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The View from Afar

A renowned Central Europe expert offers some perspective on backsliding democracy in Hungary.

by Martin Ehl 10 December 2013

Views from greater heights and distances, in the moments when we tire of burying ourselves in details, can be clarifying. Although American Professor Charles Gati left Hungary after the anti-Communist uprising in 1956, he has never stopped following the fate of his native country and the entire region from a critical distance, as I learned recently in talking with him after he returned from a trip to Central Europe.


We started with a discussion of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his ruling Fidesz party –vulnerable, Gati said, to criticism before next year's election of their political and economic performance. Fidesz also overreached by introducing a new constitution without consultation with or support from other political parties, and by repeatedly changing basic laws, the party has “turned the country upside down,” he said. 


Charles Gati
“During its campaign in 2010, it never mentioned such radical changes,” Gati said. “In the economic realm, it has not come even close to fulfilling the promises made in 2010.”


Still, changes in electoral rules have considerably handicapped the opposition in next year’s election. “The new rules adopted by Fidesz make it much more difficult for the opposition to agree on joint candidates for parliamentary seats. My sense is that the elections will be free but not necessarily fair,” he said. 


Gati recently endorsed a book by a group of Hungarian liberals, Hungarian Octopus, in which Orban’s regime is called a “mafia state.” Fidesz, however, argues that the previous Socialist-liberal governments ruined the country. I asked Gati why they were not accused of creating a “mafia state” while Fidesz supposedly did.


Acknowledging that corruption was widespread under the previous government, he said, “There is a difference between a corrupt state and a mafia state. Today, there is a deliberate effort by Fidesz leaders and supporters not only to get rich but also to deprive members of the opposition from access to jobs and therefore a decent standard of living.”


Gati, 79, is a prominent academic at Johns Hopkins University in Washington who has advised U.S. secretaries of state. Today, he monitors events in Central and Eastern Europe, similar to his friend and former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, about whom Gati recently wrote a book. That's why his view on the wider context of recent Hungarian events interested me. Could, for example, Orban's method of governance be exported beyond Hungarian borders?


Gati called Orban’s Hungary an example for Poland’s conservative, populist Law and Justice Party, which is now in opposition but is gaining on the ruling center-right government with elections set for 2015.


“There are important similarities between the two countries’ history and political culture, too. Moreover, in several other countries in this region there’s retrenchment from Western-style democratic notions because the publics are getting tired of democratic dissonance and of slow procedures and processes,” he said.


Liberal democracy’s failure to meet people’s expectations has prompted a reversal into semi-authoritarianism in Central Europe, Gati said, although probably not permanently.


Democracy has not fallen on fertile ground, with the exception of large cities such as Budapest, he said. “In the countryside, people are somewhat more willing to seek, or at least accept, what you correctly call a ‘semi-authoritarian’ regime,” Gati said. “Yet, in the longer run, I think the international environment is not favorable to such a turn away from modern, Western-style political arrangements. We don’t live in the 1930s.” Europe and trans-Atlantic relations remain strong magnets, he said, although not as strong as in 1990.


If so, then what about the withdrawal of the United States from Europe, including from Central Europe? According to Gati, countries such as the Czech Republic need little or no support from the United States. “The recent government ‘crisis’ – which came about after the independent prosecutor revealed unlawful activities in the prime minister’s office – stands as an example of how democratic checks and balances should work.”


Gati also says it's misleading to talk about the American “retreat” from Europe because relations with Washington are still very much alive, though perhaps not as visible. “Some of us would like to see the U.S. be more energetic – to give Central Europe a higher priority. But it is a fact that the American public has come to insist on a reduced role everywhere in the world, not only in Central Europe,” he said. “The American public is unwilling to make the kind of sacrifices it made during the Cold War and even in the 1990s when Washington paved the way to the enlargement of NATO for the countries of Central Europe.” 


Yes, we need finally to do the work ourselves, one should add, with our eyes fixed, for example, on the Kyiv EuroMaidan – the pro-Europe protests on Independence Square. 

Martin Ehl
 is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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