30 years on, Hungary’s Orban no longer pulling down borders

16 Aug 2019 / 13:56 H.

BUDAPEST: Thirty years after events on Hungary’s frontier with Austria precipitated the fall of the Iron Curtain, premier Victor Orban’s (pix) anti-immigrant zeal seems to stand in stark contrast to his 1989 call to pull down borders.

Back in 1989, as communist governments were losing their grip all over Eastern Europe, Orban became a household name with a strident speech demanding the departure of Soviet troops.

Three decades on it is the issue of immigration — coloured by the European migrant crisis of 2015 when Orban’s government sealed the frontier with Serbia with razor wire — that has dominated Orban’s premiership.

According to Zoltan Kiszelly from the conservative-leaning 21st Century Institute think-tank, however, those who see a contradiction between Orban’s actions in 1989 and 2015 misunderstand his motivations.

‘Two sides of same coin’

In 1989, “Orban spoke out for the sake of the sovereignty of Hungary”, he said, rather than a commitment to open borders per se.

Orban himself explained this logic in a speech addressing the Bavarian state parliament in October 2016.

“The border opening of 1989 and the protection of those borders today are two sides of the same coin,“ he said.

“In 1989 we were fighting for the freedom of Europe and now we are protecting this freedom,“ he added.

According to Kiszelly, if the Schengen area freedoms are under threat today, it’s not because of states like Hungary “but because of countries like France, Denmark, Germany and Austria” who have set up controls within the Schengen zone itself.

After 1989, the question of immigration to Hungary was for a long time overshadowed by the wave of emigration to the West.

Eurostat figures say almost 350,000 Hungarians of working age are living elsewhere in the European Economic Area, with the total expatriate population often estimated at closer to 500,000.

‘You could hear the bombing’

In the early post-communist area, the country’s policies on migration and asylum were at times quite liberal.

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s thousands of ethnic Hungarians fleeing Romania were welcomed in Hungary, as were at least 50,000 people fleeing the wars in the former Yugoslavia, many of them Bosnian Muslims.

According to Boldizsar Nagy from the Central European University, nobody at that time doubted the validity of the Bosnians’ case for asylum — in contrast to the Islamophobic attitudes colouring much of the public discourse in Hungary today.

“The war in Yugoslavia was in a neighbouring country — in southern cities, you could hear the bombing,“ he said.

“The people of Hungary knew that these people who came over... should be protected.”

That said, when it comes to allowing permanent settlement, all of Hungary’s post-1989 governments have instituted a preference for ethnic Hungarians from neighbouring states.

This attitude became more pronounced under Orban and even before the migrant crisis of 2015, he stiffened his rhetoric against migration from other parts of the world.

Even though the government has in fact quietly allowed non-EU guest workers in certain industries, it was Orban’s reaction to the 2015 crisis that solidified his reputation.

While Hungary initially allowed thousands of migrants to cross its territory towards Western Europe, Orban’s government then erected razor wire fences along its southern border, enabling police to physically “push back” migrants across the border into Serbia.

‘Stone in their stomachs’

Nagy says Hungarians have grown increasingly attached to their own freedom of movement, and have perhaps started to take the absence of borders for granted.

“There’s a whole generation which doesn’t have this feeling of the stone in their stomachs when they cross back over the Austro-Hungarian border,“ he said.

Before 1989, the sensation of returning to Hungary after a rare trip abroad was like “a bird was returning to a cage”.

He says that the Orban government’s “propaganda” has largely been successful at separating Hungarians’ freedoms from those of other migrants.

“Many within the Hungarian population — albeit not all — are in favour of using borders for the exclusion of those whom they consider ‘others’,“ he said. — AFP

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