He has built, at great expense, a narrow-gauge railway between two villages that figured in his childhood and where his family now owns homes. Soccer-obsessed, he also built a large sports stadium near his weekend house. He manipulates news coverage in many ways, including letting cronies snatch control of national media outlets that fell on bad times. When he created a government program to encourage land acquisition to assist farmers, one conspicuous beneficiary was his wife.
For the past six years, Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, has vacuumed up his country’s assets, putting them either in his pocket or the pockets of people close to him. This is no secret. His kleptocracy has been well studied. But there is a tendency to view it merely as sad and remote, a familiar story of yet another autocrat in a country struggling with a transition to democracy.
The truth is darker. Mr. Orban is hollowing out his country’s fragile institutions and challenging core precepts of the European Union — with the acquiescence of the European Union itself, and the passive enabling of the United States. Though he claims to speak for the common masses of Hungary, as opposed to its elites, just last weekend he failed to rouse enough voters to take part in a referendum that would have renounced European Union immigration policies. He claimed victory because 98.2 percent of those who voted were with him, but the rest of Europe breathed relief that the low turnout had nullified the referendum’s validity.
In fact, without the European Union, his administration would be in deep trouble. The union cofinances a large share of all public investments; inside the union, many of those investments have come under suspicion of being corruptly handled.
Nevertheless, European politicians cite three arguments — all debatable — to justify their leniency: 1) By staying “involved” with Hungary, the European Union can influence things for the better. 2) Average Hungarians would be the first economic victims of a withdrawal of support. 3) Taking a hard line with Mr. Orban might prompt him to lead Hungary out of the 28-nation bloc into the embrace of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, starting a trend that could pull along Poland and other neighbors.
This European Union policy of permissiveness can only encourage the worst tendencies in Mr. Orban and those like him — emulating Mr. Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. They, too, offer autocracy hiding behind a democratic facade, laying claim ever more unconvincingly to democratic practices like majority rule and the appearance of independent institutions of governance. Current efforts by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party to hamstring the media, limit civil liberties and attack judicial independence already read like an opening page in Mr. Orban’s playbook.
By not taking Mr. Orban seriously, the West is failing not only the people of Hungary but the broader cause of decent governance at a time of populist discontent around the world. Mr. Orban has the support of many of his own people because, like Mr. Putin, he taps into a fantasy of lost glory and presents himself as the defender of Europe’s Christian identity in the face of a Muslim flood. Equally alarming is that Mr. Orban’s truculence could become a blueprint for the European Union’s self-destruction: a government that derides union governance while taking its money to enrich an oligarchy and entrench populist nationalism.
European Union funding for Hungary is enormous: an expected 25 billion euros in the 2014 to 2020 funding cycle, per capita more than any union country other than Lithuania. Transparency International describes a large percentage of Hungarian projects funded by the European Union as corrupt.
Other European countries hope that Mr. Orban’s undermining of democracy will lead to pervasive discontent and strong public opposition, but that is not happening. The Hungarian population has been quiescent except for infrequent street protests against, for example, internet taxes or Mr. Orban’s vision of educational reform.
Uninhibited and shameless, Mr. Orban appears unmoved by Western criticism, dismissing it as foreign “political correctness” while state television explains it as a product of Western conspiracies (by bankers in league with journalists). Ironically, the most muscular opposition to him comes from a party, Jobbik, which is even further to the right and which recently accused him of trumpeting “so-called achievements” through “double talk” that conceals his real intentions.
In America, the democracy advocate George Soros, who was born in Hungary and follows it closely, views Mr. Orban as seriously challenging Angela Merkel for leadership of Europe when he promotes “the principles of Hungarian and Christian identity” and denounces European Union refugee settlement proposals.
It is unsettling to remember that Mr. Orban’s disgust with what he calls “Western values,” his determination to resurrect pre-1914 Hungarian borders, and his explicit identity-based nationalism arise from the seedbed of historic grievance that produced both world wars.
On the internet, Hungarian dissidents describe a brand of cooperation between government and business that approaches an art form. For example: European Union funds intended to assure the transparency of funded projects are sidelined by invented project-management companies into investigations that go nowhere; meanwhile, Mr. Orban’s close associates receive huge payments for useless consulting work, or loans with which to buy up steeply discounted assets like exclusive real estate and vineyards.
Along the way, Mr. Orban has curtailed the constitutional court’s ability to serve as a check on Parliament and, according to Human Rights Watch, diminished the protection of minorities. If an Orban associate is accused of stealing funds, the judiciary proves enfeebled. A few headlines suggesting government concern quickly evaporate into inaction.
What can be done? Germany should be urged to play a central role. German companies figure heavily in Hungary’s automotive industry, which contributes 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and is the fastest-growing sector of the national economy. Even as he works to fracture the European Union, Mr. Orban will pay attention if Ms. Merkel demonstrates there are consequences for bad behavior.
The union should go beyond periodic slaps on the wrist by invigorating severe economic sanctions and placing Hungarian-bound funds in escrow during compliance investigations.
The United States can work behind the scenes, avoiding Mr. Orban’s paranoia in imagining a Soros-inspired cabal. It can support social media, and a new American president should challenge Mr. Orban’s demonization of Brussels.
Hungary has a vibrant humanistic culture. Its universities, literature, design, music and performing arts, medical science and technology are world class. You’ll find salons where the conversation dissecting Mr. Orban’s behavior is breathtakingly brilliant.
But the opposition is deflated; as in Turkey, Russia and Venezuela, there is an overriding resignation that the country will not change, that the best and brightest will continue to flee, seeking a better future. Unless something fundamental changes, the resignation one senses in Hungary will continue because most Hungarians believe Mr. Orban has won.