Viktor Orban Uses Migrant Crisis to Shore Up His Sagging Popularity

Op-ed in the Financial Times

September 6, 2015

Since the surge of immigrants from the Middle East to Europe started last year, Hungary has been at the center of attention. This is for two reasons. First, the main flow of Syrian and Iraqi immigrants has tried to reach Germany and European countries further north by sailing to the Greek islands, and then crossing through Serbia into Hungary. The second is that Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, has used the immigration issue to improve his sagging popularity.

In doing so, he has performed several antics—from ordering a 4-meter wall on the border with Serbia and deploying troops, to barring immigrants from entering railway stations. Posters have been put up around the country telling refugees they are not welcome.

Hungary's prime minister Orban has found a weakness in Europe's response to the immigration crisis, and he is using it to be heard.

There is little doubt that Mr. Orban is skilfull: He is the only East European politician who has won a premiership three times. Nor that his firm stance on immigration is dictated by the increase in popularity of the far-right Jobbik party. To counter this trend he has deployed offensive rhetoric and actions, deplored by human rights groups and other European politicians.

Beyond political maneuvering at home, however, lie two deeper reasons for this harsh response to immigrants.

First, since 2010—the beginning of his second term in power—Mr. Orban has faced criticism from EU leaders for his increasingly authoritarian style. The European Union has put pressure on the Hungarian government for interference in the independence of the central bank, threatening the independence of the media, for using tax policy to harm foreign investors and political opponents, and assisting the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in his bid to use energy supplies as foreign policy towards Hungary's East European neighbors.

Now Mr. Orban has found a weakness in Europe's response to the immigration crisis, and he is using it to be heard. Europe was slow to consider measures to assist the frontline countries that received the first waves of immigrants—Greece and Italy—but also Bulgaria, Hungary and Spain. Numerous high-level meeting in Brussels over the past year have ended with little progress.

On this score Mr. Orban is right. European institutions have failed to adequately address the issue since it became clear that the humanitarian crisis in Syria and Iraq would take on enormous proportions.

To Mr. Orban's mind this is yet another manifestation of feeble Europe, like the failure to deal with Greece's financial crisis. What Europe needs, he seems to suggest, is strong-willed, decisive leaders—like himself.

A second, and perhaps more important, reason for Mr. Orban's behavior is the apparent lack of progress in his main foreign policy priority: the reorientation towards Russia as a strategic partner.

Mr. Orban has gone to great lengths to portray himself as Russia's emissary in the European Union. He has also been the most active European head of state in support of Gazprom's South Stream project. Since the refusal of the Bulgarian government to continue with the scheme and Mr. Putin's announcement of its cancellation in December 2014, Hungary has played the pivotal role to drum up support in Europe for an alternative project.

In February 2015, Orban hosted Mr. Putin in Budapest, his first state visit in the European Union after economic sanctions were imposed last year. Both Mr. Orban and Mr. Putin backed a successor to South Stream that expanded a proposed Russian pipeline into Turkey to route the gas through Greece and the Balkans to Hungary. This would have achieved Mr. Orban's goal of Hungary becoming an energy hub in the heart of Europe. Alas, this project has failed to materialize, leaving the prime minister without a Europe-wide pulpit.

The main worry in Hungary's response to the migrant crisis is that other countries will follow suit and neglect their humanitarian duties. Examples already exist: Bulgaria is also building a 100-mile fence on the border with Turkey to prevent immigrants from entering its territory. Last month Macedonia put its army on the border with Greece.

This is a sad state of affairs, for countries whose citizens strived for so many years to be free Europeans.

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Simeon Djankov Former Research Staff

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