The recent rise of authoritarianism in Eurasia and elsewhere seems to be encouraging further destabilization of other fragile democracies. As if the Russia-instigated and still ongoing Ukraine crisis was not enough, liberal regression and uncertainty in the region continues to take new and alarming forms. This time Hungary’s brash Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is making headlines; during a visit to Baile Tusnad, Romania this past weekend, Orbán spoke to local students and made a series of bold statements about his vision of a new Hungarian that is a “work-based society that will abandon liberal democracy.”
Two days later, two articles titled “The Era of the Welfare State is Over” and “The Era of the Work-based State is Approaching” appeared on the Hungarian government’s official website–the quotes below are taken from these articles. According to these articles, Orbán has organized a “new Hungarian state” after the recent parliamentary elections in which Orbán’s Fidesz- NKDP alliance received an overwhelming support and entered the parliament with two-thirds majority. “The basis of the newly organized Hungarian state is a work-based society that is not liberal in nature,” states Orbán.
Not surprisingly, it appears that Orbán views this recent victory as validation for his increasingly authoritarian actions which continue to receive the international community’s criticism. Orbán uses the recent economic failures and the image of a weakened West as a sign that Hungary needs to seek alternative ways of political and economic governance. The Prime Minister appears to think that a “great global race” for identifying a brand new, most optimal way of governance is taking place. He stated:
There is a global race to invent a state that is most suited to achieving the success of the nation. Today, the world is trying to understand systems that are not western, not liberal, perhaps not even democracies, but are nevertheless successful, and the ‘stars’ of the analysts are Singapore, China, India, Russia and Turkey.
While breaking with the dogmas and ideologies that have been adopted by the West, we are trying to find the form of community organization, the new Hungarian state, which is capable of making our community competitive in the great global race for decades to come.
In the last year Orbán managed to suspend the IMF from Hungary, rewrite the constitution in an unconstitutional way, and made Euroskepticism an acceptable form of Hungarian foreign policy. If these actions were not enough for the European authorities to become convinced that Hungary was backsliding away from political pluralism, this brand new manifesto should help clarify all misunderstandings. During his speech in Romania he went on to say that: “We must break with the liberal principles and methods of social organization … the new state that has been constructed in Hungary is not a liberal one.”
Orbán’s perception of the European Union, its role and membership requirements also seem to be significantly distorted, given his statement that “I don’t think that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations.”
Perhaps being perceived as an informal institution like a neighborhood book club is a price the European Union has to pay for not addressing Orbán’s authoritarian tendencies on time. According to a June 2013 Venice Commission report, the constitutional changes implemented by Orbán have gutted the power of the Hungarian Constitutional Court and have taken unconstitutional laws and reintroduced them at the constitutional level, seriously threatening democracy and the rule of law in the country.
These actions, among many others in the Orbán government’s democracy-undermining actions, have had practically no consequences for Orbán. The European Parliament has had many opportunities to sanction Hungary for its actions. At the time when the Venice Commission report was issued, Hungary was still well within the EU orbit of influence, and unlike in the case of Russia today, sanctions, economic and other, would have had robust enough influence. One of such appropriate sanctions would have been the suspension of Hungary’s parliamentary voting rights as an EU member, through the employment of the EU’s Article 7. However, the lack of resolve within the EU has made this impossible.
Other than the fact that Orbán seems to be an ego-centric, power-hungry leader, what else could explain this confident new turn in his already alarming actions? He is certainly not motivated by an ideology he strongly believes in, or by his commitment to the greater good of the nation that will come by creating a brand new way of more centralized and increasingly centralized form of governance and authority. Quite the contrary, Orbán appears to be driven by his aspiration to emulate the likes of Russia’s president Putin, and by the need to justify his own incompetence by criticizing the West.
For example, Orbán is notoriously handicapped when it comes to basic management of the country’s economy. The aftermath of the global financial crisis, which he has used to his advantage when arguing against the concept of the European economic structure, was severely mishandled by his team. Some of his famously unorthodox measures in dealing with Hungary’s economic recession included the nationalization of private pension funds to offset the budget deficit, retroactive industry taxes especially for foreign-owned companies, and mandatory energy price cuts. Despite the fact that Hungary received a bailout of over $25 billion (jointly from the EU, the IMF and the World Bank), its national debt remains over 84% of GDP (the highest among the EU’s 11 post-communist member states) and its economic growth remains very modest.
