Modern Hungary is often puzzling to the international observer. The unorthodox policies of firebrand Prime Minister Viktor Orban have elicited hope, outrage and ridicule ever since he was elected to a second term in 2010. But as his speech at London's Chatham House on Wednesday shows, Orban is a very serious thinker faced with very serious problems. The six theses he argued contain a fair amount of political whitewash, but ultimately they are the clearest explanation of the morally troubling but geopolitically consistent logic that drives his Fidesz party's controversial policies.
The weight of history remains a heavy burden for Hungary, a country situated in the heart of Central Europe that has been torn between the great powers of the West and the East for much of its history. In these kinds of disputed borderlands, radical change rarely brings good news, and the countries in these areas are particularly attuned to geopolitical dynamics.
In its current form, Hungary sits right on the edge of a declining European Union and a resurgent Russia. Of course, this description oversimplifies the situation; Russia is beset by its own vulnerabilities, and Europe remains a powerful pillar of the global system. Nonetheless, with Western Europe preoccupied with its own existential crisis, Russia has become relatively stronger and more assertive.
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Hungary is not a particularly wealthy or powerful country. It is a landlocked country with few natural resources that tends to gravitate, sometimes willingly, to more powerful regional actors. (The Habsburg and Ottoman empires and the Soviet Union all come to mind.) Western Europe and its European Union were the economic and political allies with which post-communist Hungary fervently aspired to align — in his speech, Orban called them the "desired West."
Four of Orban's six theses were dedicated to showing the failure of the post-national European model and its inability to offer the economic and political stability it had promised. Not coincidentally, Orban chose to deliver this address in the United Kingdom, traditionally a source of Euroskepticism, where anti-European rhetoric has resurfaced in the past few months.
Orban did not mention Russia in his speech, but the specter of Moscow has been all too familiar throughout his political career. Led by Vladimir Putin, another master strategist, a more fragile Russia has tempered its erstwhile-unsophisticated intimidation tactics and has instead opted to buy strategic commercial assets in Central Europe as a means to regain influence in its former periphery.
Orban correctly assumes that with an increasingly distant European core and without any powerful patron to replace it, Hungary cannot avoid an eventual negotiated confrontation with Russia. Orban's most controversial policies — the appropriation of private pensions, the attempted neutering of the judicial branch, the ongoing nationalization of strategic energy assets, for example — are all designed to concentrate power in the state's hands. Centralizing power will improve Budapest's negotiating position for what Orban sees as an inevitable opening to the East.
Orban and the Fidesz party's policies consistently clash with the liberal ideals enshrined in the European Union and have therefore incurred the ire of Brussels. However, knowing that Hungary can no longer ward off Russia by integrating further with the European Union, the disapproval of the Western elites matters far less to Orban than his ability to sustain Hungary's sovereignty in the long term.
The geopolitical reality from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea is thus: Europe is disintegrating, Russia is reasserting itself and the United States is mostly ambivalent. The Hungarian experiment is only the first of its kind — Orban even called Hungary "a laboratory" in his speech — and if successful, it could become a template for other Central European leaders to follow. This is a less than thrilling prospect for Western commentators and European bureaucrats, who labored for decades to bring these former Soviet satellites under the aegis of the European Union and who have since used such words as "totalitarianism," "dictatorship" and "authoritarianism" to describe Hungary.
But as our own Chief Geopolitical Analyst Robert Kaplan recently wrote, geopolitics is value neutral. The adage is particularly applicable to Orban, who is neither a power-crazed Nicolae Ceausescu nor a celebrated herald of liberal democracy like Vaclav Havel. Rather, he is a more complex and nuanced figure who for all his faults understands the inconvenient realities of geopolitical dilemmas and is willing to pursue their equally inconvenient solutions.