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Is Russia transferring its political institutions abroad?

The leaders of Russia and Hungary might have very different backgrounds, but their approach to the judiciary and media is quite similar.

July 25, 2018 - István Pósfai Kirill Shamiev - Articles and Commentary

Meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban. 17 February 2016. Photo: www.kremlin.ru (cc)

A few months ago Vladimir Putin won a persuasive victory in the Russian Presidential election getting more than 70 per cent of the votes. A few weeks later the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban and his party FIDESZ received a constitutional majority in the Parliament. Hungary under Orban has often been criticised for rolling over democratic institutions and establishing a so-called “illiberal democracy”, as Orban calls his regime, or an autocratic state, as his critics usually claim. Independent observers claim that Hungary in fact transfers and adopts authoritarian institutions from modern Russia. In fact, apart from some temporal coincidences, for instance, an attack against Budapest-based American Central European University right after the meeting with Putin, the regime of Orban adopted a number of measures that were similar to Russia’s authoritarian institutional building in letter and in spirit.

Who is Mr. Orban?

Viktor Orban has few personal similarities with Putin. He studied law in the most prominent and oldest Hungarian university (his thesis was about the Polish Solidarity movement), was an activists for an independent Hungary, founded the FIDESZ party (Alliance of Young Democrats) and became a member of parliament when Putin had just left his KGB service in the rank of podpolkovnik (lieutenant-colonel). In 1990, Viktor Orban  graduated from Oxford (he had received a scholarship from the Soros Foundation) and became a member of Hungarian Parliament. His center-right political views became visible almost from the beginning, when several FIDESZ founders left the party dominated by Orban, opposing its conservative ideological turn. Orban became Hungary’s prime minister for the first time from 1998 to 2002.

FIDESZ supported nationalist and strong hand policies during his first term as a prime minister. For instance, in the beginning of the 2000s Hungarian conservative forces successfully passed the “status law” giving over three million ethnic Hungarians in surrounding countries a special Hungarian ID and social benefits (later they received citizenship and 96 per cent of them voted for FIDESZ). This law caused a lot of criticism in neighboring countries (for instance, 10 per cent of Slovakia’s population are ethnic Hungarians) and in the EU for its neighborhood policy. Later the law was modified to comply with the EU rules, but was kept in place. Politically his government weakened the role of the Parliament, limiting its sessions to one in three weeks, centralised the power of the executive and increased pressure on media. However, the political sphere of Hungary in late 1990s was fragmented and FIDESZ greatly relied on a coalition with other parties that was dismantled under independent criticism and opposition attacks in 2001, right before the Parliamentary election in spring of 2002. Orban returned to power in 2010, when country had already joined the European Union and the world was recovering from the financial crisis of 2008.

The Prime Minister strikes back

Right after Orban came back to power with the majority in the Parliament, FIDESZ introduced legislation limiting the powers of the Constitutional Court (i.e they are forbidden to examine legislation on the government budget). The Parliamentary committee nominating judges to the Constitutional Court was rearranged so that instead of one MP from each party, representation became proportional changing the composition of the Parliament: with 2/3 of majority, FIDESZ could nominate judges without consensus. In 2011 the number of judges was increased from 11 to 15. From April 2013, the majority of the judges had been nominated by FIDESZ and the rulings of the Court on issues considered critical to government policies swung visibly to favour the government’s position.

Despite the differences in the political systems of Hungary and Russia, the history of Russia’s Constitutional Court shows a few similarities. First, after a short period of the Court operating (1991-1993), the Court and the Parliament was defeated by president Yeltsin, banning the right of the Constitutional Court to autonomously review legislations and Presidential decrees. Second, Yeltsin also increased the number of judges, from 13 to 19, mathematically decreasing the role of his antagonists that were appointed by an upper house of the Parliament (representatives of the regions, uncontrolled in that period). Finally, when Putin successfully demolished the political independence of the Parliament and the regions, the Constitutional Court became directly subordinate to the president. For instance, in 1992-1993 the Court reviewed 9 presidential decrees, while from 1994 to 2005 only 6 presidential acts were reviewed.

