Hungary's Viktor Orban, the cunning leader who would keep refugees out of Europe

Hungary's prime minister — a former human rights activist who's now baiting migrants — has one goal, says a Princeton prof who has been in his sights.

Q&A: Princeton prof Kim Lane Scheppele hones in on the former democracy activist's drive for power

'I think that Orban is a political chameleon motivated by one thing: the drive to gain and keep power,' says a Princeton prof who specializes in Hungarian politics. (Sergei Grits/Associated Press)

Hungary's emergency migration law that came into effect Tuesday has underscored, if it wasn't clear already, that Viktor Orban is the leader who wants to keep Syrian refugees out of Europe.

In a speech in July, he declared that "there is a clear link between illegal migrants coming to Europe and the spread of terrorism" and "we would like to preserve Europe for Europeans."

But Hungary's prime minister — who some now call the "creeping dictator" of Europe, and who espouses an immigration policy of "Hungary for Hungarians" — was once, a long time ago, a star of the Western media and a pro-democracy activist who helped bring down communism in Eastern Europe.

Hungarian soldiers put up a sign along the border with Serbia warning in six languages that property damage is a crime. The Hungarian government installed the fence and razor wire in response to the refugee crisis. (Darko Bandic/Associated Press)

Back in the 1980s, he was an idealistic law student and head of a nascent political party called Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats) that refused to accept members over age 35.

In 1989, the charismatic Orban grabbed headlines around the world when he took a podium in Budapest, calling for free elections and the end of communism in Hungary.

I interviewed him for CBC News in 1999 when he came to Canada as a fresh-faced prime minister. He spoke eloquently of his years as an activist and was exhilarated by his country's newfound freedoms and hopes for a brighter future.

Kim Lane Scheppele, a specialist in Hungarian politics and law and a professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University, also met a youthful Orban in 1995 and says she was struck by his charisma and intellectual power.

Kim Lane Scheppele met a youthful Orban in 1995 and says she was struck by his charisma and intellectual power. (Eotvos Lorand University)

Today, a dogged chronicler of Hungary's abysmal human rights situation and deteriorating legal system, Scheppele has attracted ire from the Orban government. 

"In the 1980s, Orban was a libertarian, which meant he wanted to be free of state constraints.  He still wants to be free of state constraints — this is why he has removed all checks on the power of the prime minister," she said.

CBC News interviewed Scheppele about recent developments in Hungary, what they signal about Orban, and what they mean for Europe.

You're a legal scholar. What's the significance of Hungary's emergency law today?

With this measure, the government can start enforcing draconian new laws that criminalize crossing the border without proper documents. If refugees manage to cross into Hungary after the border is sealed, they will be charged with serious felonies and imprisoned until either their asylum claim is processed or until the criminal charges are resolved. 

Under the new laws, judges will work 24/7 processing asylum applications. If a refugee is found to have entered Hungary through a safe country — and Serbia is a safe country, according to this law — then the refugee can be expelled back across the border. The asylum procedures will work like kangaroo courts. Everyone expects all of the refugees to be deported after a nominal process. 

Hungarian riot police uses a water cannon against protesting migrants on the Serbian side of the border, near Roszke, Hungary, on Wednesday. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

One week from now, another new law will take effect giving the military the power to use rubber bullets, tear gas, nets and dogs to keep refugees out of Hungary, with the use of deadly force if a soldier feels his life is threatened. Police and soldiers will be able to stop and search cars, cordon off sensitive zones, prevent free movement around the country and, most alarmingly, "use force" and "restrict liberty." Hungary may soon be a police state, where the police determine the rules and the law gives little guidance.

What's the strategy with the fences along the Serbian border, specifically?

Serbia is a non-EU country, so when refugees cross the border from Serbia into Hungary, they enter the European Union at that point. And under EU law (the "Dublin regulation"), it's the first EU member state that bears responsibility for caring for the refugee and processing the asylum claim. Hungary doesn't want to take responsibility for any of these refugees, so it built the fence to prevent them from crossing into Hungary, encouraging them to enter the EU through Croatia first. Croatia would then be on the hook for their care and processing. 

