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Newsmaker: Viktor Orbán

The Hungarian prime minister has hit the headlines this week after spearheading his country’s unsavoury response to the Syrian refugee crisis, despite starting out as a liberal politician.
Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

Just over a week ago, few people had heard of Viktor Orbán. Come to think of it, some people probably couldn’t even have pointed on a map to the country of 10 million people of which he is prime ­minister.

Now, thanks to a series of disgraceful scenes and statements that have shocked the civilised world, everyone knows that ­Orbán and Hungary are outposts of intolerance and prejudice, situated geographically on the south-east border of the European Union, but mired psychologically deep in the 16th century.

For the record, Hungary is the landlocked filling in a doughnut of seven states – Austria, ­Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, ­Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia.

A member of the EU since 2004, Hungary finds itself straddling the route taken by tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria. Far from following ­Europe’s cue and treating them with compassion and dignity, however, it has gone out of its way to show only contempt for the desperate thousands at its door.

The refugees have come from Turkey, across the sea to Greece, and then north through ­Macedonia and Serbia to ­Hungary.

And there, terrible scenes have unfolded: earlier this month, a baby clinging to its mother and screaming in terror as his father tussled with Hungarian riot police after the family was dragged off a train bound for Austria.

Another vignette reflecting, perhaps, the effect of the poisonous rhetoric of Hungary’s leader: the shocking incident at Roszke on Tuesday, when a female camera operator with a Hungarian right-wing TV company is filmed kicking refugee children fleeing police, and then tripping up a man holding his young son.

The cruel joke is that none of the refugees want to stay in ­Hungary – Germany is the promised land they seek. And yet ­Hungary has made it its business to harass them en route, erecting a razor-wire fence on its southern border with Serbia; inexplicably trying to prevent those who have made it into the country from reaching Austria, their immediate and welcoming destination, and rushing through laws criminalising ­migrants.

It’s an odd tactic for a prime minister who has made it clear he wants no Muslims in his country, and who has described the refugee crisis as “a German problem”.

Last week, the world was moved first to tears and then to action by the harrowing photographs of the body of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi, drowned during a futile attempt by his family to reach Greece.

But on Friday, the very day that Aylan, his mother and brother were returned for burial to the land they fled, Orbán announced during a press conference in Brussels that “we do not want a large number of ­Muslim people in our country … We do not like the consequences”.

For a 52-year-old father of five, Orbán’s apparent lack of compassion for Aylan and the thousands of other children at the mercy of the geopolitical tsunami sweeping through Europe is incomprehensible.

Unrepentant, Orbán was responding to widespread criticism of an article he had written for the German newspaper Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung.

It was, he had said, Hungary’s job to do its bit “to keep Europe Christian”. The refugees “have been raised in … a radically different culture. Most of them are … Muslims.”

Orbán is a Calvinist Protestant; his wife, Anikó Lévai, is a Roman Catholic.

Standing alongside Orbán during the press conference was Donald Tusk, the Polish president of the European Council.

Poland, like Hungary, is a ­Christian country, but apparently one with a different ­understanding of what that entails. Tusk couldn’t contain ­himself.

“I want to underline that, for me, Christianity in public and social life means a duty to our brothers in need,” he said, as ­Orbán looked on.

“Referring to Christianity in a public debate on migration must mean in the first place the readiness to show solidarity and sacrifice,” Tusk continued. “For a Christian, it shouldn’t matter what race, religion and nationality the person in need ­represents.”

Orbán’s talk of “the consequences” of having large numbers of Muslims in his country appeared to be a reference to Hungary’s long-distant past.

Hungary, it seems, has neither forgotten nor forgiven its 150-year occupation by the Ottoman Empire, which began on August 29, 1526, with defeat at the hands of Suleyman the Magnificent at the Battle of Mohács. The battle was a blow to national pride which, apparently, still smarts. To this day, Hungarians faced with any kind of loss console themselves with the phrase “Több is veszett Mohácsnál” – “More was lost at Mohács”.

