A Muslim Invasion of Hungary? Orban Raises Spectre of Ottomans to Solidify Iron Rule

Viktor Orban’s third successive election victory has led to warnings that this self-styled ‘illiberal democrat’ will remove Hungary from the yoke of the European Union (EU) for good, upsetting the harmony of the regional bloc in the process.

Orban is the current bad boy of European politics

Adding to his crackdown on the free press, the independence of the judiciary, and the NGOs and universities linked with George Soros, Orban has set his dictatorial course. He has even promised retribution on those who opposed and mocked him during his latest campaign.

The most notable facet of Orban’s recent rule has been his vehemently anti-migration stance, which have directly contravened the hopes of the EU in general, and Angela Merkel in particular. Border walls have sprung up and asylum seekers been turned away as Orban warns of a ‘Muslim invasion’. To him, Hungary is for Hungarians…that is, Christian Hungarians.

Asylum seekers at Hungary’s border wall

This stark message has seemingly engendered popular appeal, even more so than his Fidesz party’s efforts to boost growth and employment after years of economic stagnation. Perhaps the Hungarians remember their history. Orban is certainly doing his best to make sure that they do.

It was in the 16th century that the mighty Ottoman forces of Suleiman the Magnificent plundered into Medieval Hungary, capturing Buda in 1541 and establishing Turkish overlordship across much of the kingdom.

Siege of Estolnibelgrad by Ottoman forces in 1543

During their period of rule, the Ottomans committed the sorts of atrocities typical of distant sovereigns. Deportation and massacres significantly reduced the ethnic Hungarian population, whilst the economy of the territory was allowed to slump into ruin. Buda, a once magnificent medieval citadel, became an impoverished backwater.

Orban sees parallels between the vicious Ottoman conquest and the mass migration from the Middle East today:

We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim…That is an important question, because Europe and European culture have Christian roots…I have to say that when it comes to living together with Muslim communities, we are the only ones who have experience because we had the possibility to go through that experience for 150 years. (Washington Post, 4th September 2015)

Likewise, Orban can see in himself, and the other members of his Visegrad Group, a Christian bulwark to Muslim invasion, comparable with the Holy Roman Empire. It was Habsburg forces, along with their Polish allies, that finally ran the Ottomans out of Hungary in the late 17th century. A victory for Christendom over the evil forces of Islam, invoking the spirit of the earlier Crusades.

The Holy League fighting to recapture Buda in 1686

Of course all of this is somewhat ridiculous. Hungary has a population in decline (30,000 a year), with many frustrated citizens emigrating in the hope of finding better life in other European states. What an influx of youthful labour could do for an economy reliant on state employment and a low-skilled workforce.

Orban, however, is both stubborn and resilient, not to mention manipulative and vindictive. Everything he does is geared towards maintaining power and moulding the Hungarian state into a compliant tool for exercising that power.

Protesters rallying against Orban’s re-election and undermining of Hungarian democracy

It is sadly ironic, for this is a man who rebelled against communist rule in the name of democracy and imbued a generation with hopes of inclusive and free politics.

By defying his former self, and ignorantly casting Muslim migrants as bloodthirsty successors to the Ottoman Turks, Orban is threatening to isolate himself. The EU will not stand for continued disobedience – however ponderous and pithy its mechanisms for meting out punishment are – nor can Hungary live without its generous subsidies. Russia and its ailing economy can hardly be expected to fill the gap this leaves.

Asylum seekers at a Hungarian camp; hardly the villainous Ottomans of the 16th century

Populism, nationalism and authoritarianism can paper over the economic and political void for only so long. For Viktor Orban the test will be to come up with a new enemy when he seeks yet another re-election in 2022.


Serb Nationalism and the Ignition of the Balkans: why we should remain wary of a Greater Serbia

There are concerns in some quarters that rising tensions and ultra-nationalist influence in the Balkans are being overlooked in light of the myriad other crises affecting the world today.

Serbia, in particular, has seen an erosion of its democracy under nationalist President Aleksandar Vucic, whose government has made it known – in not particularly subtle tones – that the question of Bosnian and Kosovan sovereignty, not to mention other states in the region, is far from settled.

Vucic has been unapologetic in his calls for a ‘Greater Serbia’

As history has shown, when Serbian nationalism peaks so do regional anxieties, with conflict often only just over the horizon.

