Neighbor in Need: Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

Murders of Romas, militant groups, an unparalleled shift to the right: What on earth is happening in Hungary?

Members of the Magyar Garda, or Hungarian Guard, a controversial extreme-right paramilitary, whose insignia sport the emblem of Hungary’s WWII-era fascist party | Photo: AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky

Members of the Magyar Garda, or Hungarian Guard, a controversial extreme-right paramilitary, whose insignia sport the emblem of Hungary’s WWII-era fascist party | Photo: AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky

It is Thursday, Apr. 8, 2010. Tomorrow is the beginning of the campaign suspension before the election, required by law. Today they are really opening up all the throttles on the banks of the Danube in Budapest.

“Who supplies our government the water tankers that spray you down from the street when you are demonstrating?” shouts the speaker into the crowd. “Israel!” he answers himself. “Who is buying up our Hungarian land? Israel!”

The Jobbik Party, which means both “the one that is better” and “the one that is more right,” had called together a final election rally under the statue of Sándor Petöfi, the Heinrich Heine of Hungary.  When it was founded in 2003, Jobbik was still considered an obscure political sect whose nationalistic posturing, including its predilection for quaint historical uniforms, drew ridicule.  Now Hungary’s extreme right, next to whom today’s Freedom Party (FPÖ) in Austria seems like a bunch of insurance agents after a NLP beginners’ course, have even caught up with the governing Socialist Party, and are pulling ahead as the second strongest power in parliament behind the right conservatives.

According to Jobbik dogma, gays, communists, Jews and Roma are all thorns in the side of the body politic – and accomplices to the left-liberal Hungarian government: “After the election you’ll stop laughing in prison,” is what they call from the podium. Jobbik is propagating a world view à la 1933: Factionists versed in the occult claiming that Jesus was Hungarian; the crooked cross on the Holy Crown of Hungary is actually an antenna for receiving divine messages for the chosen Magyar people.

About 300 people have come to the event; the crowd feels like the mixture of a water-witching seminar, a skinhead convention, and one of those depressing documentaries on public television about life in the ghetto. T-shirts with old Magyar runes are stretched over beer bellies; amulets with the pagan-national Turul bird dangle around fat sunburned necks.


Nazi Flags and Mythical Birds 

The medieval red and white Árpád flag, symbol of the Arrow Cross Party, the Hungarian equivalent of the Nazis, is waving over the podium. Next to it is standing the “Hungarian Guard,” founded in 2007, the paramilitary wannabeesdressed in black who like to march

through Roma villages if they aren’t in the process of organizing a rally. A man is passing out bumper stickers. Next to Israel’s President Shimon Peres, they flaunt the words: “Govern your own country, bastard, instead of occupying ours!”

If Israel were to soon lose their country to the Arabs, explains the young Jobbik party leader Gábor Vona on the Party’s homepage, it’s planning to use Hungary as an alternative.  His fans don’t hesitate to accept such scenarios. Two powers had run not only Hungary into the dust, also all of Europe, asserts an older man at the edge of the rally:

“Jews and communists!”  And “I’m also still waiting for Austria to apologize for stealing Burgenland.” The man says good-bye with the Jobbik salutation: “God give us a better future.”

In Hungary it doesn’t really look like the future will be any better.

Viktor Orbán & Fidesz

Former prime minister Viktor Orbán at a Fidesz rally; the right-wing party has won an absolute majority in parliament, and is widelz ezpected to take the prime minister’s office again. But many in Europe fear the consequences of Fidesz’s anti-Semetic and anti-Roma stances. | Photo: Byrn67

On Sunday, Apr. 11, three days after the Jobbik rally, is the first and decisive round of voting to elect parliament. It gave the country a shift to the right, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in an East European country since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The ranks of the powers of that “Wende,” the still-governing Socialists and Liberals, were cut in half and crashed into insignificance. Meanwhile, the “Fidesz,” has taken over the new power; a conservative people’s party with rabble-rousing undertones, its charismatic chairperson Viktor Orbán is more like Silvio Berlusconi than Josef Pröll. In the second round of voting on Apr. 26, Fidesz, winning 262 of 386 parliamentary seats, gained a majority of more than two-thirds, thus enabling them to change the constitution. And although Jobbik couldn’t overtake the Socialists, it was only two points behind, with 17% of the vote, which placed the political-sect right in the middle of Hungarian politics.

Something is going very wrong in the former land of “Goulash Communism,” the place of “the happiest shacks on the block,” as described by German novelist Hans Magnus Enzensberger. According to the Budapest Political Capital Institute, 21% of the population sympathizes with the extreme right – the highest percentage in Europe. But in things like debt, unemployment and growth, Hungary is falling behind, even behind former stragglers like Poland and Slovakia.  In 2008, the EU and the Monetary Fund had to grant the country an emergency loan of 20 billion dollars in order to save the state from bankruptcy. Since then there have been vice-like savings measures, which on one hand has increased poverty and on the other, extremism: according to experts, it is widening its circles in the provinces outside of “Judapest,” as the capital is called by the circles in question.


Arson and  Shotguns

Tatárszentgyörgy is about 40 minutes from Budapest. Both Fidesz and Jobbik won above average voter support here. On the county road leading to the village, prostitutes stand under flowering fruit trees; farmers plow their fields with horses as was done 150 years ago.

