Laszlo Balogh / Courtesy Reuters People take part in a protest against the Orban government in central Budapest, February 1, 2015.

The Hungarian Putin?

Viktor Orban and the Kremlin's Playbook

When, in 2010 and 2012, Hungary passed laws entitling Hungarians living abroad to Hungarian passports and then the right to vote in Hungarian elections, it seemed to fan dangerous nationalistic flames and fueled fears of secessionist movements in Hungarian communities beyond the country’s border. Indeed, Hungary’s illiberal Prime Minister Viktor Orban has frequently stated that the Hungarian nation does not end at the borders of the state; rather, it ends with those Hungarians who were stranded in Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, and Ukraine when the Treaty of Versailles lopped off two-thirds of the Hungarian territory. Given the parallels to Russia, where granting Russian citizenship to Ukrainians and Abkhazians has been a precursor to invasion, observers can be forgiven for feeling chilled.

Although Orban is certainly tapping into nationalist nostalgia when he talks about Hungarians abroad, his purposes are not the same as those of Russian President Vladimir Putin. More than irredentism, Orban is thinking about votes. In fact, since he returned to power in 2010, he has done everything possible to avoid ever losing another election. He has proven to be a world-class virtuoso of gerrymandering; after he pulled in a supermajority of votes in 2010, he was able to contort Hungary’s electoral system so much that in 2014, Fidesz, his party, was able to win two-thirds of all seats in the parliament with only 45 percent of the vote. And even if Fidesz does lose an election, Orban has manipulated the system so that Fidesz appointees in the media office, the prosecutor’s office, the state audit office, the central bank, and the presidency would continue to wield substantial power.

Orban’s dealings with Hungarians abroad should likewise be seen as an electoral strategy. Since Fidesz passed the 2010 law, 675,000 and counting ethnic Hungarians have taken advantage of the opportunity. Fewer than 130,000 of these new dual citizens voted in 2014, but 95 percent of those who did vote picked Fidesz. Although 130,000 may not seem a lot in a country of eight million eligible voters, the votes did give Fidesz an extra seat in the parliament to hold on to its narrow two-thirds majority—a small advantage, but one that meant a lot. And looking toward the next election in 2018, Fidesz could get even more out of this group by motivating more ethnic Hungarians to apply for passports and to vote, especially in pro-Fidesz areas. Orban’s government can also set up more ballots and polling stations, for example, in surrounding countries where voters tend to support his party—as opposed to London and elsewhere, where Fidesz did not rush to make it easier for Hungarians to vote.

Beyond votes, Orban also sees Hungarians abroad as a way to solve his country’s demographic problems. A nation of 10.6 million in 1988, Hungary has lost 700,000 people over the 27 years since, mostly from out-migration and lower birth rates. It is true that Orban, like many other right-wing politicians in Europe (but in a more radical tone), generally opposes immigration, especially of people from different cultural backgrounds. For instance, he spoke out sharply after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, stating, "We do not want to see a significant minority among ourselves that has different cultural characteristics and background. We would like to keep Hungary as Hungary." But the Hungarian diaspora can help Orban square the circle. Here, his strategy is similar to that of Russia, which has also encouraged Russians abroad to come home from other republics of the former Soviet Union.

Although Orban does not intend to stir up real trouble, he frequently uses strongly nationalist messages in his speeches. For example, he encourages “autonomy” and talks about a nation that goes beyond current borders. One possible explanation for the mismatch is that he is preparing for a Russian-dominated Europe, in which Hungary might gain back (at least symbolically) some of its former territories. Orban might have some hopes that Putin will do what Adolf Hitler did in 1938: give Hungary back the territories that were lost at Trianon. That is unrealistic; however borders in Europe do seem to be more flexible than before after Crimea.

But most ethnic Hungarians abroad are not supportive of aggressive autonomy movements, as they understand that they would be the first victims of irredentism. They tend to support political forces that are working toward peaceful cooperation among Hungarian, Romanian, Serbian, and Slovakian political forces. Polls by Political Capital, a Budapest think tank, have shown that enthusiastic Fidesz supporters compose only one-fourth of the Hungarians in Transylvania, the part of Romania where many Hungarians are concentrated. This silent majority has neither applied for dual citizenship nor voted in Hungarian elections. Meanwhile, Hungary’s radical, right-wing, fascist, and irredentist party, Jobbik, has virtually no support among Hungarians abroad, despite its attempts to build up networks in the Hungarian communities and fuel secessionist movements.

This does not mean, however, that aggressive separatist political movements, especially those with external political support, could not act as though they have a majority behind them, as in eastern Ukraine. That hasn’t happened so far, but any nationalist political use of Hungarians abroad in Hungary could set the stage for such extremism and instability in neighboring countries. Nowhere are these dangers more evident than in Ukraine, where Orban has taken advantage of political chaos to press Hungarian minority issues (about 200,000 Hungarians live in Ukraine) in the sub-Carpathian region of western Ukraine, adjacent to Hungary.

Here, Orban has echoed Russian nationalists, calling for increased autonomy for national minorities in Ukraine. In his inauguration speech on May 10, 2014, Orban stated that “the Hungarians in the Carpathian basin deserve dual citizenship, rights, and even autonomy. . . . This is our clear expectation toward the newly forming Ukraine.” This speech, not surprisingly, resulted in some diplomatic turbulence. Similar calls had landed Hungary in trouble before: in a 1996 treaty, it was forced to cease and desist making calls for autonomy for Hungarians living in Romania as a condition of membership in the European Union. The European Union may keep the peace among its member states, but Ukraine lies outside the EU.

In his approach to politics, Orban may stretch the limits of democratic respectability, but so far, he has not fully let go of European norms. His approach to Hungarians abroad fits this pattern. He toys with soft revisionist policies (they are not unique: dual citizenship with voting rights is a practice in Croatia and Romania as well). But he does so mainly to win votes at home, not to foment serious ethnic conflict. So far, his strategy has worked. But the delicate balance could easily topple.

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