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Viktor Orban at the Crosshairs of the European Union

By Dr. Miklos K. Radvanyi

Since he stepped into the turbulent waters of Hungarian politics by delivering a highly emotional funeral oratory at the reburial of Imre Nagy the murdered hero of the 1956 anti-Soviet Revolution on June 16, 1989, Viktor Orban has traversed the entire spectrum of his country’s political life. Completely unnoticed in the 1990s, he as the head of a marginal political party by the acronyms FIDESZ (The Alliance of Young Democrats) underwent a troubling political epiphany. After losing two consecutive elections in 1990 and 1994, he converted his miniscule party from a left-leaning liberal to a self-described conservative party. Becoming Prime Minister in 1998, Viktor Orban’s conservatism manifested itself in a peculiar form of ethnic arrogance and even superiority, which romanticized and thoroughly falsified Hungarian history. Moreover, it dangerously politicized morality that led to divisiveness and intolerance fueled by visceral hatred.

This politics of hatred also permeated the economy. Faced with the choice between free markets and state control, he chose the latter. Heavy taxes on the population and companies alike upheld his government’s unfettered control over privatization and redistribution of revenues at his will. Total lack of accountability invited mindless spending, brazen graft and untold corruption. In its political nature, his first government was basically authoritarian. The hard core leadership consisted of eight individuals and their families. These individuals were ruthless in their dogged pursuit of absolute power and relentless in their intent of using this power to make as much money as possible and use part of the stolen money again to finance their quest to regain political power. Essentially, his first Prime Ministership was an unmitigated disaster. To compensate for his utter incompetence, he embraced extreme nationalism, anti-Western sentiments, barely concealed anti-Semitism, and open ethnic hatred. His campaign leading up to the 2002 national elections was symbolized by a map of the pre-1918 Greater Hungary. Pursuant to this map, Slovakia would have seized to exist and more than one-third of Romania would have been reincorporated into Hungary.

Duly defeated in the spring of 2002, he left Hungary on the brink of political and economic collapse. Claiming without any proof that the elections were fraudulent, since the nation could not possibly be in opposition to the only person who truly represents their interests, Viktor Orban first refused to concede defeat. Expropriating the revolutionary rhetoric of Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler, he denounced democracy, capitalism, Jews, the United States of America, and the European Union, and called upon his followers to take to the streets and grab power by active and passive resistance. After his defeat in 2006, he became even more belligerent. Taking a page from Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution”, he called for a “Hungarian Revolution” of the masses. His eight years in opposition were characterized by lack of respect for liberty, the rule of law, and religious tolerance.

Returning to power with 52% of the popular vote in 2010, that gave him a two-thirds majority in the Parliament, Viktor Orban promised to fundamentally transform the country into an one-party state that in his words “will define national issues.” Throughout the next eight years he has used his energies to strengthen his personal powers to the detriment of governing. In addition, he has never faced up to economic realities. His anti-democratic and anti-capitalist mentality has failed to bring about the promised political, economic, financial, and cultural miracles he promised in 2010, 2014, and 2018.

Presently, Hungary’s “illiberal democracy” exists within the discombobulated confines of a twofold lie. On the one side, there is the nearly complete inertia of the opposition. On the other, an authoritarian regime legitimized by a seemingly democratic fassade and strong European Union financial contributions. Clearly, Viktor Orban’s “illiberal democracy” does not rest on solid democratic foundations. On the contrary, it hovers aimlessly over a vacuum of fear that cannot inspire the Hungarian people with the confidence for the future and the courage of self-assertion. Thus, the people, with the exception of a few small pockets of opposition, are passive, indifferent, fearful, and easily corruptible. As a result, elections are formally proper but in their essence are farcical. The people’s participation in Hungary’s political, economic, financial, and cultural life is fictitious. Under these circumstances, Viktor Orban’s promise of fundamental transformation has only been a pretext to annihilate democracy and economic freedom in order to kill the vital institution of checks and balances.

