Frost in Central Europe

15. 3. 2017

Over the past year, traditional defences against antiliberal populism have been considerably weakened: the case of independent media.

A group of four men and women is positioned at each entrance to the Budapest underground, checking tickets. In this way Viktor Orbán‘s government has artificially reduced unemployment and the Hungarians seem to have easily got used to their presence. For visitors from abroad, however, the sight is rather oppressive as they are clad in black uniforms, inviting the idea that at a single command the groups of ticket inspectors might be transformed into an army of quite a different kind.

It is no longer possible to dismiss this vision as just a hysterical response of left-wing liberals, as Viktor Orbán would probably claim. The fondness for uniforms, as symbols of power and control freakery, is a typical sign of an illliberal regime, which Hungary is progressing towards at the speed of a lightning. The space for freedom of expression has now shrunk to some 20 percent of those who read the remaining opposition newspapers and online news services; NGO offices are regularly raided by the police and elections have become a demonstration of how to use legislative changes to ensure remaining in power and retaining a supermajority.

Hungary has become Europe’s laboratory for the exploration of a possible future model. Meanwhile the same Europe—whose liberal democratic heritage Orbán disdains, while looking up to both Russia’s and China’s authoritarian capitalism—has subsidized Orbán’s laboratory by billions of euros from eurofunds (by 2020 Hungary will have received 22 billion euros), and Europe’s democratic right has been prepared to keep Orbán’s Fidesz party in its ranks. No wonder Orbán regards Europe as hypocritical and cowardly. That, in fact, is exactly how Europe has behaved.

Putin’s Allies

Orbán’s Hungary sounds two alarm bells. The first shows that liberal democracy can degenerate into an illiberal regime, something that was widely considered impossible. And the second demonstrates that this kind of regime can function within the European Union, which has also, until recently, been regarded as impossible.

This is also why, despite the growing popularity of the extreme Right, of the ilk of Marine Le Pen’s Front National or Nigel Farage’s UKIP, the real threat comes from Central Europe. Even though this has not been evident, Hungary isn’t the only country in this part of the world where illiberal movements have been gaining in strength. Unfortunately, there are a number of factors that have enhanced their potential considerably.

On the face of it, Poland is a model European country, but it is quite possible that as early as next year Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who sees Orbán as his political idol, might win the general election. The praise for Prime Minister Robert Fico’s pro-European policies in Slovakia has overshadowed a gradual decline in liberal values. By rejecting European sanctions against Russia, by opposing NATO and by increases in defence spending, which he described as grist to the mill of the “arms industry,” Fico has rejected the West with an openness that is unprecedented. Mean while the Czech Republic has seen the stupendous rise to power of a politician who translates his antiliberal views into direct action. Andrej Babiš, the current Finance Minister, elbowed his way into politics two years ago as one of the country‘s wealthiest businessmen. He took care of freedom of expression by buying two of the country’s most influential dailies as well as its most popular private radio station.

Oligarchs on the Rise

Neoliberal political movements share a number of features, including a fascination with Putin (Poland being the only exception, possibly only because the country‘s history doesn’t allow for it). The causes of the growth of these movements as a political force are also pretty similar: the global economic crisis, the weakness of the traditional political parties, immigrants (also the Roma and other minorities), and so on. In Central Europe, particularly in Hungary and the Czech and Slovak Republics, another common feature is increasingly coming to the fore: a decline in freedom of the media which have been been key defenders of liberal democratic values since 1989.

A few years ago the Hungarian media underwent a dramatic shake-up in ownership, passing into the hands of Orbán’s oligarchs in what was Viktor Orbán’s first step on his route to power. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia this change is taking place or has taken place over the past year, at a frightening pace. Nearly the entire press has passed from foreign (mostly German) owners into the hands of local oligarchs, most of whom have a political agenda of their own.

Andrej Babiš, the Czech Finance Minister and leader of the country’s second largest political party ANO, is but the most egregious embodiment of this ominous trend. The Czech tabloids, i.e. the most widely read section of the press, are currently owned by an investment company with a long history of corruption and intimate links between politics and business. The remaining media do not fare much better. Although a few islands of independence remain, these are now rather exceptions to the rule: that freedom of Czech media has become illusory.

Until recently it seemed that a few key media in Slovakia would withstand the pressure of the oligarchs. However, at the end of August Penta (an investment company that makes no secret of its disdain for liberal democracy and is linked to the greatest corruption scandal in Slovakia’s modern history) bought up two key publishing houses. Currently it is seeking to acquire a 50 per cent share of the publisher of the country’s most influential newspaper, the daily SME.

Confusion in People’s Heads

Most of these new media moguls made their fortunes over the past twenty years thanks to a vast system of corruption that has gradually corroded democracy to the extent that the two cannot really be separated any longer. They are the very people who have created this system. As we know from many examples— Hungary is being a recent one, in addition to Russia—corruption and authoritarian regimes are closely interconnected. And who is the arch-enemy of both? Why, the independent media, of course.

It is too early to claim that the Czech and Slovak Republics have embarked on Hungary’s path in terms of domestic politics even though antiliberal views are gaining in strength (Babiš has recently voiced his support for restoring the death penalty and, quite symptomatically, his statement went largely unreported by the media he owns). However, this year, for the first time since 1989, the two countries as well as Hungary have joined antiliberal forces in foreign affairs by indirectly supporting Putin and turning away from the West, at least verbally.

By taking this position the politicians have signalled to their voters that liberal democratic values are not worth defending, thus sowing confusion in their fellow countrymen’s heads. Once the media, owned by oligarchs, stop exercising their job of being a basic corrective to populist politicians, the road to antiliberal politics will unfortunately lie wide open.

Martin M. Šimečka

Milan M. Šimečka is a Slovak author and journalist. He was one of the Slovak authors who published in “Samizdat literature” during Communism. His novel The Year of the Frog has been translated into English, French and other languages and he won the L. A. Times Book Prize in 1994. He was one of the founders of the revolutionary public movement against Violence in Slovakia in November 1989. Martin also founded the independent publishing house Archa. He later became editor-in-chief of Domino-forum. He acted as editor-in-chief of SME, Slovakia’s leading daily newspaper, and later as editor-in-chief of Respekt, a well-known Czech weekly. He has been a commentator for Dennik N, a newly founded daily newspaper in Slovakia since 2016.

Last edited October 2022.

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