Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban made veiled comparisons Sunday between the Soviet troops that attacked Hungary during the 1956 revolution and the institutions of the European Union today.
Marking the 66th anniversary of that crushed uprising, Orban suggested that the EU, which has sought to rein in democratic backsliding in Hungary, would end up like the Soviet Union, which dissolved more than three decades ago.
“Let’s not bother with those who shoot at Hungary from the shadows or from the heights of Brussels. They will end up where their predecessors did,” Orban said in a speech to a select group of guests in the rural city of Zalaegerszeg in western Hungary, breaking with a tradition of giving a speech in Budapest on the anniversary.
His absence from the capital on one of Hungary’s most important national holidays came as tens of thousands of people protested in Budapest, demanding higher wages and better working conditions for educators.
The demonstration Sunday was the latest in a sustained wave of protests by Hungarian teachers and students.
“Money is spent on unnecessary things, on new stadiums, on never-finished projects, on irrelevant investments, and in the meantime the whole education system is being bled out,” said one protester, Adam Botos.
Vince Buzas, another protest participant, said, “Let’s not forget that it is not only the teachers who are oppressed by the government. The LGBTQ community, ethnic minorities and endless other groups could be mentioned.”
Orban, who characterizes his form of government as an “illiberal democracy,” is facing the threat of cuts to EU funding over his democratic record and perceived corruption.
Seeking to salvage some funding, the Hungarian parliament recently passed new anti-graft legislation. But the country still risks losing billions of euros as punishment for perceived breaches of democratic practices, causing the national currency and economy to weaken recently.
“We were here when the first conquering empire attacked us, and we’ll be here when the last one collapses,” Orban declared Sunday. “We will bear it when we must, and we will push back when we can. We draw swords when there is a chance, and we resist when long years of oppression come.”
“We are victorious even when we are defeated,” Orban said.
The Oct. 23 national holiday commemorates the beginning of a 1956 popular uprising against Soviet repression that began in Budapest and spread across the country.
After Hungary’s Stalinist leader was successfully ousted and Soviet troops were forced out of the capital, a directive from Moscow sent the Red Army back into Budapest and brutally suppressed the revolution, killing as many as 3,000 civilians and destroying much of the city.
The holiday, which looms large in Hungary’s historical memory as a freedom fight against Russian repression, comes as war rages in neighboring Ukraine where Moscow has occupied large swaths of the country and illegally annexed four regions.
Orban, widely considered Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the EU, has vigorously lobbied against the bloc imposing sanctions on Moscow, though the nationalist leader has ultimately voted for all sanctions packages.
Protesters in Hungary’s capital Sunday carried a banner depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin hugging Orban.