Residents of Maryland’s 1st Congressional District might wonder why their representative, the conservative Republican Andy Harris, would support a European political leader who wants to turn what remains of his country’s once-promising post-Soviet democracy into something like Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
I thought most of us believed Russia to be a repressive country, fundamentally at odds with our democratic ideals. Life in that nation has loosened up since the Cold War, but if you asked 1,000 Americans if they would choose to become permanent residents of Putinstan, I’m pretty sure 999 of them would say no.
So why would Andy Harris feel a need to defend Viktor Orban, the autocratic ruler of Hungary, who, in 2014, famously pledged to turn his country into an “illiberal democracy,” like Russia, by centralizing power, controlling the news media, and cracking down on academic freedom and dissent?
“Orban has transformed the country,” says Paul Lendvai, author of “Orban: Europe’s New Strongman,” published in the United States this month by Oxford University Press. “He has pioneered a new model that Hungarian scholars define as a ‘half democracy in decline’ or a ‘soft autocracy,’ combining crony capitalism with far-right rhetoric, gerrymandering the electoral system, subjugating the free press and curbing the judiciary. He has achieved a sweeping concentration of power.”
Orban has also taken a hard line on immigrants, calling for “ethnic homogeneity” and a global alliance against migration. He has made George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire and the right’s favorite bogeyman, practically an enemy of the state. He has blamed Soros for the flood of refugees from majority Muslim countries into Europe.
Brian Klaas, a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics, calls Orban “a classic in the genre of modern authoritarian populism, a new breed of strongman that governs in a democratic state but slowly chips away at democratic norms and institutions.”
The pro-Putin Orban, says Klaas, “is democratically elected but is not committed to democracy.”
Those descriptions echo others from diplomats, scholars and political leaders in Europe and the United States.
Last month, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, a Democrat, joined Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Republican, in reminding Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about “the systematic erosion of the rule of law” in Orban’s Hungary and the “weakening of checks and balances [and] democratic institutions.”
In a letter, the senators urged Tillerson to engage Hungary, a NATO partner, in promoting “commitments to human rights, fundamental freedoms and the democratic rule of law.” They warned that Orban — and this might sound familiar to Americans in the Trump era — had not taken steps to “stop or discourage the Kremlin’s malign campaign” to undermine democracy in Hungary and other European countries.
So, given such concerns, it seems weird to hear Andy Harris cry foul at a State Department effort to encourage press freedom there. Doubly weird given that Harris’ Hungarian-born father spent two years in a Soviet gulag for his anti-communist views.
In a post on his web site in January, Harris wrote: “Given the outcry over alleged Russian interference in the last U.S. presidential election, it's a wonder more people on Capitol Hill are not up in arms over efforts by the United States government to underwrite active measures to influence the outcome of the upcoming parliamentary elections in Hungary.”
Harris decried the fact that the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor had offered $700,000 in grants to fund independent news organizations outside of Budapest, Hungary’s capital. The grants are aimed at helping media outlets “produce fact-based reporting and ... increase citizens’ access to objective information about domestic and global issues of public importance.” Once granted, the U.S. funds will not be available until after the Hungarian elections in April.
That sounds like a far cry from what Russian operatives are accused of doing in the 2016 U.S. elections.
And there is evidently a need for independent journalism in Hungary. In his column on Friday, Joseph Sternberg, editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal’s European edition, noted the deterioration of press freedom in Hungary, the concentration of media ownership by Orban loyalists and the disappearance of independent newspapers in rural areas. Major media, Sternberg said, have become propaganda arms of Orban’s Fidesz party.
Asked for further comment, Harris responded in a way Orban himself might have — with an attack on the 87-year-old Soros and a suggestion that he was behind the State Department effort in Hungary.
“The Obama administration and George Soros clearly felt that it was proper to interfere in Hungary leading up to their elections this April,” Harris said.
That is some weird stuff.
If our government is to spread some cash to encourage democracy around the globe, promoting an independent press in a NATO ally sliding toward autocracy seems like a pretty good idea.