BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary’s use of razor wire, tear gas and arrests in response to migrants seeking refuge in Europe has shocked many across the world. But the crackdown comes as little surprise to those who have been watching the country’s political transformation since Prime Minister Viktor Orban won power in 2010 and began building a state that puts national interests over civil liberties.
Orban’s hard-line approach is testing Europe as the continent struggles to remain true to its values of solidarity and unity in the face of the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. It is also proving a tempting model to other leaders, particularly in ex-communist Central and Eastern Europe, where a dislike of Muslims and multiculturalism runs high.
Orban’s critics accuse him of escalating the immigration crisis to pander to xenophobic elements among Hungarian voters who have been moving toward Jobbik, a far-right party that is openly anti-Semitic and anti-Roma. Orban’s government imposed a state of emergency last month that allows the military to deploy armed soldiers to the border and also allows for the temporary suspension of some civil rights.
“It’s a very good tool in his hands in order to make the government more powerful in the future,” said Mate Daniel Szabo, a constitutional lawyer with the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union.
Hungary’s new razor-wire fence and national direction mark a sharp reversal for a country that played a historic role in crumbling of the Berlin Wall — by opening a border fence with Austria in 1989 that triggered a sudden exodus of East Germans to the West.
Orban, 52, made his political debut in those days of upheaval with a fiery speech in which he called for free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Even as Germany marked the 25th anniversary of its reunification earlier this month, some Europeans leaders were appealing to Orban to stop creating a new Iron Curtain in Europe.
Western leaders and human rights groups have expressed alarm for years at the developments in Hungary, which have included the harassment of civil rights activists and independent media; an erosion of courts’ independence; and a celebration of World War II-era fascists and Holocaust revisionism that has created unease for Hungary’s Roma and Jews. Over the past five years, representatives of the ruling Fidesz party have cooperated with Jobbik to name public squares after people linked with Hungary’s fascist World War II-era government.
Last year Orban declared that he was building an “illiberal state.” With Europe’s current refugee crisis, Orban’s right-wing politics have made their international debut.
Along with tough legal measures, Orban depicts the Muslim arrivals as invaders who threaten Europe’s Christian traditions and vows to defend Christian Europe in the same way that Hungary held back the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century. He denounces Europe’s “liberal blah blah” and speaks of the futility of ever integrating Muslims.
“Up to this point, we have not been able to integrate them into the European-Christian cultural community, and parallel societies are being created in numerous European countries with a declining ratio of Christians and a rising ratio of Muslims,” he told parliament in late September. “Some people think it’s good! Some people think it’s excellent! It’s an opportunity! We, however, who presently represent Hungary’s interests based upon the will of the nation, we think that whether it’s good or bad, we don’t want it.”
Central to Orban’s strategy is a message repeated often by him and his allies that outside forces are attacking Hungary and that only Orban can protect the nation. Sometimes they blame socialist or capitalist forces, often in the same breath, language widely considered a coded attack on Jews.
In an interview published this month in Magyar Hirlap, Parliament Speaker Laszlo Kover spoke of the threat of the “crypto-communists who rule over half of Europe” and of “the agents of the globalist financial circles.”
Orban himself called the prime minister of Croatia, the neighboring nation that has been sending migrants over the border into Hungary, “an emissary of the Socialist International whose job is to attack Hungary.”
Several of Orban’s critics accuse him of harnessing widespread xenophobia in Hungary to regain popularity that had been dwindling earlier this year. If that is his aim, it seems to be working: A recent poll showed that support for Fidesz rose from 20 to 24 percent between June and September. The poll, by Ipsos, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
“Over Orban’s political career, his main method of gaining support has been to stoke conflict and then pose as the defender of Hungarians,” said Miklos Haraszti, a prominent human rights activist and researcher at Central European University in Budapest. “But after many abstract foes such as the IMF or the EU, this is the first time he can point to a real human enemy. He depicts the migrants as invaders, and fuels hatred against them.”
On Sept. 15, Hungary sealed off its southern border with Serbia with a razor-wire fence, while a new law came into effect making it a crime for asylum-seekers to breach the fence. Dozens have already been convicted and criminal proceedings are now underway against some 480 more people.
A day after the border was closed, clashes also broke out between migrants and baton-wielding police officers who used tear gas, water cannons and pepper spray on hundreds of migrants, among them small children who screamed as gas stung their eyes. The government has pointed to the incident to argue that the migrants are violent and says some are “terrorists.”
But some of Orban’s critics, including former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, believe Orban intentionally provoked the incident to have an excuse to make a show of force. Some witnesses say they saw police open the gate and migrants begin to cross over the border, saying “Thank you” before the police pushed them back and began using tear gas and water cannons.
Several foreign journalists were also beaten or harassed by Hungarian police while covering the border tensions. In at least two cases, police either destroyed the reporters’ equipment or forced them to delete video footage.
While Orban has faced international criticism for his handling of the migrants, he is also emerging as a role model for some.
Recently, the governor of the German state of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, a critic of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy for refugees, hosted Orban and said he “deserves support and not criticism.”
Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico, a strong opponent of accepting Muslims, recently said: “Let’s face it. We’re not able to integrate into society hundreds of thousands of our own Roma citizens. How can we integrate people with a completely different way of life and religion?”
Associated Press writer Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.