Peter Foster @pmdfoster Europe Editor of the Daily Telegraph. Formerly based in Washington DC, Beijing and New Delhi. Opinions my own. Jun. 04, 2019 5 min read

Hungary is a small country (pop 9.8m) and it might feel far away.

But what is happening there matters - for the EU and for democracy.

The creeping Putinisation of an EU state, and the EU inability to address this, should trouble us all. 1/Thread 

Some more excitable commentators on the Left (@zoesqwilliams to the Today programme earlier this year) have called Viktor Orban's Hungary a borderline "totalitarian state"....but that's too easy.

What is happening is cleverer, more insidious than that. /2

Little by little, but with increasing rapidity and brazenness, the ruling #Fidesz party is capturing the levers of power in the state - the media, business, land economy - via a network of oligarchs.

But they are smart enough to leave a veneer of legal respectability/3

So what does all that mean in practice? On the ground?

Well, as I reported on a recent trip to Hungary, at one level it can mean it's hard to book a room for an opposition political event.

I spoke to four political and civil activists with direct experience of this./4

So while Hungary's new Momentum party (no relation!) @momentumhu receives state funding, it also receives state harassment, as it's new MEP Katalin Cseh tells me..../5

That could be just one opposition Politician carping, but you hear similar stories everywhere - from NGOs too.

So Eszter Nagy of @federalists is one among many that knows the power that network of #Fidesz mayors and businesses that capturing the Hungarian state. /6

But as @otiliasimkova at Teneo tells me, it perfectly suits the Orban machine to have a 'vibrant' opposition to point at - it's a tactic reminiscent of Putin in the 1990s. /7

But I think what is interesting now is that even on the Right, the extent of the Orban oligarcy/state capture is starting to bite - the @guardian can be dismissed as Soros front organisation, harder for @Telegraph /8

Indeed when Viktor Orban visited @realDonaldTrump it was notable that the cross-party open letter from senior US senators noting the “downward democratic trajectory” in Hungary cited Right-wing think tanks. /9 

How else do you measure the 'state capture'?

Well one way analysing media ownership, and the ability of the Hungarian state to stifle plurality, via the chilling effect of advertising dollars.

As @attilabatorfy @MertekMonitor explains here. 


But the capture is getting more brazen, as perhaps illustrated by a recent story around Hungary's HVG magazine (roughly equivalent to Economist) whose covers have appeared on Budapest billboards for 40 years.

Like this one for a story about Hungary's crony capitalism /11

Except that one didn't appear because the company that owns the billboard sites (and had contract with HVG) was bought by Orban loyalist who tore up the contract. Which I'm sure had nothing to do with the fact that cover aimed directly at wife of key Orban minister./12

Suffice to say month Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) ranked Hungary 87th in its World Press Freedom Ranking, compared with 23rd spot when Mr Orban took power in 2010.

A relative, not absolute measure, to be sure - but indicative. /13 

I write all this with a heavy heart, in a way.

I interviewed Viktor Orban the day that @realDonaldTrump got elected, and I gave a fair hearing, as I give everyone.

You can read a transcript here. 

But Orban has got greed /14

It is true that previous Hungarian ruling parties were not angels, but talk to Hungarians who a few years ago would have said "well, these things come and go"...and they will now say, "I'm getting out. Orban wants everything".

Of course, Orban - like Putin - is popular /15

His brand of anti-immigrant populism championing a homogenous Christian Europe plays well in Hungary, feeding off the mistakes of Angela Merkel in 2015 - it's just he seems unwilling to take a chance on democracy any more.

This interview worth reading/16 

Piece by piece - via judicial and administrative reforms - the Fidesz machine is slowly capturing the Hungarian state, and you seriously wonder how it comes back.

I spoke to two senior Hungarian civil servants who explained how employment law changes chilled dissent /17

It's all party of a creeping, insidious picture that creates a climate of resignation as much as fear.

"A feeling you cannot win."


And the Hungarian government is nimble - so it recently stepped back from Judicial administrative reforms, pending an EU review, and as Viktor Orban decides whether or not to quite the centre-right @EPPGroup - or try and force it Rightwards from within. /19

The worst part is that the EU is implicated in all this.

The European Parliament voted to bring Article 7 proceedings against Hungary for breaching the EU’s rule of law, but this is a blunt instrument.

EPP membership has protected Orban; EU money funds his machine /20

There are no easy answers to this - though the position of @EmmanuelMacron @guyverhofstadt @ALDEgoup as king makers in the new parliament might provide leverage to confront Hungary. The unlikely event Manfred Weber wins Commissioner, might too /21

There will also be calls to find ways to channel EU structural funds to Hungary (needed) in such a way that the Fidesz machine cannot feed from the trough (net €3bn or 2.5% GDP per year) quite so easily. /22

But the most important party is not to give up, to come to a collective realisation that Hungary is on a very dangerous path for the EU, as Russian influence creeps over Austria, Serbia and beyond.

Because increasingly Orbanworld doesn't care - it thinks it is winning /23

Until recently, the Fidesz machine would have fought back on substance, but after @telegraph published its piece, its international mouthpiece @zoltanspox went on a strange rant about marriage rates, while putting up straw men about Hungarians leaving/24 

We need to be clear what we're dealing with - Orban is an anti-semite who is running a kleptocracy. I'll leave you with this quote from the 2018 election campaign...the risks to the EU of confronting him now exceed those of turning a blind eye. 25/Ends. 

You can follow @pmdfoster.


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