Moscow’s Trojan Horse. In Europe’s Ideological War, Hungary Picks Putinism

Monument to the victims of the German occupation, Szabadság square, Budapest. Live exhibition of the demonstrators

Detail from the exhibition arranged by protesters in front of the monument to the victims of the German occupation of Hungary 1944

 06.08.2014

Late last month, in a speech in Transylvania, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced nothing less than his government’s break with liberal democracy. Orban’s words have made waves across the West, and his defenders have been busy insisting that he was only dismissing what he called “the liberal understanding of society”: in essence, ruthless capitalism and selfish individualism. But Orban clearly gave notice that he was also done with political liberalism and its emphasis on accountability and checks and balances. Most important, by proudly embracing “illiberal democracy,” a term famously coined by the journalist Fareed Zakaria in Foreign Affairs in 1997, he signaled which side his government has chosen in the new geopolitical and ideological struggle between Russia and the West. Orban endorsed Putin’s model of populist leadership and an unrestrained executive based on assertive nationalism. Earlier this year, Russia gave a huge loan to Hungary. Moscow is already getting a political return on its investment.

As I argued in an earlier article for Foreign Affairs, Orban has taken a leading role in a process of political backsliding in eastern Europe that seemed unimaginable when the majority of countries in the region joined the EU in 2004. Since the election victory of his Fidesz party in 2010, Orban has restricted media freedoms, systematically dismantled checks and balances, and delivered much of the economy to Fidesz-friendly oligarchs. In April, he won another term in office in an election that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called “free, but not fair.”

Fidesz has now abandoned all self-restraint: Orban’s government is trying to eliminate the last sources of opposition and comprehensively remake society in its own cultural image. Despite massive protests from inside and outside the country (from Jewish organizations in particular), the government erected a memorial to Germany’s 1944 occupation of Hungary, in the Budapest city square where the U.S. embassy is located. The memorial depicts an angel (Hungary) that is about to be attacked from behind by an enormous black eagle (Germany). The memorial’s critics claim that it denies Hungarians’ collaboration in the Holocaust. Citizens have now improvised a protest site in front of the statue, leaving stones, shoes — a particularly potent symbol of the Holocaust in Hungary — historical pamphlets, Stars of David, tattered EU flags, and a giant mirror, which is meant to encourage Hungarian society to interrogate itself about how such blatant historical revisionism could literally be put in stone.

The erection of the statue — late at night, under heavy police protection — coincides with two drastic measures consolidating the illiberal state: the government is attacking civil society organizations, denouncing them, as in Putin’s Russia, as foreign agents. Orban is also trying to force the last major television channel that is not toeing the government line, a subsidiary of the German company Bertelsmann, out of business through steep tax increases on advertising revenues. In response to the critics of such measures, Fidesz has regularly accused liberals of helping multinational businesses, in contrast with Orban’s heroic defense of ordinary Hungarians.

But when it comes to choosing between the liberal West and what Orban now calls his illiberal “work-based” state, ordinary Hungarians have also been voting with their feet: about 500,000 have left the country since his election. The EU’s open borders make it easy for the politically despairing and the economically discontented to exit. At least on this score, European unification is great news for authoritarians. In the old days, dissidents would have been kicked out and created an international outcry; now the constituency for opposition parties leaves voluntarily (and voting from abroad can always be made very burdensome, as Fidesz demonstrated effectively in the elections this past spring).

Orban is now confident enough in his vision that he wants to proselytize. In his speech in Transylvania, he declared that world politics is at a watershed moment — comparable to the ends of the First and Second World Wars and to 1989. The financial crisis of 2008 underscored what Hungarians had learned in the years since 1989: liberalism in practice, in contrast to what the West had promised in theory, often only serves the strongest. Hungarians thought that joining the EU would secure freedom and equality. Instead, they got exploitative mortgage contracts from Austrian banks.

