Ruled by a populist, Hungary is considered Europe’s bully. But its prime minister has shown common sense in managing COVID-19.
In Soviet times, Hungary was known as the “happiest barracks” of the East bloc, enjoying relatively liberal “goulash Communism”. Now it is widely regarded as the “bad boy” of the European Union, with a populist leader who is mean to minorities and proud to call his government “illiberal”.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has done a lot to deserve his reputation as a rightist authoritarian, in the same league as Vladimir Putin of Russia, Donald Trump of the United States and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. Under the cloak of defending European, Christian and family values, he has made anti-Semitic slurs against his opponents and flouted EU law to hold asylum seekers.
But in fairness to Orbán, he has so far had a “good” result in the battle against coronavirus, with “only” 551 deaths as of June 10 in a country of just under 10 million. In this, he is not in the club of his fellow populists but closer, say, to Austria or Germany.
At last it seems that Hungary may have done something right. How has this happened?
Hungary closed down quickly when COVID-19 hit.
The first people known to be infected with COVID-19 in Hungary were students from Iran. Orbán could not resist the temptation to connect the topics of migration and disease, but he did not go on to press that pedal too hard.
Instead, he went into hands-on manager mode, declaring that if outsiders could not help Hungary, they should at least not prevent it from protecting its citizens from the virus.
Orbán had observed the tragedy unfolding 900 km away in Italy, so he closed Hungary down quickly. He took special powers to rule by decree, arguing that he needed to make rapid decisions. His opponents suspected a plan to usurp power indefinitely.
Like others in lockdown around the globe, Hungarians were told to stay at home. But the way Orbán addressed his people in regular radio broadcasts showed he had the common touch. He spoke to them as intelligent adults, with an understanding of their reality, which for many involves living in cramped housing. He left much to their common sense, allowing for the possibility of walks in parks and some fresh air.
“The intent behind any restriction is, on the one hand, to serve a goal but, on the other, to place only as great a burden on people as they are actually able to bear,” he said.
“Therefore, we are not talking about a curfew, because in a curfew even a fly couldn’t leave your house. You would have to stay at home, your hat and coat would stay on the hook and you’d hardly be able to move. I want to avoid a situation where we need to introduce restrictions that make life unbearable.”
Orbán came up with his own ideas for Hungary.
In steering Hungary through the crisis, Orbán looked to Austria, the Czech Republic and Bavaria — Central European friends with a similar lifestyle. At the same time, he came up with his own ideas.
One was to permit shopping exclusively by those over 65 between 9 am and noon, after which time younger people could run out to the supermarkets. Shopping after the noon watershed, I have twice been asked my age by guards, who let me in when I satisfied them I was 64. But that is fine if it means avoiding panic buying and ugly pushing and shoving, which I have not witnessed once during the crisis.
Overall, my impressions are good.
True, on May 20 — and one could say under the cover of COVID-19 — Hungary banned the legal recognition of transgender people, with a law defining gender based on chromosomes at birth.
But also in May — in a development under-reported because of coronavirus — Hungary bowed to a ruling by the European Court of Justice and closed its “transit zone” at the border with Serbia. Here it had been keeping some 300 asylum seekers in detention, in metal containers behind barbed wire. The asylum seekers have now gone to open refugee centres, in line with international law.
By the end of June, Orbán will give back the special powers he took for the duration of the health crisis. Justice Minister Judit Varga said an apology from critics would be nice, but she was not so naïve as to expect one.
Hungary still suffers from ‘phantom pain’.
I am not an apologist for any government, and certainly not for Viktor Orbán. But a decent foreign correspondent should try to understand the country in which he or she is based, and be fair to it.
Significantly, the first events to take place here as we emerged from lockdown were ceremonies marking the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Trianon, which punished Hungary for its role in World War One by awarding three fifths of its territory to neighbouring states. As a result, ethnic Hungarians are now scattered in Romania, Slovakia and Serbia. And like an amputee, Hungary still suffers from phantom pain.
Over the centuries, Hungarians have been occupied by the Turks and dominated by the Austrians and Soviet Russians. On the whole, ordinary Hungarians are not xenophobic, but they have a desire to cultivate what bit of garden they have left in their own way — to be neither happy little Communists nor EU delinquents, but their own, independent Magyar selves.
British-born foreign correspondent Helen Womack is a specialist on former Communist countries. From 1985-2015, she reported from Moscow for Reuters, The Independent, The Times and the Fairfax newspapers of Australia. Now based in Budapest, she covers the European Union’s relatively new eastern members. Since the refugee crisis of 2015, she has written for the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, about how refugees are settling in Europe.