The Orbánesque Problem

Rising up under the shadow of Putin, this world leader may present a big problem.

You probably haven’t heard of Viktor Orbán. As the leader of the small Central-European country of Hungary that many would deem insignificant, Orbán is overshadowed by more well-known European politicians, including the infamous Vladimir Putin. However, his story is, if not more, as interesting as those of the high-profile diplomats in the spotlight now.

Orbán’s political career started out when he co-founded his political party, Fidesz (he still controls it to this day), successfully unifying the democratic students that were persecuted by the government. Until one of its leaders, Peter Molnar, joined the Hungarian Parliament, the youth opposition group could only meet in small, secret groups. However, even though Fidesz became more recognized, its results in the domestic field were disappointing, almost bordering on failure when the party only won a few seats in parliament in 1994. As a result, Fidesz changed its ideology dramatically from liberal-leaning moderate to extreme conservative; many of Fidesz’s leaders left (including the aforementioned Molnar) the party. So where does Viktor Orbán come in?

The young Orbán, dressed informally, became the internationally-known face of Fidesz in 1989 when he, as the organization’s spokesman, gave a rousing speech demanding free voting and departure of the Soviets at the reburial of Hungarian freedom fighter Imre Nagy who resisted Soviet rule. The Soviets left just one year later. While he stood for democratic ideals then, Orbán is the trademark European far-right politician. Through this enigmatic change, the only thing that can be agreed on is that Viktor Orbán is a skilled and successful politician, managing to hold on to leadership in his party and keep his position for more than a decade through times of instability; moreover, he is the 3rd longest-serving Hungarian Prime minister. Now, under his leadership, Hungary is a bastion for all things we can classify as “far-right.” Estranged in their country, far-right activists migrate to Hungary in order to continue their operations more freely without much opposition.

The Prime Minister’s stance on immigration follows the far-right norms, announcing and showing off the barbed wire fences and water cannons installed on his borders, mocking the other Europeans about their inability to stop the flow of refugees and border policies so much that the European countries started thinking about stopping immigrants instead of letting them inn. This extreme implementation of national sovereignty is so popular due to Hungary’s painfully recent history of Soviet occupation that carries no nostalgia for many, and Orbán’s hate for the liberal elite comes from the also-recent economic decline that plagued the country which the Hungarians do not want to experience again.

So, what should we do about him? Even if Orbán may seem isolated, his memberships in the European Union and NATO make him a dangerous force to be reckoned with. Even then, he sticks out like a sore thumb as an ultra-conservative member in a democratic (and also somewhat liberal) organization. Considering that fact, Orbán’s membership is confusing. As a potential Russian ally, Hungary would have faced intense opposition from Putin before joining NATO; this behavior became evident when pro-Russian forces (that were likely backed by Putin’s government) unsuccessfully attempted a coup in Montenegro to stop the country from joining. However, Putin may want to have Orbán (the Hungarian leader criticized E.U. and U.S. sanctions on Russia after Putin attacked Ukraine and applauded the Russian leader’s leadership) in NATO because the latter could present a good way for Putin to covertly influence NATO and even receive information about NATO’s activities without telegraphing any clear intentions. Orbán also has no place in NATO, an organization for democratic countries with goals that oppose those of Orbán’s Hungary. His membership may undermine the legitimacy of the organization and may present significant opposition and obstacles to productive decision-making. What the EU and NATO should do is keep careful watch on Orbán’s activities and keep some pressure on him to intimidate him and ultimately prevent the budding authoritarian from gaining more influence; letting Orbán amass more power could be disastrous for the free world.

-William Cho (’21)

Image: Francois Lenoir from The Atlantic

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