Orban Builds Popularity, Influence in Slovakia Using Hungarian Taxpayer Money

Viktor Orban is using Hungarian taxpayer money to renovate Slovak churches, chateaux and kindergartens – and is strengthening his position while doing so.

“Francis II Rakoczi is like a god to Hungarians,” exclaims the tour guide on the cultural importance of a recently renovated chateau in the southeastern Slovak village of Borsa.

Rakoczi, born in the Borsa chateau in 1676, is a Hungarian national hero – a nobleman who led the last anti-Habsburg uprising in Hungary at the beginning of the 18th century. However, his birthplace in the decades since had been allowed to deteriorate and was badly in need of reconstruction by 2018 when, luckily for the village, more than 8.7 million euros was raised to complete the job in June and bring in the busloads of tourists that now visit every day.

The renovation project was presented in the media as a collaboration between the Slovak and Hungarian administrations. Yet the domestic treasury contributed only a small portion of the finances necessary – most came from the Hungarian government.

One does not have to look far to trace the money’s source. A big sign in the entrance hall briefs visitors that those most responsible for initiating the repair works were Hungarian President Janos Ader, followed by Slovak President Zuzana Caputova. The next name written in bold is that of Viktor Orban, Hungary’s autocratic prime minister and instigator of his country’s largesse towards Slovakia.

Minority spending

Orban’s government has, during its more than a decade in power, supported numerous projects in Slovakia with cultural, educational, religious or historical significance to the Hungarian minority, which lives mainly in the southern part of the country.

BIRN has collected a series of photographs from across Slovakia that reflect the typical kinds of heritage and cultural investments that Hungary is making in Slovakia.

Since 2010, Budapest has engaged in several grant programs for Hungarians living in Slovakia. A 34-million-euro program for supporting kindergartens and a scheme for entrepreneurs worth 60 million euros, which started in 2016 and 2017 respectively, have been among the most expensive.

Beginning in the spring of 2021, the Hungarian government decided to engage in three more donation programs. One of those, the Foundation for the Preservation of Real Estate Heritage in Central Europe, concerns the acquisition of historical sights. The Hungarian government has already bought two buildings in the historical centre of Kosice, Slovakia’s second largest city.

The second program is part of 74 million euros that are to be invested through a church renewal program in Hungary and neighbouring countries. More than 4 million euros out of this total is to support the renovation of over a hundred churches in Slovakia. The third program involved planned purchases of farmland in countries neighbouring Hungary worth 400 million euros.

These plans of Orban’s government have raised worries in Slovak diplomatic circles and prompted Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok to organise a meeting with his Hungarian counterpart Peter Szijjarto on October 5. Slovak diplomats used the opportunity to deliver a five-point list of concerns that Korcok wished to resolve via diplomatic means. A large part of the bullet points related to the grant and investment schemes of the Hungarian government directed at Slovakia. Korcok urged Szijjarto to discuss Hungary’s spending projects in Slovakia before implementing them.

Hungary didn’t wait long to respond to Slovakia’s demands and terminated its resolution regarding the land purchases, though the other programs would remain.

Voting with their wallets

The Hungarian money flowing into Slovakia is actually part of a broader project by Orban’s nationalist-populist government to feed funds into all the neighbouring states where there is a Hungarian minority, whether that’s in Romania, Serbia, Ukraine or Slovakia.

Roughly 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians live in Romania, making up more than 6 per cent of the national population. About a quarter of a million belong to the Hungarian ethnic minority in Serbia, which is 3.5 per cent of the population. Given these people are also allowed to hold dual Hungarian citizenship, this creates many potential voters in these countries that could vote for Orban’s Fidesz party in national elections. It makes political sense, therefore, for the Hungarian prime minister to reach out to these voters.

Ethnic Hungarians form the most significant national minority in Slovakia, with the 2011 census indicating over 450,000 people, or 8.5 per cent of the total population. They are officially not eligible to participate in Hungarian elections, though, as Slovak laws don’t allow for dual citizenship.

So why, then, does Orban keep investing in Slovak-Hungarian communities? Marek Rybar, associate professor of political science at Masaryk University in Brno in the Czech Republic, says there is no practical way for the Slovak bureaucracy to find out whether a citizen holds a second passport. Theoretically at least, Rybář says, there is the possibility that some Slovak Hungarians cast ballots south of the border without the Slovak authorities knowing about it.

There could be other reasons too. “When you can present yourself as someone who can secure money for cultural, sports or other organisations significant to the community, your position is strengthened,” explains Rybar.

And not only that, but through these very untransparent subsidies into projects that have cultural and other goals, Orban and his allies can influence the activities of the minorities in Slovakia, Serbia, Romania and Ukraine.

While the cultural dimension of Hungarian investments abroad is undeniable when it comes to saving historical sites and repairing buildings that have been neglected for years, Rybar explains Orban also slants financial support towards his sympathisers and, therefore, changes the power structures within Hungarian communities abroad.

“Orban’s investments don’t have an impact only on individual voters, but also on the organisations in which these foreign Hungarians and potential voters involve themselves. This is because minority organisations have difficulty raising money from the Slovak government, and any finances coming from Hungary are given only to the ‘correct’ people,” points out Rybar.

