BUDAPEST—Russian President Vladimir Putin has some key allies in the European Union. In some countries, they are outliers, even fringe elements. In some, like France and the Netherlands, they made impressive bids for power before, finally, they failed. But in Hungary, a nation of about 10 million people east of Austria, west of Ukraine, and north of the Balkans, Putin’s soulmate is the prime minister, Viktor Orban.
As with so many Putin allies and apologists (including in the United States) Orban made the fight against immigration a centerpiece of his agenda. And he then went one better by identifying another Hungarian as the personification of evil “liberalism.”
Last month Hungary hosted a unique conference for persecuted Christians. Orban opened the conference by scolding Europe for, “denying its Christian roots” and for allowing in “dangerous extremists.”
The billionaire George Soros, once a supporter of Orban, is now identified publicly and ubiquitously as his number one enemy. In a recent public statement Orban called the world’s biggest philanthropist “Satan,” claiming that the developer of one of the best Hungarian universities wants to destroy Europe by letting in Muslim immigrants.
That statement made many alt-right supporters happy, both in Hungary and in Russia. One of the eminences grises of the Kremlin, Vladislav Surkov, wrote in his column on Monday: “Things that acquire a national scale in the United States become a global trend outside its borders.”
Moscow officials applauded Orban, welcoming the fences Hungary installed on its frontiers to stop refugees, and especially praising Budapest’s criticism of European democracy.
The Kremlin has spent a lot of energy trying to discredit EU policies in the Baltics, in the Balkans, and in Western Europe, but there was no need to convince the Hungarian leader, as Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orban were thinking along the same lines, and Orban has garnered a lot of local backing for his ideas.
Hungarian politicians, ignoring the laws of neighboring Ukraine, visited annexed Crimea and rebellious Donbas to demonstrate their loyalty to the Kremlin.
Putin and Orban also seem to agree on their views about democratic freedoms and the supposed threat represented by Soros.
Russian prosecutors banned Soros-sponsored organizations back in 2015.
“We maintain close ties with all right-wing ideologues in Hungary, because this is the only place in the Washington-managed EU where leaders are so brave as to pronounce what everybody thinks of immigrants and liberals,” Sergei Markov, an adviser to the Kremlin administration, told The Daily Beast.
Indeed, Hungary is the only country in Europe where several far-right parties compete with the ruling party to see who can use the most hateful speech about foreigners.
In June, hundreds of extreme far-right militants—muscled up and heads shaved—demonstrated against Muslim immigrants at the launch of a new extreme-right group called Force and Determination that emerged to compete with the biggest far-right party, Jobbik.
Militants from Force and Determination subscribe to Nazi ideology, calling for a “fight to hold on to living space” (Lebensraum, as Hitler used to say) and hope to use their racist narrative to win votes in next year’s parliamentary elections.
Walk around the streets of Budapest today and you will hardly meet any refugees from the Middle East or Africa. What you will see is the face of George Soros on every bus stop brilliantly illuminated day and night next to seven questions addressed to the people of Hungary about a so-called Soros Plan, which allegedly entails opening European borders to millions of refugees.
Orban called for the Hungarian spy agencies to investigate the “Soros empire” of NGOs criticizing his policies. In Orban’s recent statement on national radio he told listeners that Soros wanted to see Hungary “condemned, stigmatized, and forced to change its migration policy.”
Xenophobia, the fear of foreigners, is pathological here, and the fear inspires ugly incidents.
The news that a few refugee children might be coming to stay in a local guesthouse angered residents of Ocseny, a village in southwestern Hungary this fall.
Crowds of local people gathered to condemn Zoltan Fenyvesi, the owner of the guesthouse. The protesters called refugees “animals” who were about to come and kill their own children, and rape their women.
Later, Fenyvesi discovered that somebody had slashed the tires of his car in evident retaliation for his cooperation with Migration Aid, an NGO helping refugees.
“I cried with shame when I saw what paranoia had done to the people in Ocseny village,” Viktor Szigetvari, an opposition leader, told The Daily Beast.
What happened in Ocseny would sound familiar to Russian ears. Year after year, thousands of Nazi groups march in the streets of Russian cities chanting “Sieg heil!” Poverty, unemployment, and disillusionment have fed the hate for foreigners, who are seen as potential competition on the employment market and even in sexual relationships.
