Putinism, Orbanism… But Is There an “Ism”?

Putin and Orbán want to be strong leaders of what are essentially weak countries. Their goal is not an ideological world revolution, but a game of outsmarting the West.

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This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Francis Fukuyama’s essay The End of History. Since 1989 we have seen an endless history of malicious or just plain ignorant misunderstandings of Fukuyama’s central claim: liberal democracy, as the then State Department official had argued, was the only political system capable of satisfying human aspirations for freedom and dignity. In year 2014 the question whether there is a competition of systems is back on the global agenda. China has been successful at finding admirers for quite some time (though it might be a stretch to say that many Westerners are dreaming the Chinese Dream) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán advertised his model of “illiberal democracy” this summer.

Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has not just raised the specter of new Cold War—it has also made many observers realize for the first time that Russia seems invested in exporting not just oil and gas, but also political ideas. Are Putinism and Orbánism really ideologies, though? They certainly are not, if nineteenth and twentieth century intellectual history serves as our guide: there are no philosophical masters, no fixed doctrines or little books (remember Mao’s Little Red Book, or Gaddafi’s Green Book?) which enthusiastic followers could pass around in study circles. Yet it would be a mistake to think that an imperative to preserve power, considered apart from the regime’s self-presentation, is sufficient to explain everything that happens in Russia and Hungary. The systems of Putin and Orbán respectively have their inner logic—and the West better understand that logic.

When Viktor Orbán gave a speech on illiberal democracy at Summer University in Transylvania in July, the international outcry was almost immediate. Yet Orbán was simply spelling out— in concepts recognizable to the Western policy establishments—what he had been practicing for a long time: liberal theory, Orbán had concluded many years ago, translated into the reality of rapacious capitalism; and freedom, in the absence of an authority able to set proper limits, amounted to the rule of the stronger. Such vision is easily recognizable to many Hungarians (and many people elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe) who have lived through the transition since 1989. On the other hand, it is harder to make sense of Orbán’s alternative, which he called the “workbased state.”The term evokes Vichy France, with its unholy trinity of “work, family, fatherland,” but also seems designed to play on local prejudices.* After all, who is likely to come to mind first in Hungary, when the issue is work versus non-work? The Roma. To the extent that the “work-based state” has become reality already, it has translated into workfare schemes that often resemble feudalism—or something even worse: feudalism, after all, is a fixed legal relationship; but empowering local notables to make Roma work as they see fit creates personal dependency and a potential for all kinds of arbitrary behavior.

Orbán—despite what his intellectual apologists soon rushed out to claim—had criticized not just economic liberalism: liberalism in politics means a potentially chaotic pluralism, an unpredictable and perhaps unruly civil society—and the possibility of institutions like constitutional courts thwarting the will of popular leader. Orbán had already outlined a political vision in 2009 according to which the Magyars needed rule by a “central force” for decades—a plan reminiscent of European interwar authoritarianism (such as that of Hungarian regent Miklós Horthy). Such authoritarian regimes tolerated limited pluralism and more or less free elections, but never allowed for the possibility of a substantial turnover of power.

It is disconcerting how often the international critics of Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” were willing to concede the point that Hungary, even with Orbán’s vision fully realized, would still be a proper democracy—just not a liberal one. Surely, periodic elections are not all that is needed for a country to qualify as democratic; one has to factor in what happens before and after elections and how elections themselves are organized (the OSCE condemned the last Hungarian vote as free, but not fair). If media freedom is restricted, civil society intimidated, and election laws rewritten to suit the ruling party, one can hardly leave the ‘d-word’ to those who (falsely) claim that illiberal democracy is just another legitimate version of democracy. Allowing Orbán to keep democracy for himself is something like an unforced semantic—and, ultimately, normative— error for the West (where, to be sure, democracy is not always in extremely good shape either).

Does any of this elevate Orbánism to the level of an ideology? There is no doubt that Orbán has been eager to tie together a larger package of ideas—one that in principle could be an export article. He is not just prescribing policies for Hungary, but frequently pontificates about Europe as a whole: he recommends the primacy of the nation-state, the overriding importance of Christianity to provide moral foundations for politics and society at large, and the promotion of traditional family values. (As an enthusiastic supporter of the regime explained to my wife this past summer: “Every Hungarian woman should have three children, and every Hungarian man five.”) Arguably, ever since a prominent 2012 interview with the German paper of record, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Orbán has been trying to issue an invitation to European conservatives to join his cause, or, put more dramatically, to ignite a pan-European Kulturkampf.

At least on paper, one would have thought such invitation could be tempting to many conservatives. After all, many West European Conservative and Christian Democratic parties have been moving to the center, in the process becoming more Green, more secular, more gender-conscious—and sometimes even, God forbid, endorsing same-sex marriage. It is a reasonable bet that there must be an untapped reservoir of thinkers and politicians who would identify with a national leader who aggressively advocates what they feel they can no longer avow openly.

