The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democracy’s retreat in Europe

Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary in Budapest on April 10. (Lajos Soos/MTI/AP)

If you are glum about the state of democratic institutions and norms in the United States, the state of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe should leave you thoroughly depressed. Freedom House is out with its annual report on the region, finding that illiberalism is the “new normal” in countries once optimistically considered as fertile ground for Western democracy in the post-Soviet Union era:

The version of illiberalism taking root in Central Europe is distinct from the violent authoritarianism that dominates the Eurasian half of the coverage area. In this new illiberal environment, citizens will be able to go to protests, establish NGOs, publish news articles, or make critical remarks on social media without risking physical assaults or long prison terms. But such activities will expose them to intrusive government inspections and vociferous attacks in state-owned and government-aligned media, and even discrimination in employment in countries where ties to the ruling party are becoming an economic necessity. What Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary famously hailed in 2014 as “illiberal democracy” 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.

Unfortunately, the United States is not helping; President Trump is making matters worse:

The U.S. administration’s ongoing denigration of the media has reinforced the sense in Europe that politicians no longer need to treat journalists with respect. “Fake news” has become a common shorthand among leaders who want to dismiss unfavorable reporting. . . . [Illiberal] parties have helped to normalize apocalyptic “civilizational” rhetoric, and formerly center-right politicians now portray themselves as defending “Christian Europe” against Muslim migrants. Russian proxies and propaganda outlets have exploited the situation, stoking grievances and encouraging division within and among democratic countries.

Imagine Fox News on steroids. And the picture is consistently bleak:

The Democracy Score of every country in Central Europe has declined since 2008, with the biggest setbacks in the media, the judiciary, and the functioning of national democratic institutions like parliaments and presidencies. Hungary and Bulgaria are no longer considered “Consolidated Democracies,” and Poland is near the threshold for leaving the category, having suffered the largest category score declines in the history of the survey. This year, 19 of the 29 countries in the report recorded declines in their Democracy Scores — more than in any previous edition of Nations in Transit.

The report’s authors urge the United States and the European Union to step up to the plate. The E.U., as it did in Poland, can apply sanctions in response to antidemocratic actions. It can also investigate corruption, which frequently goes hand-in-hand with antidemocratic leadership. As for the United States, “the decades-old strategic goal of a ‘Europe whole, free, and at peace’ has meant supporting democratization, including the promotion of civil society, independent media, and effective governing institutions. It has also meant backing a strong role for the EU in securing democratic progress and prosperity across the continent.” We need to resume those activities. For egregious human rights violations, the Magnitsky Act can be applied to freeze assets and ban travel of those responsible for carrying out abuses.

Moreover, matters are likely to get worse with Orban’s reelection in Hungary. Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk, who is also a senior fellow at New America and the author of “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It,” wrote that “Orban turned Hungary’s state media into a pure propaganda outlet. He used his power to engineer the sale of critical opposition outlets into the hands of his loyalists. He used his control over the country’s electoral commission to impose arbitrary fines on opposition parties, effectively rendering them incapable of mounting a real campaign.”

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That conduct will only intensify in the wake of his big election victory. “Orban already controls the country’s judiciary, most of its media, and its electoral institutions. He has repeatedly made clear that he would consider a victory of the opposition an existential threat not just to him but to the very survival of the Hungarian nation,” Mounk explained. “Now that he has even greater power to dismantle the rule of law, and to abolish checks and balances, it is difficult to imagine that he would prove willing to leave office of his own free will.”

Unfortunately, according to Mounk, the E.U. has accepted the election results and has taken little, if any, action to punish the regime. It has not been sanctioned or banned by the E.U., nor has there been any serious attempt “to limit the generous payments Brussels directs to Budapest every year.”

Mounk highlighted two critical points. First, nativist sentiment played a huge role in Orban’s victory, just as it did for Trump during the 2016 election. Second, right-wing outlets such as Breitbart are actively cheering victories by antiliberal democrats in Europe. “Commentators who are willing to justify all of these infractions because they happen to agree with Orban’s stance on immigration are effectively declaring that it is perfectly legitimate to abolish free and fair elections in order to pass your favorite policies,” he wrote on Slate.

There are two clear conclusions from the Freedom House report and the election outcome in Hungary. First, countries in Eastern and Central Europe are trending away from Western-style democracies. After welcoming them when they stepped away from the Warsaw Pact, the United States and Western Europe may find these countries slipping back into Moscow’s orbit. The recreation of a Russian sphere of influence would have profound consequences for the West, especially in those countries that are part of NATO (e.g., Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria). Second, if the United States does not play an active, consistent and robust role in defending and promoting democracy, we will pay the price. Having democratic allies is not a luxury; it is a necessity for American security and prosperity.