- - Thursday, July 2, 2015

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Billboards on Hungarian highways and buildings carry messages reading, “If you come to Hungary, you must respect our laws,” and “If you come to Hungary, do not take Hungarians’ jobs.”

They reflect the concerns of many as thousands of North African and Middle Eastern refugees land on Europe’s southern shores and make their way to Hungary and on to wealthier nations in Western Europe.

But advocacy groups haven’t paid for the billboards to express their opinions in a public debate. Printed only in Hungarian, they are government-funded announcements meant expressly for locals. The refugees flooding into Europe who speak Arabic and other languages can’t understand them.

“The billboards are not commercial, but convey a government message that is not, by the way, in line with the basic values of the country,” said Eva Simon, a Hungarian civil rights lawyer who is defending activists who are accused of defacing some of the signs.

The billboards are the brainchild of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has become a lightning rod for controversy and alarm across the European Union as he moves to build what he calls an “illiberal” state modeled on the centralized authority of governments such as Russia, China and Singapore.

In recent months, his growing number of foreign and domestic critics claim, Mr. Orban has given free rein to the xenophobia that other European countries are trying to contain. He also has embraced closer ties with Russia, antagonized European Union leaders and continued his crackdown on civil rights and promotion of government ownership of private businesses.

He has generated headlines with his call for a 13-foot-high fence along Hungary’s 110-mile border with Serbia to keep out immigrants seeking to travel from southern Europe to Germany and other wealthy countries.

“It’s an illusion for anyone to think that people from the African crisis areas will keep arriving in Europe only until the crises there are pacified,” Mr. Orban told reporters in Budapest on Wednesday. “If we allow it, a modern mass migration could take place of millions, even tens of millions and even hundreds of millions.”

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said Thursday that the fence would be finished in a matter of months, with early construction focused on the areas favored by human smugglers. The border barrier would “defend Hungary and the European Union from the startling scale of illegal immigration pressure,” Mr. Szijjarto said.

A fence might secure Hungary’s borders. But in a country that helped bring about the fall of the Berlin Wall by removing its barriers along the Austrian border in 1989, the idea is highly divisive and a symbol of rising worries across Europe about the country’s political future.

“There is no place for barbed wire on the borders of Hungary,” said Csaba Molnar, a member of the European Parliament with the left-wing Democratic Coalition. “It’s an outrage.”

The 52-year-old Mr. Orban, once seen as the fresh face of a dynamic Hungary rising from the ashes of the collapsed Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, is serving his second term as prime minister. He served first from 1998 to 2002 and engineered a political comeback in 2010 to reclaim power. His second term has proved far more contentious than his first.

In April, Mr. Orban clashed with EU officials when said he believed capital punishment would deter crime. EU leaders reminded him that union rules ban the death penalty. Later, he said he wanted only to spur a discussion.

Covering his right flank

Kim Lane Scheppele, an international professor at Princeton and a longtime Hungary observer, said Mr. Orban was trying to act tough to keep voters who have been drifting from his right-wing party, Fidesz, to Hungary’s neo-Nazi party, Jobbik, in the past year.

Orban is always in danger of losing support to the Nazi Party, so he is out-Nazi-ing the Nazis. He has to be tough on immigration,” she said. “Orban knows well the EU would never tolerate the death penalty. He riled up his supporters this way. He knew it would rattle the EU’s cage.”

Mr. Orban and his supporters say they are defending the national identity and rights of a small country against the intrusions of larger powers, including the European Union leaders in Brussels.

“The Hungarian nation is not simply a group of individuals but a community that must be organized, reinforced and in fact constructed,” he said in a speech last year to ethnic Hungarians living in Romania. His government, he argued, is “breaking with the dogmas and ideologies that have been adopted by the West and keeping ourselves independent” in order “to construct a new state built on illiberal and national foundations within the European Union.”

As Mr. Orban courts controversy within Europe, he also is executing a $14 billion deal with Russia to build two nuclear reactors in southern Hungary, with Moscow providing 80 percent of the financing. EU regulators are scrutinizing the deal closely.

The nuclear project was undoubtedly on the agenda in talks between Mr. Orban and Vladimir Putin in February, when the prime minister invited the Russian president to Hungary for a visit as the rest of the West was shunning the Russian leader. Mr. Orban also has been in talks with authoritarian states such as Azerbaijan to build gas pipelines through Europe that would bypass Ukraine.

“What Orban is selling, I think, is his position in the EU to dodgy countries who want a friend in the organization who can tell them what’s going on and defend their interests,” said Ms. Lane Scheppele.

Mr. Orban also has followed Mr. Putin’s example in solidifying power at home.

Fidesz won 53 percent of the vote in 2010 and 45 percent in elections last year, but the country’s unusual electoral rules gave the party a two-thirds majority in parliament. That supermajority allowed Mr. Orban to get laws enacted and even to amend the Hungarian Constitution with party-line votes.

He weakened the checks and balances on the power of whichever party holds a parliamentary majority, created a massive patronage system, enacted laws that punish foreign and minority religious organizations, effectively nationalized banks and utilities and even set up a tobacco monopoly that put small shops out of business, said Ms. Lane Scheppele.

“They figured out how to put together a system where no opposition party could ever come into power again,” the Princeton researcher said. “This is not really a constitutional democracy anymore. It’s an autocracy. It’s not a free country. They’ve figured out how to do it while looking superficially like a European democracy.”

Fidesz lost two seats in by-elections this year — including a seat to Jobbik — and with it the supermajority it had.

Mr. Orban still will control parliament until at least the 2018 elections, allowing him to run the government with a largely free hand, including through a press commission that has shut down or intimidated newspapers and television stations into aping the government’s line, according to a recent Freedom House report on Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics.

“Media freedom, national democratic governance and the fairness of the electoral process in Hungary have declined more rapidly in the five years since Viktor Orban and his right-leaning Fidesz party came to power,” the report found. “Only Russia’s judicial independence rating has seen as much deterioration as Hungary’s over the last five years.”

Opposition lawmakers often refused to participate in parliamentary debates and walk out during votes, knowing they can’t affect the outcome.

“Many opposition politicians regard themselves as oppressed, thus offer an oppressed remedy — to leave the system,” said Ervin Csizmadi, an analyst at the Hungarian Academy of Social Sciences Research Center.

But other analysts said small cracks are appearing in Mr. Orban’s political fortress.

In addition to the lost by-elections and Jobbik’s increasing popularity, Mr. Orban stumbled last year when he proposed an Internet tax, prompting demonstrations and EU warnings that led him to pull the proposal.

Mr. Orban also is at loggerheads with Lajos Simicska, a tycoon who owns a formerly pro-Fidesz newspaper, over the prime minister’s chumminess with Mr. Putin.

Opposition parties might not defeat the prime minister, but his allies might ultimately turn on him, said Robert Friss, a writer and political pundit. “The economic elite — and Fidesz too — have to decide,” Mr. Friss said. “How much further they wish to follow a leader who is enamored with his power and running amok?”

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