BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Prime Minister Viktor Orbán compared Hungary’s membership in the European Union to more than four decades of Soviet occupation of his country during a speech on Monday commemorating the anniversary of Hungary’s 1956 anti-Soviet revolution.
Speaking to a select group of guests in the city of Veszprem, Orbán accused the EU of seeking to strip Hungary of its identity by imposing a model of liberal democracy that he said Hungarians reject. Brussels, the de facto capital of the EU, employs methods against Hungary that hearken back to the days of Soviet domination by Moscow, he said.
“Today, things pop up that remind us of the Soviet times. Yes, it happens that history repeats itself,” Orbán said at the event, from which all media were excluded except Hungary’s state broadcaster. “Fortunately, what once was tragedy is now a comedy at best. Fortunately, Brussels is not Moscow. Moscow was a tragedy. Brussels is just a bad contemporary parody.”
The Oct. 23 national holiday commemorates the beginning of a 1956 popular uprising against Soviet repression that began in Hungary’s capital, 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.
Orbán, a proponent of an alternative form of populist governance that he calls “illiberal democracy,” has long used the holiday to rally his supporters. In recent years, he has used the occasion to draw parallels between the EU’s attempts to bring Hungary into compliance with its rules on corruption and democracy, and the repression the country faced under Soviet occupation in the 20th century.
“We had to dance to the tune that Moscow whistled,” Orbán said of Hungary’s days in the Eastern Bloc. “Brussels whistles too, but we dance as we want to, and if we don’t want to, then we don’t dance!”
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.
Orbán, widely considered one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s only allies in the EU, has vigorously lobbied against the bloc imposing sanctions on Moscow, though the nationalist leader has ultimately voted for all sanctions packages.
Last week, Orbán met with Putin before an international forum in Beijing, a meeting that focused on Hungary’s access to Russian energy. European leaders, as well as other members of the NATO military alliance such as the United States, expressed concern that Orbán had met with Putin even as an international arrest warrant has been issued against him for alleged war crimes in Ukraine.
On Monday evening, several thousand demonstrators marched down a central avenue in Budapest in opposition to Orbán’s education policies — which they say undervalue teachers in public schools and are resulting in an educator shortage — as well as Hungary’s continued relationship with Russia despite Moscow’s invasion.
“Back then, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, and today’s Russia is demonstrating similar efforts at conquest, and we’d like to express our solidarity with Ukraine,” said demonstrator Katalin Beke. “It really damages the interests of our allies that (Orbán) is so visibly friendly with (Putin). I find it extremely damaging.”
Pausing in front of the Russian Embassy, demonstrators chanted, “Russians go home!”, a phrase popularized during the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising. Another demonstrator, Istvan Muzsa, said he felt “shame” over Orbán’s meeting with Putin in Beijing.
“It’s the country’s shame and the shame of every decent person, regardless of party preference and which side someone votes for,” he said.