This means that Orban can also influence the political representation of the Hungarian minorities in other countries. “The political situation in Hungary often influences Hungarian political parties abroad. For an autocrat like Orban, it would be surely convenient to have a parliamentary party in Slovakia that he can control to some extent,” says Rybar.

The historical context of this policy dates back to the early nineties, when a consensus between the biggest parties – the Hungarian Democratic Forum, Socialist Party and Fidesz as well as some smaller parties – was reached that one of the priorities of Hungarian foreign policy should be support for Hungarian communities abroad.

In 2010, when Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in the parliament, the nationalist party revised the Hungarian constitution several times to change what Rybar calls a “value principal” into a “constitutional order”.

One of the new articles added to the constitution was Article D, which reads: “Bearing in mind that there is one single Hungarian nation that belongs together, Hungary shall bear responsibility for the fate of Hungarians living beyond its borders and shall facilitate the survival and development of their communities; it shall support their efforts to preserve their Hungarian identity, the assertion of their individual and collective rights, the establishment of their community self-governments, and their prosperity in their native lands, and shall promote their cooperation with each other and with Hungary.”

The second program is part of 74 million euros that are to be invested through a church renewal program in Hungary and neighbouring countries. More than 4 million euros out of this total is to support the renovation of over a hundred churches in Slovakia. The third program involved planned purchases of farmland in countries neighbouring Hungary worth 400 million euros.

These plans of Orban’s government have raised worries in Slovak diplomatic circles and prompted Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok to organise a meeting with his Hungarian counterpart Peter Szijjarto on October 5. Slovak diplomats used the opportunity to deliver a five-point list of concerns that Korcok wished to resolve via diplomatic means. A large part of the bullet points related to the grant and investment schemes of the Hungarian government directed at Slovakia. Korcok urged Szijjarto to discuss Hungary’s spending projects in Slovakia before implementing them.

Hungary didn’t wait long to respond to Slovakia’s demands and terminated its resolution regarding the land purchases, though the other programs would remain.

Voting with their wallets

The Hungarian money flowing into Slovakia is actually part of a broader project by Orban’s nationalist-populist government to feed funds into all the neighbouring states where there is a Hungarian minority, whether that’s in Romania, Serbia, Ukraine or Slovakia.

Roughly 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians live in Romania, making up more than 6 per cent of the national population. About a quarter of a million belong to the Hungarian ethnic minority in Serbia, which is 3.5 per cent of the population. Given these people are also allowed to hold dual Hungarian citizenship, this creates many potential voters in these countries that could vote for Orban’s Fidesz party in national elections. It makes political sense, therefore, for the Hungarian prime minister to reach out to these voters.

Ethnic Hungarians form the most significant national minority in Slovakia, with the 2011 census indicating over 450,000 people, or 8.5 per cent of the total population. They are officially not eligible to participate in Hungarian elections, though, as Slovak laws don’t allow for dual citizenship.

So why, then, does Orban keep investing in Slovak-Hungarian communities? Marek Rybar, associate professor of political science at Masaryk University in Brno in the Czech Republic, says there is no practical way for the Slovak bureaucracy to find out whether a citizen holds a second passport. Theoretically at least, Rybář says, there is the possibility that some Slovak Hungarians cast ballots south of the border without the Slovak authorities knowing about it.

There could be other reasons too. “When you can present yourself as someone who can secure money for cultural, sports or other organisations significant to the community, your position is strengthened,” explains Rybar.

And not only that, but through these very untransparent subsidies into projects that have cultural and other goals, Orban and his allies can influence the activities of the minorities in Slovakia, Serbia, Romania and Ukraine.

While the cultural dimension of Hungarian investments abroad is undeniable when it comes to saving historical sites and repairing buildings that have been neglected for years, Rybar explains Orban also slants financial support towards his sympathisers and, therefore, changes the power structures within Hungarian communities abroad.

“Orban’s investments don’t have an impact only on individual voters, but also on the organisations in which these foreign Hungarians and potential voters involve themselves. This is because minority organisations have difficulty raising money from the Slovak government, and any finances coming from Hungary are given only to the ‘correct’ people,” points out Rybar.

This means that Orban can also influence the political representation of the Hungarian minorities in other countries. “The political situation in Hungary often influences Hungarian political parties abroad. For an autocrat like Orban, it would be surely convenient to have a parliamentary party in Slovakia that he can control to some extent,” says Rybar.

The historical context of this policy dates back to the early nineties, when a consensus between the biggest parties – the Hungarian Democratic Forum, Socialist Party and Fidesz as well as some smaller parties – was reached that one of the priorities of Hungarian foreign policy should be support for Hungarian communities abroad.

In 2010, when Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in the parliament, the nationalist party revised the Hungarian constitution several times to change what Rybar calls a “value principal” into a “constitutional order”.

One of the new articles added to the constitution was Article D, which reads: “Bearing in mind that there is one single Hungarian nation that belongs together, Hungary shall bear responsibility for the fate of Hungarians living beyond its borders and shall facilitate the survival and development of their communities; it shall support their efforts to preserve their Hungarian identity, the assertion of their individual and collective rights, the establishment of their community self-governments, and their prosperity in their native lands, and shall promote their cooperation with each other and with Hungary.”

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