A nasty Hungarian national mood rejects immigrants — and journalists

The mood in Hungary is decidedly nasty these days, and the populist prime minister, Viktor Orban, is accused by many of feeding it with his own sharp anti-foreigner rhetoric in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis.

Prime minister accused of feeding growth of xenophobic and anti-Semitic groups

Members of the Hungarian Self-Defence Movement stand in formation. This is one of dozens of far-right vigilante groups that claim to protect Hungarian identity but openly espouse racist views. Some have been disbanded by the courts for violating the rights of minorities. (Hungarian Self-Defence Movement)

The Goy Bikers Association of Budapest. Translation: The Non-Jewish Bikers Association of Budapest. 

We went looking for them as part of a report on the proliferation of extreme-right, xenophobic and anti-Semitic groups in Hungary, clothing themselves as nationalist defenders of the land. It didn't go well.

The bikers' leader, Imre Meszaros, demands the right to veto the work of journalists who interview him, even presents them with a legal document to sign right off the bat.

We didn't agree, but met with him at his apartment in a well-to-do suburb of the Hungarian capital in the hopes of changing his mind.

Meszaros was soon raising his voice, pointing fingers in our faces and railing about the fickle media.

After a brief off-the-record chat, we ended the conversation and said goodbye. But not before Meszaros stepped into the elevator with us to warn there would be "consequences" if the conversation was reported anywhere.

It wasn't a threat, he said, just "information," and he has friends in Canada, the Hells Angels.

I told him I know a threat when I hear one, and the non-interview was over.

Intimidation of the media

Later he emailed our translator, making the same threat. Intimidation of the media is a hallmark of the extreme right in Hungary.

The mood in the country is decidedly nasty these days. And the populist prime minister, Viktor Orban, is accused by many of feeding it with his own sharp anti-foreigner rhetoric in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis. 

Then, tens of thousands of would-be asylum seekers crossed through Hungary in unforgettable scenes, many walking right across the country when the government blocked them from boarding trains to Germany and Austria. 

Ceremonial guards stand outside the Hungarian parliament in Budapest. Critics accuse the government of fanning xenophobia in the country through its harsh rhetoric towards refugees. (Richard Devey/CBC)

Orban built a fence along the border with Serbia to keep them out, declared himself the defender of a Christian Europe and accused the European Union of trying to force Hungarians to accept and "serve" foreigners in their own country. 

"[Mass migration] is masquerading as a humanitarian cause, but its true nature is the occupation of territory," he thundered in a speech in March.

"There shall be no mass disorder. No immigrant riots here, and there shall be no gangs hunting down our women and daughters." 

Gangs hunting down migrants might be another matter, though.

During the height of the refugee crisis, in the town of Asotthalom in southern Hungary, the mayor produced a video warning migrants they could be jailed if caught in the country. 

It showed police cars roaring through forests, helicopters searching overhead and tattooed men riding motorcycles and horses down tree-lined paths — all looking, it's implied, for illegal immigrants.

The video also said that in Asotthalom police and soldiers were being supported by "militant field guards and civil guards" — a polite way of describing the vigilante groups that have found new life in Hungary during the refugee crisis.

"Hungary is a bad choice," ran the voice-over.  "Asotthalom is the worst."

Attila Laszlo heads the local branch of a "civic protection guard" called the Hungarian Self-Defence Movement. He's based in another southern town called Bekescsaba but went to the Serbian border during the crisis.

"Sometimes we took migrants from the forest to give them to the police," he confirmed. "These are civic actions."
Attila Laszlo leads a branch of the Hungarian Self-Defence Movement. The group travelled to the Serbian border during the height of 2015 refugee crisis to help the police apprehend refugees trying to cross. (Richard Devey/CBC)

An enormous man, dressed in a black vest over a white shirt, Laszlo is polite and friendly. There's a sticker on his office wall that accuses the Jews, and the recently deceased former Israeli president Shimon Peres in particular, of trying to buy up Hungary.

Laszlo says it belongs to his wife who, he notes, is a lawyer and will be listening to the interview.

Laszlo was the only hardline nationalist we contacted who was willing to be interviewed without conditions. He is not ashamed of his attitudes — far from it. He says he believes Hungary is under threat and he's comfortable appointing himself a defender of the land.

