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Five takeaways from Nikola Gruevski’s asylum in Hungary

Nikola Gruevski’s request for asylum on November 13 came as a suprise, if not a shock, to many in the Hungarian public. The former Macedonian PM, who was sentenced to prison on corruption charges in his home country, fled to Hungary with direct assistance from the Hungarian authorities after claiming that he had received threats against his life.

Hungary was quick to respond by granting political asylum to the former Macedonian leader on November 20, an act which caused outrage among the Hungarian opposition parties and the greater public, with the EU and the US also criticising the Hungarian government.

Here are five reasons why the case is so significant from a Hungarian perspective.

1. The Hungarian government breaks with its own reality

Over the last few years, Viktor Orbán and his nationalist government have gained international attention due to their firm and often xenophobic anti-migration approach. This is, by far, the most important factor why the case will continue to dominate the public discourse in the coming weeks.

Mr Gruevski’s request for asylum was treated with record speed by Hungarian officials: it took the country’s Immigration and Asylum Office only seven working days to approve the request. As pointed out by the Hungarian media, the former Macedonian PM received special treatment from the Hungarian government, even though he was not entitled to receive it. Hungary’s asylum law clearly defines those types of refugees who are entitled and may apply for special treatment if their condition requires it. Such refugees include pregnant women, the elderly, underage children, disabled people, single parents with underage children and people exposed to rape or torture.

Since the person in question is a former head of government, certain conditions may justify the need for approving the request, especially if his life is under threat. Before entering Hungary, however, Mr Gruevski crossed three countries – Albania, Montenegro and Serbia –, that are considered secure and often referred to as safe havens in the anti-migration propaganda of government-friendly media in Hungary. In case of a general asylum request to enter Hungary, ’normal’ applicants have to prove if their life is really in danger in the countries where they actually travelled from – including these three countries. If it is not, they have to wait in transit zones at the border while their request is processed. Instead of waiting at the border, Mr Gruevski was taken straight to Budapest.

Legally, the Hungarian government has nothing to do with asylum requests as competency resides with the Immigration and Asylum Office. Nonetheless, in such a case, it is impossible to imagine that the Hungarian prime minister didn’t have a say in what seems to be an orchestrated escape plan from the very beginning.

2. The government tries to save its alternative reality – by blaming George Soros

In such a situation, one would argue that Hungarian pro-government media would have an extremely difficult time defending Mr Gruevski’s asylum while continuing  to depict Mr Orbán as a truly anti-migration politician. As in many right-wing conspiracy theories, they actually had an easy task – by putting the blame on George Soros, the Hungarian-born US billionaire who is a strong supporter of open society.

This time, pro-government media claimed that Mr Gruevski had to escape Macedonia because George Soros’ local allies (namely prime minister Zoran Zaev and his pro-EU government) wanted to take him down.

They are trying to falsely simplify the issue as a fight between anti-migration conservatives on the one side and pro-migration left-wing politicians – supported by the ’Soros network’ – on the other. Viktor Orbán’s government is well-known for demonising and identifying Mr. Soros, whose NGOs he considers ’pro-migration organisations’, as an evil mastermind behind everything unpleasant. This is nothing new to Macedonia: the anti-Soros campaign featuring migration as its main component was imported from Mr Gruevski and then used effectively to spread fear and hatred in Hungarian politics.

3. Gruevski’s asylum sparks further distrust for Hungary within NATO

Both Nikola Gruevski and Viktor Orbán hold a favorable view of Russian President Vladimir Putin. While Hungary is a member state of both the EU and NATO with a government friendly to Russia, Macedonia is going through a very delicate political transformation from being an East-West boundary state to joining the Western community. Mr Gruevski’s party, VMRO-DPMNE has been a vocal opponent of a namechange deal with Greece, aimed at paving the way for the country’s EU and NATO integration.

As of now, it remains unknown whether the Hungarian government’s move was driven by political motivations to please Russia. Personal motivations, however, did play a role in the case: in a radio interview, Hungary’s PM himself confirmed that he has to support his political ally.

Regardless, by granting the asylum, Hungary is once again widely seen as a NATO member country that weakens the alliance’s positions by helping out a convicted politician close to Russia, growing further international distrust towards the Hungarian government.

Macedonia has requested Mr Gruevski’s extradition from Hungary, but this is highly unlikely to happen anytime soon. Nonetheless, despite the Hungarian prime minister’s support for the Macedonian opposition protests against the Prespa Agreement with Greece in June, Hungary is not expected to block Macedonia’s EU bid. So far, Orbán has always been supportive of Macedonia’s European integration, both with Mr Gruevski and Mr Zaev in charge. Hungary’s deputy minister has said that such an approach was expected to continue. Right now, this case is rather about allied politicians helping out each other instead of a bilateral dispute between the two countries.

4. Contradictory statements about the Macedonian judiciary

When it comes to post-communist countries, it may be fair to presume a lack of independence in the judiciary, especially in light of the illiberal tendencies in the Central and Eastern European region. From this point of view, Macedonia is no exception: widespread corruption across the country’s administration and its handling by the judiciary remains a great concern, especially with regards to the Macedonian government’s intention to enhance the country’s European integration.

Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz had previously supported a recent EU parliamentary committee report recognising the progress made by Macedonia in improving its judiciary, democracy and fight against corruption. At an EU plenary session on November 30, however, Fidesz withdrew  its support and did not support the report. The sudden abstention indicates Mr Orbán’s personal approach to the case, rather than a real change of view on a certain political matter.

Mr Gruevski was convicted for unlawfully purchasing a luxurious car on May 23 and Fidesz’s initial support for the report came on October 18, well after he was sentenced to prison, signalling that Mr Orbán had no problem with the Macedonian judiciary up until Mr. Gruevski decided to leave for Hungary. The EU, on the other hand, has remained consequent by amending the report with a call for the former PM’s extradition to Macedonia.

5. The Gruevski case is big, but it won’t be a game changer for Hungary’s opposition

Regardless of how scandalous the whole situation seems to the Hungarian public, the case may only provide temporary outrage.

Latest opinion polls suggest overall support for Fidesz well above 50 per cent. Since they were conducted in the early stage of the case, it cannot be ruled out that Fidesz will eventually lose some support.

The Hungarian opposition parties are loudly protesting Mr Gruevski’s asylum, but they have so many structural challenges to tackle that this case is not going to help them in the long-term.

So far, there has been a number of issues in Hungarian politics – like that of the Central European University – that were believed to be game changers, but none of them managed to significantly damage the Fidesz voter base. Moreover, the Macedonian ex-leader is not the only ’fly in the ointment’. Earlier, the public’s dissatisfaction was similar with a government-supported Golden Visa scheme that gave residence permits to thousands of wealthier non-EU citizens, including a financial associate of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The scheme was shut down, but no real political consequences followed.

If Fidesz gets away with this scandal without losing popular support, it will show a growing level of indifference within the Hungarian public, allowing Mr Orbán and his government to continue his unethical and unacceptable policies.

The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy. 

Photo: Szilárd Koszticsák/MTI

About the author

Dominik Istrate

Dominik Istrate

Dominik Istrate is the founder and chairman of the advisory board of CEA Hungary.

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