Thursday, September 17, 2015

Refugees in Hungary

Louis Proyect writes a complex (perhaps even incoherent) post comparing 1956 Hungary with Syria today. I won't presume to summarize it here, but one theme is a polemic against the stupid Left (my term). These are Leftists who support Assad today, or who supported the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. I call them stupid (perhaps violating my rules for this blog) because they let Barack Obama do all their thinking for them--whatever the US government supports they must oppose, and vice versa, regardless of any other considerations.

Mr. Proyect's opinion (which I share) is that the rebels in 1956 were on the side of angels, and that the murderous Assad regime is a major cause of the refugee crisis emanating from Syria. Where he and I disagree is on the responsibility of European nations to accept large or even unlimited numbers of these refugees. Specifically, he condemns Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban for coddling fascists and mistreating Syrians.

Mr. Proyect puts the rap sheet this way:
But it is Hungary that takes the cake apparently. 
  • It put a razor-wire fence on the border with Serbia to keep refugees out. 
  • It put up billboards (in Hungarian no less) warning anybody who made it through the razor-wire fence that “If you come to Hungary, don’t take the jobs of Hungarians!” 
  • A TV news photographer kicked and tripped refugees running away from the police. The station she worked for was connected to the far-right Jobbik party that lines up with the “axis of resistance” on Syria, opposing “the systematic attempts of the West to find a casus belli for an armed intervention against the Assad government.” 
  • At an internment camp for refugees in Hungary, cops threw bags of food to them as if they were hungry animals. 
Since the refugees are only interested in making their way to Germany or Britain, the xenophobia is likely a strategy to mollify Hungary’s burgeoning ultraright groups like Jobbik and their voters.
Of course even as Mr. Proyect penned those words Germany closed its border with Austria, forcing Austria to secure its Hungarian border. Anticipating this, the Hungarians built the razor-wire fence.

Mr. Proyect is correct in saying that "Hungary takes the cake." The country really is more xenophobic than most in Europe, and accordingly its fascist movement, Jobbik, is stronger. But he's wrong to condemn Mr. Orban. I think he should read an article by George Friedman that describes the tightrope that Mr. Orban has to walk. The Hungarian body politic will simply not tolerate a large refugee influx, and were Mr. Orban to allow that it would quickly lead to Jobbik taking power.

I do not speak Hungarian, but over the years I have probably spent cumulatively several months in the country. I think two observations clarify why Hungary is more refugee-averse than most countries.

Mr. Proyect--ace historian--probably knows about the Treaty of Trianon, though I'll hazard most of my readers do not. But I will guarantee that every Hungarian schoolchild is intimately familiar with it. When I visited Szeged, a city a few kilometers from the Serbian border, the first thing my host told me about the place is that it was historically at the very center of Hungary. For prior to the Trianon agreement in 1920, Hungary included most of Vojvodina (Vajdasag in Hungarian), a bit of the Croatian coast, and all of Transylvania (Erdely). Today's Slovak capital, Bratislava (Pozsony), was once the seat of an Hungarian empire.

Hungarians feel, almost to a person, that the Treaty of Trianon was a grave injustice. Sober people, undoubtedly including Mr. Orban, have come to terms with it. But much of the population--especially those whose families came from the former lands--remain very bitter. This is the root of Jobbik. Their principle concern is to retrieve lost lands, especially Transylvania, for Hungary. The Trianon Accord is a big reason why "Hungary takes the cake."

One result of the Treaty is that the Hungarian rump state--modern Hungary--is practically monoethnic. Of people declaring their ethnicity to the census bureau, 98% claim to be Hungarian. The largest minority are Roma, and they are certainly not integrated into the society.

This leads to the second reason why Hungary is different. Hungarian is not an Indo-European language, and is radically different from all other languages in Europe, apart from Finnish. It is very distantly related to Turkish. Even an international word such as police in Hungarian becomes an unrecognizable rendorseg. Hungarian is a famously difficult language to learn, and likewise, for Hungarians learning English is a real challenge.

So don't let those talented, multi-lingual Hungarian expats fool you--very few people in Hungary speak any language besides Hungarian. In the northwest corner of the country, near the Austrian border, German is widely spoken. In Budapest, German and tourist English are often understood. But outside of that it's pretty exclusively magyar.

Mr. Proyect's account of the billboard in Hungarian doesn't surprise me at all.

The result is the country is isolated. Hungarians' understanding of the outside world is limited. They don't travel much. I believe that the level of political discourse is correspondingly very shallow. It's an atmosphere that breeds paranoia and xenophobia. Yet again, "Hungary takes the cake."

Under these circumstances it is truly impossible for any Hungarian government to accept even a small number of refugees. One doesn't have to be a fascist to turn them away. I think Mr. Proyect is too hard on Mr. Orban. He is not a fascist, but he is Hungarian, and he knows the country he lives in.

Note: My daughter got married over the Labor Day weekend. That, along with the house guests that have only recently departed, accounts for the sparse blogging.

Further Reading:

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