Central Europe's descent into authoritarianism
It is time to accept that recent developments in Hungary and Poland, along with alarming reports on democratic standards in the region, are not just temporary turbulence, but a new type of political regime in the making.
The new Hungarian university law adopted this week by the parliament has already been branded a Lex-CEU.
This new legislation allowing the government to expel Central European University (CEU) from Hungary is like an X-ray image of a hybrid regime - a democracy drifting towards authoritarianism.
Moreover, it is not only an isolated case, but already more of a regional trend.
The alarming Nations in Transit 2017 report by Freedom House accounted for more countries in democratic decline rather than improving. As many as 18 of the 27 Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries fell in the ranking.
"This is the second biggest decline in the survey’s history, almost as large as the drop following the 2008 global financial crisis," wrote the authors.
One case helps to understand a pattern that can be later compared with other countries.
At the end of the day, it is not so new to observe a democratic decline. But it is surprising to find that the most prominent success stories of the democratic transition - Hungary and Poland - turn their back on the past achievements and move towards a hybrid regime.
CEU is perhaps the only university in the region that is highly ranked in all sorts of world and European university reviews.
It was founded by George Soros, who registered it in New York and accredited first in Prague in 1991 and shortly after moved it to Hungary.
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban was not joking when he described 2017 as “the year of repulsing” George Soros.
Beside “sweeping out” civil society organisations receiving funding from the Open Society Institute, Orban started to make it impossible for CEU, labelled as “Soros University”, to operate in Hungary.
Dozens of Nobel Prize winners, hundreds of research institutes and even the German president decided to speak out against lex-CEU.
Yet the law was adopted only 5 days after the initiation of the legislative proposal, with only one amendment allowing for a special arrangement for CEU, provided it is agreed by the two hosting governments - the US and Hungary.
Attacking one of the best higher education institutions in Central Europe carries more significance than the fact of the attack itself; it is a real portrait of the nature of a hybrid regime, which is becoming less and less tolerant of an open debate or free inquiry.
Copy paste from Russia
It might have come as a coincidence that just a week prior to lex-CEU Russia revoked the license, on 20 March, from the European University at Saint Petersburg.
But parallel to lex-CEU, Hungary has also drafted a “foreign agent law” that resonates very much with the example of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The new law labels NGOs - which receive financial support of over HUF 7.2 million (approximately €24,000) from abroad - as a national security threat and force them to register themselves.
This is not only about Orban willingly copying Putin’s political methods. It is about eroding the system of checks and balances, restricting horizontal accountability and strengthening corruption.
Moreover, the two systems promote a similar anti-Western revisionist ideology that resonates with the nostalgia for a supposedly glorious past (Imperial Russia or "Greater Hungary“ from before the 2nd world war).
Yet, contrary to Russia, Hungary is in the middle of the Western democratic family - both a member of the EU and the Nato alliance.
Nature of a hybrid regime
Viktor Orban’s post-2010 regime can be categorised into the group of so-called hybrid regimes, where leaders do not completely dissolve democratic institutions and the rule of law, but they strive to empty them of content and restrict their operation.
Democratic institutions do exist in Hungary, but they barely work. Their role as a check on those in power has been gradually restricted since 2010, and this trend was not reversed after the governing parties lost their supermajority in the National Assembly (Hungarian parliament) in February 2015.
The National Assembly operates as a government-dominated law factory, with more than two-thirds of legislative proposals being submitted by the government, while the opposition’s say in the process has been reduced to the bare minimum.
The national government weakened autonomy or took control of every institution that could, in some way, keep its power in check. The most significant of which was the strongest institution balancing the government's power before 2010 - the Constitutional Court.
It has been completely subverted to the will of the ruling party, Fidesz. Its competences were curbed on several occasions and its composition was reshuffled.
The Constitutional Court rarely even has a chance to investigate legislative and state organisation-related issues, due to a lack of motions for it to do so.
The process of liquidating the independent press was accelerated through 2015 and 2016, partly by administrative tools and acquisitions.
Parallel to this process, the government restricted journalists’ free access to the parliament building and, on several occasions, banned certain media outlets critical of the government from the National Assembly.
As the opposition parties are much smaller and divided, they do not stand a chance of pressuring the government on electoral issues.
This leaves space for take-overs or closing the remaining media outlets that are critical of the government - for example, the dissolution of Nepszabadsag in autumn 2016 - and for attacks on civil society.
On a crash course with Europe
One of the basic requirements of a modern democracy is that political and civil rights, including the freedom of education and the right to criticise the government without any sanctions, must be protected comprehensively.
However, the goal of the Fidesz government is nothing but eliminating any existing check on its power with the continuous restrictions to democracy. The institutional environment of the government makes real competition possible, however, it cannot be called fair.
The hybrid regime in Hungary can be categorised as a kind of competitive authoritarianism - researched by Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way - which only maintains the illusion of democratic competition.
In December 2016, Orban expressed the hope that 2017 would be the year of rebellion against global capital, open society, global government and global liberal media - referring to the paradigm change in the US, which was brought about by the election of Donald Trump.
The miscalculation he made was the strongly anti-American sentiment of lex-CEU, which goes against the core national interests of the US. He threw it out in front of the world disrespectfully, which is seemingly not being tolerated in Washington, which is still ruled by law, procedures and the US constitution.
In Berlin, there is no political will for punishment. Chancellor Angela Merkel is aware that this could backfire for the German economy, but also with how it is perceived in Hungary, as Orban is relatively popular in his country.
In theory, the EU could intervene by launching the rule of law mechanism, but while facing tough Brexit negotiations, Brussels has never been so cautious with the so-called ‘enfant terrible’ countries. Moreover, this procedure is not appropriate for effective intervention, just as we have seen it in the case of Poland.
So, maybe it is time for the European People’s party to finally push Fidesz into moral quarantine, by excluding the Hungarian party from the group.
Otherwise, tolerating a hybrid regime could lead to an even more dangerous precedent in the wider Central and Eastern European region, which is already having a shadow cast over it by backsliding democracies.
Edit Zgut is foreign policy analyst at Political Capital and Wojciech Przybylski is editor-in chief of Visegrad Insight and chairman of Res Publica Foundation. This article first appeared in Visegrad Insight