Soviet tanks in Budapest, October 1956.
FORTEPAN / NAGY GYULA / WIKIMEDIA

This autumn marks the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. In October and November 1956, the country at the heart of the European continent underwent three weeks of political turmoil that shook the region and exposed the ideological fissures behind the Iron Curtain. Tens of thousands of Hungarians took to the streets to protest their oppressive government and the heavy-handed meddling of the Soviet Union in Hungary’s affairs. 

The protesters managed to persuade the leader of Hungary, Imre Nagy, that their cause warranted his government’s consideration. A committed communist, Nagy declared that the Soviet troops occupying the country would withdraw from it, pledged to dissolve the state security forces, and endorsed the uprising as “a great national and democratic movement, embracing and unifying all our people.” But in the first week of November, the protesters suffered a bruising defeat. Soviet forces crushed the uprising, invading key areas of the country, including the capital, Budapest, which less than a century before had been the second city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of Europe’s great powers. As the Czech-born writer Milan Kundera recalled in a 1984 essay in The New York Review of Books, the director of the Hungarian News Agency, shortly before he was killed in the revolution, reminded the world of Hungary’s European identity, saying, “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.” The statement encapsulated the conviction of many Hungarians that their country belonged to Europe. 

The ideological descendants of the 1956 revolutionaries have watched with dismay as their country has slid back into a familiar illiberal groove.

Today, if a high-level Hungarian official were to express pro-European sentiments, he would ring disingenuous. Over the last decade, the ideological descendants of the 1956 revolutionaries have watched with dismay as their country has slid back into a familiar illiberal groove. Today’s liberal Hungarians find themselves fighting for many of the same changes—the creation of an independent judiciary, the establishment of a free press, and the guarantee of meaningful political competition—that their parents and grandparents demanded in 1956.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Brussels, June 2016.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Brussels, June 2016. 
Francois Lenoir / File photo / REUTERS

AUTHORITARIAN REBIRTH?

Given Hungary’s intensifying right-wing populism under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, it is easy to forget that the country was not always in the Euroskeptic vanguard. In fact, Orban played a crucial role in Hungary’s talks to join the European Union during his first premiership, from 1998 to 2002. His politics moved rightward only in the years that followed, when he returned to the opposition. By the time Orban regained power in the 2010 election, the rejection of some of the core values of European liberalism—including judicial independence, the protection of minority rights, and the rule of law—had become inextricably linked to his party, Fidesz. Many EU member states have popular anti-EU politicians who make use of illiberal rhetoric, but none of them have had leaders whose policies clash as utterly with European principles as Orban’s.

Consider the package of constitutional amendments that Orban’s government pushed through in 2013. The amendments whittled down the powers of the Constitutional Court by limiting the body’s ability to reject future amendments to procedural, rather than substantive, grounds—granting Fidesz a free hand to pass all kinds of self-serving measures. They also barred the court from referring in future cases to the decisions it had made before Hungary’s new constitution came into effect in 2012. The measures were undemocratic enough to prompt the European Commission to publicly express its “serious concerns” over their “compatibility . . . with EU legislation and with the principle of the rule of law.” Orban had stripped Hungary’s judiciary of its independence and integrity.

The prime minister hasn’t limited his antidemocratic efforts to the judicial system. He has also worked to restrict freedom of expression, imposing burdensome regulations on media outlets critical of his government and backing friendly ones with lucrative rights to state-funded advertising. This year, Freedom House rated the Hungarian media as only “partly free” in its annual rating of press freedoms around the world.

Orban has been explicit about his enthusiasm for illiberalism. “I don’t think that [Hungary’s] European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations,” he said in 2014, nodding to China, Russia, and Turkey as states to be celebrated, even emulated. And he has responded to the complaints of liberals with anti-EU rhetoric, asserting in 2012, for example, that Hungary “will not live according to the commands of foreign powers” or be a “colony.”

At a gathering in memory of the Hungarian Revolution in Budapest, October 2006.
At a gathering in memory of the Hungarian Revolution in Budapest, October 2006.
Karoly Arvai / REUTERS

AT THE HEART OF EUROPE

Sixty years ago, Hungarians risked their lives to push for an independent judiciary, a free press, and political pluralism. It’s hard to imagine that happening today, when 27 percent of the electorate supports Fidesz—placing the party well ahead of its competitors. This support isn’t a result of citizens’ ignorance of the party’s unscrupulous practices; a recent poll by the Hungarian group Median found that 66 percent of Hungarians—including 33 percent of self-declared Fidesz supporters—believe that corruption is a problem for the ruling party. Nor have the party’s anti-Europe positions cost it much.

It seems the real problem isn’t Fidesz’s appeal: it’s apathy. According to one July poll, 84 percent of the people who want Fidesz out of power wouldn’t even bother to vote if an election were held today. With Hungary’s restricted media environment, a European community unable to reinstate liberal judges who were unjustly removed from office, and a political climate in which opposition leaders are disorganized at best and susceptible to co-optation at worst, it seems difficult for the Hungarian electorate to overcome the “servility and apathy” that the political scientist Gabor Torok described as one of its defining features in 2014. 

The real problem isn’t Fidesz’s appeal: it’s apathy.

Hungary’s illiberal slide will probably continue for the foreseeable future. Yet Hungarian democracy need not be down and out in the long term, and a coordinated effort by liberal Hungarians could help to steer the country back toward Europe. The events of recent years offer a precedent for this possibility: when the government pitched a tax on Internet users in 2014, ostensibly as a way to rebalance Hungary’s budget, critics argued that it would limit free speech, and they organized in such large numbers that Orban was forced to abandon the initiative.

With some two years to go before Hungary’s next parliamentary election is expected to take place, Hungarians looking to block yet another Fidesz victory face a difficult task—one all the more important in light of Brexit and Orban’s intent to hold a national referendum on migration. But Hungarians also have the advantage of national memory. Perhaps they can draw inspiration from history to proclaim to the rest of the world that, now as ever, Hungary belongs to Europe.

  • CLAIRE GREENSTEIN is a Ph.D. candidate in comparative politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a 2015–16 Fellow in the Berlin Program for Advanced German and European Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. BRANDON TENSLEY is a 2015–16 Luce Scholar.

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