Victor Orban’s ‘Hungary for Hungarians’ Migration Policy
By Sebastian Berchesan
Following the return to power of Viktor Orban in 2010, Hungarian politics has taken a nationalist turn that led to the current illiberal path the country is following. The European-wide migration crisis of 2015 has shifted the Hungarian public’s attention towards immigrants, presenting them as a serious threat to the internal stability and the traditional values of the country. Since then, the rhetoric of the Orban-led government focused on two main directions: keeping non-European migrants out of the country and strengthening the relations with the ethnic Hungarians living abroad. While closing the doors to migrants who could represent a substantial and reliable workforce, the nation’s economy shows worrying signs of recession. In this context, Prime Minister Viktor Orban is calling for the Hungarians born and living outside of the state borders to join the nation’s political cause by enabling them to easily get citizenship and vote during elections. While taking on this double approach, the Hungarian leader aims to maximise his political support while delivering a simple but essential promise: a Hungary for Hungarians. This article analyses the premises of the strategy behind the Hungarian Migration Policy while questioning its sustainability in the long run.
In the autumn of 1956, the international community was witnessing one of the most surprising events that took place only a decade after the fall of the Iron Curtain over Europe. Large-scale revolts and crowds that took the streets of Budapest were signalling the dissatisfaction of the Hungarian people with the communist doctrine, a very worrying image for Moscow. The hardships of a non-democratic governing system were enough for the protestors striving for political change (Nyyssönen, 2005).
Although the uprising was pushed back through military intervention by the Soviet forces, it marked the beginning of a unique political doctrine that was adopted by the Hungarian government led by Janos Kadar. This became known as ‘goulash communism’ and according to scholars was, in fact, a period of ‘pseudo-consumerism’ during which the life-quality standards increased and the human rights records were improved. Nicknamed ‘the happiest barracks of the Eastern Block’ from the 1960’s to 1970’s, Hungary achieved this through a deviation from the main lines of the Stalinist-communist doctrine, in a more liberal direction (Nyyssönen, 2005).
The term ‘goulash communism’ was coined after the traditional Hungarian dish that requires mixing together an assortment of different ingredients. More than half a century ago, Hungary, officially a communist state, was introducing liberal principles in the governing policies of the country. Nowadays, the country has become a fully-fledged democracy following the fall of the Iron Curtain. However, over the years, its governments leaned more and more towards illiberal views.
In the 21st century, one of the most visible trends that can be observed worldwide is the significance of borders between states in an increasingly globalised environment. This phenomenon has paved the way for ideologies such as Cosmopolitanism which consider that all human beings are members of a single community, promoting the idea that individuals can and should be ‘world citizens’ rather than citizens of a particular nation-state. This ideology envisions governance to tackle global issues from a supranational perspective and for the creation of global institutions acquiring some of the traditional nation-states competences (Lejeune, 2021).
The Hungarian approach to such a political view, which from now on I will be referring to as ‘goulash cosmopolitanism’, is however opposed to this borders-opening, or blurring, approach. The latter emphasizes the similarities between people that should be regarded as a whole - a universal community. The goulash cosmopolitanism is an illiberal version, based on differentiating the Hungarian people - Christian, white, following traditional values – from the rest of the world, and isolating the homeland from potential intruders that could threaten any of these values. There is also a ‘community component’ in the goulash cosmopolitanism which, nonetheless, should be understood from an ethnic perspective – all ethnic Hungarians from outside of the ‘city walls’ (the state borders) are still part of the community and should have a say in the national politics. In terms of governance, this ideology defends state sovereignty as the most important way of ensuring that the integrity of the community and implicitly of the Hungarian nation-state remains untouched.
From a personal note, the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has gradually consolidated this approach into his political agenda since his return to power in 2010 and has made it a guiding principle, especially following the Migration Crisis of 2015. By demonizing the migrants that were presented to the Hungarian public as a serious threat to the stability and security of the country, Orban and his party Fidesz, have achieved maintaining high levels of support from the majority of the population in exchange for the promise to keep ‘Hungary for Hungarians’. Nonetheless, after a prolonged period of economic instability since 2020, and the very worrying financial fluctuation of the Hungarian Forint during the summer of 2022, it seems that the country’s economy cannot sustain itself without an external workforce that would help preserve its welfare system.
In this context, migration plays a key role given that it could bring the vital workforce into Hungary, boosting the economy while supporting the welfare state.
Political Demographics of Central and Eastern Europe
Politics deals to a large extent with numbers that matter especially in the democratic forms of government and whose effects can be best appreciated at the ballot box. To preserve power means to keep the numbers of voters belonging to the majoritarian ethnic group, particularly in illiberal states as high as possible, while limiting the impact of eventual newcomers in the political life of the country (Krastev, 2020). In Central and Eastern Europe, where historically nationalism has played a decisive role from the second half of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century in the formation of nation-states, the issue of governments ‘electing people’ - so to say, deciding on who should have a say in the elections - had a focal role in shaping the politics of the 21st century.
While the previous ages have been a period of increasing national homogeneity, the current challenges of migration in an increasingly cosmopolitan Europe, are perceived as a threat by politicians that want to preserve their power (Lejeune, 2021).
Fidesz and Hungarians abroad with voting rights
The case of Hungary under the rule of Fidesz and led by the incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a particular one given that it might be probably one of the most obvious cases that fit Ivan Krastev’s thoughts, the case in which a government is electing its people. Following Orban’s return to power, one of his first and most important projects was to secure future political successes by changing the composition of voters and implicitly the political demography.
