In Hungary, Democracy Slides

Budapest Winter: Can anyone stop the Putinization of Hungary?

With the European Union's threat of a lawsuit against the Hungarian government for meddling with the independence of its central bank, the world is finally taking notice of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's aggressive recent moves to consolidate power.

But for some Hungarians themselves, the gravity of what's happening in today's fractious Hungarian political scene was driven home on Dec. 3 by the blurred-out face of the former Supreme Court chief justice, Zoltan Lomnici.

It was one thing for Orban's muscular center-right government to replace the upper ranks of state television and radio with its own loyalists after winning a two-thirds "supermajority" in the April 2010 parliamentary elections -- seizing control of state-run media by incoming governments still remains an acceptable spoil of political warfare in post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe.

But it was another when, in a news report, Hungarian state television pixilated the face of Lomnici -- a one-time Orban loyalist who had recent fallen afoul of the prime minister -- to conceal his identity from viewers. And that was the final straw for Hungarian TV staffers Balazs Nagy-Navarro and Aranka Szavuly.

Navarro and Szavuly say the Lomnici pixilation proved that the minions of Orban's party, Fidesz, have taken media combat one step further: They are willing to manipulate stories, edit tape to suit their agenda, and instruct reporters on whom to interview and whom to ignore.

To Szavuly, these tactics epitomize Fidesz's society-wide conquest. Step by step the party has gobbled up all forms of independence, opposition, and checks-and-balances in one of the EU's newest members -- reminiscent of the "salami tactics" of the late 1940s, when Hungarian Communists gradually hacked away at enemies like slices of salami.

Although Hungary was once "the best pupil in the class" of ex-Communist states striving to join Western institutions -- a model of economic dynamism and political reform -- wayward Budapest has become a political thorn in the side of a European Union already reeling from Euro-induced calamity.

Some Hungarians have grown so desperate at the fate of their democracy that tens of thousands regularly throng the streets in protest. It's no longer unusual to hear Hungarians make straight-faced comparisons between their country and authoritarian Belarus.

After the pixilation controversy, Navarro and Szavuly -- vice presidents of the Television and Filmmakers Independent Trade Union -- demanded an explanation.

"We wanted an investigation, but didn't get answers," says Szavuly, 32. "There was this feeling that we have no other possibility, because all the doors are closed, with nowhere to go."

So, on Dec. 10, the two journalists went on hunger strike -- later joined by two others -- planting themselves in front of Hungarian TV headquarters and subsisting for days off tea, juice, and watery soup. Navarro and Szavuly were fired on Dec. 27 and finally ended their 22-day strike on Jan. 1, unemployed. While the protest didn't have quite the impact of the Tunisian street peddler whose self-immolation sparked the Arab Spring, it clearly stirred many Hungarians.

The very next day, after a brand-new Hungarian constitution authored by Fidesz -- secretly, say critics, with no public debate -- went into effect, as many as 100,000 demonstrators poured into the streets around the Budapest opera house, as Orban and other dignitaries gathered inside to toast a document that seems to seal Fidesz supremacy for years to come.

Beyond the fact that it's a deeply nationalistic, socially conservative text -- it protects a fetus from "moment of conception" and defines marriage as "union between man and woman," though Hungary currently permits both abortion and same-sex legal partnerships -- it's also deemed to shackle or muzzle elements of the judiciary, the data-protection office, and the central bank.

"It's a constitutional coup," says Princeton comparative-constitutional expert Kim Lane Scheppele, who last month documented the dizzying array of new Fidesz-imposed laws and policies.

Brussels has taken notice, and Hungarian-European relations are rapidly deteriorating.

Last week, the European Commission condemned both the country's new constitution and its fiscal policies for apparently violating EU treaties. Hungary, which was the first EU country to turn to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout in 2008, now likely needs a second, as it teeters on the brink of recession. A major breakdown in relations with Europe won't help matters.

All three major ratings agencies now classify Hungarian credit as "junk," the forint has become the world's worst-performing currency, and Brussels projects that Hungary will boast both the highest debt and slowest growth in 2012. Yet with concerns for sapped independence of Hungary's judiciary and central bank, the IMF and World Bank are shying away from doing business with Budapest again.

The situation is, in many ways, unprecedented in the history of the EU. As Heather Grabbe, former senior adviser to then-European Commissioner for Enlargement Olli Rehn, puts it, "The European Union isn't only an economic union, but a union of shared values and norms. ... We don't have much experience in our lifetimes of a country heading in the other direction after it has joined the EU."

Earlier last week, EC Spokesman Cezary Lewanowicz told me, "The Commission reserves the right to take any steps that it deems appropriate, including the possibility of launching infringement procedures" before the EU Court of Justice. On Wednesday, Jan. 11, the EC formally threatened Hungary with legal action if the constitution isn't modified -- and also warned that European development funds might be withdrawn unless the government takes more orthodox, belt-tightening fiscal measures.

Heeding the warnings, Hungarian officials have taken a more conciliatory tone in recent days, with Orban himself suggesting that some middle ground exists. Last week, a leading Fidesz member of the European Parliament, György Schöpflin, told me Budapest is prepared to compromise.

"What the Commission has to do is come up with very concrete legal points about what its objections are and where it believes European law is being flouted," said Schöpflin. "If they have legal validity, I'm sure in that event the Hungarian government will bring in the necessary amendments."

How much Orban is willing to cede remains to be seen, as he has long been renowned for his pugnacity. He first became a star during the waning days of communism, as an earring- and blue jean-wearing anti-regime activist. In 1989, at a public commemoration for the heroes of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, he was reportedly the first to call on Soviet troops to pack up and shove off.

