Orban says he’s defending Christian civilisation. His opponents say he’s subverting Hungary’s democracy.

24 Sep

Will the European Union hold together? Or is Western Europe going one way and Central Europe another?

Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, is perhaps the most eloquent exponent of, as he put it in a recent lecture, “a Central European cultural, intellectual and political entity that is growing more and more different from Western Europe”.

Orban has many critics, but his lecture was directed against one in particular, Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford.

There was a time when they were on the same side, for as Orban says:

“The professor has an excellent knowledge of Central Europe and used to inspire many of us during our years of resistance against communism and the Soviet occupation, in the late 1980s.

“What’s more, members of the current Hungarian political leadership had the chance to personally attend his lectures, which took a stance for freedom, at the University of Oxford.”

Orban, born in 1963, sprang to fame in Hungary in June 1989 by giving a speech demanding the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the holding of free elections, after which he studied for a few months at Pembroke College, Oxford, on a scholarship awarded by the Soros Foundation.

He returned home in January 1990, was elected to the National Assembly, became the leader of Fidesz, which he led in a national conservative direction, and served as Prime Minister from 1998-2002 and again since 2010.

Garton Ash has become, as in this interview with Euronews on 8th September, an unsparing critic of Orban:

“we do have European Union values which are being massively violated in countries like Hungary and Poland, and I think we need to stand up for those values…

“Viktor Orban is having his cake and eating it. He’s winning elections by saying ‘Stop Brussels’, campaigning against the European Union, but taking billions of European taxpayers’ money.

“Therefore the key to an effective response is to establish a linkage between the Europe of values and the Europe of money. And that’s what the European Union has so far failed to do…

“It is absolutely outrageous that you have a member state of the European Union which in my view is no longer a democracy, which has destroyed media freedom, which doesn’t have fair elections, free but not fair elections, which has kicked out the best university in central Europe, which has indulged in outrageously xenophobic propaganda, the treatment of migrants and so on, which is still receiving billions of euros in the EU funds, that is an outrageous state of affairs.”

When asked whether Orban’s illiberalism is a real threat to the EU, Garton Ash replied:

“Without question… One has to go back a long way to find a period when a Hungarian leader was so important in European history…

“And that is because he has become the symbolic leader of the other Europe, the conservative, anti-liberal, ethnic nationalist, Christian, socially conservative Europe.

“And Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders, are all with him.

“So he represents not just one medium-sized member state of the European Union, he represents a very important tendency in the entire European Union.”

Orban maintains that on the contrary, his conservatism is “a blessing for the European Union and even Western Europe”, because the West, he contends in his lecture, has lost the convictions which lay behind its success:

“I understood that beyond and behind all the technical equipment, novel institutions and scientific discoveries, there was also the West’s sense of its exceptionalism and mission, which gave it inspiration and confidence. The conviction that Western man has a mission in the world and with the world, and must act in order to accomplish that mission.

“Naturally, we do know that the Western mission has intellectual and spiritual foundations that should be sought in Christianity. ‘Go, and make disciples of all nations’, Matthew says. This mentality, even if in a changed form, survived in the West also during the Enlightenment, the periods of the humanist ideal of man, human rights and the discoveries of modern science.

“During a period of unquestionable development and brilliant success – despite evident mistakes, blunders and grave shortcomings – the conviction that the overall balance of the mission of Western civilisation and the West was fundamentally positive held for a long time.

“However, something had changed by the beginning of the 21st century. And this happened just at a time when the West, led by America and Britain, had scored its most brilliant victory, having won the Cold War…

“It no longer seeks meaning in its own history; instead, it keeps saying that it will end soon. It re-interprets or deletes entire chapters of its history, finding them shameful and so to be cancelled, and in the meantime, it is unable to replace them with anything else. And those who are not paralysed, but in fact very much active, are such deconstructive, negative forces that they would be better off paralysed…

“the concept of open society has deprived the West of its faith in its own values and historical mission, and with this now – at the time of the Muslim flood and the rise of Asia – it is preventing the West from setting its own mission against the rising intellectual and political power centres…”

Orban contends that in Brussels, and the West generally, “a sense of mission shared by a political community, a nation is now unacceptable, even suspicious.” Hungary, on the other hand, still has that sense of mission: hence Budapest’s disputes with Brussels.

