The death of Vaclav Havel last week seemed to mark the passing of a special species in postwar European politics: the anti-totalitarian dissident, “living in truth,” who with petitions and samizdat nurtured a democratic revolution that made the continent “whole and free.”
Only it turns out that not everyone, like Havel, lived happily ever after. Russia returned to dictatorship a decade ago, and Ukraine is following. Belarus was never free. And now something is happening that no one ever contemplated in the days when Havel was leading the states of Central Europe into the European Union and NATO. One of them — Hungary — is returning to autocracy.
Not only that: In Budapest, at least, the dissident era is back. And not just in spirit, as I was reminded by Miklos Haraszti, a very living veteran of battles against Hungary’s Communist government during the 1970s and ’80s — and now the scourge of Budapest’s new strongman, Victor Orban.
Twenty-five years ago, I and other Western journalists used to furtively meet Haraszti, then the editor of an underground political journal, so that we could read the latest petition he was preparing for human rights forums such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Now Haraszti monitors elections for the OSCE, but he also is back to drawing up petitions about his own government. There is an astonishing amount to write about. Orban, a right-wing nationalist, is directing a concerted assault against each and every independent institution in Hungary: the press, parliament, judiciary, churches and now the central bank.
“It’s not a new Berlin Wall” that Orban is building, Haraszti told me. “It’s not brutal — people are not being taken away. But Hungary is becoming a constitutional dictatorship in the classic sense.”
Consider what has happened in just the past two weeks. Parliament, where Orban’s Fidesz party holds a two-thirds majority, appointed one of the prime minister’s closest friends to head a newly created judicial body. In that post, Tunde Hando will have the authority to replace 274 judges being forced out of office by another new law, which mandates the retirement of those older than 62. Also leaving is the head of the country’s high court, an independent, because he does not meet a new tenure requirement.
That court last week invalidated parts of two of Orban’s neo-authoritarian laws. One allowed his appointees to impose crippling fines on media that fail to observe vague standards of “balance.” The other limited the country to 14 religious denominations; other faiths must win approval by two-thirds of parliament. But the court itself is being packed with new appointees and stripped of much of its authority, so it’s unclear whether the rulings will have any effect.
Parliament, meanwhile, moved on to legislation that abolishes the independence of the central bank. And Orban’s media board denied a new license to a radio station that featured some of the last anti-government commentary on the airwaves.
The European Union and the Obama administration have been slowly stepping up criticism of this power grab. But they are distracted by other problems — and Orban has mostly ignored their complaints. His spokesman claims that the government is belatedly correcting the lingering evils of the Communist era.
Sometimes, too, his officials hint at a larger ambition: to create a form of government more capable of competing with regimes Orban regards as more effective — such as China. “We are in an experimental phase,” Deputy Foreign Minister Zsolt Nemeth told me during a visit to Washington last month. “This kind of experimental attitude may be useful for the whole of the West. The democracy discussion requires new ideas.”
Meanwhile Haraszti draws up his petitions, which circulate on the Internet instead of in typescript but are signed by many of the same 1980s names. One, addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last June, covered the threat to media and the judiciary and warned that “an autocratic system is in the making in our country.” Another examined the religious law, which it said had pushed reform Jewish congregations as well as all Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu sects “into a pariah status overnight.”
But the most affecting of Haraszti’s letters was signed by Havel himself, along with 72 other former dissidents from Communist Europe. Called “the Budapest Appeal,” it makes the case that the absence of democratic “standards of compliance” in European institutions is making possible “what the European Union meant to prevent, and what many thought was impossible . . . a full-fledged illiberal democracy inside its own borders — in Hungary.”
As during the 1980s, Haraszti seems to be fighting a lonely battle — who has time for Hungary when Italy is going bankrupt and Syria is aflame? But now as then, he and his fellow petitioners deserve to be listened to.