Can Hungary’s Viktor Orban come to his senses?

Democracy is contagious. Unfortunately, so is dictatorship. Democracy arrives with a bang. Dictatorship many times arrives by stealth, hence the danger.

Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, the once liberal “enfant terrible” of Central Europe, has fallen in love with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which in my books would be okay, if it weren’t for the fact he also fell for Putin’s anti-democratic, anti-Western, anti-European and anti-American view of the world. He is trying hard to turn Hungary, the once most-liberal and pro-Western of all countries in Central Europe, into an illiberal one.

{mosads}Kids stray even in the best of families and Hungary, part of the Western family, is now straying. Most families go through this exercise. How many times have we heard that our child wished someone else was his mother or father? But we don’t abandon our children. With a mix of disciplinary measures and explanation, we lead them to understand why no one will ever love them as much as we do. Hungary cannot be abandoned and Orban needs some seriously tough love.

Here is a summary of what is happening in Hungary today. From being the beacon of hope in 1989 for all Eastern Europeans in their quest for freedom and democracy and a liberal market economy, it is today leading the way back to a one-party state, illiberal practices, state capitalism and a hotbed of corruption. The county’s democratic institutions are being emptied, civil society curbed, an oligarchic system is being established and laws are being bent to secure the long-term rule of one party, with other parties relegated to being mere extras forever. Orban is the unquestionable leader of both that one party and the state, and in this he is emulating Putin’s Russia. There was no chance of success for the weak opposition during recent elections, an opposition made even weaker by an unfair playing field of Orban’s creation. All this in a country that is a member of the European Union and NATO, both of which in principle require a clean slate of health of democratic credentials as a precondition for joining.

Hungary was for two decades an icon, an example for others to follow. It was a courageous and innovative proponent of freedom and human rights. It was the flag bearer for the democratic way of life that we should all cherish. Yes, democracies are in their worst crisis of identity in perhaps half a century. Our values of freedom, human rights and dignity are under attack. The response, however, should be not less democracy, but more; not less freedoms, but more; not less transparency, but more. The temptation to seek remedy in the illiberal model in the end reveals personal ambitions for uncontrolled power. This is a challenge to the integrity of our community of democracies from within which can become a threat if it goes unchecked. Hungary is not any longer about Hungary. That is why the U.S. and the European Union must care. They should not take democracy, even in Europe, for granted.

Hungary has nothing to gain from becoming an illiberal state, the theater for a clash between Putin and the West. If Orban mistakenly thinks that the country will be the winner in the new “East-West” confrontation, like Austria was during the Cold War, then he is utterly wrong. The U.S. has finally realized what is at stake. A few weeks ago, Bill Clinton first sent a stern warning about Orban being an illiberal leader; then President Obama about the hard-handedness toward civil society in Hungary. A few days later, Assistant Secretary of State Toria Nuland came thundering down and corrupt Hungarian top bureaucrats were banned from entering the U.S. All were strong statements of disappointment with an ally. The European Union has yet to follow suit with more than just words and has refrained from using its leverage to lead the country back into the fold. More — a lot more — is expected from a thus-far reluctant Germany.

Viktor Orban still has the choice to turn around. While we cannot expect him to be the Western liberal he was 20 years ago, he can still re-embrace the fundamental values he stood for in the interest of his country. His pitiful entourage consists of mere puppets and will follow him in a nanosecond. He needs to be made aware of his practices’ dangers for his country. He can reverse course, or he can drive further down a dead-end street. If he chooses the latter, he will cause serious problems for Hungary, in the region and in the broader Atlantic community. But he might also end up like many others before him who embraced authoritarianism. Hungarians, as proven by history, can move, and move with anger. Last week’s demonstrations by tens of thousands against his planned taxes on the Internet made headlines across the world. It was a warning.

Can he come to his senses? The choice is his. For now.

Ambassador Simonyi is the managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations (CTR) at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. He is an economist by training and has a long career in the diplomatic service, where he has gained experience in both bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. He has built an extensive network in the transatlantic community, his ambassadorial assignments having included NATO and Washington. He has also spent time in the private sector, and plays guitar in his band The Coalition of the Willing.

Tags Authoritarianism Hungary Illiberal democracy Viktor Orban Vladimir Putin
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