The Kremlin, for its part, has flirted with far-right groups on the one hand and arrested ultranationalist leaders on the other. Last week Russian special forces arrested more than 400 supporters of nationalist leader Vyacheslav Maltsev for their alleged revolutionary plans to overthrow President Putin.
But arrests do not stop violent crimes. At least nine people were killed and 72 injured as a result of xenophobic hate in 2016, a Moscow-based NGO, the Sova Center of Information and Analyses reported.
To understand Hungarian Prime Minister Orban and his supporters, meet András Bencsik, chief editor of right-wing magazine Demokrata. In a recent interview in Budapest, Benscik said he had been waiting for such a policy for years.
“Soros is dangerous, anti-Christian, not only is he dangerous for Hungary, he is threatening to destroy all of Europe,” Benscik told The Daily Beast in his office, which is decorated with swords, armor, and an old map of the Kingdom of Hungary.
Why was Soros smiling in the pictures on billboards all over Budapest? “He is laughing at us, we have to stop him,” the editor insisted.
Benscik said his country’s leader, Orban, and his Fidesz party were “bravely” using alt-right rhetoric even though only 44 percent of registered voters turned out in last year’s anti-immigrant referendum.
A devoted Hungarian nationalist, Benscik speaks good Russian, often attending events at the Russian embassy and especially the Russian cultural center, which is located just next door to Demokrata magazine’s office. The editor recently traveled to Moscow together with his son and a friend, also members of the ruling Fidesz party, to participate in a conference dedicated to international security issues.
“I am happy to see that Vladimir Putin likes to visit Budapest,” Benscik said with a big smile. Putin has been here twice this year.
And Orban seems to like to visit Moscow as well. In 2014 he signed a $12 billion loan deal with the Kremlin to expand the Soviet-era nuclear plant in Paks.
Jozsef Peter Martin, executive director of Transparency International in Hungary, says that potential corruption around that deal is a concern: “Nobody gives us any details about the loan for the nuclear plant, which is officially a state secret.”
What sort of political regime is Orban creating in Hungary? “The regime is not as severe as in Azerbaijan or even Russia,” says Martin. “But it is somewhere in between liberal democracy and dictatorship, a kind of a hybrid regime, in which nominally we have independent institutions and free elections but in action the elections are not fair and most of the institutions have been captured by power.”
In the beginning of the anti-Soros campaign, Viktor Szigetvári, who is chairman of the National Political Council of Egyutt, an opposition party, participated in televised debates with Szilard Nemeth, deputy leader of the ruling Fidesz party. Szigetvári asked the official about Hungary’s anti-Semitic attack on the world’s most famous philanthropist.
“I said in a live interview that at the end of the day the attack was all about Jews, that the narrative and symbolic context of the campaign resembles the narrative of the 1930s, that the campaign inspires violence, and alt-right aggression,” Szigetvári recalled. “But the Fidesz deputy leader just stood up and walked out of the live show.”
Hungarian liberals struggled to put an end to hate speech against Soros and refugees that is unacceptable for Europe. Many young people in Hungary, who came out to rallies in support of Soros, want to see the philanthropist remembered for his help, for billions of dollars he donated for decades to develop education, culture, and science in Hungary.
But the government is unmoved. “Look at the world around you: It is not liberal; We are here to stop liberals from monopolizing everything, as if they alone created the rule of law and the elections,” Zoltan Kovacs, a government spokesman, told The Daily Beast.
So militant is Hungary’s anti-liberal stand that it may even have inspired the Kremlin’s agents, both in Europe and at home. “We take Orban’s right-wing party as an example for our ideal policy,” says Leonid Reshetnikov, a retired lieutenant general of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. “Unlike Hungary, Russia still has not created a strong right-wing party.”
These days Reshetnikov is chairman of the board of Tsargrad TV, a channel created in 2015 by Russian far-right nationalist Alexander Dugin and Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev (both currently under U.S. sanctions). Tsargrad’s mission is to support the anti-Kiev and anti-Western rebel movement in Donbas. The channel now claims more than 10 million viewers.
“In our Orthodox circles, Soros is also considered Satan,” Reshetnikov said with a little laughter. “Tsargrad is happy to cover the brave and thoughtful Hungarian policy, it is a beacon in the largely failing European Union.”