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). The memorial’s critics claim that it denies Hungarians’ collaboration in the Holocaust. Citizens have now improvised a protest site in front of the statue, leaving stones, shoes -- a particularly potent symbol of the Holocaust in Hungary -- historical pamphlets, Stars of David, tattered EU flags, and a giant mirror, which is meant to encourage Hungarian society to interrogate itself about how such blatant historical revisionism could literally be put in stone.
The erection of the statue -- late at night, under heavy police protection -- coincides with two drastic measures consolidating the illiberal state: the government is attacking civil society organizations, denouncing them, as in Putin’s Russia, as foreign agents. Orban is also trying to force the last major television channel that is not toeing the government line, a subsidiary of the German company Bertelsmann, out of business through steep tax increases on advertising revenues. In response to the critics of such measures, Fidesz has regularly accused liberals of helping multinational businesses, in contrast with Orban’s heroic defense of ordinary Hungarians.
But when it comes to choosing between the liberal West and what Orban now calls his illiberal “work-based” state, ordinary Hungarians have also been voting with their feet: about 500,000 have left the country since his election. The EU’s open borders make it easy for the politically despairing and the economically discontented to exit. At least on this score, European unification is great news for authoritarians. In the old days, dissidents would have been kicked out and created an international outcry; now the constituency for opposition parties leaves voluntarily (and voting from abroad can always be made very burdensome, as Fidesz demonstrated effectively in the elections this past spring).
Orban is now confident enough in his vision that he wants to proselytize. In his speech in Transylvania, he declared that world politics is at a watershed moment -- comparable to the ends of the First and Second World Wars and to 1989. The financial crisis of 2008 underscored what Hungarians had learned in the years since 1989: liberalism in practice, in contrast to what the West had promised in theory, often only serves the strongest. Hungarians thought that joining the EU would secure freedom and equality. Instead, they got exploitative mortgage contracts from Austrian banks.
Orban and the ideologues who surround him -- a motley crew of hard-line nationalists, disillusioned liberals, and disciples of the reactionary political philosopher Leo Strauss -- think that a global race for a new form of state has begun and that illiberalism is in the lead. They claim that Hungary (a country that the turn-of-the-century Hungarian writer Endre Ady famously described as a “ferryboat-land” between East and West, “roaming back and forth between two shores”) can play a special role in this race. It would borrow from the West -- Orban has pointed to Obama’s alleged devotion to “economic patriotism” -- but especially from authoritarian countries in the East. China, Russia, Singapore, and Turkey are Orban’s great teachers.