There’s a church in Tatárszentgyörgy, two horse-drawn carts, a bar called the Royal Jack Pub. The Roma of the village live in rundown houses on an unpaved path. And the Csorba family lives where the little settlement ends at the edge of the woods. Their suffering became a warning sign that something is wrong in Hungary. On Feb. 23, 2009, at 12:15 a.m., Molotov cocktails were thrown onto their roof by unidentified assailants.  Róbert Csorba ran out through the door with his four-year-old son and both were murdered with a shotgun. The mother jumped with two other children out of a window on the back-side of the house; they survived but were seriously injured.

These so-called Roma murders convulsed Hungary for two years. They always follow the same pattern: the perpetrators choose the last house on the edge of a village, where a getaway is easy. They throw incendiary material and fire shotguns. Six persons have died in nine attacks all over the country. Four suspects, one a right-wing extremist known to authorities, were arrested in August 2009 in Debrecen and have been held since then in detention awaiting trial.


The Suffering of the Roma

When Csabáné Csorba, 46, steps out of her door in Tatárszentgyörgy, she is standing across the street from the burned-outs ruins in which her son and grandson died. The rest of the extended family members, ten in all and all out of work, live next door.  Róbert had moved with his own family into the neighboring house. She doesn’t believe that Jobbik will take over the power in Hungary, says the grieving mother, who sits in her living room under a giant copy of The Last Supper.

“But if they do, then it is over for the Roma in this country.” She has noticed how the mood has changed between Roma and the “whites.”

“I can’t exactly say how. But I notice it, like when I go shopping in the village. There is a special mood in Tatárszentgyörgy because the attack happened here. But there is also a special mood in all of Hungary.”

“The seeds have sprouted,” write Gregor Mayer and Bernhard Odehnal in their book Aufmarsch (that can be translated “Mobilization,” or “Show of Force”) about the right-wing in Eastern Europe. The writers, who are Austrian journalists, Jobbik’s rabble rousing is a part of the radicalization that has led to the Roma murders.

Like  Mrs. Csorba in Tatárszentgyörgy, the two authors have noticed a change across the country: Rabble rousing has become socially acceptable, inhibitions have fallen, conflicts have left official democratic channels and are on the street.  One example is the online news portal, the opinion leader of the Hungarian right-wing.



According to critics involved with Jobbik, the “Kuruc,” the Hungarian rebels, are laying into Jews, Socialists and the Roma. Its rubrics have names like “Gypsy Crime” and “Holo-Scam.” In print, the authors hide behind names like “Janos Work-Makes-Free” and “Kenneth Kl. Klan.”

Just the existence of Nazi websites like this doesn’t make Hungary any different from other countries. But in contrast to other places,, with 130,000 readers a day, ranks among the most visited websites in the country.  Recently the portal reported about a case of data abuse: The regular media reported on it and named, as usual, their source. Kuruc slowly seems also to be a normal critical communications medium – even when a name like “Adolf H. Schicklgruber” is in the credits.

In Hungary, something like that “would have been unthinkable a few years ago,” said journalist Paul Lendvai of the Viennese weekly Falter. Adam Schönberger, a young, Jewish activist from Budapest agrees: “The public dialogue in this country is absolutely poisoned.”

Schönberger, 30, hooded pullover and a red three-day beard, runs a locale called “The Seagull” in the old part of town, a pub, book store and a meeting place in one. He hosts debates on Jewish issues and supports reform initiatives in Budapest’s post-communist, non-transparent community of faith. While much has survived of Jewish life from the Eastern Europe of earlier times, he says, there are also frequent anti-Semitic incidents. Just last week, he recounted, stones were thrown at a group of Budapest Jews celebrating Passover. And last year, a particularly ugly incident took place on the shores of the Danube.  Bronze shoes on the Promenade stand as a reminder that here once Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross Party members threw Jews into the river and killed them. One day, pig’s knuckles were found stuck in the shoes.

“I would even go so far as to emigrate if Jobbik came to power,” says Schönberger. But that seems like science fiction to me. “Fidesz makes me very nervous.” Like many observers, this intellectual believes that Fidesz has done a lot to make right-wing extremism socially acceptable. In the years after 2006, the Socialist government got caught up in ever more lies and blunders. Nonetheless, the Fidesz Party Leader Viktor Orbán – winner of the recent election – didn’t react through legitimate democratic channels. Instead he supported street protests that were violent and extremist.


A “Poisoned Discourse” in the Country 

For years, Fidesz blocked all official governmental decisions. Even now, Orbán warns of left- and right-wing radicals – as if Socialist and Jobbik were two sides of the same phenomenon.

It is Sunday, Apr. 11, 2010. The results of the crucial first election are in: The victory party Fidesz is celebrating on the central Vörösmarty Square. While the winners of “Hungary is looking for a superstar” are singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” for Fidesz friends, Jobbik is meeting ten kilometers away, at an outlying sports center on the banks of the Danube in Buda.

Hundreds of members of the Hungarian Guard have come to celebrate their 17% victory. They are cheering because every sixth person at the poles voted for Jobbik. They are wearing chicken feathers in their caps as Arrow Cross Party members did once. They yell out commands and march in step through the hall.

Now that the parliamentary election is over, the scene seems much more like a skinhead rally than a depressing documentary about the lower classes on a public-service channel. It looks like the 1930s. It feels dangerous. And it certainly doesn’t point to a better future.

Translated by Cynthia Peck.

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