Viktor Orban's Assault On Democracy Quietly Got Much Scarier This Summer

Not the same imminent threat as Vladimir Putin, but the Hungarian prime minister is posing a bold challenge to the West, with a troubling speech in Romania that flew below the radar.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Jacques Schuster

BUDAPEST — Since his 2010 election victory, the words of Viktor Orban have been seen by the West as a bitter pill that must be swallowed.

When the Hungarian Prime Minister, for example, claimed that the "Magyar race" was in "serious danger," the phrase may have seemed cut from World War II propaganda reels. Still, Western observers weren’t unduly worried, repeatedly succumbing to Orban’s virtuosity with double meanings.

When speaking English, he can can seem very affable, his language full of irony and a graceful willingness to seem harmless. In Hungarian, on the other hand, Orban's sentences have a snap as tight as the click of a cellar door lock. Hardly anybody speaks Hungarian in Europe, however. So things stayed relatively calm in Brussels and Berlin — also out of respect for the fact that Orban had after all been democratically elected.

Progressively, some of his decisions began to cause more than a little concern as divisions of power in Hungary were gradually worn away, judges were disempowered, pressure on the free press built up and cultural life was hemmed in.

But despite all reservations, it was not forgotten in Paris, Brussels, Berlin and Vienna that a government with power of absolute majority clearly has the right to implement reforms — although admittedly they saw this in terms of European values. And there was something else: Hungary is a small country that is easily overlooked when there are major crises and wars elsewhere.

The hotter the crisis in Ukraine got, the less European Union member states were inclined to focus on Hungary.

All of this may help explain why people are only now beginning to wrap their minds around a speech Orban gave in late July in the Romanian town of Baile Tusnad. Quite frankly, it goes well beyond anything the prime minister has ever said before. Worse: It’s not only a declaration of war against the EU and Europe, but against Western democracies and their foundations. Nothing that Europe stands for, what it fought for, what it suffered for, inhabits Orban’s speech.

Instead, this is essentially a democratically elected head of government pledging to discard the core ideals of the American and French Revolutions, in order to ring in an age of idolization of narrowly defined peoples and races that has nothing to do with tolerance, liberalism and individual freedom.

Budapest's Hungarian Parliament Building — Photo: Jason Halsall

According to Orban, Hungary must turn towards societies that are "not Western, not liberal, that are not liberal democracies in fact, maybe not democracies at all." Liberal democrats are not capable of "protecting the necessary public assets for the self-preservation of the nation" and the "interests of people that must be seen as being closely linked to the life of the community, the life of the nation."

During the high point of his speech, Orban declares that his government was in a position to eradicate liberalism in Hungary and to create an "illiberal state" based on "our own, national approach."

Democracy without democrats

The prime minister remains vague on exactly how this state and its society would look. However there would probably no longer be civil rights movements and associations that monitor rule of law. Most NGOs — "political activists paid by foreign interests" — wouldn’t survive either. They already have to be monitored and controlled just the way it has become customary to do in Putin’s Russia.

Indeed, states like Russia, China and Turkey are "stars," as Orban calls them. "Dogmas and ideologies accepted in Western Europe" are of no interest to them. That these very "dogmas and ideologies" underlie the fact that Hungary since the early 1990s has become one of the largest net recipients of European aid and has since 2004 received some 25 billion euros from Brussels is wisely left unmentioned.

Then again the prime minister appears unconcerned with the pettiness of daily doings when grand visions of the future are at stake. Anything is possible in the future, Orban said at the end of his speech instilling hope in his audience, Romania’s Hungarian minority. The "Hungarian community in the Carpathian Basin" should not lose heart: Since anything is possible "it’s quite possible our time will come."

This may make some Germans recall something that Reich Chancellor Hermann Müller wrote in 1930: "A democracy without democrats represents a danger both on the inside and the outside."

