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Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban was once thought to be the best person to lead a sphere of former Soviet states toward western-style democracy, but he has instead taken the country on a more populist course, one that's alarmed other European leaders who criticize his treatment of migrants, the media, NGOs and academia. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay reports.
From its magnificent Parliament building to its castles, churches, and neoclassical statues, Hungary is a country with history on full display. It's also being called a harbinger of Europe's political future. Hungary is a member of the European Union and NATO, but politics here have steadily become more nationalist led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, considered to be the most influential populist leader in Europe today. The most visible symbol of nationalist Hungary? This new electrified fence on the country's southern border with Serbia, built to protect what Orban calls "Christian Europe" from "invaders." Zoltan Kovacs is Hungary's government spokesperson.
We truly believe that in Europe Christianity has a special role. Islam and Christianity are not going to integrate because they are different. Many have accused us of islamophobia. This is not the case. We all know that the clash of cultures and civilizations is indeed existing and when it comes anew as it happened back in 2015, it was really alarming.
The 2015 crisis, when hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim migrants and refugees fled north into Europe, was a tipping point says Kovacs. While other governments debated what to do, Hungary acted.
We have built a fence, a physical barrier. We have reinforced our border control, thousands of Hungarian policemen and soldiers are securing the border. Over 400,000 cross the borders into Hungary and passing through Hungary that year. Today these numbers are basically down to zero. Many say there is no need for the fence because nobody's coming.
But you're saying they're not coming because we have a fence.
Sure but the reason is the other way around. They are not coming because there's the fence.
It is something that the Hungarian government is extremely proud of. It's extremely proud of it's very harsh immigration policy. It's basically a policy of deterrence, exclusion, and detention.
Marta Pardavi is co-chair of the non-profit watchdog organization, Hungarian Helsinki Committee.
look at pictures from the transit zones that we got.
She says the government recently changed the laws to make it virtually impossible for refugees to get asylum and accuses it of human rights abuses. Earlier this year she took the government to court after it stopped food distribution to rejected asylum seekers in the country's transit zones.
So we had to take emergency measures and turn to the European Court of Human Rights to get an emergency order from the court saying Hungarian Government you have to give these people food.
But refugees aren't the only people unwelcome by Viktor Orban, who was re-elected for a third term in a landslide last April. Orban has singled out one particular man as an enemy, American billionaire philanthropist George Soros. The 88-year old Soros who was born in Budapest supports democracy and human rights causes around the world. Orban considers him a foreign influence and threat, so much so that this summer he enacted a package of laws called "Stop Soros," aimed at further confronting illegal immigration. Pardavi says it impacts her work directly.
Now we have legislation that makes it a criminal offence to assist asylum seekers in Hungary in filing an asylum application.
Isn't that the kind of work that you do?
It's exactly the kind of work that the Helsinki Committee does. Or an asylum lawyer, an immigration lawyer would do. This since July, just a few months ago, this is a criminal offense. You can be prosecuted for it and you could face one year in prison for this.
The Hungarian Parliament also passed a special 25-percent penalty tax on all non-governmental organization revenues that promote migration. It's all had a chilling effect on NGOs, including George Soros' own Open Society Foundations, OSF.
This used to be their offices. Until this summer. They packed up and moved to Berlin. The reason. They say they no longer feel safe in Viktor Orban's Hungary. It's not just NGOs. Higher education is also being targeted in this new political battlefield.
I can't predict what the outcome of what I like to call, "our little local difficulty with government" is going to be.
Michael Ignatieff is president of Central European University, CEU. It's a small, well-respected graduate school founded by George Soros which has been operating in Hungary for 25 years. But another new Orban law requiring foreign universities to have campuses in their home countries, threatens to force CEU to move most of its programs out of Hungary. Ignatieff says he's facing a December first deadline.
If I don't get an agreement with the Hungarian government, I can't accept new students. I got a gun pointed at my head here. Mr Orban thinks we are trying to run some type of campaign against his government. It's ridiculous. He won an election. He's a democratically elected leader. I got no question about that. My issue is about academic freedom. Staying here. Teaching what we want to teach.
Ignatieff says because he's not dependent on government funding he's able to speak out for CEU and for other academic institutions that do rely on the government for money.
The government has just gone after the Academy of Sciences here. It said we're going to decide who is going to get the scientific money, not the Academy. They've stopped gender studies. They have penalized anybody who tries to teach refugees and asylum seekers. So it's not just us that are under the squeeze.
Press freedom in Hungary has also been compromised, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists and a recent EU parliamentary report. They say pro-Orban oligarchs have been buying up TV stations and newspapers, and that state-funded advertising is going largely to outlets loyal to the government. Civil society groups accuse Orban's government of trying to silence dissent. Kovacs says that's nonsense.
We have over 65 thousand civil organizations in this country. We are quarreling with maybe two dozen or three dozen of them. They believe in an activist democracy.
But doesn't activism play a role in democracy.
Yes indeed. The problem is when they cross the red line. Most of these very loud and effective civil organizations are being financed from abroad and they come into the field of politics, vindicating that they are entitled to tell Hungarians and others what directions their legal system, their behavior, their values should be taken and this is what we are trying to refute here. So we are trying to reinstate the very fundamental values and rules of democracy in Hungary.
In a Democracy this is exactly the kind of sentiment that you should be fighting against. You should tell people that it's fine to speak out publicly. You should do it.
Let's be careful here. This is not a totalitarian state, this is not a fascist state. It's nothing like that. This is a democracy, but it's a damaged democracy.
The changes in Hungary have alarmed its neighbors so much that in September the European Union's Parliament took the extraordinary step of voting to sanction Hungary for flouting EU rules on democracy and civil rights. Theoretically under Article 7 the country could be stripped of its EU voting rights, though that is unlikely because Poland has promised to veto such a move. Orban has condemned the EU vote calling it a political witch hunt.
It's mostly the hatred against this center right Hungarian government.
Hatred against this government?
Yes that's probably the best word that we can use. The main dividing line here is who is for migration and those who would like to reinstate law and order at the borders of Europe and who believes that the future of Europe is not or shouldn't be built on migration but should be built on the interests of the European people.
And what about American "interests?" In Budapest's Freedom Square there's a bronze statue honoring former president Ronald Reagan for the help he gave Hungary to break free of the communist Soviet Union in 1989. At the time, one of the politicians at the forefront praising Reagan for standing up for freedom was none other than Viktor Orban. That was then, this is now.
He's a modern politician with superb presentational skills, a terrific ear for the fears, resentments, and anger of his population. He uses the social media, he uses government controlled media, and he basically dominates the public discourse 24/7. Mr.Trump does that in the United States. Mr Orban does that here. And there are other people who I think are beginning to follow him. Poland, The Czech Republic, Turkey. In all of these places you have strong single-party regimes that are using democratic institutions to consolidate their power. So far from being a kind of far-away place that doesn't matter, I think Hungary is a potential symbol of where the world may be headed for a while. And so it would repay Americans to pay some close attention to what happens in Budapest.
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Christopher Livesay is a foreign correspondent and producer based in Rome.
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