Is Eastern Europe about to be infected by Hungary’s resurgent authoritarianism?
It may be time to revive Cold War-era interventions to promote freedom and human rights threatened by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s version of Putinism, some observers suggest.
“Messianic at home and detested abroad, Orbánism has a bad image,” writes Edward Lucas, International Editor of The Economist. “Some even regard it as the local variant of Putinism,” he notes, and fear that “the poisonous Orbánist cocktail is set to spread across the rest of Eastern Europe.”
The only Western state where democracy is seriously regressing, according to the latest annual survey from Freedom House, “Hungary may well be the first ideological outpost of Putin’s constitutional dictatorship,” say Mark Palmer, Miklos Haraszti and Charles Gati.*
“With the fall of Hungary’s Western-style, pluralistic democracy, the time is right for the United States to reinstate Radio Free Europe’s Hungarian-language broadcasts, “ they suggest, citing the media regulator’s denial of an operating license to Klubradio, the country’s leading independent station as the latest of a series of worrying illiberal acts:
While Hungary is a member of both NATO and the European Union, it is at risk of becoming a constitutional dictatorship and a pariah in the West. Its hastily adopted new constitution has no meaningful provisions for checks and balances. All branches of government and all independent institutions, including the judiciary, are controlled by Orban and his party for nine years with automatic renewal for many more similar terms.
The importance of “preserving democratic institutions” was recently highlighted by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The European Union can provide assistance to Hungarian democrats “struggling for a true civil society” by pressing Budapest “to conform to the EU’s own stated principles of guarantees of civil and human rights,” writes Hungarian writer Gábor Schein:
This pressure, though, must stipulate a policy that would in all cases keep Hungary within the bounds of EU membership. In addition to this, assistance should be provided to help strengthen both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary democratic opposition. It should be the kind of long-term assistance which, for example, opponents of the Kádár regime received from western Europe from the 1960s to the 1980s.
In the long term, however, what is even more crucial is that the lessons from Orbán’s authoritarian consolidation and concentration of power enter into European political consciousness. We should concentrate on identifying and rectifying those errors committed by regional elites, as well as by the influential parties of the EU, during the geo-political and economic formation of the post-Communist Baltic and Central-East Europe regions.
Hungary’s dispute with Slovakia over the linguistic and other rights of ethnic Hungarians is “the most troubling” aspect of Orbánism, writes Lucas, a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. But it’s not contagious – for now.
It is possible to imagine a Europe in which the good-neighborly constraints set by the EU and NATO are gone, and squabbles turn into violent clashes. In that case, Orbánism, unchecked, could turn into a serious problem. But so far this prospect is only that: possible. It is also very unlikely. Hungary’s friends may wish it a speedy recovery from Orbánism. But nobody need fear it spreading
*Mark Palmer was the U.S. ambassador to Hungary from 1986 to 1990. Miklos Haraszti, was the representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2004 to 2010. Charles Gati is a professorial lecturer in Russian & Eurasian studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.