Earlier this week, ostensibly in light of the COVID-19 crisis, the Hungarian parliament granted the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, rule by decree. With fewer than 500 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus as of this writing, Hungary has not yet been badly hit by the pandemic, so this draconian measure was almost certainly unnecessary. Followers of European politics, however, are not surprised. Next month, Orbán will complete an uninterrupted decade in office (having previously served from 1998 to 2002), and his tenure has been marked by a series of moves to scale back post-Cold War liberalism hitherto embraced by Hungarians.
In 1956, as the second decade of the Cold War got underway, an anti-communist revolution erupted in Budapest. Stalin had died a few years previously and been replaced by Nikita Khrushchev from the pro-reform faction of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party. Khrushchev’s speech before the Soviet congress, in which he had condemned Stalin, led commentators and analysts across the West to wonder if tensions might be easing. In the winter of that year, encouraged by Khrushchev’s speech, Hungarians rose against their own communist government. András Hegedűs, the country’s premier, fled to the Soviet Union, and Imre Nagy, a reformist, replaced him. The revolution seemed to have succeeded.
Earlier that same year, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal. Just a few days after the Soviet-backed government in Hungary had collapsed, the United Kingdom, France, and Israel attacked Egypt in order to reopen the canal without informing the United States. President Dwight Eisenhower was furious and responded by imposing sanctions on the United Kingdom, a move that put NATO’s superpower at odds with two of its most important members. The Soviets also sided with Egypt, seizing on the opportunity to destabilize the new Western alliance, and it was at this moment of Western division and discord that Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary and crushed its revolution.
Less than two weeks later, the war in the Middle East had also ended and NATO unity re-established, in no small part due to the reminder that the Red Army remained the greatest threat to the West and its interests. This episode gave Hungarians’ struggle for liberalism a unique significance. For the United States and its NATO allies, Hungary was not just another Soviet-bloc country. Its citizens paid a great price to liberalize, and the West almost did too, as their revolution caused Soviet tanks to roll over Europe once more. Soviet tanks had unintentionally rescued NATO from its first existential crisis.
After the Berlin Wall fell, so did Eastern Europe’s communist regimes. The new Hungarian Republic was founded in 1989 and a series of reforms were introduced. The Clinton administration facilitated Hungary’s admission to NATO, and it became a full NATO member in 1999. Hungarian refugees who had fled communism and Nazism now began to invest in their native country. One of those refugees was billionaire George Soros, who used large sums of money to promote liberalism in Hungary through his Open Society Foundation. Soros’s philanthropic works included higher education scholarships for young, bright, and talented Hungarians who wanted to study liberal arts at elite universities.
One of those recipients was a young Hungarian named Viktor Orbán, whose education at Oxford University was paid for by Soros. Eight years later, at the age of 35, Orbán would be selected by the Hungarian parliament to become the young republic’s youngest prime minister and the second youngest man ever to lead his country after the infamous András Hegedüs. Orbán’s first tenure as prime minister was not controversial from a Western point of view. The new republic joined NATO, despite Russian objections. Orbán initiated Hungary’s bid to join the European Union, and although his Fidesz party lost power in the 2002 parliamentary elections, they supported joining the European Union in the 2003 referendum. Hungary became an EU member the following year.
In 2010, Orbán returned to power with a landslide majority, overcoming opposition from the Socialist Workers’ Party on the Left and Jobbik on the far-Right. Orbán’s second administration, however, has been nothing like his first. In a series of laws, Orbán has centralized power and pushed through a new constitution. Over the objections of the European Commission, he reduced the central bank’s autonomy by requiring its vice presidents to be picked by the prime minister. In a move analogous to court-packing, he increased the membership of several financial councils in order to secure a favorable majority. And he tightened government control over higher education by appointing sympathetic government bursars at universities and slashing funding for the liberal arts.
His most controversial maneuver, however, was the 2011 Fundamental Law, which replaced the 1989 constitution, effective January 1st, 2012. Inter alia, new provisions reduced checks and balances, limited the judicial system’s power to review laws, and changed the name of the state from the Hungarian Republic to Hungary. This last amendment was the most controversial part of the new constitution. It was the only provision that did not have any practical ramifications, but it best symbolized the country’s transformation.
Since then, Orbán’s authoritarianism has only grown. His new reforms cost him seats in the 2014 elections, but he clung to his supermajority by a single seat in parliament. It was enough for Fidesz to retain absolute power—the supermajority has practically made the opposition irrelevant. Events then came to his aid. The 2014 refugee crisis spilled over from Syria and Libya into Europe, which made the conflagrations in the Levant and North Africa a European issue. Orbán immediately declared that he would take any measures necessary to prevent the influx of migrants from reaching Hungary, and re-fashioned himself as a populist strongman. He used this newfound political capital to declare that Hungary would henceforth be an “illiberal democracy,” and began to realign his party’s constituency to appeal to Jobbik supporters. He adopted a more pro-Moscow and anti-EU line and an increasingly demagogic social platform. He was rewarded with a new supermajority in the 2018 elections.
In the summer of 2018, Orbán formed his fourth government. His first move was to pass the “Stop Soros” law. In the United States, George Soros’s foundation has an extremely progressive reputation, but its European activities are largely devoted to investment in civil society. The new law required the Open Society Foundation to move its offices out of the country, and the growing campaign against Soros has increasingly become anti-Semitic. As Jamie Kirchick noted in the Jewish publication Tablet:
As a wealthy Jewish financier, it is inevitable that many of the attacks on Soros from European quarters would be laced with antisemitic insinuations. Nowhere has this nasty phenomenon been more apparent than in his native Hungary, where, in the wake of the 2015 migrant crisis, Prime Minister Orbán and his Fidesz party have transformed Soros into Emmanuel Goldstein, the target of a nationwide Two Minutes Hate, replete with giant billboards of the grinning billionaire and photos of his face laminated onto the floors of trams. Soros, according to the Orbán propaganda campaign, seeks nothing less than to destroy Hungary from within by overrunning it with Muslim refugees; last year, a Fidesz MP invoked “The Christian duty to fight against the Satan/Soros Plan.”
