, perhaps it’s not even useful, to try to find the final and complete explanation. Mr Orban has his own logic. And he probably thought it will serve him well symbolically to attack a university that is international, that is about open society, about equality, and social justice.”

Anti-Semitic undertones

The CEU has a reputation as one of the finest universities in central Europe and its impending closure caused incredulity and anger, sparking massive street protests. Orsolya Sudar, a history student, summed up the general feeling there: “It’s a red flag and it’s a warning sign that this might be the direction that we are heading, where independent institutions that speak out for human rights and for the general equality of citizens in our country, are being chased away.”

And there is a rather curious irony about the decision; for Orban himself was once the beneficiary of a Soros Scholarship to study at Oxford.

People and Power - Hungary
A Fidesz poster showing Jean-Claude Juncker and George Soros was sprayed with graffiti saying “Orban thief” [AP]

Some believe the attacks on Soros, which present him as an international bogeyman, have a darker subtext because of his Jewish origins. In fact, as a boy in Nazi-occupied Budapest, Soros had to hide his Jewish identity in order to survive. So the Fidesz poster campaign for last May’s European parliamentary elections which showed Soros standing behind European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, caused more than a little disquiet. The text read “You have the right to know what Brussels is planning”, which critics say evoked Nazi-era propaganda portraying Jews as global puppet-masters.

Orban laughed off criticism by saying: “I can’t do anything about the fact that George Soros is a Hungarian of Jewish origin”. It was a view echoed by government spokesman Kovacs, when we raised the issue. “Are you suggesting that Mr Soros looks like a Jew?” he asked. “If you suggest that you won’t be able to put any Jewish origin person on any poster… that’s nonsense.”

But given the country’s less than perfect record during the second world war, when the Hungarian authorities sent half a million Jews to their deaths in Auschwitz, Orban’s remark seems at best flippant.

Agnes Heller, a renowned Hungarian philosopher who survived the Holocaust, was not surprised; she herself fell victim to a Fidesz-sponsored anti-Semitic smear campaign. “He picked Soros because he was a Jew and he is rich; and people are envious. They don’t like rich people, and they don’t like Americans, and particularly don’t like Jews.”

‘Illiberal democracy’

The affair also enraged Juncker who, like Orban, belongs to the EU’s largest political grouping, the European People’s Party. It led to the suspension of Fidesz’s membership. But in truth this may merely have increased Orban’s popularity with voters. When the election results were announced, Fidesz were the clear winners.

People and Power - Hungary: Europe's Bad Boy
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist ideology has proven popular elsewhere in Europe [AP]

The sobering fact is that Orban’s brand of nationalist authoritarianism and anti-migrant xenophobia has proven to be wildly effective, and not only in Hungary. Orban declared in 2014 that he preferred an “illiberal state” and “illiberal democracy”. And in the ensuing years this ideology has taken root elsewhere within the EU, notably Poland and other former communist regimes.

Lack of press freedom, attacks on the rule of law and rampant nationalism are just a few of the charges regularly levelled at the Hungarian regime. It has come to represent the very opposite of what the EU stands for. And yet the tiny Central European Republic, which accounts for less than one percent of the EU’s GDP, has the power of veto over many key EU decisions.

According to Gall of Human Rights Watch, Hungary has become a role model that threatens the very idea of the EU.

“The whole concept of illiberal democracy is a contradiction in terms. It is an oxymoron. It’s a state-captured society which is heading down some sort of authoritarian slide. And the question is, where does this slide end?” she asks.

“Are we going to see some full-blown autocratic regime here, or will there come a time where the European Union actually says ‘enough is enough’?”