Why Orban pumps billions abroad

Support of the Hungarian minorities has been a long-stated policy priority of the Fidesz government. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

The Hungarian government sends millions of euros every year to neighbouring countries with Hungarian minorities. According to analysts, Orbán’s intention is to buy votes of Hungarians living abroad.

“The support of Hungarian national communities living beyond the borders must be the focus of Hungarian foreign policy at all times”, said Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó after receiving the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities on 21 August.

Support of the Hungarian minorities has been a long-stated policy priority of the Fidesz government.

After coming to power in 2010 with a two-thirds constitutional majority in parliament, in 2011 Fidesz amended the Hungarian Citizenship law, introducing a new simplified path to acquiring Hungarian citizenship for ethnic Hungarians living outside the country.

This opened the path to naturalisation for many of the 2.2 million ethnic Hungarians living in surrounding countries, giving the opportunity to influence elections in Hungary, a country with a population of less than 10 million.

In 2010, only 5,400 people from the surrounding countries with the highest ethnic Hungarian population (Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine) were naturalised in a year.

After the adoption of the law, this number reached 601,400 in 4 years (2011-2015). By 2017, deputy PM Zsolt Semjén announced that new Hungarian citizens have reached one million.

During the 2018 parliamentary elections, out of the 225,000 votes coming from Hungarians without a permanent residency in Hungary, 96% were for Fidesz.

One fund to rule them all 

Meanwhile, the government continues to pump ever-increasing sums abroad. The primary instrument for the distribution of such aid is the Bethlen Gábor Fund (GBF), managed by a state-owned company, which has spent HUF 128 billion (€351 million) in “aid for national policy purposes” in 2020 alone, HVG reported. The planned budget of the entire fund was supposed to be HUF 46.5 billion for that year.

According to Nikola Patkovič, a journalist at Jutarnji List in Croatia, GBF has received at least €670 million since 2011. This money went to churches, cultural and artistic organisations, educational institutions, media outlets, and sports teams.

In Slovakia, GBF granted more than €140 million to various projects. Meanwhile, thousands of euros ended up in the accounts of organisations linked to politicians of Hungarian ethnicity. The full range of the support from GBF in Slovakia was uncovered earlier this year by the Investigative Centre of Ján Kuciak (ICKJ).

Bratislava takes notice

This year more funds started to appear. Some funded Hungarian agricultural companies to buy arable land in neighbouring countries. Slovak Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok strongly criticised this move and wrote an official letter to his Hungarian counterpart Szijjártó. A couple of days later, Orbán’s government scrapped the plan without explanation. Agricultural funds also hit a roadblock in Romania, where the government changed the law to make it impossible for Hungarian companies to enter the market.

Another fund is earmarked for the renovation of churches in Hungary and neighbouring countries, including southern Slovakia, where 101 churches are to be reconstructed for €4.3 million. The total amount for the project is more than €70 million from the state budget.

While the Slovak ministry of foreign affairs criticised Budapest for not consulting them beforehand, representatives of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia do not see a problem.

“It is not about politics. I talked about this with minister Korčok and I suggested that the Slovak government do more for Hungarians living here. And frankly, I would be very happy if Slovakia supported Slovaks abroad the same way as Hungary supports its minorities,” Béla Keszegh, mayor of Komárno in southern Slovakia, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Non-resident nationals in the spotlight

Meanwhile, the issue of non-resident Hungarian nationals has occupied a divisive place within Hungary’s opposition, with politicians under pressure to decide whether they support keeping the citizenship legislation or amending it.

Péter Márki Zay, the joint opposition PM candidate in next year’s April general elections, recently told a Transylvanian Hungarian news portal that he doubts Orbán’s love for Hungarians abroad is driven by sincere enthusiasm, and not political gain.

Asked what the opposition coalition’s policy towards Hungarians beyond the border will be, Márki-Zay said, “there is a consensus in the opposition that we will not take back acquired rights for Hungarians beyond the border.”

He also supported far-right-turned conservative Jobbik leader Péter Jakab’s proposal to give non-resident Hungarian nationals direct representation in the parliament via seats allocated for them. Hungarian nationals without registered residency in the country can currently vote for party lists in the mixed-system Hungarian elections, whereas resident Hungarians cast two votes.

“There has been a lot of scaremongering about the votes of Hungarians living beyond the border, but in fact this has not been the deciding factor so far either, Fidesz has not won with the votes of Hungarians living abroad, despite the fact that it has propagated this and considered it a political product,” Telex reported Péter Márki-Zay saying via Transindex.

Slovaks retaliate

After Orbán’s law was passed in 2011, Slovakia retaliated with its own law, effectively banning double citizenship.

“The goal of the Hungarian government is to bind Hungarians as closely as possible. The work that started in 2010 is heading in the right direction. Investments have come since then and thanks to them we can now stand here,” said Péter Szilágyi, plenipotentiary of Orbán’s cabinet for national and ethnic policy at a festival in southern Slovakia, supported by the Hungarian government.

(Michal Hudec | EURACTIV.sk, Vlagyiszlav Makszimov | EURACTIV.com)

Subscribe to our newsletters