Hungary has decidedly taken a turn toward “illiberal” democracy, which is hurting its relationship with the United States. The Cipher Brief spoke with Ambassador András Simonyi, who served as Hungarian Ambassador to the U.S. from 2002-2007 and Hungarian Ambassador to NATO before that, about Hungary’s path to illiberalism.
The Cipher Brief: The European Union (EU), the United States, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban himself have all talked about Hungary as an “illiberal” democracy. What does this mean in theoretical terms?
András Simonyi: In theoretical terms, it is nonsense. I don’t think anything you call an “illiberal democracy” is a democracy. Illiberal democracy is a cover for curbing democratic rights, limiting the rights of organizations, and strengthening the rights of the state to interfere – that, to me, does not sound like democracy at all. Anyone who speaks about illiberal democracy is trying to square the circle. This is not going to work. More importantly, whatever they call it, the originator of this idea is Russian President Vladimir Putin, and I do not consider Putin to be a democrat. I don’t believe in the concept of the “strongman” like Putin or Orban, I believe in strong but democratic leadership like (former British Prime Minister Winston) Churchill and (former U.S. President Ronald) Reagan.
TCB: What does this mean in practical terms in Hungary? How has Orban tried to create an illiberal democracy?
AS: Basically it means a one-party system. It is the democracy of one party (Orban’s Fidesz party). It is the interference by the government in all walks of life with very little independence from the state. It means that the state is controlling everything from the judiciary to the media to the economy. That is exactly what it means in practical terms.
To me, the scary part is this really looks like the “Russian democracy,” which is not a democracy. I believe in competition in the economy and in the competition of ideas, and I think democracy means giving space to all kinds of ideas. It needs the freedom of speech. In a democratic society, the state only intervenes when things get extreme – that is, when extreme right or extreme left movements are themselves trying to interfere in politics. But otherwise, I would say the competition of ideas, of thoughts, and of people defines democracy.
TCB: Why has Orban decided to make this shift toward a more Russian-style type of governance? What is the end game?
AS: The end game is the long-term control of power and the long-term control of most of the country. Truth be told, Orban is able to do this because the Hungarian opposition is very weak and divided. It is, if I may be brutally honest, clueless. It has no good answers to very good questions that Orban is posing.
Orban has masterfully used the refugee crisis to strengthen his position. People are afraid. I think he was very early on able to detect the fear in people of technological change and globalization. He’s very talented in terms of using all of this to strengthen his position. One should be very careful not to think that Orban is just a sinful fool. On the contrary, I think he’s a very talented politician. I just wish he would use his talents to strengthen a democratic Hungary and prepare Hungary for the challenges of the 21st century. He’s not doing that.
TCB: Is this why Orban has taken a strong position on migration – to play on people’s fear?
AS: Yes, it is. I don’t think he himself is xenophobic or anti-immigrants per se. This is a very simple, one could even say cynical, political calculation. Orban was the first one to understand that if you confuse people and mix the rhetoric against migrants and refugees, this plays into his hand. Moreover, he is being helped by a very weak, very slow, and very divided European Union. He has masterfully positioned himself against the mainstream in Europe and against the German open door idea, which, by the way, was a mistake that led to an unregulated influx of not just refugees but economic migrants. Europe did not take a strong but practical stance on how to distinguish between refugees and migrants. It did too little too late. Orban has used this weakness and the confusion to his benefit.
TCB: Is the current government’s shift toward an illiberal democracy undermining relations not only with the European Union, but also with the United States?
AS: I think it is hurting the relationship. For the United States, it’s a major challenge to see that there is a backsliding of democracy in countries that the U.S. helped – with not little sacrifice – in the 1980s to turn toward democracy, countries that have been incorporated into NATO with the understanding that they have democratic credentials.
But Orban’s calculation is very simple: The United States is so distracted by its own internal problems, by the presidential election, by the divide between the Republicans and the Democrats, that Orban is playing on that. He’s thinking look, maybe the United States or some circles in the United States are unhappy for now, but right now I can get away with it. So in the short-run, Orban’s calculation is I can get away with it, because the U.S. will not pay attention. However, in the long-run, this will hurt the relationship.
Of course, there is also another cynical calculation: Orban thinks that if Trump wins, he’ll be alright. If Hillary Clinton wins, then Orban knows he’ll have to figure out a way to work with the U.S. He is very pragmatic. He will drive at a high speed towards a wall but will stop before he crashes into it. He has a strategy, which has worked so far, and his thinking is very simple: I’ll cross the river when I get there.