In the Hungary of Viktor Orban, driving from Budapest airport to the city centre in July, one’s eyes could not help but be drawn to the billboards lining the road. Some 75% of these were taken up by one of two things: first, election adverts for far-right party Jobbik; second, a picture of George Soros, a Hungarian-born Jewish banker and philanthropist.

Soros’ visage, smiling maniacally down on the passing cars with an oversized hook nose was accompanied by the following text: “99% of Hungarians oppose illegal immigration; don’t let Soros have the last laugh!”

This publicly funded smear campaign (costing taxpayers around USD $21 million) accused Soros of attempting to destroy the country through clandestine means; not only playing on anti-Semitic themes but also casting Soros as a non-fiction version of George Orwell’s Emmanuel Goldstein. Hungarian Prime Minster Viktor Orban is well known for publicly championing “illiberal democracy”, but what does his very public battle with Soros say about the nature of his regime and the future of politics in Eastern Europe?

CEU Budapest Soros protest Orban
Hungarians protest the closure of the Central European University in Budapest, funded by George Soros. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

The Road to Autocracy

After becoming prime minister in 2010 with a huge mandate, Orban abandoned policies of economic reform and instead focused on political centralisation. His set of political reforms, while not as repressive and heavy handed as those in Belarus or Russia, have become a guidebook for any budding leader who wishes to avoid petty inconveniences such as checks and balances.

In 2011 Orban rewrote the constitution, massively reducing the number of MPs and effectively neutering the constitutional court. Heavy restrictions on the state broadcaster were followed by constraints placed upon NGOs. These actions suggest that Hungary, like Poland, is experiencing a democratic backslide or a period of autocratisation similar to the inter war period.

Doing Battle with Soros

While Orban likes to argue that his fight with Soros is a fight for the soul of Hungary, Soros and Orban were once political allies. Indeed, their relationship stretches as far back as 1990, when he paid for Orban to attend Oxford University. Soros was also a staunch supporter of the young Orban in his early political campaigns. But estrangement between these two political titans was perhaps inevitable in such a centralised political context. With Orban attempting to consolidate and increase his already considerable power, he must distance himself from his former benefactor and gain the support of the anti-Semitic far right.

Soros’ various NGOs in Hungary – set up after the collapse of communism in order to spread democratic values – have faced closure or heavy restrictions. Worse, the Central European University, which Soros helped to fund, and one of the premier academic institutions in Eastern Europe, faces closure after being specifically targeted by Orban’s party Fidez . This is broadly considered to be in response to the actions of Soros’ NGOs during the migrant crisis, during which they provided legal aid for migrants and criticised the heavy handed actions of the government.

An Authoritarian Alliance?

Political scholars such as Ivan Krastev have long suggested that the conditions for an authoritarian takeover in Eastern Europe are already in place. The rapid transformation from communism to capitalism failed to address long-term issues such as xenophobia and anti-Semitism and represented not just an economic but also a sociopolitical break which many have failed to adjust to, creating authoritarian undercurrents that politicians can tap into. Furthermore, in Eastern Europe there is a palpable sense of popular rage directed towards the political class, meaning that very few governments survive more than a single term. This leads to elites seeking other, non-democratic ways to secure power and wealth.

As such, Orban has formed alliances with other leaders who share his more authoritarian style. This includes Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdogan and, most interestingly, Israel’s Netanyahu. While Israel’s ambassador to Hungary called out the obvious anti-Semitism of the Soros posters, Netanyahu brushed this aside arguing that Soros had similar aims of destabilising Israel through his advocacy groups – most of which work on reconciliation in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

In the same vein, Orban has criticised the EU for its investigation of Poland’s new restrictions on the judiciary, which were eventually vetoed by the Polish President after mass public demonstrations, showing that there is a level of solidarity among various leaders who seek to centralise their state and increase their power. This form of relationship between several macho and nationalist leaders is more durable than would be expected, as shown by the speed with which relations between Russia and Turkey were repaired after Turkey shot down a Russian jet in 2015.

Lessons to be learned

Most – but not all – of the Soros posters have now been taken down. Although the government claims this was due to the campaign’s ‘total success’, it is more likely due to the start of the tourist season and public annoyance over their cost. However, Soros remains public enemy number one in the heavily-controlled Hungarian media. The fate of the Central European University remains in the balance and Orban’s popularity remains high. There are important insights to be gained and lessons to be learnt.

Firstly, the idea of a large NGO network having a single benefactor makes it incredibly vulnerable to these sorts of attacks, no matter how extraordinary. Secondly, authoritarian governments in Eastern Europe fear organised, proactive, institutional or collective opposition far more than individual or popular opposition.

hungarian parliament danube orban
The Hungarian Parliament on the banks of the Danube. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

Orban has regularly voiced his distaste for individualism and claims to seek to build a political system based on collective action, however he has systematically targeted academic and media organisations that embody that collective ethos. Government control of civil society and religion, as well as discrediting the left in a part of the world that still remembers communism, means that unions and civil society groups struggle to challenge the government, As such, another form of long-term collective action is needed.

Finally, authoritarians in Eastern Europe seek to define and legitimise themselves by their culture and values instead of via democratic means. This mirrors the ‘Asian Values’ argument of former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew which was used to deflect criticism without engaging in meaningful reform. It suggests that these regimes will seek to isolate themselves internationally and begin to stagnate as South East Asia did before the 1997 financial crash.

What is the endgame?

It seems as if Ukraine shows us a possible finishing point for these types of regimes. In 2013 President Viktor Yanukovych, under pressure from both Russia and his allies in Eastern Ukraine, abandoned his long term promise of closer relations with the EU. This caused a split among the elite, and students quickly took to the streets in a series of protests that would eventually become the Euromaidan movement.

If Yanukovych had successfully crushed the protests he would have enhanced his power while at the same time eliminating much of civil society, and a significant portion of opposition oligarchs. He was only stopped by the tenacious Euromaidan protesters. They braved freezing conditions and police brutality in order to topple the corrupt government.

While for the moment popular unrest of this kind looks unlikely in Hungary it is inevitable that people will become frustrated with an increasingly rigid system and the elite will fragment. Indeed, Lajos Simicska, a media mogul and idormer Fidez treasurer, recently turned his back on Orban and promised to support anyone running against him. This suggests that while for the moment authoritarian leaders in Eastern Europe are riding high on populism, they should not forget the anti-establishment undercurrent that put them in power in the first place.

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