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Fairy-tales in illiberal times: Hungary, George Soros and the politics of conspiracy

The Hungarian government has been using a politics of conspiracy to disempower its citizens and to divert attention away from its own extensive failures.

Left: 2 government posters below and one extreme right Jobbik poster above, Upper Middle: A government poster, Lower middle: a government poster partly torn down, Right: A sticker by the satirical “two-tailed dog party”, mocking the government campaign.To this day, Hungarian parents in the countryside tell their children the cruel tale that in every well there waits an evil frog that will lure any child into darkness that dares to look down. The idea behind the story is simple: children should be frightened in order to stay away from wells and not fall in.

For centuries, everywhere, dark fairy-tales have been used to condition kids not to get lost in the dark, talk to strangers or disobey their parents. They usually follow the same logic by constructing a dark and evil world outside the confines of one’s own home so children behave and accept the conditions of their community, especially the ones of their parents, not daring to question them.

These days, scaring children to belief in a dark and dangerous world may be regarded as bad parenting. This does not stop the Hungarian government to use the same logic into scaring its own citizens of a dangerous and evil world to make them accept the more than problematic domestic status quo.

The evil frog in the government’s storyline is George Soros. For several weeks in July, Hungary was covered in a multi-million dollar government funded poster campaign, with the larger than life portrait of George Soros, proclaiming not to let Soros have the last laugh. What should George Soros be laughing about during times in which the government threatens the existence of the university he created and the civil society organisations he helps to fund?

According to the government, Soros is plotting a conspiracy to let millions of refugees into Hungary. Obviously, this allegation is false. In mid-2016, George Soros outlined his ideas on how to resolve the refugee crisis. He argued that the EU should set an annual target of 300,000 to 500,000 refugees to be granted protection in the EU (in 2016 more than 700,000 refugees were granted protection in the EU) and to be distributed voluntarily among member states. This is nowhere close to what the government is claiming.

The evil frog in the government’s storyline is George Soros.

Why were these posters put up? For the same reasons the tale of the frog keeps getting told. The main difference though is that parents would usually have the safety of their child in mind, whereas the Hungarian government is primarily concerned with its own survival. The idea is to construct a conspiracy, which resonates with century old fears of hostile external forces. Though, the content of the conspiracy is secondary. What matters is the method, as Ivan Krastev put it:

“Conspiracy theories disempower people. In a worldview shaped by conspiracy theories, political leaders can get away with making bad decisions by simply blaming invisible, putatively powerful enemies conspiring against them.”

The fairy tale of George Soros thus works as a powerful distraction from the pressing problems Hungary is facing, which the government is unable to tackle.

Many commentators on Hungary caught the government’s bait. Most of the coverage of the posters focused on their bleak content, discussing whether they are anti-Semitic or not. Indeed, they are crude and they invoke horrible stereotypes. But this is a conversation the Hungarian government is well experienced in diluting through use of the same rhetoric it has nearly perfected of being misunderstood and stigmatized.

In the end, this government does not care much about Soros; what they care about is putting up big enough smokescreens to divert people from the real conversations that need to be had, to systematically uncover how this country has been immensely damaged by a political group over the past few years, that has no vision for the future beyond the preservation of its own power.

These conversations must include stark allegations of corruption and nepotism, particularly well covered by the investigative and privately funded Hungarian news-portal direct36 or the deterioration of Hungary’s education sector on all levels. One aspect they must include, to exemplify the scale of problems Hungary is dealing with, is a collapsing health system.

This government does not care much about Soros; what they care about is putting up big enough smokescreens to divert people from the real conversations that need to be had.

Hungary’s medical council recently published a statement that medical treatment and medical financing in Hungary is at the same level as during the second world war. Hospitals in Hungary are in a desperate state, salaries are miserable, encouraging thousands of valuable medical personal to leave their home and try their luck abroad.

Thousands of doctors had to be reactivated out of retirement by the government to just fill the most basic gaps. Patients have gotten used to under the counter payments to medical professionals in hope of better treatment, de-facto degrading what would be among the most respected and best funded professions in most other societies. In comparison to migration to Hungary, which at this point is practically non-existent, this is a real and pressing problem which the Hungarian government is not willing to acknowledge as it would simply demonstrate its own impotence and the damage it has broad to Hungarian society through actively diverting attention from pressing issues.  

After all, none of this is about George Soros and none of this should be about George Soros. Commentators on and in Hungary should dodge this debate as this is exactly where the Hungarian government would like to direct it.

What needs to be done is to highlight and support investigative reporting of free but financially struggling news organisations such as 444.hu or direct36.hu. That would help to highlight the considerable societal problems Hungary is grappling with and to contrast them to the shallow rhetoric of a supposedly omnipotent government. This is the basic act of holding a government accountable, the one thing this government is afraid of under its self-proclaimed ‘illiberal democracy’. It is also the only way to overcome the social paralysis under which a considerable part of Hungarian society remains due to the instrumental use of conspiracy theories from the side of its own government.

In the end, there is no evil frog in the well but once we look deeper we may see that the well has been badly maintained and is in serious danger of running dry.

About the author

Stefan holds a PhD in Political Sciences from Central European University and has worked for the International Labour Organisation and the European Commission among others. Currently he works as a research assistant at the Rethinking Open Society project at Central European University.


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