Russia is once again an epitome of evil. We may recently often hear that something is a “Putinesque measure”. However, in Hungary, the governing party Fidesz, lead by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, is really using Putin’s solutions as its point of reference. Moreover, in his speech in 2014, Orbán clearly outlined his vision to build an illiberal state modelled on Russia. Let’s see how similar Orbán’s and Putin’s methods are.
Foreign Agent Laws:
In 2012, a law requiring foreign-funded non-commercial organizations to register as “foreign agents” was introduced. Noncompliance results in fines and possibly a closure.
The offices of several NGOs were raided as a method of intimidation.
Russian officials claim that their “foreign agent law” is similar to the US Foreign Agent Registration Act – a law introduced in 1938 against Nazi and Communist influences, which has nothing in common with the Russian law.
In 2014, the Hungarian government started its rhetoric against NGOs. It was critical of Orbán’s way of dealing with politics, human rights and economy. In his infamous speech on illiberalism, Orbán labelled all internationally-funded civic organizations as “agents“.
In 2017, a bill mandating all NGOs that receive foreign funding of more than EUR 23,000 to register as foreign agents was introduced. If the law is passed, such NGOs will be obliged to enclose information that they are funded from abroad in all their publications, websites, and any other materials. Moreover, they will be listed in a foreign agents register. And, of course, noncompliance will result in fines and possibly a closure.
To justify the planned law, the Hungarian officials also referred to the US Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). Needless to say, FARA is something completely different than what the Hungarian government has in mind.
March 20, 2017. The court of arbitration in St. Petersburg revoked the licence of the European University, one of Russia’s best academic institutions not operated by the state. The university offers classes in the field of gender studies, which is not in line with the government’s homophobic rhetorics.
April 10, 2017. The President of Hungary signed a law that can close down Central European University, where students can obtain Hungarian and American degrees. The university offers courses in the field of gender studies, which was often criticized by the government.
Freedom of the Press and Expression:
Although freedom of the press and expression is constitutionally guaranteed, political pressure, cronyism, and recurring attempts of intimidation often manipulate the content featured in the media. The government can influence news outlets with advertising revenues. Russia is now infamous for silencing journalists and spreading fake news.
After Fidesz gained power in 2010, a new media law was introduced, requiring a more balanced and relevant output. The law can be loosely interpreted as giving the power to meddle into broadcasts to the state. The government also targeted the largest independent TV channel, RTL Klub, with a punitive tax on advertisement revenues. According to a person who used to be close to the PM, Orbán also wanted to own RTL Klub (probably through cronies), but when he was faced with the fact that it would cost too much, he allegedly replied: “Rosatom will buy it for me.”
The government also exercises influence over the media with state advertisement. Fidesz cronies acquired media outlets with the aid of taxpayers’ money. The largest independent daily newspaper, Népszabadság was shut down in response to its investigative work, and was later bought by corrupt businessmen with close ties to the government. Journalists are often blacklisted and barred from entering press conferences simply for “asking questions”. One of Hungarian journalists was intimidated by the secret service trying to coerce him to reveal confidential information.State propaganda media is kept on a short leash by Fidesz, which oversees the content of their articles. These media also fabricate news and often use Russian fake news‘ sites as sources.
There are many other similarities between the two countries. Russia is to build a nuclear power plant in Hungary, but the details of the contract are kept secret. Nevertheless, irregularities and a high degree of corruption is said to surround the deal. This will further entrench Hungary’s energy dependence on Russia, an excellent opportunity for the latter to tighten its grip on Central and Eastern Europe. For instance, during the height of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, Hungary turned off its gas supply to its Eastern neighbor.
Regardless of whether one agrees with the idea of gender studies, the merit of left-wing articles, or nuclear energy, freedom of thought, speech, and the press are universal rights, liberties strongly embedded in the Western culture. Although the citizens of Hungary want to belong to the Western world, Orbán and his cronies push Hungary more and more towards an illiberal Putinesque future. Corruption may prevail over national interests in the eyes of the government , but the citizens are still unwilling to give up their fundamental rights. Let’s hope there is enough freedom left to act.