Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has established his domination of his country’s politics by whipping up fear of migrants and refugees. But the authoritarian leader has just freed hundreds of convicted human traffickers from jail.
In late May, Hungarian media reports showed prison guards released inmates in Szombathely, a small town just 10km (6.2 miles) from the Austrian border.
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Utilising a measure called “reintegrative custody”, intended to allow less serious offenders to regain freedom before the end of their sentence, a total of 777 convicted people smugglers were released last month.
Largely hailing from Serbia, Romania and Ukraine, the prisoners had been rounded up over recent years as the heavy flow of people on the Western Balkan Route – one of the main migratory paths into Europe – incurred boasts of a tough line on illegal migration from Orban.
Once ejected from the penal system, they were instructed to leave Hungary within 72 hours.
The release of foreign prisoners has angered local inmates who remain locked up.
Hungary’s neighbours are hardly more impressed.
Worried that, rather than heading dutifully for their homelands, the gangs of people smugglers will head next door to resume their schemes to smuggle migrants into Western Europe, Vienna swiftly tightened border controls.
“Austria has expressed its serious concern about the release of hundreds of criminally-convicted human traffickers,” the foreign ministry in Vienna told Al Jazeera.
“We have clearly pointed out to Hungary that its actions have direct consequences for our security as a neighbouring country.”
Left to try to explain the move to European Union partners, Hungary’s political representatives in Brussels are also angry.
Katalin Cseh, an MEP from the liberal Momentum party, told Al Jazeera that the release of the prisoners poses a threat to the security of both Hungary and the wider EU, and further degrades Hungary’s relations with its EU and NATO partners.
Budapest has rejected the complaints, with foreign minister Peter Szijjarto branding the move a “sovereign Hungarian decision”.
However, the reasons behind Orban’s provocative action, which appears counter to the very fount of his political power, are unclear.
Claiming the religion is under threat from liberalism, globalism and migration, the Hungarian leader has long portrayed himself as a “defender of Christianity”.
The harsh rhetoric aimed at refugees, and the tough treatment doled out to those that seek to cross the EU’s southeastern border and claim asylum, have been fundamental to his success at the ballot box since 2010.
Therefore, the decision to unleash an army of people smugglers has shocked and confused.
“It’s extremely strange,” shrugged one Budapest-based political analyst. “I’ve no plausible explanations that aren’t essentially conspiracy theory.”
But Budapest claims the move stems from simple bookkeeping issues.
At the height of the migrant crisis, Orban controversially built razor-wire fences on the borders with Serbia and Croatia. He has demanded Brussels help pick up the tab because it protects the entire bloc.
That bid has proved fruitless. But officials claim that Hungary can no longer afford to continue its crusade against “illegal migration” without financial help from the EU.
“Hungary has been guarding Europe’s borders and countries from illegal immigrants, people smugglers, terrorists and criminals since 2015,” Orban’s spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs told Al Jazeera.
“Brussels has reimbursed a mere 1 percent of the cost of these activities, and owes us 650 billion Hungarian Forints [$1.89bn].”
Some believe, however, that Orban has a much bigger ransom in mind.
The Hungarian strongman is in the midst of a standoff with Brussels after the European Commission froze funds of about 35 billion euros ($37.6bn) due to concerns over corruption, the rule of law, academic freedoms and LGBTQ rights.
There is suspicion that the prisoner release could be a part of a bid to force Brussels to hand over this money, or at least some of it.
Faced with a slowing economy and the need to extend populist economic policies amid sky-high inflation, Budapest is in desperate need of cash.
“It’s a funny coincidence that Orban, who has always campaigned on a tough line on migration, released these criminals just as he’s arguing with the EU over this money,” said Cseh.
Kovacs did not respond when asked if the move is related to the frozen EU funds, but it would not be out of character for the Fidesz government.
In numerous confrontations with Brussels during his 13 years in power, rather than compromise Orban has sought leverage to force concessions from the bloc.
Amid Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Hungarian leader’s efforts to maintain close ties with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin have seen regular threats to veto policy decisions and sanctions.
With this track record, some suggest it is no surprise that Budapest hints it has more ammunition and is ready to raise the stakes.
Asked if Hungary intends to release more of the 2,048 foreign people smugglers that he says are currently languishing in the country’s prisons, Kovacs intoned that “the institution of reintegrative custody has been extended and the implementation of the decision is ongoing”.
Edit Zgut-Przybylska, visiting fellow at Budapest’s CEU Democracy Institute, said she expected “they will release these prisoners too to make more noise.”
However, “this will certainly not help the rule of law dispute with the EU,” she said.
Cseh, the MEP from the liberal Momentum party, agreed.
The European Commission has set strict conditions and milestones for releasing the frozen funds. Unless Budapest implements solid reform, Brussels cannot offer concessions without provoking a storm, she said.
But blackmail may not be the name of the game either. Rather, Orban could be hoping to boost the political fortunes of nationalist parties as national and EU elections approach next year.
Migration flows have been on the rise across the bloc since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The number of asylum applications made in the EU last year was the highest since 2016. That is once again provoking concern and providing populists with ammunition.
Both Austria and Germany have tightened border controls, and nationalist parties have made gains as populist rhetoric has risen.
The Austrian foreign ministry notes with concern that Orban’s actions are “in contradiction to Hungary’s previous hard stance in the fight against human trafficking”.
But the biggest threat that the governing centre-right, green coalition in Vienna faces is home-grown.
With elections due in 2024 at the latest, the government parties are struggling for support.
Orban, who has been seeking to build an illiberal bloc inside the EU for years, will be hoping for a victory for the like-minded Herbert Kickl, whose promise to turn Austria into a “fortress” against migration has helped push his far-right Freedom Party into a lead in the polls.
Letting a flood of human traffickers loose could just push support for Kickl over the top.
The Hungarian illiberal leader is also likely eyeing the prospects of Robert Fico in Slovakia’s upcoming election and the recent gain in support for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany.
Next year’s EU election will also be on his mind, said Zgut-Przybylska, adding that “this is obviously an attempt to put migration back at the top of the European agenda.”