To Garton Ash, speaking on Tuesday to ConHome, Orban’s essay amounts to “a brilliant exercise in ideological distraction”: Orban says “let’s have a really interesting intellectual conversation about the future of western civilisation”, and the disreputable methods by which Orban stays in power are forgotten.

ConHome suggested two questions arise: one is whether Orban himself is a reputable person, the other is whether it is permissible for anyone, no matter how reputable, to hold Orban’s views.

Garton Ash replied:

“You can be a Conservative nationalist party continuing to govern in a country which is still an excellent liberal democracy – we live in one.”

Orban, he went on, has instead subverted liberal democracy, by gerrymandering, by pay-offs to friendly oligarchs, by getting the media under control: “That’s the problem, that’s why I’m so angry.”

And Orban then distracts attention from his destruction of liberal democracy by reframing the whole battle as an ideological clash, so that people say “maybe I agree with him about immigration” or “maybe I agree with him about Islam”.

Garton Ash went on to say that “characterising Muslims as invaders” (as Orban has done) “is in my view beyond the pale”, and that “some of the election propaganda against Soros is borderline anti-semitic”.

He urged British Conservatives to be cautious about embracing Orban: “It’s the difference between Farage and Johnson.”

And he pointed out that while Orban attacks Brussels, he also accepts very large sums from Brussels: “Viktor Orban is a master of cakeism.”

For a long time Orban managed to keep Hungarian MEPs in the European People’s Party in Brussels, before at length they were eased out of it.

David Cameron, one may note, promised that British MEPs would leave the EPP, and at length kept that promise. British Euroscepticism, leading to Brexit, is in some ways more straightforward than Hungarian and Polish Euroscepticism.

In Hungary and Poland, with their recent history of Soviet occupation, there are still large majorities in favour of EU membership.

Orban wins elections by playing the nationalist card, but one should not imagine that this card does not exist in Western Europe. The EU is paralysed by the fear that taking the great leap to becoming a federal state comparable to the USA  would provoke a nationalist backlash in most if not all of the member states, including Germany and France.

The German Constitutional Court stands as the most reputable though so far reticent opponent of a federal Europe. Alternative for Germany, founded in 2013 by learned men opposed to the policies required to prop up the euro but soon degenerating into a xenophobic movement, is one of the least reputable opponents.

It is now 21 years since Larry Siedentop pointed out, in Democracy in Europe, that no Madison, Hamilton and Jay have stepped forward to compose Europe’s version of The Federalist Papers.

The euro remains a currency unbacked by a government. Perhaps under the pressure of some great crisis, surmounted by leaders who rise to the occasion, that government will be conjured into existence.

But in the meantime, one cannot help being struck by the persistence of the nation state as the fundamental political reality. Nations may be good or bad, reputable or disreputable, democratic or authoritarian.

Perhaps the ultimate function of the EU, towards which Garton Ash points the way, will be to keep its members democratic. But what an opportunity that offers to demagogues to blame the nation’s woes on Brussels.

Daniel Hamilton: Why I see hopeful signs for democratic transition in Belarus

10 Aug

Daniel Hamilton works in international business consultancy and was a Conservative candidate at the 2017 General Election.

Over the past three decades, there has been much to celebrate when it comes to the democratic transitions of countries that were formally part of the Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact.

One could easily argue that the transformation of many nations in the region from command economies with next to no political rights to free-market democracies represents one of the most rapid process of political and economic change ever recorded. This has been particularly evident in Central Europe countries such as Poland, the former Czechoslovakia and Baltics.

Belarus has stood apart from this trend; ruled for the past 26 years by the former Communist official Alexander Lukashenko whose governing style has more in common with that of Vladimir Putin than modern European democracies.

