Budapest diary: another brick in the wall
It reads like a work of fiction in instalments, published in the daily newspaper, Népszabadság, that I avidly study with my morning coffee in one of Budapest’s many cafes. Except it’s not an Orwellian sci-fi novel but the grim reality: only two days after reading that the majority of Hungarians (57% according to a new survey by Publicus Research) don’t want to see a new Iron Curtain erected on their border with Serbia, I find out with astonishment that the said wall has started to be built even before the Hungarian Parliament has had the chance to properly ratify the relevant legislation. Ostensibly only a 150 m long ‘sample section’ is being erected for now in Mórahalma, Csongrád county, to show how the diligent EU member state is going to keep out the riff-raff (read refugees from Kosovo, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere) who are streaming into Europe through one of its outposts, the 175 km long Hungarian-Serb border. But the real wall is going to follow very soon, say the locals, who find themselves overrun by soldiers and their digging equipment; high government dignitaries may turn up soon to view the building works on the outskirts of their locality.
It has been a whirlwind political decision that took less than 10 days from being discussed by parliamentarians to being enacted. Even the mayor of Mórahalma (in a vivid illustration of illiberal democracy) only found out about the structure of steel and barbed wire going up in his back yard when some of his constituents announced that their plots adjacent to the border were being commandeered by the military staff for the purpose of the ambitious construction due to cost 6.5 billion Hungarian forint, or a cool 15 million GBP of taxpayers’ money. Apparently the wall will now ‘only’ measure 3 metres in height, as opposed to the originally publicized 4 metres, as the former is scientifically proven to keep out even the most determined of trespasser, when topped with regulation issue NATO razor wire. (if like me, you don’t know what that looks like, just google it for an image – it includes proper razors meant to hurt and maim humans!)
At the same time, a series of articles highlighting the protests and resistance to the new iron curtain start hitting the media: under the title ‘I couldn’t stay away’, I read that Migration Aid has been organizing support for the mostly Syrians, Kosovars and Afghan people arriving at Budapest’s big stations, distributing sandwiches, assisting them to reach their destination and generally trying to raise awareness of their plight and ways to help. The coverage includes the thoroughly heart-warming and oft-repeated story of Nina, a young woman who spontaneously gave shelter for the night to 30 Afghan migrants in her 70 square metre flat, when they missed the last train out of Déli railway station. The protests too are becoming more and more organized: the other morning I wake up disappointed to have missed a rather large demonstration where people came together to symbolically rip up ‘Orbán’s absurd and evil’ fence.
Incidentally, this march comes hot on the heels of Saturday’s Budapest Pride which this year ran under the motto of ‘the time has come for the love of power to be replaced by the power of love’ – difficult to imagine that this will actually happen in a city where the mayor has been trying hard to stop LGBTQ people from marching through the historic centre and where the rally has again had to be cordoned off because of right-wing opposition thugs intent on physically attacking the participants.
A country divided? You can say that again. But more importantly, the latest confrontation over yet another partition fence spells the bigger and multi-layered divisions between on the one hand, the hardcore of ‘old’ European member states, serene in their bullying of those on the periphery, like Greece or (for all its posturing and grandomania), Hungary; and on the other hand, between the EU and the rest of the world. Conversations with friends and emails landing in my inbox remind me of the bigger picture: that of the walls erected throughout Europe to keep the Roma segregated; that of thousands of refugees dying in an around ‘Fortress Europe’, highlighting the way in which Schengen border controls have been literally exported to ‘safe third countries’ such as those of the Western Balkans or North Africa.
It is obvious that the growing ‘refugee crisis’ is yet another symptom of the convulsions that have gripped our planet as part of the ongoing economic, political and environmental crises that we are facing and that are not likely to go away anytime soon. The reactions of individual countries to these crises are telling and reminiscent of the power relations that have governed Europe and its citizens for a very long time. In this big power game, those who are at the pinnacle of what used to be imperial nations (and that includes not only Germany, France, the UK or Italy, but also Belgium, Austria or Hungary) feel entitled to pass judgement and control the fates of others. Those countries historically less fortunate, such as Serbia, Croatia, Tunisia or Greece, are left to cower and try to appease the ‘big boys’. Meanwhile, citizens of those nations who were historically colonized or pushed around by the powerful – all the places where the current refugees are coming from – have to bear the burden of being regarded as undesirables who very soon will face a physical reminder of their unwantedness.
I grew up behind the last Iron Curtain – and so I know that it hurts people on both sides. I also know that within this game of human chess, however, we all have choices. Granted, for some, like the Hungarian prison inmates forced to work in three shifts on the wire that will be used on the infamous fence, it is a very slight choice. For others however, it is writ large – you can decide to form miltia groups to patrol the borders, helping to round up and expel the unwanted intruders, or insult refugees on the streets; like Prime Minister Orbán, you can declare yourself aggrieved and heartbroken at the cost yet obligated (by whom?) to spend enormous amounts of tax payers’ money on defending your country from invaders; you can choose to protest and help; or you can simply look away, do nothing and party on. Of the available courses of action, perhaps the latter is the most dangerous, since it seems so innocuous and ‘neutral’. Yet throughout history, it is the one that has most consistently landed us in untold trouble, especially when espoused by the majority of the population. How will Europeans choose this time?