Orban and the ideologues who surround him — a motley crew of hard-line nationalists, disillusioned liberals, and disciples of the reactionary political philosopher Leo Strauss — think that a global race for a new form of state has begun and that illiberalism is in the lead. They claim that Hungary (a country that the turn-of-the-century Hungarian writer Endre Ady famously described as a “ferryboat-land” between East and West, “roaming back and forth between two shores”) can play a special role in this race. It would borrow from the West — Orban has pointed to Obama’s alleged devotion to “economic patriotism” — but especially from authoritarian countries in the East. China, Russia, Singapore, and Turkey are Orban’s great teachers.

In fact, Orban has been rhapsodizing about the inspiring “wind from the East” for some time. In practice, however, what Fidesz learned from Eastern models is not how to achieve rapid growth but how to create an economic system in which success depends on political connections. Moreover, like Putin, Orban is playing with fire by stoking nationalism in order to distract from economic failure. The front of the Parliament building in Budapest no longer displays the EU flag alongside the national one; instead, it features the banner of the Szeklerland, a region of Romania with a large ethnic Hungarian population. Given the large Magyar minorities in several of Hungary’s neighbor countries, there is potential for many more such provocations.

Orban confidently announced in his speech that the EU could do nothing to prevent the creation of an illiberal state — or, as a regime critic put it, “a black hole” — in the midst of Europe. It is true that attempts by the European Commission to safeguard media freedom and the independence of the judiciary have met with limited success. Brussels has few means to protect the Union’s core political values. At best, it can use EU law to get at a rogue government indirectly: when Fidesz lowered the retirement age of judges in order to staff the courts with its own appointees, Brussels sued for age discrimination. The European Commission won its case, but hardly any of the judges were reinstated. Still, there is the possibility of suspending a country’s voting rights in the EU altogether — a measure so drastic that it is often called the “nuclear option.” It depends not on the Brussels bureaucracy but on EU member states having the political will to condemn one of their peers.

Up until now, even European politicians who were paying attention to developments in Hungary — German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example — believed that they didn’t have any political capital to spare amid the euro crisis. It was difficult enough for European leaders to bully Greek governments into drastic spending cuts; they didn’t want to be seen lecturing small central European nations on democratic norms as well. But given the current perception, right or wrong, that the continent’s financial crisis is no longer acute, Brussels and Europe’s bigger states may finally get serious about Orban. They should understand that the new ideological conflict — liberal versus illiberal Europe — is a greater danger to the foundations of the EU than the euro crisis. Of course money matters — but a rising antiliberalism inside the EU, inspired and materially supported by Putin, could tear the Union apart morally and, ultimately, politically. Orban has done the rest of Europe a favor by spelling out his illiberal intentions so openly — and making it clear just how high the stakes are.

Jan-Werner Mueller is Professor of Politics at Princeton and a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna. He is the author of Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe. Currently, he is a Visiting Fellow at the IWM.

First published by Foreign Affairs on August 6, 2014.

© Author / Foreign Affairs

 

 

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    Richard C. Levin Professor of History, Yale University
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  • George Soros

    George Soros is a pioneer of the hedge-fund industry, investor and philanthropist, he is the author of many books, including Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States: Essays (2012), The Soros Lectures: At the Central European University (2010), The Crash of 2008 and What it Means: The New Paradigm for Finance Markets (2009).   …
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  • Robert Spaemann

    Robert Spaemann ist Professor em. für Philosophie an der Universität München.   Print

  • Pawel Spiewak

    Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Philosophy, Warsaw University
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  • Wilfried Stadler

    Wilfried Stadler ist Unternehmensberater, Wirtschaftspublizist und Honorarprofessor an der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. Bis 2009 war er Vorstandsvorsitzender einer österreichischen Spezialbank für Unternehmensfinanzierung.   Print

  • Rudolf Stamm

    Rudolf Stamm war von 1975 bis 1988 Korrespondent der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung für Osteuropa und Österreich, anschließend bis 1999 für Italien, dann bis zu seiner Pensionierung 2002 für die USA mit Sitz in Washington D.C. Er starb 2010 in der Schweiz. 1985 erscheinen seine NZZ-Reportagen aus Osteuropa in dem Band Alltag und Tradition in Osteuropa. …
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  • Paul Starr

    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue / Ukraine in European Dialogue
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