Hungary’s Orban Dials Dictatorship Up a Notch

Budapest’s faux state of emergency is meant to appease Putin and cement Orban’s hold on power.

By , an international correspondent based in Vienna.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks in Lendava, a Slovenian city with a large Hungarian ethnic minority, on Feb. 21. JURE MAKOVEC/AFP via Getty Images

BUDAPEST, Hungary—Emboldened by the results of a stacked parliamentary election last month and determined to show Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Kremlin still has friends in Europe, Hungary’s newly reelected Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared a state of emergency this week, ostensibly in response to the economic crisis triggered by Russian sanctions and the devastating war in neighboring Ukraine.

“We see the war and the sanctions from Brussels have led to a huge economic upheaval and drastic inflation,” Orban said. “The world is on the brink of an economic crisis. Hungary must stay out of this war, and it must protect families’ financial security.”

The dramatic move sent shock waves around Europe and drew increased attention to the demolition of democracy in what was once one of Central Europe’s most promising countries. Since returning to power in 2010 with a two-thirds supermajority, which has allowed Orban’s Fidesz party to redraft Hungary’s constitution, the prime minister and his cronies have undermined the independent judiciary, hollowed out the media, targeted minorities, and siphoned European Union funds. According to the nongovernmental organization Freedom House’s 2022 report, Hungary is only “partly free”—the only EU member state to fall into the category shared with India, Pakistan, Serbia, and others.

BUDAPEST, Hungary—Emboldened by the results of a stacked parliamentary election last month and determined to show Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Kremlin still has friends in Europe, Hungary’s newly reelected Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared a state of emergency this week, ostensibly in response to the economic crisis triggered by Russian sanctions and the devastating war in neighboring Ukraine.

“We see the war and the sanctions from Brussels have led to a huge economic upheaval and drastic inflation,” Orban said. “The world is on the brink of an economic crisis. Hungary must stay out of this war, and it must protect families’ financial security.”

The dramatic move sent shock waves around Europe and drew increased attention to the demolition of democracy in what was once one of Central Europe’s most promising countries. Since returning to power in 2010 with a two-thirds supermajority, which has allowed Orban’s Fidesz party to redraft Hungary’s constitution, the prime minister and his cronies have undermined the independent judiciary, hollowed out the media, targeted minorities, and siphoned European Union funds. According to the nongovernmental organization Freedom House’s 2022 report, Hungary is only “partly free”—the only EU member state to fall into the category shared with India, Pakistan, Serbia, and others.

Just before Tuesday’s announcement, Orban used his supermajority to amend the country’s constitution to allow the government to declare a “state of danger” should a war erupt in a neighboring country. This was his 10th change to the constitution since it was introduced in 2012. Hungary has endured states of emergency throughout the coronavirus pandemic and the refugee crisis of 2015, but this is the first time a European state, aside from Ukraine and Moldova, has introduced such a policy since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Essentially, the state of emergency gives Orban the authority to rule by decree, bypassing parliament altogether. 

“The aim is to make things easier for the government and ensure there is no debate about their policies,” said Daniel Rona, the director of 21 Research, a think tank. “Parliament is an arena, and they don’t want articles being written on what they’re doing, or attention being drawn to it. In addition, we need to remember that this move doesn’t top the list of problems with Hungary’s democracy. Our elections in April were not even free and fair.” The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe noted last month that the sham elections in April were “marred by the absence of a level playing field.”

The declaration of a state of emergency is also a nod to Moscow, which has enjoyed a close relationship with Budapest since before Orban’s return to power. In December 2021, Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto received the Russian Order of Friendship from his counterpart Sergey Lavrov for his work on improving ties between the two countries. In the hours following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Budapest condemned Russia’s “military action” and backed initial sanctions, but it took a hard line on any Russian oil embargo, arguing it would directly impact Hungarian families. Orban has already said he will not discuss energy sanctions at next week’s special meeting of the European Council.

“Orban’s dance between the EU sanctions and his messaging on the war, saying ‘It’s a war between two countries,’ might send a strong message to Putin,” said Istvan Hegedus, the chair of the Hungarian Europe Society and a former member of Fidesz. “In some respects he is changing his language to fall into line with the EU, but it’s without conviction. It’s evident he wants to keep special ties to Russia, and Putin understands that.”

On Wednesday, Orban announced his first measure under the state of emergency: a windfall tax that will oblige banks, telecommunications firms, large retail chains, insurers, energy companies, and airlines to pay a “large part of their extra profits” into the state budget. A similar measure was adopted by the Hungarian parliament in 2010 to deal with the fallout of the financial crisis of 2008. 

“During the election the Orban regime paid a lot of money to voters,” said Andras Bozoki, a professor of political science at the Central European University. “So there is a major hole in the budget and there is a financial reason now to somehow bring back that money.” 

“This sounds like a communist policy but it’s not,” Bozoki said. “It’s more like a traditional authoritarian ruler engaging in economic nationalism.” If that sounds familiar, it should. Even as Orban is increasingly isolated in Europe—even losing support from the Visegrad Group of Central European countries—he’s become a lodestar for America’s would-be fascists.

This month Budapest hosted a special meeting of the U.S. Conservative Political Action Conference, a gathering of second-tier conservative figures, leavened with messages from Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson and former U.S. President Donald Trump. The event, which was closed to many journalists, promulgated far-right tropes such as harsh migration policies, the erosion of media freedom, and the dominance of so-called Christian values. 

In his opening speech, Orban called on attendees to “reconquer” institutions in Brussels and Washington from liberals who threaten Western civilization. But his audience was missing in inaction.

“Although they sent messages, the biggest U.S. names were not there. Other famous conservative politicians didn’t even get involved,” said Rona, the analyst. “Really what this event confirmed is that Orban’s international position is not that good. He’s really on his own.”

Amanda Coakley is an international correspondent and Milena Jesenska journalist fellow at the IWM in Vienna. She covers Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Twitter: @amandamcoakley

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