Hungarian President Viktor Orbán.
Hungary isn't necessarily a country famed for its defenses. After losing 1.5 million people in World War I, a third of its population deserted the country. Then, during World War II, over 60 percent of its economy was destroyed, leaving the Soviets to take control until 1989. It's the George Costanza of landlocked Central European nations—highly unlucky, kind of testy, and not particularly well equipped to defend itself from outside attacks.
In 2013, however, it's not alien armies they have to worry about: it's the burgeoning far-right movement, a worrying level of state control, and an increase in censorship all brewing within the country's borders.
Last Friday, members of the European parliament met in Strasbourg to discuss the country's human rights—a meeting that follows a succession of criticisms made by heads of states and political commentators; the refusal by acclaimed authors to accept cash prizes in protest against the country's abuse of human rights, and its own people marching almost nonstop since the beginning of last year.
So what's really been going on? And why—when there's already Greece's fascist Golden Dawn, Italy's far-right Lega Nord, and Britain's festering nationalists, the BNP, to deal with—are European politicians spending so much time on a small country with apparently little international presence? Here are a few potential explanations.
Members of Jobbik.
It might only be ten years old, but Jobbik (a.k.a., The Movement For a Better Hungary)—described by its opponents as fascist and neo-Nazi—is already the country’s third most popular party. At the end of last year, its minister of Foreign Affairs, Márton Gyöngyös, called for the country’s Jewish population to be cataloged and screened as potential security threats. A month later, 10,000 people took to the steps of parliament to protest the move and urge the government to condemn the man who proposed it.
Following that little flirtation with eugenics, FIFA ordered last month's World Cup qualifying match between Hungary and Romania to be played to an empty stadium due to anti-Semitic displays from Hungarian fans. Jobbik responded to that by protesting outside the stadium. There have also been attempts by sympathizers to talk down the extent of anti-Semitism in the country, both from Jobbik and elsewhere. Even though defining Jews as potential threats just for being Jewish would seem to be more or less transparently bigoted.
Also, this week the government had to oppose a nationalist motorcycle club from disrupting the March of the Living, a commemoration of Holocaust victims. Which kind of says it all. Thanks to Anonymous, photos have also been leaked of the group's leader doing his best Max Mosley impression. Seriously, what's with fascists wanting to wear leather thongs and bone each other while hanging from meat hooks?
Taking a break from having to defend his country’s policies to the EU, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán spent last Wednesday rubbing shoulders with Jeremy Clarkson and John Major at Margaret Thatcher's funeral. But he hasn't always been the kind of guy to schmooze with the right-wing glitterati. First emerging as some kind of minor resistance hero, Orbán was a founding member of Fidesz, an alliance of young democrats that resisted the communist regime. During his two terms in office, however, he has continued to push the party further and further to the right and centralized as much state control as possible.
Having won with a two-thirds majority in the last election, the party was granted the right to make constitutional amendments; a right that they have exercised to the fullest. It's already been approved that the government can limit election campaigning to state media alone and demand that students who receive state funding for university remain in the country for three years following graduation. The most alarming amendment of all, though, is one that makes it almost impossible to counter laws that the government seeks to put in place. A bottomless reserve of wishes, yielding to more wishes, yielding to even more wishes—none of which seem to be in the public interest whatsoever.
The most vivid display of the government’s crackdown on freedom of speech comes in the form of Klubradio, a radio station whose license renewal has been refused despite three court rulings in its favor. It’s believed the government is less than happy about the station’s policy of broadcasting comments from anonymous callers.
Granted, there was one guy who proposed assassinating Pal Schmitt, the former president, but the presenter immediately accused him of being unreasonable and hung up. It’s the democratic voice that sparks fears among officials, and because they can’t be seen to overtly shut it down, commentators predict that the government will instead try to ruin the station financially.
Then there’s the problem of replacing the heads of national institutions, including art galleries and theaters, with far-right sympathizers whose contracts far exceed that of the parliamentary term. Most notably, Gyorgy Fekete, the 80-year-old Jimmy Savile lookalike who was recently appointed head of the country’s academy of arts and told to push an “unambiguous national sentiment.” Soon after the election, the mayor of Budapest also fired the director of the New Theater and replaced him with Jobbik supporter György Dörner, who has openly expressed his anti-Semitic, antigay and anti-Roma beliefs.
So, what next? Last week's discussion in Strasbourg warned Orbán and his government that they are at risk of becoming the first EU country to have its democratic rights and liberties put under an international monitoring system if they continue the way they have been. But serious change can only happen through serious action, and with all the limitations currently put in place, that doesn’t look likely to happen any time soon.
Follow Natalie on Twitter: @NROlah
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