At the Back of the Class

Is the international community about to censure Hungary for giving up on its young democratic institutions?


When foreign ministers from 106 nations met in June 2000 to sign the Warsaw Declaration Toward a Community of Democracies, Hungary was a poster child for the Community’s vision. The country’s emergence from Soviet dominance and rapid democratic development confirmed the conventional wisdom that democracy was the only legitimate form of government — and that the 21st century would see the establishment of a new democratic world order. In 2011, Hungary joined the governing council of the Community of Democracies. But at a meeting last month, the Community set in motion a process that could result in Hungary’s removal from the council and withdrawal from the Community. If Hungary leaves, it will be an international acknowledgement that the nation has ceased to be a democracy.

The Community of Democracies, one of the world’s leading democracy clubs, is an intergovernmental coalition of states committed to cultivating democratic values and institutions. It supports member nations at various stages of democratic development by promoting discussion and identifying best practices. The Community touts its founding document, the Warsaw Declaration, as “one of the most complete and coherent documents on democracy,” and declares its intention to support democratic transition and consolidation worldwide.

Hungary once fit the docket, but since 2010, its government has pursued an agenda that is being termed, with growing frequency, the “Putinization of Hungary.” In short, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has stolen Putin’s playbook. He has rewritten the constitution to dispose of checks and balances, stack the judiciary, and erode media and religious freedom. The April 2014 elections, in which Orban was reinstated for a third term, were free but not fair. His party, Fidesz, rewrote the election rules to its own advantage, making it difficult for opposition parties to gain a foothold. In May, Fidesz also won decisively in the European Parliament. Just last weekend, Orban further consolidated power through local elections, wining control of all county assemblies. “Hungary is a powerful country because at each vote, it managed to present a unity that is rare in Europe,” he declared. This “unity” gives Orban a mandate to continue advancing his authoritarian agenda.

Sonni Efron, a senior fellow at Human Rights First, points out that Hungarian opposition leaders have been decrying a worsening climate for political freedom for years. Orban has grown increasingly cozy with the neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic party Jobbik, enacting almost all of Jobbik’s campaign promises. His administration has also promoted revisionist interpretations of the Holocaust, downplaying the history of Hungarian fascism and Nazi collaboration. But Orban spelled out his intentions most clearly in a startling speech last July. Declaring his belief in the superiority of the “illiberal state,” Orban held up repressive regimes in Russia and China as successful models of political organization. The systems “capable of making us competitive,” he told his countrymen, “are not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies, maybe not even democracies.”

In accordance with this thinking, Orban has demonized liberal NGOs operating in Hungary as “foreign agents.” Over the summer, elite, armed forces conducted raids under the pretense of investigating an accounting problem. Respected NGOs like Transparency International and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union are now on Orban’s enemies list.

As part of his “opening to the East” policy, Orban has also forged new economic alliances with Putin, indebting the country to Russia for the next thirty years. Last month, at Gazprom’s request, he cut off gas to Ukraine.

It is hypocritical, to say the least, that Hungary continues to hold a leadership position in a democratic organization. Indeed, Hungary’s presence in the Community of Democracies is an insult to countries that have overcome legacies of communism, colonialism, civil war, and dictatorship to become members. Mali is a case in point: The country was suspended from the Community after the 2012 military coup; it was reinstated this year in recognition of strides made to reestablish democratic norms. Mali’s inclusion in the Community is important — symbolically and functionally — as it strives to maintain stable democratic institutions and practices. But the Community itself is devalued when it includes the likes of Viktor Orban’s illiberal state.

Hungary has sustained a series of ineffectual scoldings — from the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and even its own Supreme Court. But Orban marches on, unperturbed. With the United States and the European Union focused on Ukraine, it’s begun to seem possible that he’ll slip beneath the radar, steadily tightening his authoritarian grip just as Ukraine moves to liberalize.

But last month, President Obama cited Hungary in an address about the growing global crackdown on civil society. Speaking on The Daily Show, Bill Clinton, too, called out Orban as one of those guys who “just want to stay forever and make money.” Perhaps most significantly, the United States moved for the Community of Democracies to issue a formal report on the status of democracy in Hungary. It also asked Hungary to consider whether it wants to abide by the values and institutions of the Community. In so many words, that amounts to asking Hungary if it even wants to be a democracy anymore.

Unless Orban’s administration vows to reform, it’s likely that the Community will vote to replace Hungary on the governing council with a country more deserving of the position. Efron thinks that Hungary may resign from the organization before the vote to spare Orban further diplomatic embarrassment. The Community of Democracies may only be a footnote on the world stage, but Hungary’s removal from the council — and potential exit from the coalition — would carry heavy symbolic significance: Orban can’t continue to enjoy the perks of membership in democratic organizations while violating all the democratic norms Hungary is sworn to protect.

The move would also pressure the European Union to take a harder line. How will President-elect of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, who takes office in November, handle an EU member that is openly recognized as undemocratic? Norway’s Minister of European Affairs, Vidar Helgesen, is already demanding that the European Union take action. In these instances, Orban has a habit of sending envoys to explain that his actions have been misunderstood, but it’s increasingly hard to see how he’s going to maintain that charade. Norway, which pours massive funds into Hungarian NGOs and civil society initiatives, has made it clear that the funding will stop. Hungary’s ambassador to Norway also quit his post this week. It is widely believed that his decision was motivated by the difficulty of defending Hungary’s behavior to Norwegian authorities. (In the photo above, Hungarian protesters raise their hands to tell their prime minister to “stop” after he accused Norwegian organizations of political meddling.)

In an additional international embarrassment, the European Parliament voted on Oct. 6 to reject Orban’s nominee for Commissioner of Education, Culture, Youth, and Citizenship, Tibor Navracsics. Navracsics was Hungary’s Minister of Justice while Orban hollowed out the country’s judiciary and ousted the Supreme Court Justice. The commissioner post would have put him in charge of Europe’s civil society portfolio, a troubling responsibility given his background.

U.S. policy toward Hungary has changed too. In recent remarks, Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland demanded, “How can you sleep under your NATO Article 5 blanket at night while pushing ‘illiberal democracy’ by day; whipping up nationalism; restricting free press; or demonizing civil society?” Though addressed to Europe’s backsliding leaders generally, her question was plainly aimed at Viktor Orban. And as of Oct. 17, 10 Hungarian officials and businessmen with close ties to Orban have been banned from entering the United States, a further sign that the U.S. is escalating pressure on Orban to change his authoritarian tactics.

But as Efron argues, the EU and NATO will both have to “step up their game” if they want to keep Hungary from abandoning liberal democracy altogether. Under Orban’s guiding hand, the country is swiftly joining the ranks of the international “democracy recession.” With growing pressure from democratic nations, Orban will have to take a stand on what kind of state Hungary is going to be. For many, he’s already taken that stand — in the form of his July 26 speech lauding illiberal regimes. But formal exile from democratic societies — the Community of Democracies, the European Union, and others — is a new step in a direction from which it becomes increasingly difficult to return.

Elizabeth Winkler is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She has also contributed articles to the Economist and the New Republic.