This isn’t to say that ultra-nationalism is rife in Serbia today and perhaps that is why Vucic has deemed it necessary to undermine the democratic institutions of his country in a bid to satiate his desires, and those of his supporters. It is no coincidence that he has moved closer to Vladimir Putin, who has shrewdly mobilised nationalist pride and a sense of ‘Russianness’ to distract from the economic decline facing his country, even if that means invading neighbouring states.

Of course, nationalism is typically wrapped up with a fear and repulsion of the ‘other’, the ‘foreigner’. In Serbia’s case this means the large Muslim minority living in the Balkans, those people denying a unified people a unified nation. The refugee crisis precipitated by the civil wars of the Middle East has only added to this ‘problem’ in the eyes of some Serbs, yet it is an historic issue in the nationalist cause.

A train painted with the moniker ‘Kosovo is Serbia’ had the backing of Belgrade

Nor is this confined inside the borders of Serbia itself, but anywhere that the Serbs inhabit. Controversy has recently been stirred in Bosnia’s autonomous Republika Srpska, with the decision of its Serb president Milorad Dodik to cut the pay of his Bosniak (Muslim) vice-president for his ‘permanent war-like rhetoric…full of lies and misinformation’ aimed at undermining the governing authorities.

More vociferous, and occasionally violent, protests are commonly seen at football matches and in certain Serb-dominated neighbourhoods throughout the region.

Ethnic Serbs demonstrating in Mitrovica, Kosovo

For some, the Balkan Wars of the 1990s may seem like a distant memory, subsequent criminal prosecutions and increased European integration creating an illusion that all has been forgotten. Yet it was these horrific conflicts that were born from the desire for a ‘Greater Serbia’, evidenced most in the actions and rhetoric of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb President of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia’s aggression was countered by a NATO bombing campaign against the Milosevic state

Standing tallest amongst many atrocities during these wars is the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys by Bosnian Serb troops at Srebrenica. It is little wonder that every time the nationalist dial is ratcheted up in Belgrade, when the calls for a homogeneous Serbian nation increase in volume, that Europe waits with baited breath.

As discussed, this trepidatious situation is not a modern phenomenon and indeed Serbian nationalism is widely credited as a primary cause for the First World War.

The idea of uniting Serbs in a common territory had been gaining ground during the 19th century, with a parallel state of agitating military and security officials operating alongside the political leadership of Nikola Pasic.

Austria-Hungary’s formal annexation of Bosnia, with its large Serb population, in 1908, set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the subsequent July 1914 crisis that brought about global conflict.

The Archduke and his wife were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb nationalist

As a precursor to this was the Serbian foray into the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, largely aimed at acquiring more territory for a ‘Greater Serbia’, including gaining access to the Adriatic through slicing off a wedge of Albania.

It was in neighbouring Macedonia during these earlier Balkan Wars that a lesser known massacre occurred. In a place called Gostivar, advancing Serbian forces vented that wrath on a town thought to have engaged in partisan activities:

Some 300 Gostivar Muslims who had played no role in the uprising were arrested and taken out of the town during the night in groups of twenty to thirty to be beaten and stabbed to death with rifle butts and bayonets (gunshots would have woken the sleeping inhabitants of the town), before being thrown into a large open grave that had been dug beforehand for that purpose. (Clark, pp.112-113)

Other reports of murder, rape and pillage by Serbian forces against Muslim civilians filtered their way back to Belgrade. The authorities were unwilling, or unable, to do anything and Serbian ultra-nationalism continued on its fateful course.

Serbian cavalry enter Skopje in 1912

Now this is not to intimate that we are on the verge of similar atrocities, or that even a tangible nationalist swing in Serbia is a sure sign that the Balkans will go up in flames again. But it speaks of an historic hatred, of a people harbouring a perception that they have been denied their true destiny by outsiders; Ottoman Turks, Austro-Hungarian imperialists, international organisations, Muslims. Such hatred has the potential to ignite given the right conditions.

World leaders should not be so naive as to believe that the political, ethnic and religious entanglements of the Balkans are at an end. Greater integration may be a step in the right direction but uneven development and historical memory will continue to influence events. And when Serb nationalism peaks, and the clamour for change grows louder, it is often a concrete sign that trouble is brewing.


Clark, C. Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012)