Much as in Russia, Lukashenko’s recent years have been characterised by the predictable pattern of behaviour that has governed his actions since 1994: a tightening of controls on internet access, the jailing of prominent opposition activists, the imposition of travel restrictions on opponents of the regime and effective rule by presidential decree.

Indeed, such is Lukashenko’s hold on power that in all his years in office, he has exercised such personal control over government that a credible internal alternative – a popular prime minister, a commanding defence minister or powerful domestic security chief – has never been allowed to emerge to challenge him. All credible opposition challengers have found themselves variously subjected to detention, torture and political exile.

In the last few years, a lazy impression has been allowed to emerge in foreign policy circles that Lukashenko has pursued – albeit tentatively – a path of cautious political reforms. Indeed, in 2016 the European Union lifted the bulk of economic and political sanctions against government-aligned firms, the president and 170 other senior figures in his administration and the country has been handed fast-track access to the Schengen Visa regime.

The problem with this narrative was and remains that these reforms were largely external posturing rather than internal and meaningful. Keen to balance historic good ties with Putin with the practical economic benefits of closer relations with European nations, Lukashenko’s administration declined to endorse Russia’s position regarding Crimea annexation and has stalled on granting the Kremlin permission to construct an air force base in Belarus.

In practical terms, Russia and Belarus remain technically tied to one another via the supranational Union State of Russia and Belarus; a 1999 treaty which, while not fully ratified, envisages an eventually Anschluss of the two nations.

For this reason, the emergence of presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as arguably the first popular and viable challenger to Lukashenko in a quarter of a century is as welcome as it is, for those of us with a long-standing interest in Belarus, surprising.

Tikhanovskaya’s ascendency ought not to have been permitted by Lukashenko’s machine and owes itself to a combination of unforced errors, a good dose of hubris and old-fashioned misogyny.

Tikhanovskaya, as is so often the case in citizen-led uprisings – be it the small-town pastor László Tőkés whose harassment sparked riots against Ceauşescu in Romania or the Tunisian fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi whose self-immolation led to a wave of revulsion against the Ben Ali junta – is an unremarkable figure.

An English teacher and interpreter with no prior involvement in public life, she initially entered the race as a “placeholder” candidate for her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular blogger whose YouTube channel rails against poor living standards in the country, after he jailed for anti-government activities.

Her nomination to run for president was accepted by the Lukashenko-controlled Electoral Commission which felt, naively, that a woman was incapable of securing popular support. Instead, the united front she was able to display with representatives of the campaigns of other jailed and disqualified candidates, saw her rallies draw crowds of up to 60,000 across the country, far outstripping any opposition activity seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Her campaign appeared to be almost hydra-headed; with government crackdowns on rallies in one city only leading to a stronger turnout in another and intimidation tactics against activists spurring yet more reluctant Belarussians to leave their homes and take to the streets.

It important to note that, while Belarussians are eager for political change, that sense rests more on a push for higher living standards and public discourse does not feature, as in other transitioning democracies such as Georgia or Ukraine, searing antipathy towards Moscow.

Indeed, a significant contributing factor to Lukashenko’s ability cling to power for so long has been his ability to insulate Belarus from much of the instability associated with economic upheaval and lawlessness that has been seen elsewhere in the former Soviet space via the maintenance of Soviet-era structures. There has essentially been a quid pro quo in place in which many older voters were willing to accept autocracy as a trade-off for stability.

Tikhanovskaya’s campaign was arguably successful in that its message was a clear one: the introduction of reforms to weaken the all-powerful nature of the presidency and restore democratic oversight, the release of all political prisoners and a fresh presidential election within six months.

Tikhanovskaya’s “loss” yesterday – by an utterly implausible 80 per cent to 10 per cent margin – comes as no surprise.

Election Day itself was a predictable farce, with the Electoral Commission stating, as the polls opened, that in excess of 40 per cent of votes had already been cast during the early voting window. Numerous social media apps and VPN connections designed to circumvent government controls were reported to be inoperative, while independent election observers were denied access to all but a handful of pre-selected polling stations.

