June 10, 2022 | New York Sun

Hungary’s Orban Is Hardly a Model for American Conservatives

We are no progressives or mushy liberals offended by Mr. Orbán’s attacks on the left’s sacred cows. We are aware of the dangers posed by his brand of nationalism.
June 10, 2022 | New York Sun

Hungary’s Orban Is Hardly a Model for American Conservatives

We are no progressives or mushy liberals offended by Mr. Orbán’s attacks on the left’s sacred cows. We are aware of the dangers posed by his brand of nationalism.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary knows how to win. Weeks after being re-elected for a fourth consecutive term, he deftly negotiated a carve-out from the European Union’s embargo on Russian oil. And at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference at Budapest, he was treated like a rock star, illustrating the outsized place that Orbán and Hungary occupy in the imagination of American conservatives.

Yet, Mr. Orbán is no conservative. He is an opportunist who understands his electorate and has tilted the rules of the game to his advantage. Under Hungary’s carefully curated veneer of traditionalism and standing up to “globalists” is a country that is far from a model for American conservatives.

We are no progressives or mushy liberals offended by Mr. Orbán’s attacks on the left’s sacred cows. Rather, having grown up in Hungary’s backyard — in Serbia and Slovakia, respectively — and being proud of our conservative credentials, we are aware of the dangers that his brand of nationalism poses to regional stability and also to American interests.

“Hungary is the laboratory,” Mr. Orbán told CPAC, “where we have managed to come up with the antidote for progressive dominance.” Indeed. Florida’s law, backed by Governor DeSantis, prohibiting teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten to 3rd grade mirrors similar legislation in Hungary.

If Mr. DeSantis revoked some of Disney’s tax privileges in response to the company’s promotion of nontraditional gender and sexual orientations, Mr. Orbán banned gender studies from Hungarian universities.

If you think that culture wars are all there is to conservative politics, Mr. Orbán is your man. Yet, by holding him as a paragon of conservatism, one has to discard free-market economics.

Mr. Orbán’s government has made frequent use of price controls, government-created monopolies and ad hoc levies on foreign-owned companies. He has arbitrarily revoked the broadcasting licenses of media outlets critical of his government, and has encouraged the concentration of media ownership in the hands of an opaque “foundation” administered by his cronies.

Conservatives who are concerned about American progressives’ control of the nation’s leading political, legal, and cultural institutions should be the first to recognize a similar pattern in Hungary — with Mr. Orbán, not the left, in control. Freedom House classifies the country as a hybrid regime, with mostly free but unfair elections, politicized judiciary, and restricted media freedom.

It is one thing to praise Hungary from the comfort of America’s constitutional protections. It is quite another to experience Hungary’s version of cancel culture, in which voicing a critical opinion leads to a loss of employment, harassment, or government-sponsored sting operations.

What else is there to Hungary’s “conservatism”? The Ohio Republican candidate for Senate, J. D. Vance, has spoken highly about Hungary’s family policy, which involves generous benefits to parents. Yet, Hungary’s birth rate has barely budged, remaining less than 1.5 per woman — lower than America’s current rate of 1.7 per woman.

The Fox News host Tucker Carlson is enamored of Hungary’s anti-immigration policies. The chaos of 2015 and the current refugee wave from Ukraine aside, Hungary is just not a very attractive destination for migrants. In fact, Hungary’s population has declined by 250,000 due to aging and emigration.

National sovereignty? It is hard to take Mr. Orbán’s paeans to the nation-state seriously given his own revisionism that would like to see the 1921 Trianon Treaty revised and the territories of surrounding countries returned to Hungary. His Euroskepticism, meanwhile, squares oddly with the fact that Hungary is among the largest recipients of EU funds per capita, raking in over 500 euros per person.

If you do like Mr. Orbán’s idiosyncratic domestic policies and want to label them as “conservatism,” so be it. Semantics aside, Hungary remains one of the most pro-Russian and pro-Chinese countries in Europe. Just this week Mr. Orbán managed to secure an exception in the EU’s latest sanctions package against Moscow that ensures that Hungary can continue to receive Russian oil via pipeline.

His new defense minister, Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky, has extensive business interests in Russia. The Hungarian government even went out of its way to stop the planned EU sanctions on the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, known for his weakness for Breguet timepieces.

Hungary was also among the first European countries to join China’s Belt and Road initiative and maintains a strategic partnership with Beijing in fields from vaccines production to digital industries.

Mr. Orbán rebuked the Trump administration’s warnings over security risks posed by Huawei. The Chinese giant also established a Research & Development center at Budapest in 2020 and Mr. Orbán tried to lure, to great public outcry, Shanghai’s Fudan University to open a campus in Hungary.

Mr. Orbán’s Hungary has been a fair-weather friend to America. The demographically challenged, internationally isolated ethno-state and its politics troubled by delusions of its past grandeur is the wrong place to look for answers about the future of America’s democracy. The sooner Orbán-enamored conservatives realize that they are being taken for a ride, the better.

Ms. Stradner serves as an advisor to the Foundation of Defense of Democracies, where her research focuses on Russia’s information warfare and cybersecurity. She tweets at @ivanastradner. Mr. Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. His research focuses on Central and Eastern Europe, transatlantic relations, and the European Union. He tweets at @DaliborRohac. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.