Later, he veered rightward in pursuit of votes. As one of Europe's youngest premieres during his first term from 1998 to 2002, he enabled a toxic political climate by tolerating the hurling of vitriol on the parliament floor at the ex-Communist Socialist Party and other rivals.

But Orban fell victim to unfulfilled promises and expectations and was defeated in 2002 -- part of a pattern across the post-Communist sphere, as disappointment and disillusionment saw elections swing from left to right, with ruling parties rarely winning re-election.

Once back in power, though, the bumbling, corrupt Socialists fueled voter rage, peaking in September 2006 when Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany was caught on tape admitting that his party had lied to the public "morning, evening, and night" about the country's financial health in order to win re-election earlier that year.

The revelation sparked street protests, including flashes of police brutality, which burst onto CNN screens worldwide. The riots galvanized a new far-right movement, Jobbik, which re-introduced an ancient coat of arms that, not coincidentally, was also embraced by war-time Hungary's fascists. Jobbik then unveiled its own paramilitary force, which marched about intimidating the country's sizable Roma and Jewish minorities.

The turn to the right mirrored Hungarian attitudes that became more hardline in the wake of the global economic crisis. The Pew Research Center has found that, of Eastern Europeans, Hungarians are the most disillusioned with free markets and most nostalgic for the communist era. A more recent survey suggests that many Hungarians would swap democracy back for authoritarianism if it ensured prosperity.

Thus, it wasn't particularly surprising that in the April 2010 elections, the Socialists weren't just swept out of office -- they were decimated, claiming just 19 percent of the vote. Orban's Fidesz snared 53 percent, while Jobbik scored an astounding 17 percent-- a high-water mark for any xenophobic, anti-minority party in the two decades of the post-communist transition.

Just as significantly, electoral rules awarded Fidesz 68 percent of the seats in Parliament -- surpassing the two-thirds needed to pass any law at will, even to rewrite the constitution. Fidesz has boasted that this supermajority was a popular mandate for "radical reforms." Fidesz quickly went to work consolidating its power, brooking no dissent and wreaking vengeance over even some of the smallest battles, like re-naming an airport over the modest objections of history-minded geographers.

Orban and his appointees have been increasingly preaching God and country, not to mention the lingering spiritual wounds of World War I, when the post-war Treaty of Trianon cut down the Kingdom of Hungary both physically and psychically.

Anna Kende, a Hungarian mother of three, says she grew concerned when incoming education officials began to speak of the need for children "to learn to think in a Hungarian way" and "get a good Hungarian education." She and her Dutch husband decided the time was right to take a break from Hungary, moving to Holland last fall.

"It's probably best for my children, even if they grow up in Hungary, that they have a broader perspective and see things more critically -- what may be normal in Hungary, may not be considered normal elsewhere," said Kende, during a New Year's visit back to Budapest.

Princeton's Scheppele suggests Orban is following in the footsteps of Russia's Vladimir Putin and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi. "It's hard to call them ‘dictators,' but they really don't want to share power or be governed by anyone else," says the scholar, who has studied the constitutional courts in both Hungary and Russia since the 1990s. "They're the 21st-century form of political control freak."

The constitutional crisis with Brussels, in fact, is actually the second strike against Hungary in the EU's book. Last year, it was the country's stifling new media law, which European institutions denounced as "unprecedented" in Western democracies. Budapest eventually climbed down and revised the law, but only modestly, as a politically appointed "Media Council" continues to loom over the industry.

The Fidesz-appointed council, for example, offered no solace for hunger-strikers Navarro and Szavuly, even after they were unceremoniously fired.

With Hungary steadily drifting toward democratically elected authoritarianism -- and a reputation as the most unruly of the EU's 27 members -- the question is how much longer Brussels will put up with it. While Hungary's expulsion from the EU seems unimaginable, isolation does not. Grabbe says the "nuclear option" of suspended voting rights, recently levied at Greece, remains on the table.

Unusually, even Washington has weighed in. In a Dec. 23 letter to Orban, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed "significant and well-founded" concern that Hungary should maintain "a real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press, and transparency of government." There's even talk of reviving Hungarian coverage at Radio Free Europe, the U.S. Congress-backed service that was curtailed once the Cold War ended and the Iron Curtain parted.

Hungary's fellow communists-turned-EU-members are eyeing whether the union will back up its words with actions. The Balkan states that aspire to join the union, such as Serbia and Macedonia, will also watch closely to see if they will be held to higher standards than current members are. Farther afield, the Hungarian example could become an irritating riposte in the future, whenever the EU lectures others, like China, about democracy, rule of law, and checks-and-balances.

Unfortunately, the domestic opposition to Fidesz is feeble and discredited, say Hungarian activists. Meanwhile,"The entities that normally counterbalance executive power have been invaded, weakened, or in some cases abolished by the government, so outside pressure is very important," says Andras Kadar, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. "If you can't do it at home, you have to go outside."

As for Szavuly, the hunger-striking Hungarian journalist, she wonders how many other complacent Hungarians will be inspired by countrymen daring to take action. "We didn't talk any more. We did something," she says. "If you always just complain to your neighbor about how bad things are, but don't do something about it, things will never get better."

This article originally appeared Jan. 17 in Foreign Policy.

Michael J. Jordan, who arrived in Lesotho in 2011, is the lone Western foreign correspondent living in the country – and covering its crisis.