'We're necessary'

"There's something missing in terms of protection," he says. The police aren't always easy to contact, "so that's why we're necessary."

The Hungarian Self-Defence Movement was formed to replace another group, outlawed by the courts for interfering with the rights of minorities, mainly the Roma.

The movement has a presence in 60 or 70 communities, says Lazlo. And it's clear that when they're not concerning themselves with immigrants, they're focused on the ethnic Roma community.

"It's not a question of suspicion. Statistics based on experience very often show that nine out of 10 crimes would be committed by gypsies. Is it genetic?" he asks. "Tradition?"

'I don't judge people on their race'

Asked if he is a racist, Laszlo seems surprised.

"I don't judge people on their race," he says. "I just judge people the way I see them. But it's a fact that some people belonging to a specific race, either the gypsies or today's migrants, specifically commit crimes."

These are hardly new attitudes in the realm of the extreme right. But the rhetoric coming from the highest office of the land raises fears they will spread.

Orban's critics accuse him of trying to create a "post-fascist" world. He's moved to curb the media and the independent judiciary and has introduced legislation to deprive non-Christian religious groups of legal standing.

Some say he's trying to keep ahead of the Jobbik Party, which is even further to the right and won 20 per cent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections.
Marton Gyongyosi, a politician from Hungary's far-right Jobbik Party, suggested that a list of Jewish citizens should be created, describing those citizens as potential security risks for the country. He later apologized, saying he wanted a list of dual nationals, not Jews. (Richard Devey/CBC)

Three years ago, Jobbik MP Marton Gyongyosi called for a list of Jews in parliament and government, describing them as potential security risks. Gyongyosi later apologized, saying he wanted a list of citizens with dual nationalities, not Jews.

Today, he says the media made too much of the matter.

"I said that my statement was not phrased correctly and it was not quoted correctly," he said in an interview. "The point I was making in the Hungarian parliament is that double citizenship … the citizenship of an MP or the civil service in accordance with the guidelines of the Hungarian ombudsman for civil rights, should be transparent."

Gyongyosi is considered one of the new faces of the party, which is seeking to distance itself from its extreme-right connections to a former paramilitary group.

Orban has also been accused of contributing to a rise in anti-Semitism in Hungary. This year, he awarded one of the highest medals in the land to one of his close associates, a journalist named Zoltan Bayer, known for his anti-Semitic and anti-Roma writings.

Along with dozens of other recipients, Jewish community leader Andras Heisler returned a prestigious award given to him by the government after the same honour was bestowed on an anti-Semite this year. (Richard Devey/CBC)

Andras Heisler is the head of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities. I interviewed him beside the Danube River, next to a memorial to Jews shot by Hungarian fascists along the river in 1944. They were forced to remove their shoes first.

Heisler's uncle was a rare survivor. And Heisler is one of more than 100 prominent Hungarians who returned their medals to the government after hearing Bayer had been awarded one.

"I thought that I would not like to be in the same company with a man who has Nazi ideas. That's why I gave back my medal to the government," Heisler said.

Heisler says part of the problem in Hungary is the justice system's lack of follow-up on hate crimes.

"We have the laws, but they are not applied. We need to apply them," he said.

This is a Budapest monument beside the Danube River to Jewish citizens who were killed by Hungarian fascists during the Second World War. Members of the Jewish community say the country is experiencing renewed anti-Semitism. (Richard Devey/CBC)

He agrees with those who say the government's recent referendum campaign, which used scare-mongering language to urge Hungarians to say no to EU proposals to resettle just over 1,000 refugees in the country, awoke old prejudices. Not enough people voted for the results to be binding, but more than 90 per cent of those who voted backed the government.

"We made it clear from the very beginning that our community won't accept generating hatred against minorities, be it gays, gypsies, Jews, migrants, Muslims."

Hungary has yet to come to terms with the darker elements of its past, he says. An estimated 400,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to the Nazi death camps during the Second World War.

"In history, it always started with the word," says Heisler. "Preaching hatred is like a virus. It spreads fast and unobserved."

Especially, it seems, when those holding the highest office of the land deliberately turn a blind eye to it.

Hungary's contradictions

6 years ago
Duration 11:42
Of all the EU countries, Hungary seems to have adopted the most hostile position on refugees


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.