A month before the 2018 elections, Orbán gave a speech, in which he directly attacked Soros by name. He opened with the following words, which evoke historic tropes of anti-Semitic scapegoating and fearmongering:
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen! I know that this struggle is difficult for all of us. I understand if some of us are even scared. It is understandable because our opponent is different than we are. Not straightforward, but hiding, not direct but crafty, not honest but base, not national but international, doesn’t believe in labor rather speculates with money, has no country of its own because he feels the world is his in its entirety. Not generous but avenger and always attacks the heart, especially, if the heart is colored red, white, and green.
Plans to open a Holocaust museum in Budapest drew criticisms and objections from Jews and Holocaust survivors inside and outside Hungary who accused the Orbán government of trying to whitewash Hungarians’ participation in the Shoah. The decision to drop Nobel Laureate Imre Kertész, a Hungarian Jew, from the national curriculum produced a further outcry.
Nevertheless, Orbán has plenty of defenders among America’s conservative intelligentsia. Commentators traditionally among those most alive to anti-Semitism on the political Left have been eager to acquit him of this charge by pointing to his alliance with Netanyahu’s Israel. This has left them free to embrace and promote his nationalism and immigration restrictionism as a model for America to follow. Just two weeks ago, National Review ran a corner post by its editor-in-chief, Rich Lowry, entitled “We’re All Orban Now.” The magazine’s senior writer Michael Brendan Dougherty has been a proponent of Orbán for years. In 2018, Washington Examiner’s Ryan Girdusky wrote with some enthusiasm about Orbán’s popularity, which he contrasted favorably with the liberal centrism of European leaders like Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron, and Angela Merkel. Of course, none of these figures is as prominent as President Donald Trump, who has also spoken fondly of the Hungarian nationalist autocrat.
But Orbán is not just a problem for Hungarians. He is a problem for the United States and NATO too, not least in the way that Hungary’s trajectory has followed that of Erdoğan’s Turkey in many important respects. In 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became the prime minister of Turkey on a center-Right, religious platform. Gradually, he made his move towards authoritarianism, and today he has established himself as Turkey’s dictator. His deepening alliance with Russia is particularly concerning because Turkey is a NATO member equipped with American weapons. Furthermore, Erdoğan has been acting against US interests in Syria by supporting Islamic State terrorists and attacking America’s Kurdish allies. He has even helped Iran to circumvent American sanctions and funneled funds from Qatar to the Palestinian terror organization, Hamas. Turkey’s most serious challenge to the West was his purchase of the Russian anti-aircraft S-400 missile system, for which the United States kicked it out of the F-35 project. American military experts are worried that it likely includes Russian spyware, and its use with Turkey’s NATO-integrated and American-equipped military risks exposing NATO’s secret capabilities to Vladimir Putin.
Orbán returned to power seven years after Erdoğan became prime minister, and so Hungary’s experience lags behind by seven years. But the similarities ought to be alarming. Both leaders have relied upon religious nationalism and anti-Semitism to facilitate an incremental power grab. More troubling, however, is their shared Russophilia. Since 2010, Orbán has adopted an “Eastern Strategy” which seeks to establish closer economic relations with Russia, China, and Turkey. As the West is increasing its support for Ukraine, Orbán’s ties with his country’s eastern neighbor have been deteriorating at the expense of stronger ties with Russia.
These developments have been making Western leaders increasingly uneasy. So far, they have not produced a military alliance with Russia, but if Turkey’s recent history is any indication, they will in time. Orbán has also spoken in favor of cooperation with the Chinese tech giant Huawei, which poses a unique challenge to the security of the United States and the West. This danger is considered so acute that it is threatening the US-UK special relationship—the United Kingdom’s recent contract with Huawei has brought congressional threats of sanctions and the UK’s expulsion from Five Eyes, the Anglosphere’s intelligence sharing alliance.
The United States should learn from the Turkey experience. More than a decade spent appeasing Erdoğan has only encouraged more bad behavior. Of course, American conservatives’ affinity for Orbán, unlike their resentment of Erdoğan, is clouded by the Hungarian autocrat’s reliance on Christian nationalism, as opposed to the neo-Sultan’s Islamism. Nevertheless, they are birds of an authoritarian feather who pose growing threats to US security interests, and they should be treated as such by all Americans.
In response, the United States should create a coalition of allies to isolate Hungary diplomatically and condemn his autocratic rule. They should engage the Hungarian liberal opposition and increase public diplomacy with the Hungarian people through the US Agency for Global Media and its subsidiary organizations Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. And, along with its European and non-European partners, the US should establish a clear red line to assure Orbán that any further moves against US interests will result in sanctions. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how America’s populist conservatives react to Orbán’s latest power grab. Surely it is time for them to abandon their flirtations with illiberal autocracy. If they can’t bring themselves to defend liberal democracy, then hopefully they can at least bring themselves to acknowledge a growing threat to their own nation’s interests.
Shay Khatiri is an MA student of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). You can follow him on Twitter @ShayKhatiri.
Feature image: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) poses with Hungarian Prime minister Viktor Orbán after they met for discussions on Syria and migration on November 7, 2019 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images)