On October 7, Vladimir Putin celebrates his sixty-third birthday. To commemorate this occasion, we’re spending today and the next few days here at Useful Stooges looking at Putin – and at a few of his benighted fans around the world. Today: a couple of Hungary’s top dogs.
It’s not every day that a prime minister publicly declares his determination to turn his country into an “illiberal” state. Granted, more than a few heads of government, as we’ve seen on this site, are working hard toward that very goal, but they usually don’t go out of their way to advertise it. Yet that’s precisely what Hungarian PM Viktor Orban did last year. And the reason he gave for wanting to make Hungary “illiberal” was that, in his view, Vladimir Putin has done such a terrific job of making Russia an “illiberal” success story.
Orban, you see, is a big fan of Putin. In fact, to quote the Telegraph, he’s done such an effective job of “harassing civil liberty groups, clamping down on the press and entrenching his grip on power” that critics have called him a “little Putin.” In February, the Russian president visited Orban in – as the Telegraph put it – “an attempt to show the world he still has a friend in the EU despite East-West tension over Ukraine.” The visit was marked by a sizable protest one of whose organizers warned that Hungary, which in the years after the fall of the Iron Curtain seemed like a solid democracy and U.S. ally in the making, is “getting ever closer to the Russian model and farther from the European one.” In short, Orban’s plans are working.
Orban announced his country’s new direction in a speech given on July 26 of last year. “The new state that we are building in Hungary today,” he declared, “is not a liberal state. It doesn’t deny liberalism’s basic values such as freedom but doesn’t make it a core element. It uses a particular, nationalist approach.” As Tim McNamara explained in Policy Review not long after the speech, Orban’s “populist nationalism” peddles the concept of Hungarian exceptionalism, depicts the EU and US as enemies, demonizes opponents of his ruling Fidesz Party, works to close down foreign-funded civil-society groups, and uses a combination of methods (described by McNamara as “remarkably similar…to what has happened in Russia”) to intimidate, bankrupt, buy off, seduce, or just plain crush opposition media. Yet leaders of the European Union (which Hungary joined in 2004) have been pretty much silent about this systematic violation of purported EU values.
And what about NATO, of which Hungary has been a member since 1999? In a time when other countries in Russia’s neighborhood are uneasy about Putin’s saber-rattling and are begging for a stronger NATO presence within their borders, how can Orban’s government possibly be seen as a reliable partner in the defense pact and not as the likely ally of a potential aggressor? As Keith Johnson wrote about Hungary in Foreign Policy last November, “While Europe and the United States are trying to build a common front to push back against Russian aggression…one member of the team seems to be switching jerseys.”
This April, the Economist brought what might have seemed like hopeful tidings: “a row with America over corruption, Mr Orban’s cosying up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the flashy lifestyles of some Fidesz leaders” were eroding the ruling party’s support among the Hungarian electorate. But in fact it looks more as if Hungary is jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire: for as Fidesz falters, more and more Hungarian voters are turning to another party, Jobbik, which has its own “paramilitary wing” and a platform that makes Fidesz look like Amnesty International. Jobbik doesn’t try to hide its savage contempt for (among much else) gays, Jews, and Israel. And let’s not forget the U.S., which, according to party leader Gábor Vona, is engaged in the vile business of “spread[ing] a subhuman culture” around the world.
Meanwhile, guess whom Vona is cozying up to? In the last couple of years, he’s lectured in Moscow on invitation from Putin intimate Aleksandr Dugin – who calls for “the restoration of the Russian Empire through the unification of Russian-speaking territories” and seeks to “hasten the ‘end of times’ with all out war” – and praised Putin’s Russia as a “Eurasian power that could spearhead a real political, economic and cultural resistance against the Euro-Atlantic block.” (It’s no coincidence that Vona was head of the Hungarian-Russian friendship group in the Hungarian Parliament.) Writing last year in Foreign Affairs, Mitchell A. Orenstein stated flatly that “Putin has taken the Jobbik party under his wing.”
What more do we need to know? The facts are clear: barring some thoroughly unforeseen development, Hungary will in all likelihood either continue to be governed by Fidesz during the next few years or pass into the hands of Jobbik. Which means that this strategically located member of the EU and NATO seems destined to become more and more of a satellite (and Xerox copy) of Putin’s Russia.
It’s a sad prospect for the Hungarian people – and a dangerous one for Europe and the West. In other words, just what Putin wants.