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Hungary for Freedom

February 20, 2014

With the 2014 parliamentary elections creeping up, Hungary’s ruling right-wing party, Fidesz, is taking increasingly greater care to appeal to its conservative electoral base—at the cost of many Hungarians’ basic rights and freedom of expression. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is no closeted radical, has used his governiOrbanng power very controversially in order to chip away at the more liberal opposition and mold Hungary in his own image. A most recent example of Orbán’s violation of Hungarians’ basic rights is a series of new laws against vagrancy passed to deprive Hungary’s homeless of the right to rest in any public place and to impede them from making money by collecting and reselling garbage. These laws, which threaten the imposition of heavy fines or even jail time for incompliance, have been part of an effort to distract slightly more affluent Hungarians from focusing on the poor state of their national economy.

However, although these laws have attracted the attention of human rights activists all over the world, and even of the UN, what has elicited the most outrage at the Hungarian Prime Minister has been his attitude toward the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the mass deportations of Jews from Hungary. To honor the memory of this tragic page in the country’s history, Orbán has approved the building of a monument depicting Hungary as an angel being attacked by a German eagle. This has provoked adamant opprobrium from Hungary’s Jewish population, as well as from the World Jewish Congress, for its falsification of history. According to the many that are critical of Orbán, the planned monument would be a blatant glossing over of Hungary’s role in the Jewish deportations and would therefore be a slap in the face to those Hungarians deeply affected by their country’s destructive role in their personal history.
This has come amidst a hushed campaign by Orbán to stifle the voices of the opposition and radicalize national sentiment in Hungary. To this end, his right-wing government has targeted the artistic and intellectual community in the country with either intimidation tactics or unwarranted sanctions—which have not been ineffective. Many of Hungary’s artists and intellectuals have either become too cautious to voice their opinions or have fled the country altogether. Opposition journalists have been fired from state-run media and the government has refused a broadJobbik nationalismcasting license to Hungary’s most prominent independent radio station, Klubrádió. The head of Hungary’s leading theatre has been replaced by an openly anti-Semitic actor who has pledged to only produce plays that stay true to the Hungarian national spirit, and liberal philosophers have been placed under investigation for misappropriation of government funds, eliciting a plea of intervention to the European Union by the renowned social theorist Jürgen Habermas. Even those writers who had previously been honored by the Hungarian state are declining association with Hungary or returning awards. This was the case with the recently retired Nobel prize-winning novelist Imre Kertész, who decided to house his archive of Holocaust literature in Germany rather than in Hungary, or with the famed novelist Elie Wiesel, who returned an award he had previously received from the Hungarian government.

In a time when a vast economic depression has incited the rise of nationalist sentiment all over Europe, Viktor Orbán’s repressive measures might just seem like a more extreme version of West European consElod Novak, parliamentary member of Hungarian far-right party Jobbik, burns an EU flag during a demonstration against the European Union, in Budapestervatism. However, Hungary is not just any other democratic country reacting to recent developments by growing more conservative. It is a post-socialist Eastern European nation whose socialist past is still very fresh in public memory. With the violent conflicts taking place in neighboring Ukraine over similar issues of national identity, the concerns of the West should perhaps shift from focusing on the economic backwardness of Romania and Bulgaria, towards the increasing socio-political radicalism in Eastern Europe’s more affluent countries. Orbán’s might not be a pre-’89 socialist government, but it sure is acquiring some of the characteristics of one. And the fact that these violations of basic rights are happening in one of the post-socialist countries most praised for its turnaround in the last two decades, should be a source of significant apprehension.

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