The Fearmonger of Budapest

James Traub, Foreign Policy, October 27, 2015

The European response to the refugee crisis that escalated this August has two poles: Germany’s Angela Merkel and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Merkel has consistently maintained that the immense flow of refugees from Middle Eastern war zones constitutes a collective moral obligation for Europe; Orban has called this view a species of madness. Orban is as powerful a spokesman for nativism and xenophobia as Merkel is for universalism.

And Orban got there first. In mid-January, after attending a mass rally in Paris honoring the victims of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket, Orban said in an interview, “We should not look at economic immigration as if it had any use, because it only brings trouble and threats to European people. Therefore, immigration must be stopped.” Orban was quite explicit about the kind of immigration he especially opposed. “We do not want to see a significant minority among ourselves that has different cultural characteristics and background,” he said. “We would like to keep Hungary as Hungary.” That was the lesson he took from Charlie Hebdo.

Orban is fully prepared to wade into the darkest pools of the Hungarian psyche. In April, still well before the refugee flood, Orban’s government distributed a questionnaire to all adult Hungarians which stated, among other things, “Some people believe that the mishandling of immigration issues in Brussels and the spread of terrorism are connected.” It then went on to ask, “Do you agree with this opinion?” Citizens were also told, “Some people say that immigrants threaten the jobs and livelihood of Hungarians,” then asked, “Do you agree?” The U.N.’s human rights commission condemned the questionnaire as “extremely biased” and “absolutely shocking.” Nevertheless, most of those who bothered to answer did, of course, agree. Having thus manufactured a show of public support, Orban’s Fidesz party posted billboards around the country with messages like, “If you come to Hungary, you cannot take the jobs of Hungarians.”

Orban had prepared the Hungarian people in advance for the Biblical tide of refugees who began pouring through Hungary on their way to Germany or Sweden. The fences he ordered built at the border with Serbia and then with Croatia; his use of the army to turn back refugees; his scathing rhetoric; his passage of emergency laws that criminalized the very act of seeking asylum–all have been denounced across Europe, but they’ve done wonders for his standing at home. In recent years, support had been steadily draining from Fidesz to the ultranationalist Jobbik party, but by September of this year the trend had begun to reverse.

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{snip} Like much of Eastern Europe, Hungary is a monoethnic society. Only 1.5 percent of Hungary’s population has foreign citizenship, and one-third of these people are ethnic Hungarians. Outside of tourist districts, you don’t see black or Asian or Arab people on the streets of Budapest–not to mention in the rest of the country. That struck most people I spoke to as a precious asset to be preserved. Hungarians look at Germany and France and see what they call “parallel societies,” where Turks or Algerians live in their own worlds, suspicious of their hosts and threatening to them. And those are rich countries; Hungary has a stagnant economy that cannot offer jobs to newcomers. Why would Hungary want immigrants who don’t want to integrate or simply can’t?

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Perhaps Hungarians really are unusually resistant to outsiders, but the Hungarian difference probably has much more to do with Orban himself. He has abetted and legitimated the national fear of the outsider–and thus made it worse. {snip}

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