Contrary to widely held perceptions in the United States of America and the European Union, Viktor Orban and his coterie have not built a mafia state. What actually transpired under the watchful eyes of American and European politicians has been the legitimization of a wealth-based authoritarian regime through seemingly unassailable “democratic” elections. Once in power, these gangster politicians have embarked on securing by all means available to them their own and their descendants existential survival and protracted well-being. As long as this process has been confined to Hungary, the damage to NATO and the European Union has been minimal.

However, Viktor Orban has had greater ambitions.

He has resolved to embody multiple bridges. The bridge between the European Union and the United States of America. The bridge between the European Union and the Russian Federation. The bridge between a renegade Turkey and NATO. The bridge between the People’s Republic of China and the European Union. And finally, the bridge between the greater Middle East and the West in general. By unilaterally striving for international glory, Viktor Orban has undermined the progress toward greater integration within the European Union. By doing so, Viktor Orban’s sole motivation is to solidify his iron grip over all aspects of Hungary’s political, economic, and cultural life without Brussels’ interference. To wit, utilizing his rock solid two-thirds majority in the Parliament, he has intensified his opposition to Brussels quota requirements concerning the acceptance of the refugees, also called migrants from the Middle East, Africa, and South-East Asia. Even more alarming is the fact that Viktor Orban is intent to divide the European Union along the migrant issue, thus exacerbating the already existing political fault lines between the social-liberals and the conservatives.

In light of such existential corruption, recent developments in Hungary have proven that in a nation’s life there is no more dangerous menace than politicians who are corrupt and vile. In Viktor Orban’s world, the end, namely absolute power and personal enrichment, justify the means, namely the establishment of a police state and the impoverishment of the country’s citizenry. The lists of illegal actions and glaring corruption cases have been so numerous that even the tolerance level of his own political allies in the European Parliament have been exhausted.

Adding insult to injury, upon taking over the Parliament and the government in 2010, FIDESZ has radically changed the electoral system. Presently, provisions about the elections are included in the constitution, also called the Basic Law, in at least eight statutes, in more than twelve government decrees, and in more than thirty National Election Commission rulings that comprise more than four thousand pages. All these provisions are opaque, violate transparency, equality of votes, fairness, and impartiality. Moreover, the shameless manipulation of the votes cast by ethnic Hungarians “beyond the borders” has given room for massive fraud and disgusting corruption. Finally, the treatment of Hungarian citizens who left for better opportunities abroad, and who have been presumed by FIDESZ to oppose Viktor Orban’s authoritarian rule, have faced massive hurdles in exercising their rights during the last three elections.

In brief, Viktor Orban and his coterie have scattered the political progress of two decades and have pushed the poisonous ideology of “illiberal democracy” and limitless corruption. In order to cultivate this idiotic version of Hungarian exclusivity, Hungary will become the country of subservient people who, as it appears to be, surely will not be able to stand their ground in the global competition. In economics, Viktor Orban presides over a corrupted form of “state capitalism”, best described as a Houdini economy, also labeled by Viktor Orban as “unorthodox economic policy”, in which all relevant economic resources and business activities, including wealth distribution, are controlled by the Prime Minister’s extended family and his acolytes. Meanwhile, the percentage of unqualified workers has reached almost 40% of the total workforce. This underclass is neither economically nor politically free.

In foreign affairs, Viktor Orban has attempted to translate his dominant domestic strength to impact the balance of powers within the European Union. At home, he has presented himself as a sort of savior, rescuing Hungary that is depicted to be under attack from within and from outside the country. True to this apocalyptic vision, he has compared the European Union and the IMF to the former Soviet Union. By justifying his opposition to the migrant quota imposed on the member states by Brussels, he has criticized the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and compared her economic policies to Hitler’s military ones. Thus, instead of becoming a bridge over many waters, Viktor Orban has turned himself into a political prostitute of the European Union. While the European Union’s financial contributions have provided the badly needed life support to keep the economy above water, Viktor Orban has repeatedly blamed Brussels for the misery of the Hungarian economy. More troubling is the fact that he has used the sizable Hungarian minorities in the neighboring states as political pawns, thus trying to divide the member states of the European Union along racial and ethnic lines. His close relationship with President Putin has served to justify his authoritarian rule at home that, in turn, has rightly caused concerns both in Washington, D.C. as well as in the capitals of the European Union. In the same vein, his friendship with the President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has merely served to legitimize his indoctrination of the Hungarian youth.

