October 24, 2022 - 3:30pm

Sunday in Hungary was a day of conflict, although it was supposed to be a day of unity. The commemoration of the Hungarian Uprising — crushed by Soviet troops in 1956 — should have been a time for reflection, but it was overshadowed by protests in Budapest and a speech by Viktor Orbán which inflamed national tensions. 

Orbán spoke in Zalaegerszeg, a town in western Hungary — a decision he justified by saying the events of 1956 were “not just about Budapest.” But there may have been another reason for the relocation, as student and teacher unions had called a demonstration in the capital for the same day to express dissatisfaction with the Hungarian educational system. It’s estimated that around 80,000 people attended the protests. 

While some of their demands were critical of Orbán’s style of leadership, the politicisation of debate in Hungary was underlined by the eagerness of the opposition to co-opt these demonstrations. As opposition leaders called on their supporters to take to the street, the protests ended up being seen as overtly political, despite calls from the unions for politicians to take a back seat because “resentment is strong” towards all major parties. 

This feeds Orbán’s narrative about the cynicism of the Hungarian opposition and boosts the present-day relevance of his reminder that the events of 1956 weren’t only about Budapest. In the same speech, he claimed the opposition is only interested in the capital city and “looks down on us rural people.”   

Orbán thrives on such polarising narratives, and he recently set up an English-language Twitter account to bring them to international audiences too. Pugilistic posts so far have seen him lament the “witch-hunt” against Steve Bannon and criticise the EU’s “primitive” sanctions policy against Russia. 

And his adversarial approach is also becoming more problematic due to perceptions that amid an economic downturn, Fidesz’s long-running ideological tussle with Brussels over “rule of law” concerns is something the country can ill-afford. 

With a decision due from the EU later this year over the disbursement of billions of euros in funds to Hungary, Orbán used his speech to repeat a trope popular among regional eurosceptics; namely, that the EU’s political overreach evinces imperial ambitions comparable to twentieth-century oppressors. He made veiled threats to the EU, saying “let’s not bother with those who shoot at Hungary from the shadows or from the heights of Brussels. They will end up where their predecessors did.” And worryingly, the strain of more general anti-western resentment was also ramped up: Orbán claimed that “if the West had not betrayed us,” Hungary could have thrown off the yoke of Communism in 1956. 

Heated rhetoric surrounding Hungary’s relationship with the EU and the West has become more polarised since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, and the economic fallout from that war may pose the greatest threat yet to Orbán’s reign. The divisive events of a supposed day of unity highlighted the potential pitfalls, in tempestuous times, of his increasingly belligerent political persona.

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz