Hungary and Poland Aren’t Democratic. They’re Authoritarian

Feb 6 2018

BY DALIBOR ROHAC* – Foreign Policy

Central Europe’s populist revolt against the EU isn’t about safeguarding the West. It’s about rolling back freedoms and cozying up to Russia

There are too many journalists. They should be liquidated,” Czech President Milos Zeman joked at his meeting with Vladimir Putin last May. In the summer of 2014, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban singled out Singapore, China, India, Turkey, and Russia as “stars of international analyses.” In the now-famous speech, which also touted the idea of “illiberal democracy,” he suggested that Hungary needed to part with “Western European dogmas,” especially with the liberal notion that people are “free to do anything that does not violate another person’s freedom.”

Despite Orban’s disturbing rhetoric, many on the political right have praised Central Europe’s illiberal democrats for supposedly speaking truth to power. From the editorial offices of the National Review to think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the message is that Orban and his ideological companions, including Zeman and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, are not trying to destroy the European Union but rather help it find its way — on issues of immigration, Europe’s Christian roots, and national sovereignty.

Those are legitimate conservative causes. However, superficial ideological sympathies and an enthusiasm to see Eurocrats and the bien-pensants get their comeuppance have created a monumental blind spot. People who fancy themselves defenders of freedom and democracy have become apologists for practices that are pulling the region — Hungary and Poland in particular — in an unmistakably authoritarian direction.

Their chief error lies in assuming that the will of a parliamentary majority du jour can never be questioned. That is a mistaken understanding of democracy, which should always be embedded within a framework on constitutional rules constraining those who hold office.

Although it’s true that you will not find political prisoners in either Hungary or Poland, nor do Central European journalists disappear at night. Dissidents are free to run in elections, organize protests, and embarrass their governments in independent media outlets. But what sets apart figures such as Zeman — or the Polish Law and Justice and Hungarian Fidesz parties — is their shared belief that large popular mandates entitle them to do anything they please. Normally, conservatives would be the first ones to point out that unconstrained majoritarianism leads to tyranny. Yet leading hubs of conservative thought feel compelled to come to the defense of Central Europe’s budding autocrats. According to Margaret Thatcher’s former speechwriter, John O’Sullivan, the talk of a democratic backsliding in the region is a “grotesque exaggeration.”

In Poland, for example, the Law and Justice party has used its electoral mandate for sweeping reforms of the judiciary, described in damning detail by successive Venice Commission reports. Defenders of Central Europe’s illiberal democrats claim that those reforms were adopted only in response to the politicization of courts under previous governments, typically glossed over by the EU. Shortly before the 2015 election, the Civic Platform-dominated parliament nominated five new judges to the Constitutional Tribunal, in a move that Law and Justice deemed deeply unfair.

However, the changes to Poland’s judiciary extend far beyond the reform of the Constitutional Tribunal (itself struck down as unconstitutional). New legislation gives the justice minister the discretion to appoint, dismiss, and “discipline” presidents of ordinary courts. The reforms bring the National Council of the Judiciary, a formerly self-governing body, under full control of the parliament. A new law forces nearly 40 percent of the Supreme Court’s judges into early retirement and creates a retroactive mechanism for “extraordinary review” of final judgments. With the average age of judges now at around 40, the efforts to bring the judiciary under control of the rule of the majority cannot conceivably be about taking levers of power out of post-communist hands, as Law and Justice claims.

Illiberal reforms aren’t limited to Poland. Last year, the Hungarian government adopted new legislation concerning nongovernmental organizations, echoing Russia’s infamous law from 2012 that requiresforeign-funded NGOs to register as foreign agents. According to Fidesz Deputy Chairman Szilard Nemeth, NGOs funded by George Soros “must be pushed back with all available tools, and I think they must be swept out.” Judging by the amount of government-sponsored propaganda — from posters that brought back memories of the anti-Semitism of the 1930s to letters sent to every Hungarian household accusing Soros of wanting to resettle millions of Muslims in Hungary — Orban’s dislike of him is intense. The resentment has also prompted the government to adopt a law that leaves the Soros-funded Central European University — by most metrics the most prestigious academic institution in the region — in legal limbo.

Of course, one may have, as I do, substantive disagreements with Soros. But liberal philanthropists funding liberal causes are as much a feature of a vibrant civil society as conservative or nationalist philanthropists providing support to theirs.

Those in doubt about the direction of travel of Central Europe’s two illiberal democracies would do well to look at any metric of institutional quality and rule of law.

Forget the deterioration of Poland’s and Hungary’s scores on Freedom House’s Freedom in the World index (dismissed by Hungary’s foreign minister as “nonsense”) or the latter’s fall from 46th to 57th worldwide on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index between 2009 and 2016 (Fidesz’s Nemeth singled out TI as one of those organizations that “must be swept out” of Hungary).

Over the past decade, Hungary’s performance on all of the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators has declined. In 2006, the country was in the 83rd and 79th percentile worldwide for “rule of law” and “voice and accountability,” respectively. A decade later (the most recent data are from 2016), it has fallen to the 70th and 57th percentile on these two metrics.

In its Index of Economic Freedom, the Heritage Foundation, hardly a bastion of pro-Soros sentiments, now places the protection of property rights in Hungary and Poland in or near “mostly unfree” territory. The same index suggests a decline in its government integrity measure in both countries over the past year, placing Hungary well into “repressed” territory, with a dramatically worse score than in 2009. Or consider the Human Freedom Index, published by the pro-free market Cato Institute, which measures personal and economic freedoms. There, Hungary took a plunge from 28th to 44th between 2010 and 2015. Although, due to lags between data collection and publication, it is too early to judge Poland’s performance on some of these indicators, the same policies are likely to produce similar results there.

These measures aren’t perfect, of course, but it takes a special kind of obliviousness to ignore that they all point in the same direction. For some conservatives, that reason is provided by the rallying cries of the likes of Orban: to “stop Brussels, defend our borders, deny mass relocations [of asylum-seekers].” Such fierce rhetoric would be more believable if the Visegrad countries — Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic — weren’t also among the largest net recipients of EU funds. Under the 2014-2020 Multiannual Financial Framework for Cohesion Policy, 127 billion euros will flow into the region, equivalent to an annual inflow of 2.6 percent of GDP. Not only has a vast majority of all public investment across the region been co-financed by the EU, but the money has also help create a clientelist system of legal corruption necessary for the political success of illiberal democrats. More than half of all public procurement tenders in Hungary feature only one bidder, and contracts are awarded disproportionately to companies connected to Fidesz — which, in return, fund the party’s political campaigns.

The conflicts between Brussels and Central European capitals are not taking place in a geopolitical vacuum. It is not a coincidence that figures such as Orban and Zeman are among Russia’s closest allies in Europe.

Their defenders will argue that small Central European countries have no choice but to have a dialogue with Russia. Yet a lot more is going on than just dialogue. In the past, Hungary’s foreign minister called the EU’s sanctions against Russia “totally unsuccessful,” praised the Kremlin mouthpiece RT, urged military cooperation between Russia and Hungary, and said he did not see Russia as a threat. The Fidesz government in particular has gone out of its way to deepen its country’s energy dependency on Russia, including by allowing the Russian state nuclear company Rosatom to expand its Paks nuclear power plant, a project financed largely through a loan provided by the Kremlin.

Despite the Visegrad countries’ membership in the EU and NATO, their place in the West is not settled for good. Even if popular majorities in Central European countries, perhaps with the exception of the Czech Republic, are strongly pro-EU, public opinion is shifting — and Zeman himself suggested last year that Czechxit should be an option and that the country ought to hold a referendum on leaving the EU.

Even if one believes that Brussels has overreached and the populists’ pushback against the EU is justified, it is a grave mistake to overlook the true nature of Central Europe’s anti-establishment “rebels.” Their policies are increasingly authoritarian, and their geopolitical allegiances are to Moscow, not the West. FEBRUARY 5, 2018.


*Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 


Annex 1:

Hungary Reduces Number Of Asylum-Seekers It Will Admit To 2 Per Day

By Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson – National Public Radio (NPR) , USA

Hungary has quietly closed its borders to nearly all asylum seekers, which human rights advocates say violates international laws and is stranding thousands of refugee families in Serbia.

NPR interviewed asylum seekers, refugee advocates and a lawyer all with direct knowledge of the near closure and the resulting panic and despair. They report that since Jan. 22, Hungary is allowing only one asylum seeker per day to cross from Serbia into each of its two “transit zones.”

The widely criticized zones – surrounded by barbed wire and dotted with shipping containers configured into living space — are the only places asylum seekers entering Hungary are allowed to go unless they already have refugee status from another EU country. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi last September likened the transit zones to detention centers and called on Hungary to improve access for asylum seekers.

Now, access is reduced to two people per day. Critics of Hungarian refugee policy say what the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his ruling Fidesz Party is trying to do is boost approval ratings before parliamentary elections on April 8. They’ve adopted an anti-refugee platform that’s been shaken by the recent revelation that Hungarian authorities approved twice as many asylum applications in 2017 than the year before.

The near closure of the border “is absolutely unbelievable,” said Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. “This means only unaccompanied minors or single men can get in – no families whatsoever.”

Government denies imposing limits

The Hungarian government denies it is imposing any limit, but acknowledged few asylum seekers were entering the country as of late. At a weekly government press conference yesterday in Budapest, Janos Lazar, the head of the Hungarian prime minister’s office, said immigration authorities can’t help it if asylum seekers don’t want to come.

“There is no such rule that they can take in one daily,” he said. “But if there’s [only] one man standing there, why should 10 customs officer[s] sit there?”

His claim of few takers is improbable given there are thousands of people trying to get into Hungary at the moment from Serbia.

UNHCR last month reported 4,196 new refugees, asylum-seekers in migrants in Serbia, of whom only one in nine are looking to stay there.

One Afghan man who was walking with his 2 ½-year-old daughter to buy milk at a grocery store in Subotica, a 20-minute drive from the Serbian border with Hungary, said he’s been waiting for four months at a refugee camp funded by Germany and that used to be a dog shelter.

“Everyone is afraid”

“All of us here are in despair. We are ready to scream, we are so upset. Our fates are unclear,” he said, asking we not identify him or his family after a Serbian police officer drove up and harassed him for talking to NPR. He, his young daughter and 12-year-old son are trying to reunite with his wife, who is an asylum seeker in Frankfurt and who hasn’t seen her children or husband in two years.

Fellow camp residents Sheerali Rezaie and his wife, Fatimeh, said they are at their wits’ end. Going back to their volatile province of Daykundi in Afghanistan is out of the question and they have no choice but to keep trying to get to Hungary, he said. The couple, who were taking their daily walk outside the compound, are also trying to get to Germany with their two sons. Their eldest son is 23 and living in Munich, where he’s applied for asylum, they said.

“This camp is hell,” Sheerali Rezaie said. “The food is bad and there’s nothing for us here.”

He said now that only two people are being allowed into Hungary, “Everyone is afraid. We worry they’ll close the gates forever and say, ‘good-bye, take off.’ ”

Border soldiers patrol along the border fence at the Hungarian-Serbian border near Hercegszanto border station on December 14, 2017. Since July 2015 Hungary secured the more than 300-km-long border to Serbia with the construction of a fence and 24 hours a day security patrol tasks.

Decline in asylum seekers since September 2015

Timea Kovacs, a Hungarian lawyer who represents refugees in the transit zones, said she’s been bombarded with text messages and emails from asylum seekers stranded in Serbia since the near closure began.

They “are very worried,” especially the families, she said. “Some of them were waiting there for more than one year.”

She and the refugee advocates say the decline in the number of asylum seekers allowed into Hungary has been gradual since Budapest built its first fence in September 2015 to stem the flow of migrants crossing its formerly open border with Serbia.

Since then, the fence has been reinforced multiple times. It is a daunting barrier, outfitted with barbed wire, heat sensors, video cameras, and armed police patrols that quickly detect any attempted breech.

Kovacs says most asylum seekers now appear to accept the only way in is to enter the two transit zone camps outside the Hungarian border towns of Tompa and Roezske.

But those opportunities are dwindling. In 2016, 60 asylum seekers total were allowed to enter each day into the Hungarian transit zones; then it was reduced to 30. Last year it was 10, and now it’s two.

Annex 2

Polish President Approves Controversial Holocaust Bill, but Sends It to Courts for Further Discussion

By Ofer Aderet – Haaretz Correspondent

The controversial bill, which was approved last week by the Polish parliament, led to a serious crisis in relations between Israel and Poland

The president of Poland, Andrzej Duda, announced on Tuesday that he will sign the bill that criminalizes saying the “Polish nation” or the “Polish state” took part in Nazi crimes during the Holocaust. However, he said he would send it to Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal for further discussion.

The controversial bill, which was approved last week by the Polish parliament, led to a serious crisis in relations between Israel and Poland.

Duda had the choice of signing the bill, returning the bill to parliament for further debate, asking to make changes to the law or even rejecting it. Patryk Jaki, the Poland’s deputy justice minister, said Duda’s decision “gives us time to dialogue with our partners.”

The Israeli Foreign Ministry said in response that “Israel continues to work with the authorities in Poland, expressing its reservations about the Polish bill.” The statement said that Israel still hopes that it can reach agreement  with Poland on changes to the law before the constitutional court rules on the legislation.

President Duda’s speech, before announcing his decision, was balanced, sensitive, and recognized the subject’s complexity. On one hand, he stressed that he was not willing to accept accusations that Poland as a state was involved in the Holocaust, saying Poland was under Nazi occupation and not even on the map.

On the other hand, Duda said that he knows many Holocaust survivors in Israel harbor difficult stories, and stressed that they must be able to express themselves freely.

Duda also added that there is no room for anti-Semitism and xenophobia. He was speaking against the backdrop of a demonstration against him on Monday where protesters called on him to “sign the law and take off the kippah.”

Analysts speaking with Polish media speculated that the constitutional tribunal will demand a change in the law, citing the possibly unconstitutional restrictions it imposes on freedom of speech.

The new law would outlaw publicly and falsely attributing the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish nation. If it is enacted, violators could be punished with up to three years in prison. The law also forbids use of the term “Polish death camp” to describe the death camps where Jews and others were murdered in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II under the Third Reich.

Anyone who violates the new law, including non-Polish citizens, will be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years. The law applies to attributions of “crimes against peace, against humanity or war crimes to the Polish nation or state; or who minimize the responsibility of those who are truly responsible for these crimes.

If Duda signs the bill, it will most likely worsen the crisis between Israel and Poland, because the two countries have agreed to establish joint teams to discuss the matter as a result of the controversy it has caused.

The Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem criticized Duda’s approval of the law, saying that it “could very well lead to the distortion of the historical truth because of the limitations [the law] places on expression regarding the involvement of the parts of the Polish population – directly and indirectly – in the crimes committed on their country during the period of the Holocaust.”

Yad Vashem agreed that the use of the term “Polish extermination camps” was inappropriate, as the camps were built by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland, but  expressed concern that the law “will have implications on Holocaust research, teaching and its memory.”

On Monday, the Polish government cancelled a scheduled visit to Warsaw by Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, after Bennett said “the Polish people had a proven role in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust.”

Duda, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and other senior Polish officials have conducted a broad public campaign to convince the world, including Israel and the United States, that the new law is justified. The Polish government even bought ads on Israeli websites explaining the law in English.

Morawiecki rejected the criticism of the law this week, saying Germany was responsible for all the crimes, all the victims and everything that happened during World War II. He said Poland will never allow claims that Poland was a partner in the Holocaust.

The office of the Polish president said on Friday that the “Polish nation” helped “our Jewish neighbors” during the Holocaust and even “warned the world about the atrocities of the German Final Solution when there was still time to stop it.”

The statement by Polish President Andrzej Duda’s cabinet chief also said that though “the barbaric Nazi German ideology aimed at a complete annihilation of the Jewish nation, many tend to ignore that it also led to enslavement, expulsion and eventually to extermination of the Polish and other Slavic peoples.”


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