Illiberalism and Putinism in Hungary

Today, twelve police officers from the Hungarian Nemzeti Nyomozó Iroda (National Bureau of Investigation) executed a raid on the Budapest offices of two NGOs, Ökotárs and Demnet. These groups are part of a four-NGO association which is linked with the Norway Fund, “a program providing money to projects in areas such as environmental protection or social development in Hungary and other less-developed EU countries.”

The Hungarian police have been investigating groups associated with the Norway Grants for misuse of funds and supporting anti-government efforts. Since April 2014, after the Norway Fund refused to allow Hungary to oversee incoming grant money or to audit the groups that receive the funds, the government has been in an uproar against these NGOs. Other groups, like the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, have also been targeted.

In May, the government ordered “surprise financial inspections” of the same NGOs raided today. According to the Agence France-Presse, “since June, 58 groups handling or receiving Norwegian aid have been forced to hand over documents and information to the Government Control Office (KEHI) in a wide-ranging probe ordered by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban claims that these pro-democracy NGOs are puppets of the opposition to his ruling Fidesz party, as well as an attempt by Norway to interfere with Hungarian politics. From 2009-2014, Norway has sent $198.5 million into Hungary.

A recent New York Times editorial reads, “Hungary has become a disturbing example of how a political elite can roll back democracy, even in the heart of Europe.” Orban has created a government stranglehold on Hungarian media, by using the country’s “Media Authority” to control content. By April, when elections took place, the government had “effectively reined in all of the country’s broadcast media outlets.” Also somewhat disturbingly, a right wing anti-Semitic party called Jobbik posted the biggest gains in that election.

"Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán delivers a speech during an election rally in Budapest. Photograph: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters"
“Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán delivers a speech during an election rally in Budapest. Photograph: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters”

In a July 31st Washington Post article, Fareed Zakaria writes:

“When the Cold War ended, Hungary occupied a special place in the story of the revolutions of 1989. It was one of the first countries in the Soviet orbit to abandon communism and embrace liberal democracy. Today it is again a trendsetter, becoming the first European country to denounce and distance itself from liberal democracy.”

In July, Orban delivered a speech to ethnic Hungarians in Romania, in which he said, “We have to abandon liberal methods and principles of organizing a society, as well as the liberal way to look at the world.” He referenced the 2008 financial crisis as a Western problem, and said that the US was in decline “because liberal values today incorporate corruption, sex and violence.” In short, Orban wants to create an “illiberal democracy.” The Hungarian left-wing newspaper Népszabadság compares the tone of the speech to that of Mussolini.

Fareed Zakaria refers to the Prime Minister’s way of governing as “Putinism.” The defining characteristics of this phenomenon are “nationalism, religion, social conservatism, state capitalism and government domination of the media”—all in direct opposition to traditional Western liberalism. Certainly an alarming combination.

Another alarming combination. Credits to BBC News, photographer unknown.
Another alarming combination. Credits to BBC News, photographer unknown.

The European Comission recently decided to give Hungary close to 22 million euros in economic aid. It is simply unacceptable that the EU should consider providing this much assistance to a country whose government is so hopelessly authoritarian. Until there is significant change within Hungary, the European Commission should withhold funds pending an international review of the situation.


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