For all these transgressions, the European Union has commissioned a report concerning Hungary’s compliance with “the values on which this Union was built.” This report, named after its author the Dutch representative in the European Parliament Judith Sargentini, has confirmed the original accusation. Members of the European Union Parliament voted last week 448 to 197 to invoke Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union. Article 7 was legislated into the Treaty by the Amsterdam and Nice Treaties that allowed the suspension of rights of member states in breach of the European Union values under Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union. This Article 2 reads as follows:

“The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”

It is remarkable to note that the conservative European People’s Party (EPP), of which FIDESZ is a member, voted in its majority for the commencement of the process under Article 7.1, 7.2, and 7.3, that can lead to the suspension of the rights of the accused country, including voting rights, until all duties are fulfilled.

The uneasiness of the EPP has grown exponentially by Viktor Orban’s relentless attacks on the George Soros funded Central European University headquartered in Budapest. His party’s ugly campaign has included a barely concealed anti-Semitic overtone too. Clearly, Viktor Orban cannot tolerate voices that do not echo slavishly his and his administration’s political, economic, and cultural narratives.

In light of Viktor Orban’s protracted opposition to the core values of the European Union, the question arises – why only now did the Parliament decide to act and why did it fail to act earlier? For starter, the designation of European Union is a misnomer. It resembles more a confederation than a union. Its constituent elements are the twenty eight nation-states with their own, distinctively national legislative, executive and judicial branches, elected by each state’s citizenry, which are responsible exclusively to the voters. Therefore, these national governments have their interests that in many cases run interference with the global interests of the European Union toward closer integration. It certainly does not help that all European Union institutions correctly reflect the population ratio of the member states in multiple ways. Thus, within this bureaucracy global interests are continuously collide with the heterogeneous ambitions and conflicting interests of the twenty eight individual member states. The management of the thus arising conflicts cannot be handled effectively because the legal system of the European Union is archaic and almost toothless with respect to the available punitive sanctions against any offending member state.

Moreover, the institutions of the European Union, including the Parliament, are based on democratic principles. Being a global institution, it is very complex. And by their very nature, complex global organizations are difficult to manage. Because of that, the European Parliament is a slow moving and in many instances a fairly ineffective institution. Historically, globalization always has had a dual effect. On the positive side, it strengthened the member states politically, economically, financially, and militarily. On the negative side of the equation, globalization mandated to surrender part of national sovereignty, which, in turn, triggered nationalistic and ethnic resentment on the part of some segments of the populations.

This is particularly true when a government is or appears to be stable. As it happens, since 2010, the Hungarian government headed by Viktor Orban could have relied on a two-third majority in the unicameral Parliament. Equally important is the fact that FIDESZ has won three consecutive national elections with by and large the same outcomes. As has been noted above, Viktor Orban has confined himself for a long time to build an authoritarian regime inside Hungary. During this period, he has not encroached substantially on the normal functioning of the European Union and its institutions.

This situation has changed, however, with Viktor Orban’s entry into the realm of international politics. By doing so, he has pursued two duplicitous and often contradictory tactics, which never amounting to a coherent strategy. Initially, he has opened Hungary to Russian penetration through the largely still secret agreement with Vladimir Putin concerning the enlargement of the country’s only nuclear power plant in Paks on the Danube. This agreement then has opened the door to further economic and financial penetration by the Russian state, adding a new and more lethal dimension to the already rampant corruption in Hungary’s political as well as economic lives. The outsized influence of the Kremlin on Hungarian politics has been apparent for many years. The latest proof is Viktor Orban’s request to meet with President Putin in Moscow on September 18, 2018, to discuss key elements of energy cooperation and the general international situation. Prior to that, Viktor Orban has used the invasion of illegal immigrants to Europe as an excuse to challenge the globalist vision of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. All these has allowed him to continue a policy of self-enrichment to the detriment of his people. Thus, the highly nationalistic overtone of his policies has been nothing else but a clever justification for his greed and megalomania.

