Hungary’s Prime Minister Calls for 'Illiberal' State, Reigniting International Criticism

Hungary’s prime minister has urged the country to move toward an “illiberal” government modeled on Russia, Turkey and China.

In a speech delivered last week, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary called for “building an illiberal new state based on national foundations.” (During the ensuing outcry, the government released a transcript of the speech that omitted "illiberal," despite Mr. Orban's use of the word.) He pointed to Russia, Turkey and China as examples of states that have achieved success by shedding liberal policies.

For human rights advocates, this is a troubling group to be associated with. Russia’s list of human rights violations is endless and government control stretches far beyond the bounds acceptable in a democracy; China’s human rights record is equally distressing, while Turkey’s crackdown on basic rights has been heavily publicized over recent years.

The erosion of democracy in Hungary

Mr. Orban’s remarks come at a time when the Hungarian government is being condemned for abusing its power, including an ongoing assault on the freedom of non-governmental organizations and the imposition of a new tax on media advertisements that aims to muzzle one of the few remaining outlets that doesn’t push the government’s agenda.

It also comes during a period of improved relations between Hungary and Russia, including the conclusion of a nuclear power deal between the two countries. Prime Minister Orban has stated that the wind “is blowing from the East” and makes little secret of his affinity for Vladimir Putin. As Russia continues to meddle in Ukraine, Mr. Orban’s public remarks have been curiously limited to expressing concern for the treatment of ethnic Hungarians in the country.

International criticism, but will it matter?

Following Mr. Orban's call for an illiberal state, international media outlets, including The New York Times, lambasted the government for continuing its nationalistic agenda at the expense of human rights. The European Union, however, has been slow to act. Although some individuals, including Vice President of the European Commission Neelie Kroes, have made public comments against Hungary’s assault on NGOs and the media, there have been no substantive actions taken by the EU.

Mr. Orban insists there are no inconsistencies between forming an illiberal state and remaining a strong member of the EU, but this is difficult to imagine. Until there is meaningful action by the EU, Hungary will have little incentive to curb its assault of civil society and other organs essential to true democracy. As the EU remains hesitant to suspend Hungary’s voting rights or reevaluate funding to the country, advocates of democracy in Hungary continue to wait for relief.

See the video of the speech below (with English subtitles) and read the government's English transcript of the speech here.

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