Snaking along the Hungarian border, heavily guarded and barbed, is a fence. A stark reminder of not only the physical boundaries of Hungary, but also of its failure to protect the rights of individuals and the strength of legal processes. Unleashed police dogs and assaults by canisters of tear gas and fire hoses are not uncommon, and are as celebrated by the Hungarian government as they are condemned by international law. Over 1400 people are currently prevented from crossing the Serbia-Hungary border, intermittently subject to extreme abuse and violence by Hungarian guards, and constantly subject to poor sanitation and a deteriorating humanitarian situation. There’s little to no assessment of individual asylum claims, with a blanket and arbitrary refusal of over 95% of claims.
These xenophobic and nationalistic responses by the Hungarian government mirror the broader trend towards far-right politics in Hungary and other Eastern European states. This trend isn’t just a fringe movement – parties of the radical right often hold government, as in Poland, or are becoming so powerful that moderate parties are coerced into adopting increasingly right-wing positions, such as the growing conservatism of Hungary’s governing party Fidesz as a result of a groundswell of support for the radical party Jobbik. These parties, and the groups they represent, differ in specific ideology across the region, but are alike in their xenophobic, autocratic, and populistic impulses.
These impulses are epitomised by the laws passed by Hungary on asylum seeker policy, which contravene numerous of their international law obligations. The return of asylum seekers to countries deemed by the UNHCR to be unsafe runs contrary to the non-refoulement obligations of both EU law and the 1951 Refugee Convention, as does the inhumane treatment, excessive force, and arbitrary detainment that refugees are subject to at the Hungarian border. This deliberate undermining of international law is echoed throughout Eastern Europe, with both the Polish Law and Justice Party and the populist president of the Czech Republic moving to stop Muslim immigration.
It’s not only the xenophobia and isolationism of these states that leads to their violation of international law. Domestically, many states in Eastern Europe have adopted stringent and illiberal policies that curtail democratic freedoms, exacerbate corruption, and prevent the equal access to civil rights that citizens are guaranteed under multiple pieces of international law, including the ICCPR. Hungary’s ostensibly moderate governing party, Fidesz, has increasingly relied on autocratic measures, such as the centralisation of executive and legislative power under President Viktor Orbán and the alteration of electoral laws to significantly reduce the parliamentary power of opposition parties. Orbán’s own claim that he is building an “illiberal state” is mirrored in Poland, where the government has taken increasingly dictatorial control of public broadcasting, and has degraded the mandate of the judicial system to an extent condemned by the European Commission as placing the rule of law under “systematic threat”.
These governments, and the increasingly extremism in the populations they represent, do not operate in isolation. Increasing illiberalism and undermining of international law is reinforced by the support offered between states – Poland’s far-right Law and Justice Party has gained the full backing of the Hungarian state, and rhetoric of the solidarity of Eastern European states in their (illegal and inhumane) response to the migrant crisis has been manipulated and exploited to its fullest extent.
Additionally, the anti-establishment platform of these far-right parties, and the policy positions they adopt, often closely align with Russia’s current geopolitical strategy. The euroskepticism and anti-Western sentiment that is rife in states like Hungary coincides with the push by the Kremlin to undermine the EU, and the destabilising of democracy in the region directly plays into the hands of a Russia eager to exploit instability and tensions. This manifests in influence that is as insidious as it is widespread. Radical movements such as Hungary’s Jobbik are inextricably linked with Moscow, with the party naming close relations with Russia as one of its top priorities, and Jobbik members of the European Parliament being investigated for allegations of spying for the Russian government.
These networks are important to acknowledge, not only because they strengthen the erosion of democracy and law in these states, but because they point to a wider trend of a growth in nationalistic, populistic, and dangerous sentiment. It’s not only in Eastern Europe that these movements are gaining ground – the support for Front National in France, for the Freedom Party in Austria, and for America’s own Donald Trump, threaten to mirror the alarming implications of a state that doesn’t feel bound by the limits of international law. The actions of countries such as Hungary and Poland aren’t only frightening for what they achieve – they’re frightening for what they herald.