Hungary on a dangerous path

Alarming trends are being reported out of Hungary, and are causing increasing concern among Europe watchers. Although minimal attention is paid to the Central European country by American media outlets, Americans would be well-advised to follow the events out of Hungary: the country is on a path towards a repressive, “Putinist” government, while racist, extremist elements have gained traction and are becoming increasingly mainstream. Moreover, the EU’s handling of this dangerous progression of one of its member states will be very important.

Hungary is being led towards increasingly repressive and dictatorial governance by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Budapest_ParliamentIn 2011, Orbán and his conservative Fidesz party, who control two thirds of Parliament, pushed through a new constitution which has been criticized as having insufficient checks and balances between the branches of government, and restricts religious and media freedoms. As a result of condemnation by the EU and US, Orbán softened some of these measures. Last month, however, Orbán and his party passed a constitutional amendment severely limiting the power of the judiciary, as well as, among other things, introducing significant restrictions on campaigning, and allowing local governments to criminalize homelessness. Again the EU cried foul, but appears to have little power to enforce rule-of-law standards.

As Orbán has been consolidating his power, nationalism and racism have festered, against both the Jewish and Roma minorities. Contributing to the increasingly hostile climate is Jobbik, an extremist nationalist party, which has become a significant minority force in Parliament. Indeed, although an estimated 560,000 Hungarian Jews were killed during the Holocaust—around two thirds of the population at the time—this past winter a senior Jobbik MP suggested that all Jews working in government should be required to register, in the interest of national security. Shortly thereafter, another Jobbik MP burned an Israeli flag during a public protest.  Several months prior to this, three Jobbik MPs were reported to have participated in a violent attack by a mob on a Roma neighborhood. Other instances of violence and intimidation have been carried out against Roma and Jewish individuals, including the publicized accosting of a rabbi last October, and polling data has indicated that anti-Semitism is on the rise.

These worrying developments comprise a critical issue for the EU, and have raised some condemnation from Washington, in particular from of the State Department and Senator Ben Cardin, who is involved in Central European issues through his position as Senate Chair the Helsinki Commission (see, for example, his December 2012 remarks).

How the situation in Hungary plays out will have great significance for the EU and US-Central European relations. Moreover, as a case study, it will serve as a tool in predicting and combating extremism elsewhere in Europe, which is currently on the rise in countries such as Greece. For all these reasons, Americans should monitor events as they unfold in Hungary. In the meantime, the US should continue to closely monitor events in Hungary and condemn further steps away from a balanced and tolerant democracy.

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