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“The Russians are already in the closet”

Hungary’s Prime Minister, Mr Viktor Orbán, elaborated on the Eastern-Central European country’s future progress at a party meeting in September. He stated some wild claims about taking over the lead from Austria in every field, from the economy to the largely devastated education and healthcare sectors by 2030 in the region. Regardless of the content of his speech –  which makes little sense due to the enormous gap between the Hungarian and the Austrian indexes, and only the manifestation of historically unattained promise of catching up with the western neighbour – the most important message is that just 7 months before the general election, Mr Orbán is already envisioning the next 3 parliamentary terms. To be fair, he has every reason to do so.

Without an unexpected miracle – given the lack of press coverage and the low credibility of the largely fragmented Hungarian opposition; the massive media empire of government-connected businessmen; the use of the annual budget and national television network for propaganda purposes – chances are that he is not only envisioning the next three terms, but he will probably rule for the next twelve years or so. The question is what impact will such a long reign – 5 terms in a row, in addition to one earlier term – have on Hungarian democracy and Mr Orbán’s mental health, a question that remains unanswered. Such a scenario would be unprecedented in the history of post-WWI Europe, therefore we can only look at the Hungarian Prime Minister’s previous ‘accomplishments’ should we try to provide a decent answer to the question.

Erosion of democracy

Looking at the previous seven years of Hungary, the picture is nowhere near reassuring. Mr Orbán’s government rewrote the Hungarian constitution with largely controversial results. They have cut down on the power of the Constitutional Court and retired dozens of judges which many claims aimed for the breaking of the judicial power. The chief prosecutor of Hungary, Mr Péter Polt, has repeatedly failed to bring charges against government-related individuals and members of the government, despite having been presented with proof.

Viktor Orban greets his good friend Chief Prosecutor Peter Polt.

In 2010 the parliament passed the Media Bill, in spite of the harsh criticism both from the Hungarian opposition and the European Union. Later the law provided the basis for government-related businessmen to engulf the market, leaving nothing but a few independent actors. The massive media empire combined with the propagandistic use of the MTVA – the national broadcasting company of Hungary – provides the governing party – Fidesz – with a monopolistic position in the media. This position has been backed up by the establishment of the Cabinet Office and its independent budget, from which the government conducts massive media and billboard campaigns on an everyday basis and during campaign periods. Regardless of the funding problems of the opposition, no party can compete with the financial resources of a ministry; therefore the current situation undermines one of the cornerstones of democracy, the multiparty system. Unfortunately, it is hard to believe that this is being done unintentionally.[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Hungary is ranked 57th on the Corruption Perceptions Index, among some of the worst performers in the EU alongside Greece, Bulgaria and Romania.[/perfectpullquote] In 2014, Mr Orbán declared the state that he is building to be an illiberal one, repeatedly named Russia, China, Azerbaijan and Turkey as examples to follow and diverted Hungarian foreign affairs from their pro-western, pro-EU and pro-USA course towards an increasingly Russia friendly and eastwards one. He was among the first leaders to welcome Donald J. Trump’s presidential victory and first as well to send his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Péter Szíjártó, to Turkey since the coup d’état trial. Mr Orbán has also started endless crusades against Brussels, the Jewish-Hungarian born US billionaire George Soros and, when no other options were available, Hungary’s flooding rivers.

“We Shall Stop Brussels!”

Also since the beginning of Mr Orbán’s premiership, Russian influence has been increasingly felt in Hungary. Russian companies gained public spending projects without an international tender in the cases of the Paks 2 nuclear power plant extension (executed from a Russian loan) and the general overhaul of the wagons of Budapest’s metro line 3. During the spring, the parliament passed a bill which according to some government officials directly aimed the closure of the Central European University (founded by George Soros), and another one which targeted the foreign and foreign-financed NGOs operating in Hungary – such as the Helsinki Committee, Amnesty International and the Association for Liberty Rights – and ordered their stigmatization. Both laws resembled the former Russian closure of the Europa University of St. Petersburg and the extrusion of international NGOs.

An anti-Soros poster put up by the Hungarian government, some of which were removed after protests against them. Picture: AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK

Together with the ascending Russian influence in Hungary, one can easily recognise Mr Orbán’s values drifting away from that of Europe. As mentioned above, the government party waged several political wars against the ‘Bureaucrats of Brussels’ on several questions – some rightfully, some less so – but always taking up an overly aggressive, enemy seeking rhetoric. In response to them, some Western-European politicians – among them the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Luxembourg Jean Asselborn – put forward the suspension of Hungary’s membership, especially during the ‘We shall stop Brussels!’ campaign during the early spring of 2017. However, it is important to note that much of these political struggles remain in Hungary and reaches Brussels in a more diplomatic form. Unfortunately, as in previous years, the tone of these campaigns was increasingly aggressive, the rhetorics changed accordingly in the communication with Brussels and thus the responses from the EU establishment escalated in accordance with that.

In response to public concerns about the government’s commitment towards the EU, senior government politicians made it clear several times that they are not against the EU, but they cannot accept any further integration and that they believe in the Europe of sovereign nations’ cooperation. To understand their position, it is important to note the enormous financial support that Hungary receives from the EU – without them the 4.6% GDP growth would have been a 1.8% GDP decrease between 2006 and 2015– and the Hungarian people’s majority (somewhere between 48% and 70%, depending on which polling company did the research) approval of the country’s long-awaited place among EU countries. Despite public opinion, which can be changed with series of extensive campaigns, such a Babylonian amount of money would in any case prevent the government from leaving the EU, but the fate of such contributions are not yet certain from 2020 and the preliminary news is not assuring. 

Increasing public disapproval
The situation can be most easily shown by the example of June 2017. Due to increasing Russian involvement, anti-democratic events and deteriorating European relations, more and more people started to question the government’s upholding of Hungary’s membership. The flag of the EU became equally common as the Hungarian one at opposition demonstrations, whilst continued EU membership of Hungary formed one of the most important campaign slogans of the parties. Therefore in May, the government was forced to launch a massive billboard and media campaign propagating Hungary’s European ties, saying ‘Hungary is a strong and proud European country’. The scale of the campaign was to be expected, but the campaign combined with the message was in itself contradictory. Such a situation perfectly described how low was the Hungarian people’s belief in their government’s EU commitments.

We can see that in the last seven years, Mr Orbán and his party severely damaged the independence of the judiciary; their control over the media decreased the freedom of the press, while it combined with their monopolistic situation in advertising significantly weakens, if not abolishes, the multiparty system. They are actively isolating the country from its western allies, while Russian influence gains more and more ground in Hungary. Until now, the EU could restrain such tendencies due to the gigantic amount of financial support they give which keeps the country going, but she could not stop it. Should this tendency continue for a further 12 years, Hungary will most probably pass the point of no return.

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