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.

Orban Stirs Domestic Tensions on Historic Day

Yesterday saw the traditional commemorations of the anniversary of the 1956 uprising that mutated into the Hungarian Revolution. A popular revolution against the communist government of the time, it ended on the 10th November after a brutal crackdown by Soviet troops seeking to preserve the government of their client state.

Commemorating the revolutionaries of 1956
Commemorating the revolutionaries of 1956

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban used the memorial as a platform of dissent against his political opponents, both domestic and foreign. He compared his domestic opponents with the Hungarian communist conspirators who aided the Soviets in destroying the momentum of the revolution; he accused foreign politicians and economic institutions of acting like the Soviet ‘imperialists’, intervening in Hungary’s domestic affairs.

Orban is an increasingly-controversial figure and he has used a parliamentary majority to enact sweeping reforms, which strengthen his own power at the expense of democratic rights and civil liberties. Indeed, his rule has become reminiscent of the Soviet dictatorships of the past that he supposedly abhors.

The selfish politicking of Orban threatens to overshadow the commemoration of one of the most important historical events of the 20th century. For many people worldwide, the Soviet Union’s heavy-handed response to the Hungarian Revolution once-and-for-all shattered the moral legitimacy of the communist state and tilted the balance of diplomatic power in favour of the US during the Cold War.

Orban’s use of history to smear his opponents is likely to backfire. It is he that is most comparable to the dark days of Soviet dominance and he increasingly resembles the post-Cold War ‘strongman’ of Central Asia, only without the economic achievements to boot.

Despite increasing domestic and foreign concerns, Orban retains widespread support
Despite increasing domestic and foreign concerns, Orban retains widespread support

Unsurprisingly, the rally led by Orban was countered by those on the left of the political spectrum, who called for his removal, and by the far-right Jobbik party whose leaders believe the Hungarian political system to be riddled with the remnants of the country’s socialist past and thus unable to represent the “true Hungarian” people.

None of the political parties have covered themselves in glory by using the 1956 revolution memorials as a staging post for vicious sniping against enemies. Yet, worryingly, it is Viktor Orban who continues to prove himself a dangerous and paranoid demagogue, more concerned with his own power status than the principles of freedom expressed by the revolutionaries over half-a-century ago.