Sorry, but I will resist the impulse. No, our revolution was not wasted. What we accomplished in 1989 is not going away.
If any proof were needed, we received a remarkable anniversary gift on Oct. 13, when municipal elections handed Orban a resounding defeat in Budapest and several other big cities. A united opposition achieved that remarkable result by rekindling the spirit of 1989, assisted by the realization that no one on the outside was going to help us to emerge from the trap of autocracy.
In the years that followed World War II, not a single decade went by without a revolt against tyranny in one of the Soviet-occupied countries of Central Europe. Despite expressions of sympathy from the West — the very same West that embodied the ideals to which we aspired — we soon learned that we couldn’t count on its help.
Yet new prospects opened up as my generation committed to free speech in the 1970s. Galvanized by Poland’s Solidarity, the protest movements grew into social and political ones in the 1980s, reducing Moscow-installed governments to has-been regimes.
By 1989, Russian imperialism was already in crisis. Mikhail Gorbachev had his reasons to refrain from the usual retaliation. Cold War borders finally gave in to Central Europe’s own negotiated jailbreak, agreed upon between the democracy movements and the Moscow-installed prison guards.
Given these promising foundations, Orban’s hijacking of Hungarian democracy is especially humiliating. This was true for me even on a personal level, because I was one of those who helped him to become an activist in the 1980s in appreciation of his considerable talents.
He exploited his electoral success in 2010 to immediately skew the electoral law to yield a parliamentary supermajority — despite diminished popular support. His sway over parliament enabled him to pass a new constitution, the object of desire for all of the region’s would-be autocrats. He asserted personal control over all branches of power, all oversight bodies and all markets.
Orban’s oligarchs have provided him with a propaganda-filled media empire. Orban is skilled at polarizing society by appealing to the basest instincts of his supporters and making them believe their leader defends the nation from outside enemies.
It all looks hopeless. So why am I optimistic?
There are, in fact, more than a few cracks in Orban’s armor.
Though he likes to refer to his illiberal rule as a “System of National Cooperation,” this is more wish than reality. His blatant enrichment of his family and his entourage is a huge strategic error.
Yet it’s not just the rising outrage that buoys my hopes. I place my faith in the legacy of 1989. The constitutional freedoms we and the other revolutionaries of that year ingrained in Central Europe have remained foundational: the rule of law, power-sharing, checks and balances, free elections, and free media — even if they are often flouted by the powers that be.
And then there is the proven ability of our nations to demand their own freedom. Democracy’s fresh crisis may be painful, but it is useful, perhaps even desirable. The quality of self-sustaining democracy that we call “established” (or “Western,” if you prefer) comes in nations that have gone through the sobering experience of losing their freedoms and were then able to fight back, mobilizing their reserves. Relapses reinvigorate democracy’s immune system, the awareness that freedom needs to be defended at all times.
The United States’ history is rich in such educational crises, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement, right up to the current clash with Trump-style populism. In our region, Slovakia offers an example with its healthy civil society and media, which are mounting a vigorous defense against the populist plague. Slovakia built up its resistance in the 1990s crisis caused by the authoritarian and then-Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. A diverse opposition ultimately rose to the challenge.
In Hungary, we are learning once again, the hard way, that we are on our own — despite the country’s membership in the European Union and NATO. Our allies could help by at least ceasing to endorse the erosion of democracy in post-1989 Central Europe through their own post-1989 fallacy: relativism. Our Western friends need to rediscover the art of drawing red lines; they could start by halting the delivery of easy European money into the deep pockets of the autocrats.
The rest of the job is ours.