Is Hungary mimicking Putin’s authoritarianism?

Has Putin exported ‘managed democracy’ to Hungary? Madeline Roache draws the comparisons between Russian and Orbán’s increasingly autocratic regime

Hungary’s political right has come full circle from a staunch anti-Russian force after 1989, to a major ally of Vladimir Putin. Since 2014, Hungary and Russia have strengthened ties in terms of energy and other areas of the economy. In January 2018, Hungary decided finally to launch the construction of the Paks II nuclear reactors, a $12 billion deal initially struck with Russia in January 2014. However, the Kremlin’s influence appears to extend far beyond the energy realm.

Experts argue that Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán is following in Putin’s foot-steps: restricting media freedom, waging a cultural and legal war on civil society, and propagating a xenophobic ideology. Orbán’s self-prescribed ‘illiberal democracy’ bears striking similarities to Putin’s ‘sovereign democracy’ – both of which unequivocally highlight the leaders’ refusal to abide by democratic norms.

‘Hungary already bears many worrying hallmarks of an authoritarian regime’ – Brian Dooley, Human Rights First Senior Advisor.

And Hungary’s political establishment is not alone in undermining western liberal values. Some other leaders in the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia have also mimicked Orbán’s virulent anti-immigration stance.

For the European Union (EU), which has been unable to keep Orbán in line, a sweeping victory in last week’s parliamentary, elections marking his third consecutive term as prime minister is deeply concerning. With a two-thirds super-majority, as it has had since its landslide victory in 2010, Orbán’s party Fidesz again has a free hand to change the constitution and further pursue his nationalistic policies, which risks fuelling a collective rejection of EU values.

‘Hungary already bears many worrying hallmarks of an authoritarian regime,’ Brian Dooley, Senior Advisor at Human Rights First, told the New Internationalist. ‘The government has very successfully taken control of the media and manipulated public opinion against a perceived threat from outsiders – the EU and migrants.’

Orbán secured much of his current popularity at home through an anti-immigration, anti-EU campaign since 2015 that referred to refugees as a tide of migrants who threaten to destabilize the country, while billboards across the country’s capital Budapest read ‘Stop Brussels!’.

This rejection of ‘forced’ European values echoes and reinforces Russia’s version of a sovereign, traditional, Christian country up against a decadent and failing liberal Europe.

This shows similarities to messages promoted by Russia. According to Dr Olga Smirnova, a BBC World Service Producer, writing for the Reuters Institute, Russian state TV portrays ‘the migration crisis as leading to chaos and protests’ and uses the crisis to highlight the ‘flaws in the democratic systems of either individual European countries or the EU as a whole’.Orbán has also publicly commended Russia on its defiance of Western influence and ability to ‘survive Western attempts to isolate and overthrow the regime.’ This is not without consequence; Putin is more popular in Hungary than Chancellor Merkel, and Hungarians see the EU as a bigger threat than Russia, according to a poll by Pew research centre.

Hungary’s score on Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Index has declined by 20 points in the last 10 years, making it the least ‘free’ country in the EU. Hungary’s foreign minister has dismissed this as ‘nonsense’.

Unlike in Russia, online commentators are not imprisoned in Hungary. But public officials often initiate defamation proceedings against users posting or even sharing critical content on social media. Since 2010, all media outlets in Hungary have had to register with The National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH); in 2015, it banned content featuring refugee children, a decision that stirred wide public discontent. NMHH claimed the ban protected children from traumatic content, echoing the Kremlin’s justifications for monopolizing media content in the name of protecting minors. The government has also funnelled lucrative state advertising contracts to compliant media.

Orbán’s domination has been reinforced by the lack of unity among the small and polarized opposition groups. This contrasts to Russia’s ‘managed democracy’, made up of satellite and quasi-opposition parties tightly controlled by Putin, with the one prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, banned from running for president.

Hungary has opted instead for more sophisticated ways to ensure the victory of pro-government politicians. As early as 2011, the Fidesz party undertook a redrawing of constituencies, scattering left-leaning voters into historically right-leaning districts, and granting voting rights to ethnic Hungarians living abroad who are largely in favour of Fidesz.

‘The sum total of all these changes’, wrote economist Paul Krugman in his New York Times column, ‘makes it virtually inevitable that Fidesz will win.’

‘Parliament is now no more than a gathering of people, where the very well-disciplined members of parliament, handpicked by Orbán, vote in unison,’ Eva Balogh, a Hungarian–Canadian former Professor of History at Yale University and expert on Hungarian politics told the New Internationalist.

Orbán has also practically replicated Putin’s harsh measures against NGOs. Last year, the Hungarian government adopted a law emulating Russia’s notorious 2012 ‘Foreign Agents Law’ which tightens control over NGOs which receive financing from abroad. Organizations that fail to comply can be shut down.

Amnesty International, whose Hungary branch were directly affected, called the new law a ‘crackdown on critical voices that will hamper critically important work by civil society groups’.

The law is believed to be a concerted attack on the Central European University (CEU), which is funded by the American-Hungarian financer George Soros and seen as a bastion of liberalism.

Orbán has launched a smear campaign against Soros due to his advocacy for the humane treatment for refugees and it is about to intensify. Orbán just announced that he plans to go ahead with the 'Stop Soros' package, a controversial set of bills that would require NGOs supporting refugees to register with the government, and impose a 25 per cent tax on foreign funding for these activities. They could also be shut down by security agencies if deemed a ‘national security risk.’

Foreign power and parties have been accused of failing to address Orbán’s assault on democracy.

One the eve of Hungary’s elections, Hungary’s former European commissioner László Andor accused the European People’s Party (EPP), Europe’s powerful centre-right alliance, of providing ‘political cover for the autocratic rule of Orbán’.

‘The German CSU [Christian Social Union, which is part of Angela Merkel’s government,] has played a pivotal role in whitewashing the autocratic rule of Orbán, and only pushed him back in cases when he was going to the wildest extremes like discussing the need to reintroduce the death penalty,' he said.

Joseph Daul, the EPP president, did reprimand Hungary during a crackdown on independent universities and NGOs in April last year. ‘The constant attacks on Europe, which Fidesz has launched for years, have reached a level we cannot tolerate.’

But recent well-wishing messages clearly undermine this stance. A few days ago Daul tweeted his support for Fidesz, saying Orbán and his allies would ‘continue to bring stability and prosperity’ to Hungary.

By failing to deliver a strong and consistent message, the international community is enabling the unravelling of democracy in Hungary.

Although it bears many of the same worrying hallmarks, there is crucial difference between Russia and Hungary, namely the government’s treatment of the opposition and reaction to public protest. There is neither the same level of danger nor the same obstacles to opposing the government in Hungary as in Russia, as evident in the mass protests that erupted following the proposed closure of the CEU.

In the meantime, Balogh says xenophobia is having ‘an incredible impact on ordinary people. All that has poisoned the very soul of Hungary’.