Here in the UK, reports from friends seeking to cast their ballots at the Belarusian Embassy in London yesterday say that around 300 people queued to vote, yet staff permitted only 20 per hour to enter the polling station, disenfranchising many.

It is often said that the darkest hour is just before the dawn – and that is where we are today.

The sheer brazenness of Lukashenko’s margin of a victory has left opposition forces with little choice other than to take to the streets in order to register their dissatisfaction. Indeed, the result appears almost intentionally designed to provoke the very type of street protests that were evident at the close of poll and are likely to continue in the weeks ahead.

The images of government brutality witnessed in the early hours of this morning were distressing and grimly predictable. The decision of security forces loyal to Lukashenko to deploy stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protestors destroys any forlorn hopes that may have existed that the government may be willing to consider a political compromise. Footage of armoured vehicles driving into crowds at speed, no doubt causing serious injuries and fatalities, is an aberration that cannot be overlooked. As Belarus wakes up this morning, the waves of revulsion will only build.

It is clear that the excitement Tikhanovskaya’s campaign has sparked in younger and ambitious middle-class Belarussians represents an aggressive reboot of civil society in the country – something that has been badly lacking in recent years.

On a personal level, seeing images of Pobeditelei Prospect, a three mile-long, six-lane drag that connects the city centre with the suburbs filled not with traffic, but political protest feels almost implausible. To me, the immaculate cleanliness of its pavements, the polished-yet-unprofitable conservatoires, the poignant museums to mark the country’s huge sacrifices in World War Two and austere Orthodox churches were symbols of Lukashenko’s sterile and autocratic rule – which is now showing signs of reaching its endgame.

This sparks the question as to how western governments ought to respond in order to place maximum pressure upon Lukashenko and best prepare the country for the democratic transition that – hopefully – lies ahead.

The re-imposition of sanctions against Lukahsenko, his key lieutenants and state-run businesses must be an immediate priority for the UK, EU and US. While critics of sanctions have argued that they may have the unintended consequence of increasing Belarussian economic dependence upon Russia in the medium-term, their imposition may yet prove to be a stabilising factor for the country.

It has long been the case that Lukashenko and key administration figures have sought to “securitise” billions in state assets in offshore banks in order to protect their personal finances in instances of political upheaval. To not cut off the country’s banking system from international payments systems at the time risks widespread asset-stripping in the coming days.

A fresh approach towards how western governments engage with civil society institutions in Belarus is also needed. The concept of an effective opposition is a new one for Belarus and political ideology, beyond a basic belief in the concept of democratic plurality, has played a limited role in the growth of support for Tikhanovskaya in recent weeks.

If change is to come in Belarus, that change will necessarily involve a fundamental overhaul of an economic structure which vests vast power in the hands of state officials at the expense of the private sector. To this extent, a strong package of technical assistance should be offered by both government and the think tank community in both Washington DC and London to help Belarussians fashion the kind of future state they wish to see – be it social democratic or centre-right.

Finally, those who wish to see the realisation of a democratic Belarus must accept that change may not come overnight.

Tikhanovskaya appears to recognise this; challenging the Electoral Commission to publish the correct, unaltered results or otherwise risk her supporters continuing their street protests throughout the coming days and weeks. These demonstrations of mass support will be critical in weakening the resolve of the domestic security apparatus who are, as I write, remaining loyal to Lukashenko and acting as de facto guarantor of his continued rule. In some outlying regions of the country, reports suggest that police have already started refusing orders to attack demonstrators.

While it’s rather passé to draw comparisons between the present situation in Belarus and the ousting of the former Ukrainian dictator Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, some critical lessons can be drawn from Ukraine’s recent experiences. These lessons revolve around a number of key areas: assiduous organisation of visible activities across the country, guaranteeing a united front against a common enemy even when other policy disagreements may exist, deploying the power of creativity and positivity in campaign messages and the use of social media and remaining patient and unstinting in the face of oppression.

In each of these cases, the Belarussian democratic opposition has already demonstrated their courage and fortitude.

The next days may yet prove to be difficult and bloody ones but, for Europe’s last dictatorship, change is finally coming.