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Freedom House scathing of Hungarian illiberalism

In its annual Nations in Transit report surveying governance in the nations of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Washington-based research and advocacy watchdog Freedom House noted that Hungary has registered the largest cumulative decline in the reportʼs history, after its democracy score fell for the 10th consecutive year.

In 2018, Nations in Transit registered the most score declines in the project’s 23-year history: 19 of the 29 countries had declines in their overall democracy scores.

“Contempt for independent institutions and open discussion has become entrenched from Central Europe to Eurasia. Time is running out for the EU and the United States to confront the antidemocratic backlash,” says the reportʼs Overview Essay. “In Central Europe, governments that disdain independent institutions and seek to fuse the ruling party with the state are no longer exceptional,” it adds.

Qualifying Hungary once again, as it did last year, as only a “semi-consolidated democracy,” Freedom House says that the “illiberal democracy” touted by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is “essentially a return to the political practices of goulash communism, in which individual persecution may be relatively rare, but independent institutions are nonexistent and the party and the state are one.”

The report defines illiberalism, which Orbán has repeatedly and publicly declared as the goal for Hungarian democracy, as “an ideological stance that rejects the necessity of independent institutions as checks on the government and dismisses the idea of legitimate disagreement in the public sphere.”

The report warns that illiberalism is important in this context “because it comes from within the EU and thrives on the bloc’s contradictions.”

“If illiberalism continues to thrive within the EU, it will bolster illiberal leaders and parties in the countries seeking to attain membership in the next wave of accession, and over time it will remake the EU in its own image,” Freedom House warns.

The report recommends that the European Union - and the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, of which Orbán’s Fidesz party is a member - take responsibility for confronting the illiberalism of the Hungarian government, and calls for Article 7 sanctions to be triggered against Hungary. It adds that “the EU needs to follow through on anti-corruption investigations involving the misuse of EU funds, and should make access to EU funds conditional on meeting strict rule-of-law criteria.”

Specific issues the report draws attention to with respect to the rule of law and democratic rights in Hungary include the passing of what it describes as two “Russian-style laws” restricting the work of foreign-funded NGOs and hampering the continued operation of the Central European University in Budapest, which it says have “created an increasingly hostile atmosphere for critical voices.”

Freedom House is also highly critical of the government propaganda campaign that included plastering streets with billboards attacking Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist George Soros, whereby the government “created a parallel reality, rich in conspiracy theories, allegations of foreign interference, and threats of an imminent catastrophe.”

The full Freedom House report can be accessed here.