Hungary Insight

Insight: Deconstructing Hungary’s anti-migrant and anti-elite rhetoric

This article is based on a group research project by Zhaniya Sazanova, Georgy Tatevossov, and Catherine Wright. anti-migrant rhetoric

As 2020 begins, we are prone to reflect on the past year and the new decade that awaits. With the recent signing of the “Pact of Free Cities” by the mayors of Bratislava, Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw praising EU institutions and the passing of 30 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the question of what populism will bring for Central Europe hangs heavy.

In what is sometimes termed the “post-truth” era, it feels more difficult than ever to predict how politicians will act based upon their words. But words are often all we have and analyzing what leaders say can uncover issue framing and positions on subjects perhaps unstated. 

On September 30, 2019, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York. His speech was to make clear Hungary’s opposition to the approval of the Global Compact on Migration.

Although the speech may remain unspectacular to the everyday news observers in Hungary, it is special in its articulation of Hungarian foreign policy on the international stage and is a clear rebuke of the UN Global Compact for Migration. In this fairly short speech by Szijjártó, we can observe a microcosm of the enemies of the Fidesz regime and how they are constructed and framed.

Felipe Gonzalez Morales, the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, criticised Hungary’s treatment of migrants in recent years. Credit: Kafkadesk

According to the prominent discourse analyst and linguist, Ruth Wodak, populist discourse operates in stark constructions of creating a united “us” in opposition to a dangerous or corrupt “them”. And it is in the name of protecting “us” against “them” that populists can legitimize their political maneuvering and even when actions may be contradictory. Analyzing the text of Szijjártó’s speech, we found two distinct “othered” enemies: an unstoppable flow of migrants and the liberal elite who allow it.

Dehumanized migrants

“Massive uncontrolled flows of migrants give terrorist organizations the chance to send their fighters all over the world”

“New migratory flows are being launched..”

These are conceptual metaphors. By likening the movement of peoples to an unstoppable flow of water, Szijjártó not only dehumanizes the migrants and refugees, but alerts a sense of urgency to protect from this overwhelming flood.

If the migrant crisis is a natural disaster, leaders become justified in taking any action to prevent its destructive power. Like declaring a state of emergency before a hurricane. Using water metaphors to describe the movement of humans is not new, nor is it uniquely populist. The New York Times use the words, “flow” to describe the wave of migration happening throughout Europe. But framing people as flow, creates a faceless image. An amorphous mass rather than an individual to identify and sympathize with.

Anti-migrant rhetoric and cosmopolitan elites

The next enemy is that which Szijjártó links blame for this migration flow – the liberal elite groups of Europe, from NGOs, Brussels, the UN and even “Western Europe” as a whole. It is in these outsiders that Szijjártó gives a face to the crisis, a group to blame for the faceless masses. And, the manner through which these actors are all interchangeable in the speech, acts as a form of metonymy, substituting a word for something adjacent to it.

This creates a face to place blame onto for this migration problem, albeit one that can shapeshift given the circumstances. Thus a “them” is constructed with enough flexibility that any attribute may be affixed.

Péter Szijjártó’s September speech made clear Hungary’s opposition to the approval of the Global Compact on Migration. Credit: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

This flexible face of liberal elites allows Szijjártó to both state that the document is being “celebrated as the best document in history” and that the passing of the document has been “sneaky” and “surreptitious”. Szijjártó also claims three times in the speech that the UN or the Global Compact “promotes migration”. The use of straw man fallacy, or exaggeration here emphasizes the importance of some traits over others in a warped view. Metonymy and exaggeration work in tandem in this speech to create an image through words that distances the object from reality.

Thus, the conceptual mismatch between the two “thems” can be explained by this unreality. If the flood is a natural disaster that is uncontrollable, perhaps from nature itself, how can it be the fault of any particular outside actor? Even Szijjártó seems unable to pinpoint which actor is responsible for this disaster. Of course, the monster responsible for the disaster is liberalism itself, which is why Szijjártó need not be specific.

Szijjártó’s speech demonstrates that the project of xenophobia in Hungary is just a brick in the road in a broader regional path turning away from liberalism and the desire for an alternative, illiberal democracy. Although disguised as anti-migrant or anti-elite, the populist rhetoric of today is overwhelmingly simply anti-liberal at its core. These fissures between Hungary and the international community do not appear to be moving towards a solution as we enter 2020. And the progressive turn of Budapest’s new mayor, will indeed face an uphill battle in strengthening relations with the EU. 

By Catherine Wright

Catherine is a current MA student at Central European University. She’s interested in the power of words in politics and national identity in Central and Eastern Europe. Born in Greensboro, USA, she holds a BA in Political Science from Goucher College.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Marko Djurica