Tough stance el­e­vates Hungary’s leader

Sup­port for Or­ban’s party has in­creased since mi­grant cri­sis

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY ANNA FI­FIELD­field@wash­

BEREMEND, HUNGARY — At the be­gin­ning of this year, Vik­tor Or­ban was adrift. His rul­ing Fidesz party had won three sets of elec­tions in 2014 but had been badly hurt by po­lit­i­cal in­fight­ing, a scan­dal in fi­nan­cial bro­ker­ages and a con­tro­ver­sial plan to tax In­ter­net us­age.

Hungary’s con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ter needed an is­sue to gal­va­nize sup­port.

It ar­rived in the form of a flood of refugees and mi­grants seek­ing sanc­tu­ary in Western Europe from con­flicts in the Mid­dle East.

To get there, they had to pass through Hungary. And Or­ban said an em­phatic no.

“There has been a big de­mand here for a strong leader, some­one who puts things in or­der,” said Las­zlo Cs­aba, pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal econ­omy at Cen­tral Euro­pean Univer­sity in Bu­dapest. “Nine months ago, Or­ban was any­thing but. Nowhe is the strong guy who has taken con­trol, a res­o­lute leader. He’s be­come a player in Europe.”

This strong­man ap­proach was most clearly demon­strated in mid-Septem­ber when Hun­gar­ian author­i­ties re­sponded vi­o­lently to the wave of refugees and mi­grants try­ing to cross from Ser­bia, us­ing tear gas and wa­ter can­nons to re­pel them. Those ac­tions led to wide­spread con­dem­na­tion from other Euro­pean coun­tries and from in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the United Na­tions.

Although such scenes have ended — thanks to the fence Hungary built along its bor­der with Ser­bia — the author­i­ties con­tinue to take a heavy-handed ap­proach with the peo­ple who are be­ing trans­ferred from Croa­tia and then on­ward by Hungary to Aus­tria.

The num­bers have been stag­ger­ing. Last week­end, 10,000 mi­grants and refugees came through Beremend, a sleepy bor­der town that is the main thor­ough­fare for those be­ing bused from the bor­der zone to the train sta­tion.

“It’s quite as­ton­ish­ing that these peo­ple who are flee­ing war and per­se­cu­tion are met as if they’re reen­ter­ing a war zone,” said Ly­dia Gall of Hu­man Rights Watch. “It’s a scary sce­nario.”

Sol­diers, some­times wield­ing as­sault weapons and with ex­tra mag­a­zines slung across their bod­ies, greet refugees and mi­grants ar­riv­ing at the Beremend bor­der cross­ing with Croa­tia. Tele­vi­sion im­ages have shown sol­diers with dogs at bor­der cross­ings and armed mil­i­tary he­li­copters cir­cling above.

This week, a Washington Post re­porter watched as po­lice of­fi­cers with guns and ba­tons formed a cor­ri­dor at the Mag­yarboly train sta­tion to fun­nel the ar­rivals onto the train to Aus­tria. One po­lice of­fi­cer shoved a man roughly down a car­riage.

Such force is used even though most refugees are obe­di­ent at the bor­der, fol­low­ing Hun­gar­ian po­lice of­fi­cers’ in­struc­tions to line up here, wait there. For the most part, they’re ex­hausted but also ex­hil­a­rated to be mov­ing rapidly west­ward.

Such dis­plays of force have mainly been for Hungary’s ben­e­fit.

“The gov­ern­ment didn’t spend its time or money on pre­par­ing for the refugee cri­sis. In­stead, they spend their time and money ex­ploit­ing the sit­u­a­tion for do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal pur­poses,” said An­dras Biro-Nagy, head of re­search for Pol­icy So­lu­tions, a Bu­dapest think tank.

“In terms of public sup­port for the gov­ern­ment, this strat­egy has paid off. Since last spring, the de­cline in pop­u­lar­ity of the gov­ern­ing party has stopped, and it has even seen some im­prove­ment,” he said.

Polls show that most Hun­gar­i­ans back Or­ban’s ap­proach. Sup­port for the rul­ing Fidesz-KDNP coali­tion has risen five points in the past month to 34 per­cent, a level not seen for a year, ac­cord­ing to the latest poll by the Ne­zo­pont In­sti­tute. Three-quar­ters of re­spon­dents sup­ported the fence along the 110-mile Ser­bian bor­der.

Since then, Hungary has fin­ished a fence along the Croa­t­ian bor­der and has put up an “ex­per­i­men­tal” ra­zor-wire bar­rier along the Slove­nian bor­der.

In Beremend, res­i­dents sup­port Or­ban’s re­sponse.

“He’s first-class,” said Gy­orgy Gyuris, look­ing up from his job lay­ing bricks into a paved side­walk. “I’ve been fol­low­ing this sit­u­a­tion closely be­cause we are re­ally af­fected by it. I re­ally don’t un­der­stand why other coun­tries have such a neg­a­tive opin­ion of us.”

His co-worker, Karoly Ivso­vics, agreed. “We all sup­port the gov­ern­ment here in Beremend,” he said. “We feel this cri­sis on our skin.”

Across the road at the pizze­ria, the cri­sis has been good for busi­ness, not least be­cause of all the jour­nal­ists who have de­scended on the town in re­cent weeks. “We’ve got more peo­ple com­ing in here and eat­ing and drink­ing these days,” said Barbi Hedli, a wait­ress, dur­ing a cig­a­rette break out­side.

Or­ban, 52, said his re­sponse was nec­es­sary.

“The cri­sis could desta­bi­lize Europe easily. It’s not dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that one or two years from now, the old po­lit­i­cal elite will be re­placed by the rad­i­cals,” Or­ban said in a re­cent in­ter­view with the Wall Street Jour­nal.

He has drawn par­tic­u­lar op­pro­brium for cast­ing this as a re­li­gious is­sue, pit­ting Chris­tian Europe against the mostly Mus­lim ar­rivals.

“Mus­lim cul­ture is very strong. We don’t op­pose it, but we haven’t had those par­al­lel so­ci­eties that are not in­te­grated into Euro­pean val­ues,” Or­ban told the news­pa­per.

Hungary’s op­po­si­tion par­ties of­fer lit­tle re­sis­tance. The far­right Job­bik party sup­ports a strong stance against al­low­ing in the mi­grants and refugees, while the frag­mented left has mostly stayed quiet on an is­sue that for them is only a vote-loser.

For this rea­son, an­a­lysts ex­pect the pop­ulist prime min­is­ter to con­tinue his ap­proach.

“Prime Min­is­ter Or­ban thinks that this sub­ject is not only use­ful for him in terms of his do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal agenda but also for re­fram­ing his neg­a­tive im­age out­side of Hungary,” Biro-Nagy said. “Out­side Hungary, Or­ban’s im­age is of an au­thor­i­tar­ian pop­ulist. But he thinks that this refugee cri­sis gives him a chance to ap­pear as a de­fender of Chris­tian­ity and the de­fender of Europe.”

“There has been a big de­mand here for a strong leader, some­one who puts things in or­der.”

Las­zlo Cs­aba, pro­fes­sor at Cen­tral Euro­pean Univer­sity in Bu­dapest, on Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­ban, at left


Mi­grants and refugees camp onHun­gary’s bor­der with Ser­bia. Hun­gar­i­ans sup­port PrimeMin­is­ter Vik­tor Or­ban’s hard-line ap­proach to the flood of peo­ple seek­ing sanc­tu­ary in­Western Europe.

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