But one doesn’t need to go back to the darkest chapter in German history, particularly as it wouldn’t be fair to today’s Hungary. Suffice it to say that there is an ongoing “Putinization” or “Erdoganization” of Hungarian society, the aim of which is a conservative Christian-Magyar revolution that subjugates individuals to the power of the nation. It would have nothing in common with the democratic-center-right conservatism of Europe — let alone the core Western value system.

Perhaps for this reason alone Europe's center-right parties, including the European People’s Party (EPP), should openly debate whether Viktor Orban’s Fidesz still belongs to their political family or not.

After his summer speech in Romania, one thing is crystal clear: In Budapest, the flag of democracy is at half-mast. We must ensure that some sad day it isn’t taken down altogether.

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Protests against gasoline price hikes in Lebanon

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Wai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where leaked documents show how some countries are lobbying to change a key report on climate change, Moscow announces new full lockdown and the world's first robot artist is arrested over spying allegations. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt looks at the rapprochement between two leaders currently at odds with Europe: UK's BoJo and Turkey's Erdogan.

[*Bodo - India, Nepal and Bengal]


• Documents reveal countries lobbying against climate action: Leaked documents have revealed that some of the world's biggest fossil fuel and meat producing countries, including Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia, are trying to water down a UN scientific report on climate change and pushing back on its recommendations for action, less than one month before the COP26 climate summit.

• COVID update: The city of Moscow plans to reintroduce lockdown measures next week, closing nearly all shops, bars and restaurants, after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a nationwide seven-day workplace shutdown from Oct. 30 to combat the country's record surge in coronavirus cases and deaths. Meanwhile, India has crossed the 1 billion vaccinations milestone.

• India and Nepal floods death toll passes 180: Devastating floods in Nepal and the two Indian states of Uttarakhand and Kerala have killed at least 180 people, following record-breaking rainfall.

• Barbados elects first ever president: Governor general Dame Sandra Mason has been elected as Barbados' first president as the Caribbean island prepares to become a republic after voting to remove Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

• Trump to launch social media platform: After being banned from several social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter, former U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would launch his own app called TRUTH Social in a bid "to fight back against Big Tech." The app is scheduled for release early next year.

• Human remains found in hunt for Gabby Petito's fiance: Suspected human remains and items belonging to Brian Laundrie were found in a Florida park, more than one month after his disappearance. Laundrie was a person of interest in the murder of his fiancee Gabby Petito, who was found dead by strangulation last month.

• Artist robot detained in Egypt over spying fear: Ai-Da, the world's ultra-realistic robot artist, was detained for 10 days by authorities in Egypt where it was due to present its latest art works, over fears the robot was part of an espionage plot. Ai-Da was eventually cleared through customs, hours before the exhibition was due to start.


"Nine crimes and a tragedy," titles Brazilian daily Extra, after a report from Brazil's Senate concluded that President Jair Bolsonaro and his government had failed to act quickly to stop the deadly coronavirus pandemic, accusing them of crimes against humanity.


Erdogan and Boris Johnson: A new global power duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too, write Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung in German daily Die Welt.

🇹🇷🇬🇧 According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey. The country has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

⚠️ Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey. She never supported French President Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU. But now that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

🤝 At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense. The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016.

➡️


"He has fought tirelessly against the corruption of Vladimir Putin's regime. This cost him his liberty and nearly his life."

— David Sassoli, president of the European Parliament, wrote on Twitter, following the announcement that imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was awarded the 2021 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Union's highest tribute to human rights defenders. Navalny, who survived a poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin, is praised for his "immense personal bravery" in fighting Putin's regime. The European Parliament called for his immediate release from jail, as Russian authorities opened a new criminal case against the activist that could see him stay in jail for another decade.



Chinese video platform Youku is under fire after announcing it is launching a new variety show called in Mandarin Squid's Victory (Yóuyú de shènglì) on social media, through a poster that also bears striking similarities with the visual identity of Netflix's current South Korean hit series Squid Game. Youku apologized by saying it was just a "draft" poster.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Anyone want to guess Trump's first post on his upcoming social media platform...? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at!

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