Late last month, in a speech in Transylvania, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced nothing less than his government’s break with liberal democracy. Orban’s words have made waves across the West, and his defenders have been busy insisting that he was only dismissing what he called “the liberal understanding of society”: in essence, ruthless capitalism and selfish individualism. But Orban clearly gave notice that he was also done with political liberalism and its emphasis on accountability and checks and balances. Most important, by proudly embracing “illiberal democracy,” a term famously coined by the journalist Fareed Zakaria in Foreign Affairs in 1997, he signaled which side his government has chosen in the new geopolitical and ideological struggle between Russia and the West. Orban endorsed Putin’s model of populist leadership and an unrestrained executive based on assertive nationalism. Earlier this year, Russia gave a huge loan to Hungary. Moscow is already getting a political return on its investment.
As I argued in an earlier article for Foreign Affairs, Orban has taken a leading role in a process of political backsliding in eastern Europe that seemed unimaginable when the majority of countries in the region joined the EU in 2004. Since the election victory of his Fidesz party in 2010, Orban has restricted media freedoms, systematically dismantled checks and balances, and delivered much of the economy to Fidesz-friendly oligarchs. In April, he won another term in office in an election that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called “free, but not fair.”
Fidesz has now abandoned all self-restraint: Orban’s government is trying to eliminate the last sources of opposition and comprehensively remake society in its own cultural image. Despite massive protests from inside and outside the country (from Jewish organizations in particular), the government erected a memorial to Germany’s 1944 occupation of Hungary, in the Budapest city square where the U.S. embassy is located. The memorial depicts an angel (Hungary) that is about to be attacked from behind by an enormous black eagle (Germany).