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A friendly Turanic people

6 September, 2012

At the end of August, Hungary extradited to Azerbaijan an Azeri military officer who had, while attending a NATO-sponsored training in Budapest in 2004, killed an Armenian participant with an axe and was sentenced to life in prison. Upon his arrival in Azerbaijan, the man, Ramil Safarov, was granted a presidential pardon and a promotion, and was feted as a national hero.

The reactions to this affair in Hungarian politics give an interesting snapshot of the state of culturalism in the country. Not-government-aligned media (there aren’t many of those left), which tend to criticise the government from liberal positions, largely attack the decision for selling out to “Oriental dictatorships”  — not just Azerbaijan but also China and Saudi Arabia — in the hope that they will finance Hungary’s debt. Indeed, there is little doubt that there is a link between the extradition and an announcement that Azerbaijan would buy Hungarian debt, just as, during Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Hungary last year, the police prevented Tibetans living in Hungary from demonstrating. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has repeatedly made clear that he wishes to shift from an exclusive Euro-Atlantic orientation to an Asian one, a shift he sees necessary for economic growth but in which he has also mused about the usefulness of non-democratic methods of governing. This summer, in a widely quoted, semi-joking speech, he said that Hungarians, as “half-Asian progeny,” sometimes only understand force. Yet, simultaneously, Orban frequently assumes the mantle of the defender of European values such as Christianity, the family, and democracy, which the EU has lost track of.

Although liberal media generally oppose Orban’s clericalism, in its criticism of the extradition there are frequent references to Armenia as “the first Christian state” with which “we,” therefore, share a lot more than with Azerbaijan. (In this respect, they agree with a communique issued by the government after the extradition that states that Hungary “respects Christian Armenia.”)  

Interestingly, the leader of Jobbik, the ultranationalist opposition party, which generally also operates with Christian symbolism but which is also drawn to that strand of Hungarian exceptionalism that emphasises the Asian roots of the nation, defended the alliance with Azerbaijan as “a key partner” on the basis that Azeris were a Turanic people — “Turanic” being a keyword in this self-Orientalising root mythology.

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