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Tusk Blasts Hungarian PM's Vision Of Democracy, Says Belarusian Opposition 'Close To Victory'

Donald Tusk (file photo)

The head of the European center-right European People's Party (EPP) says Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's vision of "illiberal democracy" is in fact spearheading the creation of a "degenerate democracy" in his country.

In an interview with RFE/RL on October 23, EPP President Donald Tusk also praised the peaceful protest movement in Belarus, which he said was "really close" to winning its fight against Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

On Hungary, Tusk said that "this attempt to build a new ideology, which is called by Viktor Orban an 'illiberal democracy,' means in fact 'degenerate democracy.'"

"To put it simply: democracy without the rule of law and freedom of speech, it's not a democracy at all," Tusk said, adding that the "same negative trends" can be seen in his native Poland.

The EPP, the European Parliament's biggest grouping, suspended Hungary's ruling party Fidesz from its ranks in 2019 over concerns about the rule-of-law backsliding in Hungary as well as attacks against the European Commission.

The suspension, which this year was extended indefinitely, means that Fidesz is no longer present at the grouping's meetings and its voting rights have been stripped.

In September, European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova caused a stir in Budapest after she said in an interview with a German news magazine that "Orban likes to say he is building an illiberal democracy. I would say he is building an ill democracy."

Orban, a right-wing nationalist, has repeatedly clashed with EU leaders over his moves to increase state control of the judiciary, media, and academia.

A so-called Article 7 procedure against Hungary to probe whether it is undermining European legal standards and democratic values is ongoing.

Lukashenka 'Will Lose'

In his interview with RFE/RL, Tusk said he believed that the democratic opposition in Belarus is "really close to victory.”

Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and ex-European Council president, formed a student branch of Poland's Solidarity movement that is credited with inspiring a revolutionary wave in the 1980s that toppled communist rule across Central and Eastern Europe.

"I still remember when I was a young rebel during the communist time in Poland. I still remember, you know, people on the streets, the riot police beating the people, etc. But at the same time, I remember how efficient the nonviolent movement can be. And this is the phenomenon also of Belarus," Tusk said.

"Almost all the leaders I've met in the last few months are aware of the fact that Lukashenka will lose this battle. If not this battle, then for sure, this war against his nation and the Belarus civil society," he said.

The EU's involvement in the political crisis in Belarus "is not only a moral obligation...but also a very rational political calculation," he added.

However, Radoslaw Sikorski, the former Polish foreign minister under Tusk and a current European Parliament member, is not optimistic about the Belarusian opposition's near-term chances.

Sikorski, speaking to a conference organized by the Kennan Institute on October 23, highlighted that it took years for Solidarity to win in Poland and that "external parameters," namely the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to power in the Soviet Union, played a significant role in the outcome.

Sikorski said Russian President Vladimir Putin will not let Belarus slip from his sphere of influence as the country is an important "corridor" from Western Europe to Moscow.

"Belarus is seen by the Russians as even more vital territorially and geostrategically than Ukraine. Any kind of solution [to the standoff] will have to respect, and should actually respect, Russia's red line," he said, pointing out that the two countries' militaries are integrated.

Sikorski said Putin prefered a weakened Lukashenka or someone even more pro-Russian from the Belarusian elite.

Nationwide protests against Lukashenka have been ongoing since a disputed presidential election on August 9 that the opposition and Western governments say was rigged.

A crackdown by authorities has resulted in several deaths, hundreds of injuries, more than 10,000 arrests, and what Reporters Without Borders this week called an "unprecedented violent" attack on journalists and censorship of information in Belarus.

The European Union has imposed asset freezes and visa bans on 40 Belarusian officials for their alleged role in the repression of protesters and the opposition, as well as fraud during the August vote.

And on October 12, the EU foreign ministers gave a "political green light" to prepare a new sanctions package that will include Lukashenka.

Kenneth Yalowitz, the former U.S. ambassador to Belarus in 1994-97, told the Kennan Institute conference that "it's very, very hard to break the will of an authoritarian government simply using economic sanctions."

He pointed to the lack of success the United States has had in bringing about a change of policy or regime in Iran and Venezuela through economic sanctions.

Yalowitz also said that the security forces were still on Lukashenka's, side as they fear "popular tribunals" should he lose power.

"He's a Stalinist. He understands 'how many divisions do they have and how many do I have,' and he still has a lot more. So, I think he’s going to survive this in a very weakened state," Yalowitz said.

With reporting by Todd Prince in Washington.
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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.