Yet no Orbánist wave has swept the continent. One banal reason might be that Hungary is politically too unimportant (and Russia is of course politically too unattractive). Orbán’s rhetoric has not been considered too extreme by Western conservatives. After all, Joseph Daul, then President of the European People’s Party, campaigned for “mon cher ami Viktor Orbán” on Budapest’s Heroes’ Square in the run-up to the Hungarian elections in April of this year. Criticism of such shameless support for Europe’s premier illiberal democrat has often been countered by conservatives with the claim that, in supranational European politics, everybody stands by their own man: the EPP has argued that the socialists have been condoning major misbehavior by the Bulgarian and Romanian governments respectively; therefore left-wing charges against Orbán are pure hypocrisy.

On a more important note, defenders of Daul and his ilk might say that being a nationalist is not a crime in the EU. Orbán’s regime, however, is not just about nationalism; its inner logic is more specific (even if virtually all policies are of course justified with reference to Hungarian national interests). The combination of nationalism and a particular kind of populism is truly distinctive. Orbán has made it abundantly clear that only he and his Fidesz party properly represent the Hungarian nation and strive for the common good of the latter; all other political contenders are essentially impostors (who are supported by self-interested outside forces such as the EU, which, in the Fidesz imagination, does the bidding of Western multinationals).

This logic also explains why Orbán has been constructing what Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament, once called a “Fidesz state”: all positions in the state apparatus are filled with party loyalists, and checks and balances are disabled. After all, if one believes that one truly serves or de facto is the nation, what can be wrong with appropriating the state? In the same vein, why not restrict benefits of the “work-based state” to those who properly belong to the “Fidesz nation” and exclude those who do not truly belong: the Roma, the liberals, etc.? What political scientists call “mass clientelism” is not peculiar to populist regimes—but governments like Orbán’s can implement it with a good conscience, so to speak. After all, everyone gets what they deserve, based on the right understanding of the nation.

Once a Fidesz state is constructed, the next logical step is to complete the project of a “Fidesz people”—in a sense making the core populist claim that only Fidesz truly represents the nation in retrospect. The party needs to bring into existence the very people in whose name it has been acting all along. We are witnessing this process right now: the last remnants of independent civil society are being attacked (with the claim, also frequently voiced by Putin, that civil society organizations are steered by foreign agents); media freedom is further restricted; and, most importantly for the long-term, the economy is highly politicized. As my colleague Kim Lane Scheppele has been pointing out, political loyalties and connections have become crucial for success in Hungarian business. In that sense, it is actually too imprecise to call the systems of Hungary or also Russia “authoritarian capitalism,” as Michael Ignatieff has done recently. Without wanting to sing the praises of pure, impartial capitalism, one can note that crony capitalism is a category of its own. And crony capitalism can also be justified with yet another nationalist-populist moral claim: Orbán and Putin, often through outright nationalizations, say that they put the interests of the nation first.

Apart from the combination of nationalism and populism, there is another peculiar characteristic of Orbánism and Putinism, noted especially in the context of Russia by observers such as Maxim Trudolubov and Peter Pomerantsev. The preservation of power—an overriding imperative— is achieved with a number of innovative political techniques: for one, Putin built an entire Potemkin political landscape, with nominally independent parties and NGO’s. At the same time, power is highly centralized, and, as in the days of Kremlinology, political analysis is often reduced to Putinology and Orbánology: with whom has the leader recently been talking? How is—what might look like an irrational policy—part of a brilliant long-term Machiavellian plan? How do the rhetoric for domestic consumption and the rhetoric for international audiences differ? These are the typical questions one hears in and about countries like Hungary and Russia.

Part of the success of Putin and Orbán is due to their ability to constantly destabilize both public and expert expectations. They conduct a particular kind of information warfare (Putin) or at least perform elaborate “peacock dances” (Orbán’s words), where the EU is told one thing and government conduct within Hungary turns out to be something quite different. In that sense, Putin’s and Orbán’s approach is exactly the opposite of old-style ideologies that follow a blueprint which is contained—and accessible—in some manifesto or book of political philosophy. They want to be strong leaders of what are essentially weak countries; their goal is not ideological world revolution, but a game of outsmarting the West and deploying limited resources on the European or global stage to maximum effect. What matters, then, is not the articulation of principles, but successfully projecting the image of the popu- list leader who truly cares about the people, knows what is best (even if he cannot always reveal what he will do next), and will defend the nation against its innumerable enemies inside and outside.


Jan-Werner Mueller
is Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a former Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He is the author of Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe (Yale University Press, 2011).

First published by Aspen Review Central Europe, 3/2014.

© Author / Aspen Review Central Europe

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    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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