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Twenty-Five Years After Fall Of Berlin Wall, Hungary Lurches Away From Democracy

  • Robert Coalson

A supporter of the nationalist Jobbik party rallies in Budapest on Hungary's National Day on October 23.

A supporter of the nationalist Jobbik party rallies in Budapest on Hungary's National Day on October 23.

BUDAPEST -- A quarter of a century ago, in a stirring speech on Budapest's Heroes' Square, a young Viktor Orban called for the dismantling of communism in Hungary, free elections, and the withdrawal of Soviet troops -- spearheading a wave of revolutions in the Eastern Bloc that culminated with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But if Hungary was an inspirational democratic pathbreaker in Eastern Europe in the heady days of 1989, today it is setting a more alarming example.

The country, says philosophy professor and former dissident G. M. Tamas, is not backsliding from democracy so much as racing in the opposite direction.

"The political system is in place," he says. "It is partly laws, partly regulations, partly custom, and partly just sheer power positions in all branches of government -- parliament, cabinet, local government, courts, Constitutional Court, the controller's office, the media office, etc."

And again, it is Orban who is at the helm -- this time as Hungary's prime minister.

His rightist Fidesz party was swept into power in 2010 in the wake of the global financial crisis, which hit Hungary particularly hard. Promising sweeping action and a revived economy to an electorate disenchanted with the leftist-liberal government, the party won a constitutional majority, and has held it ever since. And Fidesz is not due to face the voters again until 2018.

"We have climbed from the basement of Europe and have started conquering the upper floors," Orban crowed during a session of parliament last month after Fidesz scored a sweeping victory in local elections. "This is our third victory in a row, and it is due to the fact that we have managed to unite the nation and give people jobs."

WATCH: In Hungary, Rising Nationalism Overshadows Legacy Of 1989

What Fidesz and Orban also have done, critics say, is crack down on the media and NGOs, monopolize political power, and fan the flames of right-wing populism and nationalism. The result has been repression, stagnation -- and fears of violence.

And, while Fidesz's own rightist, nationalist stance raises concerns, the rise of the openly fascist, anti-Semitic Jobbik party -- now Hungary's second-largest political party and the only mass alternative to Fidesz -- has also set alarm bells ringing.

Media Under Assault?

To get a sense of the effect Fidesz has had on the media, a good place to start would be the liberal political-talk radio station Klubradio.

The station has come into hard times during Orban's rule. Under the previous, liberal government, it was a thriving concern with affiliates across the country and a solid advertising base. Four years later, it can be heard only in and around the capital and has been reduced to running campaign drives asking listeners for donations to stay on the air.

No one has closed the station down. But when its license came up for renewal in 2011, the government declined to organize a new tender, says senior editor Gyorgy Bolgar, who hosts a popular talk show. Instead, the license expired and the government extended it every two months, forcing the station to go through an expensive application process and making long-term planning impossible.

Gyorgy Bolgar, senior editor and talk show host of Klubradio.

Gyorgy Bolgar, senior editor and talk show host of Klubradio.

"Everybody in Hungary knew -- and the advertisers knew as well -- that our future was in doubt," Bolgar says. Even major European banks and retailers that previously advertised on Klubradio withdrew their orders -- out of fear of antagonizing the government, Bolgar says.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists sent a delegation to Hungary in October and drew the same conclusion: "Dozens of journalists…described restrictive measures such as: the suppression of independent, critical reporting, including through legal and financial means; concentration of media regulatory power with the state; restricting access to information; and distributing advertising money in favor of establishment-friendly outlets."

And Civil Society?

Across town, Veronika Mora of the nongovernmental Okotars, or Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation, tells a similar story. Okotars has come under investigation by the Fidesz government for its role in distributing grants to other Hungarian NGOs from a fund operated by Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein.

The Government Control Office has been probing Okotars since June for alleged partisan bias and financial mismanagement. Among the accusations government officials have made is that Mora herself must be biased because the opposition Green Party once submitted her name to serve on an independent environmental advisory panel.

She fears the government will eventually shut down Okotars, not because of its alleged bias, but because the control office will claim the NGO did not cooperate with its endless and increasingly intrusive investigation.

In part the dispute over the NGO fund is a piece of a larger dispute about the distribution of Western assistance in Hungary. But, in part, Mora says, Fidesz wants to send a message.

"Through attacking the NGO fund, they can attack these NGOs in bulk," she says. "It is a good vehicle to send a very strong message to Hungarian NGOs that they shouldn't speak up, shouldn't be critical of the government, shouldn't be critical of policies."

