Hungary: A country in crisis and the dangers for the EU
By Alexander Faludy
In the small spa resort of Heves, western Hungary, steam rises from the baking tarmac on a fetid August day. As the vapour trails ascend they gently stroke the surface of the Cyrillic signs that now proliferate around the town for the benefit of the growing number of Russian holiday makers.
Behind the seasonal visitors stand investors who have bought up residential and commercial property in the region. Behind the investors, only slightly less visible, stand the circa 300 Russian intelligence officers, presently operating with apparent impunity in Hungary.
The GRU’s presence here has had a chilling effect on the country’s security relationship with the Western powers. Hungary is no longer trusted as an intelligence-sharing partner within NATO for fear of information being passed on to Moscow.
But the GRU’s Hungarian operation is also incendiary. Russia hopes to stir ethnic-Hungarian separatist unrest in the Ruthenian region of western Ukraine. Hungary lost Ruthenia to the USSR in 1945 but a 150,000 strong Hungarian-speaking population remains. The group forms a majority on land immediately across the border between the two countries. Most hold Hungarian passports.
So far Russia has pursued its aims through a concerted propaganda campaign and agent provocateur-type incidents. It is unlikely that the well-documented participation of Russian military intelligence service officers in weapons and guerrilla warfare training for far-right paramilitary groups in Hungary is unrelated to this project. An insurgency in Ruthenia would only further undermine the authority of the Kiev government.
However Hungary has imported more from Moscow than tourists or irredentist ambition.
As Angela Dewan of CNN has observed, PM Viktor Orbán ‘has proudly described his vision for Hungary as an “illiberal democracy,” a phrase that brings Russia’s “sovereign democracy” to mind, both euphemistic terms for an autocratic style of governance’
Observers have worried about creeping authoritarianism in Hungary since Fidesz came to power in 2010. However, things have of late been getting markedly worse. In 2017 Hungarian parliament passed a law imposing restrictions on human rights organizations receiving foreign funding. The law looks almost identical to Russia’s Foreign Agent Law, which has been used to crack down on opposition voices and independent media.
This summer Mr Orbán went further passing the so-called, ‘stop Soros’ package - an allusion to the émigré Hungarian-Jewish philanthropist George Soros who has funded liberal causes internationally.
It is now illegal to ‘assist illegal migration’ by: publishing literature critical of the government’s immigration policy; helping an asylum seeker submit an application later rejected by the Interior Ministry, or conducting Human Rights observation of Hungary’s police or army within 8kms of the border. The legislation looks more at home in the Russian Federation than the European Union.
There is little independent media left in Hungary to question such developments. Almost all such outlets have now been closed or passed into pro-government hands. Some, like daily newspapers Magyar Nemzet and Népszabadság, shut down mysteriously overnight.
This week the European Parliament voted by 448 to 197 in favor of imposing Article 7 (suspension of voting rights) sanctions against Hungary’s Fidesz government over concerns about a breakdown in the rule of law and the violation of European values.
Hungary’s problems are not only Hungary’s problems. Speaking in the European Parliament on Tuesday Guy Verhofstadt, Belgian leader of ADLE (Liberal) grouping, asserted that the situation in Hungary means “we are living today…[an] existential battle over the survival of the European project”.
There is a very serious risk of contagion from Hungary to other states. Already the Polish Law and Justice Party, elected in 2015, has taken succor from the EU’s failure to reign in Hungary. In the last few months Warsaw has implemented many copy-cat measures and with greater rapidity then Fidesz dared following its election to power in 2010.
Hungary has a growing, sphere of influence in the Western Balkans especially Slovenia, Montenegro and Macedonia. Oligarchs close to Fidesz have invested heavily in those countries particularly by purchasing key media organizations - these are used to support allied alt-right parties like Slovenia’s SDS and Macedonia’s VMRO.
More worryingly Mr Orban has speculated publically on the desirability of an alliance of Christian-Nationalist populist parties taking power in the European Parliament following elections next May. It is a strategy he is working on together with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon (now based in Brussels for that purpose) and controversial Italian deputy premier Matteo Salvini.
Closer to home Nigel Farage joined Tuesday’s Hungary-debate in Strasbourg declaring ‘Mr. Orbán thank God you're there!”
Worse, Tory MEPs gained the dubious distinction of being the only members of a governing West-European Conservative party to oppose EU sanctions - an act of brinkmanship born of desperate Brexit realpolitik.
In Britain it is Labour that must take a vigorous stand against the dangerous spread of extremist populism in Europe.
Alexander Faludy is an Anglican priest presently pursuing studies in law. He holds dual British and Hungarian nationality