Hungary’s Orban steps up crackdown on critics before vote

February 16, 2018

FILE -In this Feb. 1, 2018 file photo a poster is seen in Budapest reading: Soros would settle millions from Africa and the Middle East. Stop Soros!. Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban is stepping up efforts to silence civic groups critical of his government ahead of April elections which will likely result in his third consecutive term. Critics fear that a new draft bill nominally meant to stem support for advocates of asylum seekers and migrants will also be used to strengthen the domination of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government and state control over civil society. (AP Photo/Pablo Gorondi)

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Nearly 30 years after the end of communism, the tightening stranglehold Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his oligarch allies have on key sectors of Hungary’s media has inspired a group of activists to relaunch a modern version of samizdat, the clandestine publications created by dissidents in the Soviet era.

On a recent day, activists handed out copies of the publication to passengers on outbound trains at Budapest’s Keleti station, hoping copies would reach people in rural areas whose main source of news comes from heavily controlled state news outlets.

Yet this act of resistance is unlikely to do much to shake the rule of the 54-year-old Orban, who has centralized power for his conservative Fidesz party over eight years of rule and seems set to win a third consecutive term in April elections.

On Sunday, Orban, who also had an earlier stint as prime minister from 1998-2002, will deliver his annual “state of the nation” speech, something he has done every year for the past 20 years whether in office or not. This year it comes as he intensifies efforts to silence civic groups critical of his government ahead of the April 8 vote.

Despite strong economic growth and record-low unemployment, Orban is expected to continue vilifying migration, the European Union and his personal bete noire, Hungarian-American financier George Soros, whose ideal of an “open society” clashes with Orban’s efforts to turn Hungary into an “illiberal state” not open to migrants.

Orban’s penchant for stirring up conflict may be rooted in his stated belief that Hungarians reach out to him when they feel in trouble but choose the opposition when things go well.

“One of the main characteristics of Viktor Orban and his current government is that they have to constantly be at war with an enemy,” said Peter Kreko, political analyst and executive director at Political Capital, a Budapest research firm.

Since becoming premier for the second time in 2010, Orban has introduced a new constitution, placed associates at the head of the prosecutor’s office, the state audit office and other state institutions and swollen the role of the state in the economy and public life to the detriment of civic groups and private enterprise. Meanwhile, several oligarchs close to him and enriched by state contracts and EU funds, have bought up hundreds of media outlets that now emit a steady stream of government propaganda.

“Since 2010, the government has gradually minimized space for independent media,” said Janos Laszlo, the editor of the samizdat publication, which is meant to be printed out from the Internet, folded into a small four-page newsletter and is called “You Print, Too!”

“They have very consciously isolated their voter base and assailed them with the anti-migrant campaign built on fear to which the less informed, poorer rural residents were more receptive,” Laszlo said as he and fellow activists distributed the newsletter.

Some passengers asked for several copies of the publication, which included articles on topics rarely addressed in the state or pro-government media, such as allegations of corruption by government officials or demands by students for education reform.

“I’d like to put a few in mailboxes in my own village, so people can read this, too,” said Julianna Horvath, heading to the village of Apc, 70 kilometers (45 miles) northeast of Budapest. “Today, people in rural areas know only about what the government wants them to know about.”

Orban, 54, a former student leader and liberal who became known when he publicly called for the exit of Soviet troops in 1989, made a conservative turn in the mid-1990s and is now a leading opponent of migration into Europe, especially by Muslims, whom he sees as threats to Europe’s cultural heritage.

“We feel that we are losing ground and that our lifestyle based on Christian culture is in peril,” Orban said this month. “We have not left our countries and yet the feeling that we are at home has begun to disappear.”

In 2015, at the height of the migrant crisis, Hungary built fences on its southern borders with Serbia and Croatia to divert the flow of people seeking to reach Western Europe. Since then, the country’s refugee camps have been closed, the support system for refugees greatly weakened and now sometimes only one or two asylum-seekers a day are processed in border “transit zones” made of shipping containers.

The latest government efforts to crack down on foreign-funded organizations consist of a new legislation dubbed “Stop Soros,” reflecting Orban’s claim that Soros’ influence is behind practically every pro-migrant policy in the world.

Critics see the attacks on Soros, a liberal philanthropist and Holocaust survivor, as part of a broader attack on democracy with anti-Semitic undertones.

Under the legislation, which was submitted to Parliament on Tuesday and is expected to face a vote only after the election, civic groups which organize, support or finance migration will only be able to operate with permission from the interior minister and would have to pay a 25 percent levy on funding received from abroad.

People working with migrants could also be banned from going closer than 8 kilometers (5 miles) from most Hungarian borders, which could possibly prevent lawyers and others from being able to meet with asylum-seekers stopped at the border.

The draft legislation has drawn sharp criticism from the Council of Europe, Amnesty International and the German government, among others.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which provides legal aid to asylum seekers, has been expressly named by the government as a target of the “Stop Soros” laws. Most of its funding comes from Soros’ Open Society Foundations, the United Nations, and the EU.

“The aim is clearly to drive independent voices into a corner, stigmatize them and possibly even to eliminate them,” said Marta Pardavi, the Helsinki committee’s co-chair. “To what degree this can succeed in a democracy which is a member of the European Union is a big question.”

Orban is considered to have one of the best relationships with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s among EU politicians, which may account for some of his policies.

“In the actions of the government, we increasingly see that, following the Russian model ... they are taking control of the media and striving to decrease the influence of civil organizations,” Kreko, the analyst, said.

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