This was related to the Hungarian - considered by some ‘national trauma’ - following World War I and the subsequent Treaty of Trianon which effectively tore apart Greater Hungary into the nation-state with the current-day borders, and several regions which joined the neighbouring countries, particularly visible in the cases of Romania and Slovakia. Large numbers of Hungarians, approximately two fifths of its population, continued to live in those countries taking on new citizenships, but preserving their heritage, language and traditions - effectively outside of the borders of their Motherland (Hutt, 2022).
After being reappointed for the second time as the Prime Minister of the country, following the 2010 elections, Viktor Orban has adopted a strongly nationalist–populist speech aiming at generating some form of national reunification. He officialised the 4th of June as a new national celebration – The day of National Unity – and one year later, in 2011, Fidesz pushed through the parliament a new law permitting ethnic Hungarians from abroad to obtain Hungarian citizenship and implicitly to participate in elections. Overnight, over 1.1 million Hungarians were granted citizenship and the procedure is still in place. Currently, there are approximately 1.2 million Hungarians in the neighbouring region of Transylvania, part of Romania and some 420.000 living in Slovakia (Hutt, 2022). In 2012 the Slovak authorities have already reacted to Orban’s policy by outlawing the possibility of having dual citizenship, meaning that if the ethnic Hungarians would take the Hungarian passport, they will automatically lose their Slovak one. The results of manipulating the political demographics were quite visible during the 2014 and 2018 Hungarian elections when 95.4% and 96.2% respectively of the votes from the diaspora were for Fidesz (Hutt, 2022).
The official stance of the government on the highly controversial topic of granting citizenship and voting rights to the Hungarian ethnics abroad is that this was a necessary step to strengthen the nation’s ties with its diaspora. It is argued that by allowing Hungarians to vote, they can participate in the decisions that shape their homeland, and also feel more connected to their roots. In addition, by granting voting rights and citizenship to Hungarians abroad, Hungary would also be in a better position to benefit from their economic contributions, such as investments and remittances.
Moreover, Hungary is not the only country in the region to have implemented such a policy – Romania has offered the possibility to obtain a Romanian passport to the citizens of the Republic of Moldova based on descendance since 1991. Over time more than a million Moldovans have obtained Romanian citizenship which, for the size of the country, is a huge figure – approximately 1 in 3 Moldovans has a Romanian passport (Cantir, 2022). However, the main difference between the two countries is that Romania implemented this policy early on, during a period when there were even discussions about a possible reunification of the two countries which were separated by the Soviet Union following World War II, plans which eventually never became true. In this case, there were no Romanian parties interested in obtaining more voters, but it was rather a post-communist euphoria that pushed for the recreation of stronger links between the two neighbours. Hungary has never intended to actually reunite with its former territories from before the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, given that it would create a European-wide political crisis, but this was still enough for Orban to use nationalist rhetorics in his populist speech in order to attract more voters.
Nationalism and the Hungarian Pride
The nationalist sentiment has played an important role in the history of Hungary being both the driving force behind the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 and the country's struggle for independence from the Austrian Empire. It has also been an integral part of Hungarian politics since the country gained independence in 1918 (Csepeli, 1996).
On the positive hand, nationalism has led to a sense of unity and pride among Hungarians. It has provided the country with a strong sense of identity and a shared national culture and language. Nationalism has also promoted the economic development of Hungary by creating a feeling of solidarity and cooperation among the people.
On the other hand, nationalism has also been used to promote xenophobic and exclusionist policies in Hungary. The nationalist rhetoric divided the population along ethnic and ideological lines and stoked hatred and violence against minority groups. It has been used by various political groups to justify the oppression of minority groups and the violation of their rights (Csepeli, 1996).
In public debates, the topic of nationalism has been recurrent in Viktor Orban’s public talks, representing one of the hot points of his agenda. After securing another mandate following the elections of 2022, Orban has participated in the yearly Youth Camp at Baile Tusnad in Transylvania, Romania – a project that initially aimed at improving and consolidating the relations between Hungary and the host country, but which was lately dominated by the Hungarian presence. During his speech Orban openly criticised the mixing of Europeans with non-European migrants, emphasising that Hungary is and wants to remain a ‘pure’ nation. This declaration has triggered an automatic response from the Romanian side and other European MEPs, even though it perfectly fits Orban’s ideology that he has addressed for some years (Walker, 2022). This speech was a very direct voicing of the Hungarian’s PM view on what I have described as goulash cosmopolitanism and his stance on migration.
Conclusion and Further Questions
Demographic politics plays a key role in the European political scene in the context of general population recession on one hand and the era of cosmopolitan societies with borders getting ever more blurred on the other hand. In this context, the approach to migration taken by illiberal democracies such as Hungary becomes a questionable choice. Questionable in terms of sustainability: for how long can a country hold up its nationalist views and keep the gates of its fortified city-state shut, in the context of an imminent economic recession, with an ageing economically active population? And for how long will this political strategy still work for the ruling party once the economic cracks in the city walls of the country will find their way?
As previously discussed, the goulash cosmopolitan strategy of the country’s leader, Viktor Orban, relies on the nationalist sentiment for keeping an ethnically pure Hungary, self-sufficient and highly selective in terms of who is allowed to enter the city walls and what they would bring. On the other hand, the door remains open for all those ethnic Hungarians from abroad that would be willing to help their motherland. In conclusion, another question naturally arises: will this well-accepted group of foreigner Hungarians be ready to sacrifice for the country and will that be enough to replace a migrant working force willing and ready to give a hand immediately? As of now, this does not seem to be the case, but it remains to be observed how the migrant policy and the general attitude of Hungarians towards migrants will evolve in the near future.
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