Orban, achieving political dominance in the Parliament, became able to elect the Supreme Prosecutor. In 2010 Péter Polt, a FIDESZ member in the 1990s and longstanding ally of Orban was appointed. This time for 9 years instead of the previous 6, because of the new changes in the law. Supreme Prosecutor Polt was publicly accused of reluctance to investigate the anti-government and corruption cases. A similar operation was done by Putin in 1999-2000, when the General Prosecutor Skuratov was discharged after a scandal and criminal case organised by Putin. Instead of Skuratov, Vladimir Ustinov was appointed. Putin and Ustinov should have remembered each other since Ustinov  was appointed by Yeltsin as the main the Prosecutor responsible for the North Caucasus, where the Chechen war was ongoing. He became well-known for his role in investigating the bombing of several blocks of flats in Moscow  (hardline terrorism accusations) in 1999 and later cases against media-owners, oligarchs and the blurred “Kursk” submarine investigation (still no responsible actors identified). In 2018 Ustinov was sanctioned by the US government as a member of Putin’s close circle.

Since Orban came back to power he continued his attacks against the independent Hungarian media. Since 2010 FIDESZ has rewritten the media laws, established the “Media Council” agency, where the director is nominated by Orban. State-owned media came under FIDESZ control when the party started to dominate its overseeing committee. From 2010 to 2014 Orban-related businessmen gradually bought up the national media outlets in the country. First, through state-financed advertisement contracts (independent media went bankrupt), then by direct purchase of TV2 (second largest commercial TV channel) and Origo (one of the largest online news portals). In 2016 the last independent left-wing daily newspaper Népszabadság was closed. What’s important, Hungary is a relatively more monolingual society than Russia, with 16 per cent of people reported to know English (30 per cent in Russia with 3 per cent being fluent speakers). Thus, there is relatively limited access to foreign sources of information that most Hungarians as well as Russians would be able to read or watch. Russia’s media landscape was dominated by oligarch groups since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. However, when Putin came to power he gradually monopolised the media market by prosecuting media owners, signing state contracts with local media (for the local government “media accompaniment”), direct purchase by close oligarchs (RBC Channel, Lenta.ru, Gazprom-media holding) and pressure including the violent one on journalists. Moreover, two main TV channels in Russia are state-owned: Perviy Kanal (First Channel) and Rossiya (Russia).

A coordinated strike against academic freedoms

Perhaps one of the most colorful event that both Hungary and Russia were criticised over was the attack against civil society and academic freedom. Russia suspended education at the European University at Saint Petersburg (founded with the help of the Soros Foundation) and is currently attacking the Moscow School of Social and Economic Science (Shaninka) which programs are validated by the University of Manchester – two of the most effective Russian universities. The Hungarian government also attacks foreign universities, such as the Central European University, accredited both in the USA and Hungary (also founded by George Soros). Moreover, there is some evidence that the attack against CEU was in fact sanctioned by Moscow right after Putin and Orban met in Budapest in 2017.   

Furthermore, last month news broke that the government’s proposal for the 2019 budget includes a seemingly unimportant line about scientific research funding being provided by the newly established Ministry of Innovation and Technology. The only problem is that this role has been taken by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences with great success and there is no reasonable explanation for why decision-making power on the funding of science should be transferred to a ministry. This decision coincides with the reform of the Russian Academy of Science (RAS) in 2013, when the government transferred the management of RAS property to a specially created agency and started to directly appoint the RAS chair. The main difference is that RAS was an ineffective research institute especially in social sciences and economics with lack of peer-reviewed publications, aged Soviet-era scholars and huge amount of property all over the country. Thus, the reform minded opposition in Russia failed to achieve success and frame a politicised problem in the public sphere, but in Hungary there is no reason to maintain good faith in the government any more. Make no mistake, this is just the latest in a long line of measures restricting any sort of institutional autonomy in Hungary and the most recent attack on academic freedom. It is also regarded as one of many policies taken out of Putin’s playbook.

To sum up, besides other authoritarian institutional changes in Hungary and Russia, there is a lack of evidence on direct Orosz-Magyar (Russian-Hungarian) coordination in the political sphere. Looking at the similarities and differences between the regimes of Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orban can reveal the limits of such comparisons. In fact, Viktor Orban became a right-wing conservative when Vladimir Putin could still not even  have imagined himself becoming a president. However, policy transfers do not occur like goods on a traditional market, where merchants yell and convince customers to buy from them. Perhaps, similar conservative societal views, as well as common institutional underdevelopment and irritating global problems such as the financial crisis, European integration disparities and the declining moral influence of the United States create favorable conditions for authoritarian leaders to unite in their pursuit of unchecked power.

Kirill Shamiev is a PhD student of Public Policy at the Central European University, a freelance columnist and analyst.

István Pósfai is a CEU Public Policy alumnus.

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