To some extent, Orbán’s reliance on economic growth to counter his opponents is itself a dangerous strategy. While wages have been slowly increasing, partly thanks to economic growth and partly because of the labor shortage, the average Hungarian still makes only barely half that of the average person in Austria, a country that shares a border with Hungary (and that, a century ago, shared an empire). There are also reports that while Hungary’s overall economic indicators are improving, unemployment figures in particular appear to be buffeted by a state-run public-works program that employs large numbers of people.
“The labor market is one of the many houses of cards in this country,” said Ákos Hadházy, a former member of Orbán’s Fidesz party who is now an independent opposition MP. “It seems good but is guaranteed to collapse.”
Hadházy argued that the “slave law” has failed to address the core issue affecting Hungary’s labor market—that wages are too persistently low to keep Hungarians from migrating abroad, a sentiment echoed by union leaders and economists I spoke with. As an EU member state, Hungary is part of the region-wide labor market, meaning a Hungarian can travel elsewhere in the bloc to find better work, and higher pay, without requiring a visa. Orbán’s government has attracted thousands of people through an investor visa program, but its unwillingness to accept workers from outside Europe has hindered its overall ability to address the shortfall of employees.
Other countries have turned to immigration to address labor shortages. In fact, Hungary is not alone among Central European countries in facing such a problem. Poland, like Hungary, has vocally opposed the EU’s migrant quotas, for example, yet it has brought in thousands of Ukrainian workers fleeing that country’s conflict. And still, Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, suggested in July that he would consider relaxing the country’s opposition to immigration, telling reporters, “If there is a demand on the labor market which Poles are unable or unwilling to meet, we need to take up the challenge so that we maintain our economic growth.”
For Orbán, though, the anti-immigrant stance is among his calling cards, the policy for which he is best-known. In his first news conference of the year, instead of the protests, he focused on immigration, calling for a new “anti-immigration axis” with other Central and eastern-European countries, as well as with Italy.
And even in the face of these demonstrations, Orbán shows no signs of backing down. In a statement released this month, Istvan Holik, a Hungarian government spokesperson, pinned the blame for the protests on a host of foreign actors.“These protests are being organized with George Soros’s money,” Holik said into a camera, evoking the philanthropist billionaire who is frequently an Orbán propaganda target, “so that they can turn Hungary into an immigrant country.”
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Carol Schaeffer is a journalist covering central and eastern Europe, and global right-wing nationalist movements.