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The roots of Hungary’s war on refugees

Peter Votsch

September 17, 2015

While rallies to welcome refugees have spread around the world, the nation of Hungary has made the news for creating a barbed-wire fence to keep refugees out. Police have used batons, water cannons and tear gas against refugees trying to cross the border, even with their children in tow. In one instance a member of the right-wing press kicked and tripped refugee families fleeing police. Now that the fence is completed, Hungary has declared it wants to extend it to part of the Romanian border, so refugees are not able to “sneak” in, and the state has incarcerated many of those who have crossed the border. Hungary has become the shame of the European Union; how did this happen?

The market takes over

After the 1989 fall of the Eastern block of Stalinist states including Hungary, Hungarians like the rest of Eastern Europeans yearned for the lifestyle they thought existed in the West. The shift from state capitalism to free market capitalism privatized industries and flung the door open to international capital in the hopes of investment—which for the most part did not come.

At first, rising unemployment and poverty pushed governments to borrow heavily from Western banks to continue subsidizing social programs (the borrowing began before 1989, when Hungary made a turn to the market). This led to a debt crisis in the 1990s that was addressed then, as now, with the policies of austerity: cuts in services to ordinary people in order to pay the banks. In Hungary these policies were implemented by the “Socialist” Party, modelled on Western European social democracy, which had formerly been the Communist Party prior to 1989—the party that had ruled Hungary for over 50 years.

In opposition were the cheerleaders of the West, FIDESZ (the Hungarian Civic Union), in power today, which then as now was led by Viktor Orban—the racist demagogue who is leading the charge against refugees today. At the time though, even the right-wing FIDESZ opposed the kind of cuts made by the Socialists.

A discredited Left and weakened workers movement

Left wing ideas in Hungary have been almost completely discredited following decades of state capitalism that called itself communist, followed by so-called Socialist parties imposing neoliberalism.

In addition, the pre and post 1989 “socialist” regimes did much to weaken the trade union movement. Previously having one trade union federation, ruled from above under the Stalinist regime, Hungarian workers found themselves able to form new unions after 1989—and they formed six trade federations along with many independent sectoral unions. Some emerged from the old regime and allied with the Socialist Party, while others, fiercely anti-communist, allied themselves with FIDESZ and the right.

The divisions between unions, and their ties to one or the other ruling party, weakened their ability to fight back against an onslaught of cuts and layoffs and ensuing speed ups, forcing Hungarian workers to work harder for the same or less pay.

FIDESZ, led by Orban, was swept to power in 2010, in the aftermath of a major crisis involving the previous Socialist prime minister, and imposed a Thatcherite “Flat Tax” on Hungarians of 16 per cent. As intended, this hurt workers and the poor the most, as they were taxed at the same rate as the wealthy. Real wages as a result declined 6-8 per cent, but the divided Hungarian labour movement was not able to build the kind of opposition necessary to defeat Orban’s tax.

The rise of racism and JOBBIK

While FIDESZ has been the main conservative party in Hungary since 1989, it is also characterized by its right-wing populism. This means that, as in the 1990s, they have opposed Socialist government cuts in nationalist terms, and railed against "outsiders" accused of attacking the Hungarian “nation.” This can be foreign capital, as much as it can be an internal minority—principally the Roma, but also, more subtly, the Jews.

They have also emphasized the importance of the “Hungarian virtue of hard work” to whip up support. This has had a two-pronged effect: an attack on the Roma, who suffer from systemic racism, and thus a high rate of unemployment. But this has also been convenient for FIDESZ to raise while cutting social assistance since coming back to power in 2010, as part of their austerity program in response to the crisis of 2008.

When mayors in a number of villages stopped benefits to those recipients unwilling to perform workfare (free labour), against national regulations, MPs applauded rather than penalizing them. In the industrial town of Miskolc, the police chief described all thieves in that town as Roma, and said that Hungarian citizens could not co-exist with Romas. The Home Secretary fired him, but the Socialist mayor of Miskolc, along with the fascist Hungarian Guard, participated in a demonstration to have him re-instated. The local press took the cue, with headlines such as “The Roma are criminals: official.”

It can be hardly surprising that JOBBIK, an openly racist party riddled with Nazis, has risen since its origins in 2003 to become Hungary’s third party behind FIDESZ and the Socialists, regularly gaining close a fifth of the vote nationally, and controlling many municipalities.

Building an alternative

Hungary’s rulers have felt emboldened in this atmosphere to build the fence on the southern border, and refuse 91 per cent of refugee applications. Orban has declared, to the disgust of most outside Hungary, that “Muslim refugees are subverting the character of Europe.” The “Socialists” meanwhile have stated that parliament must “work with JOBBIK members.”

But largely unreported by the North American media were the many Hungarians who braved police lines at Keleti train station in Budapest to bring food, drink and supplies to the refugees attempting to get to Germany. Last Sunday, September 13, thousands of Hungarians, who had had enough of the hateful pronouncement of their Prime Minister, took to the streets of Budapest to let Europe and the world know that Orban does not represent the views of all Hungarians.

Still, it will remain a difficult task for those circles of left wing activists that do exist to forge a new tradition that rejects the bankruptcy of the official “Left,” and to create alliances with the Roma community, other communities of colour, and organized workers to build the fightback we can all see is very much needed.

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