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Trump To Welcome Hungarian PM Viktor Orban


Tomorrow President Trump will receive Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban in the Oval Office. It's the first visit by a Hungarian prime minister to the White House since 2005. The Obama administration limited diplomatic contacts with Orban's government over concerns that it was eroding democratic norms. Joanna Kakissis was recently in Hungary and has this profile.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Viktor Orban was once a hero of democracy. As a young anti-Soviet activist, he founded a political movement that helped transition his country out of communism.


BILL CLINTON: Prime minister, I'm glad to have you here.

KAKISSIS: In 1998, when he was just 35, he was already prime minister and visiting Bill Clinton's White House.


PRIME MINISTER VIKTOR ORBAN: I'm very happy to be here as prime minister, as future member of NATO.

KAKISSIS: Four years later, his party lost elections, and he was out of power. When he became prime minister again in 2010, he was a changed man. Political analyst Gabor Gyori noticed ruthlessness.

GABOR GYORI: Viktor Orban is famous for his view that politics is war. This is destroy or be destroyed.

KAKISSIS: Under Orban, Hungary rewrote its constitution to strengthen his control over Parliament. With Parliament, he's weakened the courts. And Orban supporters have taken control of most of the media.

KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: Also, he's been able to challenge the European Union, the most powerful regional organization in the world.

KAKISSIS: Kim Lane Scheppele is a professor at Princeton University and an expert on Hungary.

SCHEPPELE: He's a member of all the most exclusive clubs, right? He's in NATO. He's in the EU. And he stands for this, kind of, right wing nationalism. Once you're successful, then other autocrats want to say, how do you do it?

KAKISSIS: Orban, who's a lawyer, did it by getting laws passed to consolidate his power.


KAKISSIS: He told supporters in 2014 that he wants to remake Hungary into what he calls an ill-liberal democracy.


ORBAN: (Speaking Hungarian).

KAKISSIS: He said his vision would balance individual freedom with the interests of the nation.


KAKISSIS: When hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers from the Middle East and elsewhere tried to cross through Hungary in 2015, Orban portrayed them as invaders. He told reporters in Brussels that Europeans were full of fear.


ORBAN: They are not satisfied at all what we European leaders are doing up to now. And the reason why they are criticizing us is that we are not simply defend the European borders.

KAKISSIS: To defend his country's border, Orban built a razor-wire fence. It was a popular move.


KAKISSIS: In the southern city of Pecs, retired dental technician Kosmar Szabo (ph) points to an Ottoman era mosque in the city square.

KOSMAR SZABO: (Through interpreter) At the end of the day, this is about history. Orban understands that we are a country that was once occupied for 150 years by the Turks. We know what that means.

KAKISSIS: Migration to the EU is now at its lowest level in five years, but Orban claims a new enemy is trying to flood Europe with migrants again - George Soros, the Hungarian American billionaire.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Hungarian).

KAKISSIS: This message is blared on ads across the country. Orban surrogates claim Soros is using Central European University, which he founded, to wage a culture war on Hungary. They're forcing the campus out of the country. Balazs Hidveghi, the spokesman for Orban's Fidesz Party, elaborates.


BALAZS HIDVEGHI: We've seen how George Soros and his network of NGOs, civic groups and lobby organizations, how they have infiltrated the European institutions, how they wage a strong campaign, also, in order to help migration become a constant reality.

KAKISSIS: These conspiracy theories about Soros, who is Jewish, have unnerved Hungarian Jews. Hungary's backsliding on democracy has unnerved the European Union. The EU has issued warnings to Hungary, but no serious punishment. And Viktor Orban remains a prominent figure on the world stage. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.