At this Helsinki Commission briefing, Susan Corke, Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group at the German Marshall Fund; Melissa Hooper, Director of Human Rights and Civil Society at Human Rights First; and Dalibor Rohac, Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute explored recent developments in Hungary, including issues related to the rule of law and corruption.
“Every nation that raises its voice for liberty and democracy matters, whether that’s a country that’s as big as the United States and with as large an economy as we have in America, or a smaller country. They’re each valuable. Each time one falls, each time a country – no matter how small – each time it moves away from democracy and moves towards a different system of governance, the capacity for the world to continue to deliver freedom for human beings is diminished. And so I would urge every country, no matter its size . . . to stay focused, maintain its commitment.”
– Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, February 12, 2019
Mr. Rohac discussed Hungary’s measurable decline on various indicators of good governance and the rule of law; patterns of politically organized corruption; and the implications of developments in Hungary for the United States. He observed that Hungary has experienced a steady erosion of freedom, the rule of law, and quality of governance according to virtually any indicator, including the assessments of the World Bank, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute. He noted that the Heritage Foundation’s index of economic freedom places the protection of property rights in Hungary in the mostly unfree territory. This stems in part from the seizure of pension fund assets as well as the concentration of ownership in the hands of Fidesz-connected oligarchs. The same index notes a marked decline in government integrity measures, placing Hungary into the oppressed territory on those sub- indices, with a score dramatically worse than in 2009.
While Mr. Rohac observed that corruption is a problem across central Europe and across post-communist countries, Hungary’s case is notable for the extent to which corruption has been embedded into the political system, centralized, connected to the ruling party, and has served as a mechanism of political patronage and political mobilization. “[T]here is something special about the nexus of legal patronage and graft and authoritarianism. The two cannot be separated.”
Panelists also described something of a paradox. On the one hand, the Orban government has exploited EU funds to build its corrupt oligarchy. Tax and procurement-related irregularities have been cited by the EU anti-corruption agency OLAF as the source of millions in suspect deals involving Orban’s family and friends, many of which also involve Russian state actors. On the other hand, the EU – precisely because it is not a federal government but depends on the consent of the EU member states – has limited ability to rein in this corruption and hybrid forms of governance.
Mr. Rohac asserted that this embrace of crony authoritarianism by Hungary is a direct threat to U.S. interests in the region as well as to the West’s interests more broadly. He rejected the notion that competing for positive influence in the region means we should not hold our allies to high standards. He suggested that such a view is enormously detrimental because it’s precisely the authoritarianism, the graft, and the cronyism that opens the way for foreign revisionist powers to enter Hungary and influence the country, pulling it away from the West.
“The U.S. stood by Central European nations as they liberated themselves from communism in the 1990s, in the 90s when they joined the ranks of self-governing free nations of the West,” he observed. “The idea that the U.S. should now either be silent or cheerleader for policies that are now driving Hungary away from the West strikes me as a particularly misguided one.”
Ms. Corke described the concerns about trends in Hungary and other countries in the Euro-Atlantic region which led to the formation of a bipartisan group, the Transatlantic Democracy Group, focused on democratic erosion and the need for U.S. leadership. She joined with 70 signers for NATO’s 70th anniversary on a declaration to reaffirm commitment to democracy.
Ms. Corke is sometimes asked, “why is your group so concerned about Hungary? It’s a small country. Why are you so concerned about Central European University?” She observed that Central European University is a joint American-Hungarian institution and Victor Orban’s campaign against it is a highly symbolic move against a vital institution founded to promote the transatlantic values of democracy, openness, and equality of opportunity and was therefore a direct challenge to the United States. She concluded that Moscow is using Hungary and other NATO members as backdoors of influence, and that Hungary’s centralized, top-down state has enabled an increasingly centralized, top-down system of corruption.
Ms. Corke also suggested that a lesson learned from recent developments in the region is that transparency is a necessary, but alone insufficient, condition to fight corruption. She asserted that the concept of a linear progression of democracy is outdated and new approaches to supporting civil society are needed.
In addition, Ms. Hooper stated that while the Obama-era policy of limited high-level engagement precluded some of the Hungarian government’s controversial actions, it did not appear to motivate fundamental change. The Trump-era policy of transactional engagement devoid of values has fared no better, she said, and the U.S. should therefore re-examine its policy toward Hungary. First, the United States should reinvest in democracy promotion. Second, the United States should announce publicly that it is reintroducing support for civil society in the region, and specifically in Hungary, due to a decline in the government’s ability to or interest in protecting democratic institutions. Third, Congress should be more vocal and pointed in expressing its concern and even alarm in Hungary’s antidemocratic movement and should support for individuals such as journalists or other members of watchdog organizations that are targeted by government campaigns or blacklists. Finally, the United States should not shy away from applying targeted sanctions, such as the Global Magnitsky law, when clear lines are crossed. When visa bans were used against some officials in 2014, they had an impact in Hungary.
Background materials available for the briefing included panelist biographies; Department of State materials including statements by Secretary Michael Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein; recent Helsinki commission statements and publications; and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum FAQs on the Holocaust in Hungary.