In a keynote speech marking the anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian revolution, Prime Minister Viktor Orban bashed the European Union and compared it to the Soviet Union but said "Moscow was beyond repair, but Brussels and the European Union can be fixed".
Hungarians on October 23 commemorated the short-lived 1956 uprising against Soviet rule, which claimed the lives of 2,500-3,000 Hungarians in two weeks of intense fighting, followed by the execution of 400 people. After the uprising was crushed, more than 200,000 left the country in the following months, the majority of whom chose the US.
Orban was speaking in the western city of Veszprem, which was the EU European Capital of Culture in 2023, to a group of 1,000-1,500 invited guests amidst heavy security. All media were excluded except Hungary's state media.
For the second year in a row, he chose a site outside the capital for his speech that also marked the kick-off to the 2024 European Parliament and local elections, laying out a conservative programme, according to observers, who are split over the reasons why Orban is not holding keynote addresses in Budapest.
Fidesz used to hold big rallies drawing tens of thousands of people, but that changed since the war. Some note that the prime minister is not willing to take the risk of counterprotests during his speech, and that is why he is opting for smaller commemorations.
Orban characterised the Hungarian nation as freedom fighters and the Hungarian right as the political heirs of the revolutionaries.
The 1956 revolution is deeply ingrained in the memory of Hungarians as a struggle for freedom against the Soviet Union, seen as the first nail in the coffin of the Soviet empire
As in last year’s speech, he carefully avoided comparing Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine to the events in 1956.
The Hungarian PM, perceived as the only ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin within the EU, has actively advocated against the EU’s moves to impose sanctions on Moscow and Hungary is the only country to oppose the delivery of weapons to Ukraine.
Over the years, Orban's conflict with the EU has gradually shifted his pro-EU support base toward a more pro-Russian stance and his words suggest that the government, in talks with the EU over the unfreezing of billions of euros of development money, will remain defiant in key issues.
In the past Hungary had to dance to Moscow's tune, he said, but if "Brussels whistles, we dance as we like, and won't if we don't want to".
Orban said "comrade training" was now a "conditionality procedure" and tanks aren't rolling in from the east but dollars from the West, referring to campaign financing of the opposition.
Hungary's premier laid out what will most likely be an important element of the campaign, that is cultural issues. He has long stated that Hungary’s sovereignty is at risk from external forces.
"Embrace the fact that you were born Hungarian, Christian, a woman or a man, that you are the child of your father and mother, the spouse of your husband or wife, the parent of your daughter or son; embrace that you are a friend and a son of your country and a patriot," he said, adding that Hungary is not willing to give this up in 1956, 1990 or 2023 for either Moscow's or Brussels's sake.
Orban regularly clashes with the EU over issues ranging from media and judicial independence to migration and LGBT rights, and the EU has launched a rule-of-law mechanism that has led to suspending transfers of funding to Hungary.
Hungary’s opposition parties commemorated the anniversary separately. While polls show that the majority wants a change of government, the loss of a few hundred thousand Fidesz voters only boosted the number of undecided voters and the opposition has not been able to exploit the current cost of living crisis.
While opposition parties remained inactive and refrained from holding anti-government rallies on the national holiday, civil organisations and teacher and student movements took to the streets demanding freedom in education, higher wages and the withdrawal of the legislation that changed the legal status of teachers.
This year’s march was nowhere near the size of the protest last year, when an estimated 70,000-80,000 gathered along the Danube bank on the call of the largest teachers union PDSZ. As in last year, opposition parties stayed out to avoid the semblance that the union was campaigning for the “left”.
Protesters gathered at Hero’s Square and marched down the iconic Andrassy boulevard. On the way, they stopped in front of the Russian embassy building and tied ribbons in the national colours on the embassy fence.
Before the election, the government promised to raise the wages of teachers, instead, it approved a decree that made striking effectively impossible. The solidarity movement gained momentum a year ago when half a dozen teachers were fired for holding civil disobedience, but the drive has lost steam and failed to gather solidarity from other social groups. Since the new legal status of teachers came into force earlier last month, 1,500–2,000 teachers quit, which further aggravates the labour shortage.
Speakers elaborated on Hungary’s democratic slide, state capture, the campaign against NGOs and Orban’s shift from Western liberal values to cosy up with Eastern autocrats.
One speaker from an NGO said that "a narrow pro-Russian elite has taken the country captive for 13 years and has pitted all sections of society against one other".
Gergely Karácsony, Budapest mayor, a member of the green-leftist Dialogue Party, spoke of the demise of the republic, recalling that the 2012 constitution took the name republic out of Hungary’s official title, adding that the state is operating as a joint-stock company instead of a public company, where private interests prevail.
He noted that the spirit of the republic is in the teachers' and students' movement, in trade unions, in civil rights movements, in local governments and in the work of NGOs. At the end of his speech, he made a commitment to build a bridge between NGOs and political parties and to form an alliance of opposition parties in Budapest for next year's local elections within weeks.