Orbán’s Hungary: The Consequences of Nationalism

Hungary’s government has been heavily criticized in recent years for implementing policies which are unpopular with the rest of Europe, specifically, Central Europe.  Exchanges of enmity between NATO countries is not unusual (eg. Turkey and Greece), but American policymakers should not ignore them.  Traian Băsescu, the President of Romania, recently called Hungary the “focal point for instability, not only for Romania, but for the region.”  Such a statement is understandable when considering the actions taken by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his government in recent years.

Soon after being elected in 2010, Orbán’s party, Fidesz, passed a bill giving Hungarian citizenship to every ethnic Hungarian around the world.  The bill mostly affected Hungary’s neighbors which are home to a large number of ethnic Hungarians within their countries.  Romania alone has over 1.2 million Hungarians living within its borders, many of whom are calling for autonomy, and some for outright unification with Hungary.  Similar sentiments exist in Slovakia and Serbia, both of which house a half-million and a quarter-million Hungarians respectively.  Hungary’s citizenship bill has created fears in these countries over Hungarian irredentism and separatism, but this bill is not Hungary’s only problem.

Image courtesy of European People's Party - EPP, © 2011, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of European People’s Party – EPP, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Fidesz currently has an odd relationship with the far-right, neo-fascist party Jobbik.  While Fidesz passes bills which are proposed by Jobbik in parliament, resentment is growing that Fidesz is implementing major parts of Jobbik’s platform.  Particular Fidesz policies which Jobbik resents include: removing statues of communist figures deemed as “traitors”; requiring all citizens — particularly the semi-nomadic Roma — to perform volunteer work; giving more privileges to paramilitary militias; and forcing IMF officials out of the country and instead implementing higher taxes on foreign companies.  A quick look at Jobbik’s platform – which includes virulent anti-Semitism – and its growing popularity (it currently controls 17% of parliament) should be a warning about the path Fidesz is willing to forge for political dominance.

Fidesz currently controls 67% of parliament and although it will probably lose seats in the 2014 election, it is likely to maintain a dominant presence in parliament.  Orbán hopes that the citizenship his party has given out to its diaspora will gain it enough votes to maintain a powerful force in Hungarian politics.  Inside the country, Fidesz proposed to cut energy prices by 11%, in an attempt to emphasize the reasons why Fidesz was voted into power.  The leaders of Fidesz will emphasize the economic failures of the previously-ruling Hungarian Socialist Party.  Nevertheless, cuts to development funds by the EU coupled with modest economic growth will no doubt force Fidesz to concede losses.  It is quite possible, however, that EU maneuvers will backfire as they will likely only confirm the sentiments of Euroskeptics and voters will migrate to Jobbik.

It is clear that there will be a continuing nationalist presence in Hungary.  If Hungary continues down the path it is on, it is possible that it could inflame the region.  The Romanian Parliament has a strong – but not dominant – nationalist presence which could grow as possible threats from Hungary increase.  Serbia is governed by reformed nationalists — Tomislav Nikolic used to be the leader of the hyper-nationalist Serbian Radical Party — who could quickly succumb to popular pressure to make certain that Serbia does not lose more territory.  Anti-Hungarian sentiment occasionally flares up in Slovakia, and Hungary’s domestic political situation will no doubt fan these flames.  It is difficult to reconcile these problems with the right to self-determination, but it should be a major American interest to make certain that tensions do not flare up.

Although it is highly unlikely that tension will rise to the point of armed conflict, it should not be deemed unlikely that NATO may become less cohesive in Central Europe.  Significant Russian influence in the region could turn the region into a geopolitical battleground if the situation gets out of hand.  Russia already has strong ties with Serbia and has the potential to grow its influence in Romania.  If the EU continues to downplay Orbán’s increasing nationalism and Hungary makes further moves to consolidate irredentism in its political system, Romania will feel isolated and naturally look to shift the initiative in its favor.  If the United States is neglectful, Russia will become an increasingly attractive ally to both Serbia and Romania.  While such a scenario may not happen, it is important to keep in mind.

A less cohesive common security force in Central Europe will also cause security problems in the region.  Cooperation between domestic intelligence services seeking to stop the transfer of contraband may decrease.  A decrease in regional cooperation will also affect Western European members of the EU as well as the United States.  Illegal opiate and human trafficking routes run through the European Continent and can only be stopped through the effective sharing of intelligence among allies.  Another major concern is the presence of jihadi cells traveling through the region to and from Middle Eastern conflict zones.  Less cells will be tracked if cooperative security agreements are abandoned as a result of increasing tensions between these countries.

It is possible to think of many more scenarios which would be the result of a fallout in relations between Central European countries.  The main concern for the United States should be to help maintain positive relations with these countries not only for its own interests, but for the interests of the West at large.  Europe has already experimented with extreme nationalism and fascism before and the resulting Second World War was catastrophic for humanity.  Many of the same problems (eg. high unemployment, unstable party structures, unpopular economic measures) which led to the growth of fascism in East, Central and Southern Europe are being repeated now.

Nationalistic trends are not unique to Hungary — it is only a prominent example.  Ensuring that Europe does not again fall under the spell of extremist ideology should be a powerful interest in Washington.  Of course, it is hard to reconcile the economic problems which caused the re-invigoration of nationalism — America also has some of these  same social problems.  Nevertheless, it is important to recognize the dangers posed by extremism which can jeopardize peace and stability.  If Hungary continues along the path it is on, those dangers could move us closer to an unwanted reality.


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