Hungary and Orbán are, it seems, attempting a rematch for a battle they lost almost 500 years ago. To their shame, the “enemy” this time is not the vast, Islamic war machine that swept to the gates of Europe in the 16th century, but a sad collection of desperate men, women and children seeking sanctuary.

Orbán was born on May 31, 1963, in the central Hungarian city of Székesfehérvár, spending his childhood in nearby villages. In 1977, his family moved back Székesfehérvár, which in the Middle Ages served as the country’s capital.

The city fell to the Ottomans in 1543 after a long siege, which ended only when some of the inhabitants, seeking to curry favour with the invaders, opportunistically betrayed their own military commander and his men, and turned them over to the mercy of the Muslims.

Unimpressed by such dishonourable behaviour, when the victorious Muslims entered the city, they executed the traitors.

Today, Orbán may be a populist rabble-rouser who opportunistically appeals to the worst aspects of the “little Hungarian” mindset to keep his grip on power. But his political journey began rather differently.

After graduating in 1987 as a lawyer from Budapest’s ­Eötvös Loránd University, he won a scholarship from the Soros Foundation, and from 1989 to 1990 studied the history of British liberal political philosophy at Pembroke College, Oxford.

For a while, he pursued liberal politics. By 1988, as his official government biography records, he became a founding member of Fidesz, the Alliance of Young Democrats. At the time, Hungary was shaking itself free of the grip of communism, a yoke it would throw off the following year, when Fidesz won the Rafto Prize for human rights for its part in Hungary’s transition to ­democracy.

In Hungary’s first free elections, in 1990, Orbán became an MP. But Fidesz, his party, did not do so well, capturing less than 9 per cent of the vote.

Orbán, a keen football ­player – “currently a signed player of FC Felcsút”, according to his CV – demonstrated deft political footwork. After becoming chair of Fidesz in 1993, he swerved the party in a new ­direction.

In the words of his official biography, he pragmatically transformed it from “a radical youth movement to a moderate, centre-­right civic people’s party”.

And it has kept going. These days, as The Guardian reported this week, Orbán is widely seen by his peers in the EU as “an authoritarian nationalist shifting towards the far right”.

Throwing up razor-wire barriers and roadside billboards telling refugees “if you come to Hungary, you cannot take Hungarians’ jobs”, as Orbán’s government has done this week, is seemingly the kind of thing that appeals to Hungarian voters.

Orbán, who has a two-to-one majority in parliament, has been prime minister since 2010 and has job security until at least 2018. As The Guardian reported, “he has the strongest electoral mandate in the EU [and] no competition beyond the neo-fascist Jobbik movement”.

That competition could explain Orbán’s enthusiastic embrace of the kinds of anti-immigration talk that makes Europe’s other leaders blush with shame. In April, Jobbik won its first parliamentary seat.

“It’s not 150,000 [refugees] that some want to divide according to quotas,” Orbán told Reuters on Saturday. “It’s millions, then tens of millions, because the supply of immigrants is endless.”

It’s the type of opportunistic political rhetoric he has been perfecting for years. In 2007, as opposition leader, he was given The Economist’s Politics of the Gutter Award, for his “cynical populism and mystifyingly authoritarian socialist-style policies”.

Orbán and Hungary’s collective memory is selective, however. In 1989, Hungary displayed an altogether different attitude to refugees when it dealt the first blow to the Iron Curtain by tearing down the barbed-wire fence along its 240-kilometre border with ­Austria.

Today marks the 26th anniversary of Hungary opening that border in 1989, allowing an estimated 20,000 East German refugees from communism to cross and seek a new life in West ­Germany. Thousands more would follow; by November, the Berlin Wall had fallen. What a pity it has been overshadowed by a grotesque display of inhumanity that has shamed ­Hungary, embarrassed Europe and shocked the civilised world.


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Updated: September 10, 2015 04:00 AM