In 2013, Orbán and his team decided to pursue “economic self-rule” after the multiple rounds of IMF aid negotiations failed. This type of rogue position has enabled Orbán to institutionalize nationalism in Hungary. He has been targeting foreign investors, business owners and NGO’s in Hungary, questioning the legitimacy of their interests.
According to Orbán’s manifesto, in the case of “certain non-governmental organizations that are often in the public gaze, we are in fact dealing with political activists who are being paid by foreigners, who are attempting to enforce foreign interests in Hungary. … This is why it is extremely justified that the Hungarian Parliament has formed a Committee to regularly monitor, record and make public foreign influence.”
In regards to foreign debtors, Orbán stated: “we are living in a world in which anything can happen, even that when the various court proceedings are over, the Hungarians could receive back from the banks hundreds of billions of forints that they should never have had to pay in the first place.”
At this point Orbán’s rhetoric starts to sound much like that of Vladimir Putin’s. He attempts to rally up his people against the West with statements like“provincialism is the copying of the West and it is something we should put behind us, because it is killing us,” prepares them for short-term sacrifices in the name of long-term gains, and warns them of an unsure future:
Instead of fear, isolation and withdrawal, I recommend courage, thinking ahead and rational but courageous action for the Hungarian community of the Carpathian Basin, and in fact for the whole Hungarian community throughout the world. Since anything can happen, it could easily be the case that our time will come.
Orbán also seems to be taking a bolder stand to defend Russia. According to the Hungarian government’s website:
Mr. Orbán also said it had been self-agitation to state that we would be “swept into the clutches of the Russian bear”. Hungary is a member of NATO and the European Union, and our “biggest problem” is that two-thirds of our exports go to the EU, which is an unhealthy balance. What would be healthy is if this ratio was 50 percent and the other half went to the world’s various other regions so that we “stood on multiple legs.”
On the subject of the South Stream gas pipeline, the website states that
He emphasized that Hungary is showing solidarity with the people of Ukraine and agrees that territory cannot be taken away from a country, in addition to which they are aware of the terrible economic conditions now prevailing in Ukraine. In the Prime Minister’s opinion, Russia would soon stop exporting gas to Ukraine because they will be unable to pay for it, and this means that the transport of gas to Europe would eventually be blocked. It is in the interests of Hungary that there should exist a method of gas transport that assures a steady supply even in a situation of this nature. We cannot throw our own interests aside in such a conflict, Mr. Orbán stressed.
Orbán’s recent speech would appear to be genuinely inspired by Russia’s recent rise and Putin’s “bravery”, if the international news headlines did not talk about the extensive leverage of Russian oligarchs on Hungarian oligarchs, its heavy dependence on Russia’s energy strategy and interests, and a recent $13.4 billion dollar deal with Moscow, according to which Hungary’s only nuclear plant will be expanded by Russia’s Rosatom. It appears that Orbán will accept certain foreign involvements in his country, preferably those deriving from Russia.
Further undermining the European values and the importance of the European Union, Orbán also seems to support separatism within the EU borders:
If the community in Transylvania ever found itself in a situation in which it did not receive the resources for which it was eligible from the Romanian budget, it could count on the support of Hungary.
It is difficult to argue that the European Union must act right away in order to prevent Orban from running Hungary’s democracy into the ground, when it has proven to be so weak in dealing with the much larger and more alarming issue of Ukraine. On the other hand, the EU’s continuing lack of resolve in dealing with serious derailment from democracy within its own borders makes its weakness in regards to the Ukraine crisis quite understandable.
However, Orban’s bold new “manifesto” combined with his high domestic approval ratings and the re-election of his Fidesz party should be a good enough reason for the EU to sanction Hungary before it is too late. Hungary’s EU parliament voting rights should be temporarily suspended, all EU financial aid to Hungary must be put on hold, and the idea of its EU membership suspension must be introduced. This should, of course, be done with a clear understanding that unless the EU officials deal with Hungary’s leadership in a proper way, there is a danger of pushing Hungary into the arms of Russia.
For the broader international community and the Western nations in particular, Hungary’s backslide should serve as further proof that authoritarian regression in Eurasia is only worsening and that the hard-won democracy there is very fragile at the moment. This makes modifying Putin’s far-reaching influence that much more crucial. The United States should work closely with its European allies to ensure that the EU takes measures against Hungary’s democratic regression, and furthermore, that the EU takes a bolder stand against Putin’s growing aggression and influence in the region.