The Blog

With Memories Of Revolution, Hungary Confronts Uncomfortable Future

While much of the media attention devoted to the referendum has now moved on, concerns for Hungary's international reputation linger.

As Hungary prepares to commemorate the 60th anniversary of its 1956 uprising, the threat from foreign invaders still looms large. This time, however, they don't roll through the streets in Soviet tanks, but flee wars and desperation in their own countries. It is fitting, then, that the country's right-wing populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán chose October 2 - exactly three weeks from the revolution's anniversary - to hold his referendum on European Union quotas on resettling refugees.

Despite falling 800,000 votes short of the constitutionally mandated 50 percent threshold, Orbán declared a "sweeping victory." Meddlesome Brussels bureaucrats were on notice: this is our country, and we'll decide what happens within our borders.

More than a week later, as critics and allies continue to debate its validity, the referendum has done little to resolve a polarizing and leading question. Unsurprisingly, the ballot language around the right of the EU to settle "non-Hungarians" was more about internal political theater than migrants. The real underlying question centered on the nascent democracy's recovery from the trauma of communism to carve out a place for itself in the world - or at least in Europe.

To ensure a favorable outcome, the government pumped nearly €30m into an in-your-face propaganda campaign of pamphlets and TV ads. Most hard-hitting, however, were the thousands of posters plastered on lampposts, benches, buses, billboards, and even garbage bins. Everyday life was punctuated by constant reminders of the threats posed by the uncontrollable hordes who would take Hungarian jobs, rape Hungarian women, and commit acts of terror on Hungarian soil. Is it worth the risk, the posters asked?

For some, the answer was conveniently 'no'. One voter in her late 30s, recognizing the extent of the state-sponsored propaganda campaign, ultimately gave in to her fear. "I understand both sides of the argument and I feel for refugees," she said, "but I think it's a culture clash; Muslims can't come here and properly assimilate."

The idea of cultural incompatibility became a sticking point, propagated by the government's vitriolic messaging pitting natives against outsiders clamoring to overrun the country. Behind every racially-charged hate slogan lay a not-so-subtle insinuation that migrants would fundamentally change the very fabric of Hungarian society.

"I voted 'no' because this country needs to stay the way it was meant to be" said one man. "Refugees don't flee 5,000 kilometers because they are in danger. There are terrorists among them and this referendum has allowed us to keep the county safe."

Orbán's brand of identity politics had resonated with the electorate, cultivated over the course of his shift to the right since regaining power in 2010. He had sounded the rallying cry of national preservation in the face of an existential threat.

Uninvited migrants were only part of that threat. The despots in Brussels were just as dangerous in their efforts to undermine Hungary's hard-won independence. More than 25 years after the fall of communism, Hungary was not about to trade Soviet tyranny for EU autocracy. The symbolism of 1956 presented the perfect opportunity to make that point.

"This referendum has strengthened Orbán's position. It has given him leverage over Brussels", said a Budapest-based entrepreneur, reflecting popular sentiment that Hungary should be able to make its own decisions about internal matters. Some even hailed Orbán as the union's protector, forcing reforms while being the first line of defense against those who would violate both its geographic as well as political integrity.

But Péter Balázs, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2009-2010, isn't buying it. "He protects the EU only against itself," he said. "Orbán wants to convert public opinion in Hungary from EU-supporters into EU-opponents."

Orbán has capitalized on the disconnect between Hungary's "strong continuity of history" and its tradition of "missing national sovereignty." By filling that gap with a narrative of division, he can personally sculpt a vision of the future that serves his purposes.

"[He] misuses the undigested historical memories of past - and lost - freedom fights and has singled out 'enemies'" - migrants, the EU, Germany, the IMF - said Balázs. Orbán's pursuit of conflict politics has allowed him to stoke an idealized nationalist nostalgia for a Hungary that never was, but could be, if only it were given the chance.

For Balázs, the "hysterical campaign against migrants" was simply to "distract attention from bad governance and real burning problems of the country." By creating an enemy and drawing clear battle lines, the end goal is to consolidate power and win the next election.

"Orbán is the happiest guy because of the migrant crisis," said Gergely Kovács, founder of the "joke" Two-tailed Dog Party. "He has a cool new enemy for people to hate."

Kovács has made a career of mocking the government's flagrant hyperbole and fear-mongering. He and his supporters raised €100,000 for a subversive counter-propaganda campaign covering government placards with Two-tailed Dog posters urging people to vote both "yes" and "no".

"It's a stupid question, and the 'yes' and the 'no' answers are both stupid answers," he said. "The other opposition parties are campaigning for a boycott, but I think the invalid vote is a much stronger message. If you just don't go to vote, [the government] can say anything. But if you go to vote and vote invalid, you say that you are interested and you care about this, but you think the options are stupid," Kovács said before the referendum.

He was relying on five percent of the ballots cast being spoiled. His strategy paid off.

Krisztina Kurucz was among that five percent. "It's a senseless question, so that was the only thing to do." For her, the referendum was a distraction from uncomfortable domestic failings - inadequate healthcare and education systems, rampant corruption, unemployment, the brain drain of young people.

"There was once hope that Hungary would become like other Western European countries. That is systematically eroded everyday", she said.

As a result, "Low social solidarity" has allowed Orbán to vilify migrants "so that people will hate them and not the government," according to Kovács. But he contends "it isn't important for Hungarians to think about refugees. It's important in Germany, it's important in places that actually have refugees.

"We don't have a migration crisis; we have a hate campaign crisis."

While much of the media attention devoted to the referendum has now moved on, concerns for Hungary's international reputation linger.

"The whole world is now looking at Hungary and thinking it's racist", says Kovács. "If there was such a campaign in a bordering country I think the result would be the same. Hungarian's aren't racist; our government is."

Set to the backdrop of the 1956 revolution celebrations, the "stupid answer to a stupid question" engendered its own resistance movement to an increasingly authoritarian and divisive government. But the xenophobic tenor of the referendum campaign has cut to the very core of a Hungary on edge. The country that once symbolized the fight for freedom with cries of "Ruszkik Haza", "Russians Go Home", is now struggling to reconcile its shifting historical awareness with a conflicted identity in an uncertain Europe.