The author is a Hungarian academic, formerly with Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. At the end of 2018 pressure from the government of Viktor Orbán forced the CEU to move to Vienna, Austria, at least partially. Beda Magyar is a pseudonym, ZEIT ONLINE is aware of his real identity.
Hungary has committed suicide in plain sight, and it has done so with the inept assistance of the European Union – while the rest of the member states stand by and watch helplessly. The death dance of democracy has begun again, just like in the 20th century, by painting human rights, freedom of the press, judicial independence, science and art to be political questions. By portraying facts and reality as a matter of threatened identity. And by depicting hate and violations of the law as moral obligations. This is not just taking place within the EU, this is the EU itself, living up to the delirious nightmares of the far right. What right-wing nationalists call "bureaucrats taking away national identities" means, in practice, that Brussels continues to provide full financial support even as mentally ill rulers dictate the destruction of entire countries – their art, literature and science – in the name of resisting interference in domestic affairs, and by keeping borders open for those chased away. The mass moral hysteria of Hungarian political conservativism is the driving force of the cold civil war that has been battering Hungary since 2002. Is there a way out for Europe from the mess it has created?
1 The Current State of Hungary
Hungary would not even be in a position to start accession talks to the EU with its current legal system and state structures. Luckily for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the EU contracts have proved easy to breach without serious consequences in the past decade. There is a façade of press freedom, but there has been no broadly distributed independent press since the passing of the media law of 2011. State propaganda allows a few showcase media outlets with minimal reach to continue functioning, but most independent press outlets have, by now, been acquired and shut down by the ruling party, Fidesz. There is an appearance of human rights, but the constitution of 2012 makes them contingent on yet unspecified obligations toward the state, and laws are bendable in the extreme by loyal judges. Elections are free on paper, but they are clearly not fair. Government propaganda depicts Hungary, a country with practically zero immigration, as the last fortress standing in the way of "invasion" by "subhuman migrant herds," an allusion to Ottoman times, while being attacked for resisting migration by the decadent liberal elites of the EU, an allusion to the Habsburg era. Meanwhile, refugees are being systematically starved in distant internment camps.
The economy is in a dire state, sustained by the artificial life support of EU funds and four to five huge German companies, and even then, the numbers are heavily doctored. Because Orbán has never had any real plan for the country apart from siphoning money off from wherever it is still possible, Hungary has been in a complete deadlock since he took power eight years ago.
Four million people live below the poverty line and one million are in extreme poverty – in a country of fewer than 10 million. Doctors and nurses have been leaving hospitals in droves and the most recent cancer treatment medications are officially denied to people above the age of 75. The economy has been in steady decline since 2008, unemployment is masked by community work programs that pay about half the minimal wage – and which are compulsory for job seekers or those seeking unemployment benefits – and homelessness has been made a crime. Poverty is as palpable on the streets of Budapest as it was in the early 1990s, and the €87 million provided weekly by the EU is channeled with no monitoring almost directly into the pockets of four or five oligarchs loyal to Orbán.
And then there are the three cherries on top. First, on Oct. 1, 2018, Fidesz changed the law regulating demonstrations such that a meeting of two individuals counts as a political gathering, just as it did under communism. Second, several opposition politicians are under investigation after they attempted to exercise their right to enter public TV premises in December to demand extra airtime for five political demands – beyond the five minutes they got during the 2018 election campaign. Third, the government is silently preparing to establish a set of courts under its direct control for cases concerning the state, a move that would essentially mean the end of the separation of powers.
The brutalization of press and society has reached levels seen in the 1930s. There are, to be sure, no systematic political murders or incarcerations of opposition figures or journalists. But there is a complete lack of organized left-wing mass-movements. And it does not mean that there would not be inexplicable deaths from time to time, with a dubious role of the state, for example, an opposition candidate being hit by a car just the day before the elections, or a shady businessman in a police car, or the owner of the source code of the software administering EU funds, right after he sold it to the government, by heart attack.
Orbán’s main focus is that of creating wedge issues to distract from his conduct and maintain the social divide, usually by identifying scapegoats that make it easy for his followers to express their loyalty and identity. The government has carried out the most comprehensive, fascist-style nationwide hate campaigns since World War II. The first one targeted Syrian refugees in summer 2015, with sayings like: "If you come to Hungary you must obey our laws" or "If you come to Hungary you cannot take away the jobs of the Hungarians." In summer 2016, another campaign accused the United Nations and the EU of intending to forcibly relocate millions of migrants to Hungary. Now, in preparation for upcoming European Parliament elections, a third campaign is targeting EU leadership itself.
By now, Hungarians have become one of the most hateful peoples in Europe, if not the most hateful. Officially, these crusades are "information campaigns" from the government, a designation that essentially allows for the diversion of unlimited funds to support Fidesz, even during election campaigns – so far this year the government has spent over €300,000 a day for this purpose. The opposition, meanwhile, is practically banned from the public eye. The campaigns also pave the way for Orbán to leave the EU altogether, should his personal costs outweigh his personal benefits.
One of the most important issues of Orbán’s identity politics, raised in preparation for the 2018 elections, was another hate campaign, this time targeting an old/new enemy: George Soros. Soros is an ideal target, as he simultaneously represents the Jewish banker, the "communist" philanthrope and the values of open society and liberalism. The "Soros-plan," in Orbán's telling, calls for the forceful planting of illegal economic migrants in Hungary by paying each of them €2,000 to €3,000, a plan that has already allegedly poisoned and corrupted the EU. This narrative is a potent mixture of elements from Hungary's history, including Hungary's defense of Europe and Christianity from the Ottoman empire since the 15th century (represented today by Muslim, mostly Syrian war-refugees framed as "economic migrants"), the freedom fight against Austria in 1848 (with the emphasis now on raw nationalism and "Hungarian-ness"), the revolution against the USSR in 1956 (outsmarting the greatest powers of Europe), and the defeat of invisible evil forces (the Jews), who destroy everything that is dear: the sacred values of nationalism embodied by the slogan "Isten, haza, család" or "God, homeland, family."