Orban, left, visited Canada in 1999, meeting with then-PM Jean Chrétien. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

In short, the fence was designed for burden-shifting. Many of these refugees actually entered the EU through Greece, which would normally have the obligation to register them, care for them and then process their asylum claims. But the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2014 that conditions in Greece, due to the austerity programs, were so bad that Greece could no longer be considered a "safe state." 

You met Viktor Orban early on in his political life. Describe his trajectory since 1989, when he was a pro-democracy activist.

Viktor Orban is a man of relatively little ideology but someone who is a keen analyst of power. In 1989, he argued that the dissidents should negotiate not with the current government but with the Communist Party, because that was where the power lay. 

Victor Orban on CBC in 1999

8 years ago
Duration 5:55
In 1999, Victor Orban was interviewed by the CBC about his days as an idealistic student leader in the pro-democracy movement of 1989 that helped bring down Communism in Eastern Europe

The party he created in 1989, Fidesz, was originally libertarian, but moved to the right — because that's where the voters were. Orban understood that to get and keep power, it was easier to appeal to voters' prejudices than to try to erase those prejudices. So he became a nationalist, claiming "Hungary for Hungarians." He is playing a xenophobic nationalist because his biggest domestic challenger is a far-right party. If the left were stronger in Hungary, he would probably tack left to undercut them. I think that Orban is a political chameleon motivated by one thing: the drive to gain and keep power. 

What motivates his anti-refugee "Hungary for Hungarians" philosophy?

For almost a year, Orban has used the government-friendly media to claim that the refugees were economic migrants, trying to steal Hungarians' jobs. Then, the refugees were security risks — terrorists wanting to destroy "Christian Europe." Then, the refugees were carrying contagious diseases! In fact, you can still see Hungarian police wearing surgical masks and gloves when they deal with the refugees, something that creates a powerful impression on TV.   

To what degree is this government line a reflection of what Hungarians actually feel?

Not surprisingly, given this year-long media barrage, Hungarians were opposed to allowing the refugees to settle in Hungary. But in the last weeks, as more Hungarians have had personal experience with them, opinion softened. Some recent polls say that as many as 40 per cent of Hungarians now want the country to take in refugees.  

Does Orban make a fair point when he says Germany and Europe's messages to the refugees have been mixed and confusing?

It's true that when Chancellor Angela Merkel says that refugees will be safe in Germany, these refugees have to pass through many other countries to get there. Her cry of compassion therefore puts a greater burden on these other countries. So I can see why the states on the way to Germany felt that Merkel was irresponsible in doing what she did. But the fault is not really Merkel's. What we can now see is that the Dublin regulation created a broken system in which refugees must be handled by the very countries in the EU least able to shoulder the burden. The countries most willing to take in refugees are not the front-line states.

Refugees from wartorn Syria are no longer able to freely enter the EU through Hungary. Instead they are moving from Serbia to Croatia, with many aiming to reach Germany. (CBC )

Now that the EU is stalled on a plan about how to distribute the refugees, and Hungary is blocking them at its border, what might happen next?

It will take many summits of member-state leaders to decide whether the European project — in this case open borders — is worth saving or whether the ability of each country to separately determine its own immigration rules is more important. I suspect that open borders will win in the end, but frankly I don't see how we're going to get there in the near term.

The EU is talking about mass internment camps in Italy and Greece. What do you think of this idea?

The EU wants to create "hot spots" where EU officials process asylum claims and handle the refugee crisis entirely within an EU framework. But ultimately, any admitted refugee will have to live somewhere, and given the resistance to quotas, it is unclear how the EU — which controls no territory that is not in a member state — can guarantee that an admitted refugee would have a place to go. So then we're thrown back into the same quagmire: If many countries' doors are closed, the EU doesn't have the power to open them.

A migrant mother carries her child as she arrives at the border between Serbia and eastern Croatia on Wednesday. (Matthias Schrader/AP)

Orban came of age during the era of the pro-democracy movement in communist Eastern Europe and fought for individual freedoms and human rights. How do we square this with his policies today?  

Orban really hasn't changed so much. He went from being a universal libertarian — libertarianism for all! — to being a personal libertarian: freedom for him alone!