Mora notes that in an infamous speech in July, Orban stated his intention of "building an illiberal new state based on national foundations." In that speech, he mentioned the possibility that Hungarian NGOs were acting as "foreign agents" -- language disturbingly similar to that used in Russia during a crackdown on NGOs.

These actions and others have made the Orban government an outcast among Western nations, despite Hungary being an EU and a NATO member. No senior Western officials will meet with Orban, and the United States recently placed visa bans on at least six current and former officials for alleged corruption.

'Don't Single Us Out!'

Orban's spokesman Zoltan Kovacs says the accusations against Budapest are "politically motivated." He says Hungary is "standing firm with its European and NATO values" while "pursuing the national interests as far as possible."

"If you just take a look back over the last four years' decisions, we have never passed the boundaries [defined by] European values or the values or boundaries or confines of NATO membership," Kovacs says.

Kovacs says Orban cited Vladimir Putin's Russia as an "economic model" and notes that many countries are concerned about the actions of NGOs, citing a recent "New York Times" article about foreign government funding to U.S. think tanks.

In Budapest on October 28, about 100,000 people protested a proposed Internet tax.

In Budapest on October 28, about 100,000 people protested a proposed Internet tax.

Hungary shouldn't be singled out over its concern "about the work of certain NGOS, a very small segment of civil society, when this is a criticism, this is a worry, this is a concern in other parts of the world," Kovacs says. "There is an over 80,000-strong civil-organization sector in this country, and we are having a debate with 13."

He blames the rise of Jobbik on Hungarians' disenchantment with "liberal governments" and says Jobbik is no more alarming than legal far-right parties in other EU countries such as Sweden.

Fidesz's "top priority remains the success of Hungary, Hungary as a country and the Hungarians as a nation," Kovacs adds. "Unity is a great asset that has been achieved by this government, by this party, but it is also a huge responsibility. We take responsibility for everything we have undertaken."

It's The Economy, Stupid...

When Fidesz won power in 2010, Hungary's economy was on the brink of catastrophe. According to the World Bank, the country's GDP fell dramatically from $155 billion in 2009 to just $128 billion in 2010.

The party promised voters disenchanted with the leftist-liberal government of the previous eight years sweeping action. And, to a considerable extent, it has delivered.

Attila Szalay-Berzeviczy, former chairman of the Budapest Stock Exchange, says Orban's government has "surprised" liberal economists by its handling of the economy. He says the government forced foreign banks to swallow much of the increased costs of servicing foreign-currency-denominated debts as the value of the Hungarian forint plummeted. Orban also strong-armed the utilities companies into reducing electricity rates -- a move that immediately ratcheted up his popularity.

The party's pledge for its first four years was to stabilize the economy and that has largely been achieved. But delivering promised growth in the next four years could be even more challenging, Szalay-Berzeviczy says.

"In this parliamentary cycle, they need to deliver results," he says. "It [must be] driven by sustainable growth, and that needs competition. And it also needs foreign investors."

Philosophy professor and former Hungarian dissident G. M. Tamas says Hungary is racing away from democracy.

Philosophy professor and former Hungarian dissident G. M. Tamas says Hungary is racing away from democracy.

He adds that although foreign firms that were active in Hungary before the financial crisis have not left, they are wary. "In the next four years, no nasty surprises can hit the private sector," he cautions.

Although Orban's Fidesz commands all the political high ground in Hungary, it does not have a completely blank check. About 100,000 Hungarians took to the streets on October 28 to protest a proposed tax on Internet usage, as well as the Hungarian government's perceived drift away from democracy and close ties with Europe.

Orban has responded to the protests by saying he will revise the proposed Internet tax.

"We are not communists, you need to rule together with the people," Orban said on October 30, according to Czech newspaper "Hospodarske noviny."

However, it is exactly the need for such street protests that disturbs philosophy professor Tamas about Fidesz's concentration of power.

"There's no way in which society can defend itself," he says. "Disarming a society can be very attractive for a tyrant, but also it has its dangers. Because a people [doesn't] have institutional possibilities to defend itself then it will defend itself [outside established institutions]. And I very much fear that it might come to violence."

Or the country could turn to Jobbik, which is already pushing the political rhetoric and debate to the right. Jobbik leader Gabor Vona told parliament after the October local elections that "a lot of things [Fidesz] takes for its own success were ideas taken from the Jobbik program."

Tes Ferenc is a retired teacher from the town of Fehervar, a few kilometers away from the village where Orban himself grew up and played for the local soccer club.

"I voted for Fidesz," he said when asked about the October local elections. "But I also like Jobbik. Their views need to be polished, but they will be changing. If Orban doesn't win the election in 2018, probably they will take Jobbik as a coalition partner."

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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to