News 13th May 2019

Orban in the White House – What does it mean?

Jozef Peter Martin

Executive Director (TI Hungary)

Jozsef is the Executive Director of Transparency International Hungary. He is currently on secondment to Transparency International Defence and Security Programme in London as the Director of Research. He is also a senior lecturer at Corvinus University in Budapest.

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Last year, when I participated in a Transparency International delegation in Washington DC and New York, a number of formal meetings and informal chats were circulating around the idea that Viktor Orban’s ‘illiberalism’ – well, to put it more correctly: hybrid regime or autocracy – could be built in the US. Seeing Donald Trump’s appetite for unconstrained power combined with the powerful lobbies trying to capture some of the state functions, lots of folk made predictions that US’s future mutandis mutatis will be similar to Hungary’s presence. On 13th May, when Trump receives Orban in the White House the idea to portray similarity between the two administrations and unity between these right-wing and undoubtedly populist leaders could be more valid than ever. But is that so?

Orban is the last leader in Central and Eastern Europe to be received by the current President of the United States. The Hungarian Prime Minister was desperately trying to get into the Oval Office over the past two-and-a-half years – and indeed he showed off a rather peculiar form of political instinct in 2016 he became the first foreign leader to endorse the candidacy of Trump. It, therefore, must have been an annoying embarrassment to Orban to not be able to demonstrate friendship and a common ideological platform, to the outside world, before now. This very fact of this long-time refusal in itself makes it problematic to build an argument for the idea that unity between the two ‘enfant terrible’ of global politics would be inextricable.

The visit might serve different purposes. First of all, boosting and finalising the arms deals, the main pillars of which were agreed when Foreign Secretary, Mike Pompeo visited Budapest in February this year.

But more importantly, one of the most crucial points of today’s visit can be to draw a clearer line of Russian influence in Hungary. There are more and more worrying signs that Orban has become an enabler of Vladimir Putin’s endeavours inside the European Union. The latest event in this respect was the relocation of the International Investment Bank from Moscow to Budapest, which, according to some, might have some secret mandates despite being a banking institution. The extension of the Hungarian nuclear power plant in Paks should be also on the agenda. The Hungarian state will be indebted by 10% of the Hungarian GDP according to a secret contract signed previously by Putin and Orban. If this deal is to be realized, one of the pledges of the democratic transition in Hungary, namely the diversification of energy from Russian influence, will fail.

A sign of Hungary’s institutionalized and systemic corruption, the so-called ‘government residency bonds’, a special scheme for obtaining a golden visa, which was introduced and operated by the Orban government between 2013 and 2018, might also feature on the agenda of Trump-Orban talks. Not primarily because it resulted in at least EUR 65 million net loss for Hungarian taxpayers as calculated by Transparency International Hungary, but because it allowed citizens with dodgy business backgrounds to enter Hungary without any reliable control mostly from Russia and China, thus to the EU.

It`s worth to note that at the same time when Orban is received by Trump, a leader of an oppositional movement, Movement for Everbody’s Hungary (‘Mindenki Magyarorszaga Mozgalom), Peter Marky-Zay is being received in the State Department – it might not be just a diplomatic coincidence. Marky-Zay is a centre-right opposition politician with a potential to unite the otherwise deeply divided opposition. He was elected as mayor of a medium-sized town, Hodmezovasarhely in 2018, for the first time by voters across the whole colourful spectrum of opposition.

Marky-Zay’s talks in the State Department also demonstrate that despite the change of administration there has been a remarkable continuity in the US diplomacy. As Secretary Pompeo said after he had received some NGO leaders in Budapest in February: “Each time a country – no matter how small – (…) moves away from democracy (…), the capacity for the world to continue to deliver freedom for human beings is diminished.” The message was and has been clear.

In a bi-partisan powerful letter sent to President Trump by the Committee of Foreign Relations of the US Senate on 10 May, a strong concern about the slide of the Hungarian democracy was expressed. The letter addresses serious issues of a less competitive election system, the government’s control of some parts of the judiciary, and the obvious signs of a press freedom decline. It also mentions that property rights have been under threat since Orban first got a constitutional majority in the Parliament after a democratic election in 2010. (Since then, Orban’s Fidesz party won two other landslide victories, in 2014 and 2018 after mostly free although by far not fair elections.)

Despite the general wisdom that “the same” populism hits the US as it shapes the captured system in Hungary, the difference is enormous: in the US the basic democratic principles such as political pluralism, checks and balances, free media, etc. still prevail perhaps even against Trump’s intentions, meanwhile in Hungary they are either dismantled, or are in very serious danger. The distinct versions of populism in the US and in Hungary prevail and most probably will do so. Those for whom the freedom, transparency, accountability, human rights, anti-corruption and meritocracy are important, may hope that after the Trump-Orban visit, a slightly better chance may appear to redirect Hungary to a Western-type, democratic path as soon as possible.