Thousands of Hungarians marched through the capital Budapest Monday, chanting “Europe, not Moscow” in protest at the authoritarian government’s perceived embrace of Russian influence.
The rally was the latest major demonstration in recent weeks to challenge Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s vision for the country, as the conservative leader openly attempts to steer Hungary away from Western liberal values and, critics say, increasingly draws from the playbook of Putin’s Russia. It came just two days after Orbán was summoned to a meeting of fellow EU center-right parties to hear European concerns over controversial new Hungarian laws that have been widely criticized as an attack on academic freedom.
Monday’s “We Belong to Europe” protest, held on the 13th anniversary of Hungary’s accession to the European Union, was organized by Momentum, a new, youth-led political movement that says it plans to contest the next elections in April. At the start of the rally, Momentum leader András Fekete-Győr accused Orbán of “driving the nation toward Moscow.” “Instead of the rich, modern, and free Europe, he sets the poor, oppressed, and underdeveloped Russia as the example for our country,” he said.
Once a critic of Moscow, Orbán has more recently praised Russia as a model for the “illiberal” state he seeks to create in Hungary, and is said to have taken a lead from the Kremlin’s “foreign agent” laws when cooking up controversial proposals to clamp down on foreign-funded, nongovernmental organizations. While the government has argued the law is necessary to combat foreign meddling in the country’s affairs, critics see it as another attempt to curb political freedoms in Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian climate.
Reka Csaba, an analyst at Hungary’s Integrity Lab, called the proposals for stricter regulation of foreign-funded NGOs – requiring them to declare any publication they produce that has foreign funding – a “very clear sign” that Orbán was “trying to use some of the tools that the Russian government uses to maintain his political power.”
The deepening ties between the two countries, which include a Russian loan in 2014 to expand Hungary’s only nuclear power plant, has seen Russian President Vladimir Putin visit Orbán twice in recent years.
Meanwhile, Orbán has raised the hackles of his European Union colleagues with recent measures, including a “Stop Brussels” government PR campaign which accused the EU of interfering in Hungary’s affairs, and new laws putting tough restrictions on foreign universities operating in Hungary, which sparked the latest wave of protests at home.
Critics say the university law is targeted primarily against the Central European University, a Budapest-based institute founded by Hungarian-born billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, a frequent target of government criticism – government minister Zoltan Balog has even accused him of funding “pseudo-civil society spy groups.”
Describing the recent wave of protests as a battle for the future of the country, Csaba said it had become “more and more obvious that there’s a huge part of society that’s discontented with the Hungarian government.”
She said a “new type of protester” was behind the latest wave of marches – young people who had been born in post-Communist Hungary and were determined to stop Orbán from further dismantling Hungary’s liberal democracy in the pursuit of his populist, anti-liberal project.
“There’s a saying at the moment in Budapest, if you want to have a good party you go to these protests,” she continued. “There’s a kind of awakening of this ability that they have to change the political system.”
But so far the demonstrations have not weakened Orbán’s base, and no opposition party has managed to capitalize on the anti-government sentiment. The latest poll by Závecz Research shows Orban’s ruling Fidesz party on 27 percent support, with the opposition Socialist Party on 13 percent and the far-right nationalist Jobbik party on 11 percent. Csaba said it remained to be seen whether Momentum – which has its origins in a successful public campaign to halt a bid for Budapest to host the 2024 Olympics – could successfully appeal to enough undecided voters to play a major role in next year’s elections.
Orbán does not appear to have been chastened by the criticism – either at home or from his European colleagues. He adopted a defiant tone Saturday after he was called to Brussels to defend his controversial policies to European lawmakers concerned by Hungary’s restrictions on foreign-funded universities and NGOs, its refusal to accept European directives on granting asylum to migrants, and its increasingly anti-EU rhetoric.
Facing legal challenges from the European Commission over his foreign university policy, Orbán spoke to reporters after his meeting with the president of the European People’s Party — the group of major center-right European parties that includes Fidesz – saying that he would “behave.” Just hours later though, he struck a more belligerent note, saying he had “defended Hungary against the attack.”
A report released by the pro-democracy group Freedom House last month gave Hungary the lowest “democracy score” in Central Europe. It said that since coming to office in 2010, Fidesz had cemented its power by systematically removing democratic checks and balances, altering the constitution, and fueling xenophobic sentiment with an anti-immigration campaign.