Viktor Orban’s international ambitions have blossomed for a while because of the tolerant attitude of the European Union that has been slow to recognize the destructive nature of his opening to the Russian Federation. Also, the European Union has been divided on the question of how to defend its global interests against Russia’s and Viktor Orban’s particular actions. Clearly, here the United States of America’s, NATO’s an the European Union’s collective and individual security interests coalesce. Kicking the can down the proverbial strategic road is dangerous. Hungary must decide whether the country is in or wants to get out. An either or political posture should not be accepted by the other member states of these organizations.

In addition, the United States of America under President Obama was preoccupied with peripheral issues and neglected to attend to the most important relationship with its allies both within NATO as well as the European Union. On the positive side of the ledger, the Obama Administration recognized and attempted to combat the authoritarian tendencies and the burgeoning corruption of Viktor Orban, albeit with little success. Presently, the Trump Administration has linked the matter of greater contribution within NATO to its emphasis on a more equal economic relations between the United States of America, the European Union, and its members states. Yet, this change in policy still lacks a comprehensive and coherent strategy on the part of the United States of America. Clearly, differences between the two parties’ interests have to be taken into account. However, the current struggle within the European Union between the globalist and nationalist forces is dangerous for its future cohesion and stability. The threat of the eventual disintegration of the European Union is real. Such a development would surely have devastating strategic implications for the United States of America. It is enough to remind everybody to the cavalier neglect of Yugoslavia after the death of Yosif Broz Tito. This situation ultimately ended in bloodshed and even genocide before the Clinton Administration decided to bail out Western Europe and intervene militarily in the ethnic and religious conflict.

The Hungarian government already stated that the country will challenge the European Parliament’s decision in court. Meanwhile, the epic struggle for the future of the the European Union will go on. The overwhelming majority of the member states, including the conservative member states of the EPP, have affirmed their intention to protect the values and institutions enshrined in the various treaties of the European Union. Combined with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and their protocols thereof, and other international treaties, Hungary has been found to be in possible violation of Article 2 of the European Union Treaty. This mechanism could result in the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights in every major institution of the European Union.

Essentially, at the core of the political division is the long-simmering conflict between the globalists and those who represent parochial interests. However, this conflict is overshadowed by the media-driven narrative about the migrant crisis and the importance of the upcoming elections to the three legislative institutions within the European Union. These two topics might indicate for the less informed that in the case of Hungary the matter of contention is not the core values of the European Union but Hungary’s refusal to implement the majority decision regarding the distribution of the migrant population. In this respect, Viktor Orban is attempting to form shifting alliances mainly with Poland, Romania, Italy, and to a certain extent Austria. To wit, under the existing constitutional order and the legal provisions, Viktor Orban cannot be contained effectively. Yet, the European Union needs unity.

The situation is serious. The European Union is in trouble. It is bleeding from multiple wounds. The Trump Administration must understand that Brussels needs help. Most importantly, President Trump and his team must not be blinded by the siren calls of the anti-migrant voices and the populist rhetoric of the minority within the European Union. After all, the continuous integration of the European Union is absolutely vital for the economic health and collective security of the West.

The United States of America has no choice but unequivocally support the cohesion of the European Union. Any, even subtle encouragement of separatist tendencies, will have negative repercussions for NATO too. With a more assertive Russia and China such a united front is the only effective strategy. Therefore, the Trump Administration must emphasize the obvious: Hungary must change its renegade approach and become a responsible member state of both organizations.

Judged by the sharpening ideological confrontations, the stakes are high. In case Viktor Orban does not budge, the EPP could remove Hungary from the main conservative block that presently is the majority coalition in the European Parliament. Yet, the EPP faces a dilemma. Either keep Viktor Orban close to the chest and hope for being better able to control his extremist impulses or allow him to be further radicalized and turn him into an attraction point of a disgruntled minority outside the EPP.

As far as Hungary’s future is concerned, the most important question is whether the Hungarian people want to be free of all the responsibilities that alliances entail and cling to full national sovereignty, or intend to build a future within the European Union as well as NATO. Hopefully, there will be sufficient number of sane Hungarians who will prefer the latter option.