Commentary

7 Issues Hungary and the Balkans Now Have in Common

The Crisis of Democracy in the Western Balkans. Authoritarianism and EU Stabilitocracy report by the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group describes the political situation on the Balkans as increasingly authoritarian – partly due to a mistaken approach by the EU. When reading the report, however, one finds many parallels with Hungary today: 

The report writes about “the rise of a regional “stabilitocracy”, weak democracies with autocratically minded leaders, who govern through informal, patronage networks and claim to provide pro-Western stability in the region. … the status of democracy is weak, and declining. The safeguards, such as independent media and strong institutions, are failing, and clientelism binds many citizens to ruling elites through cooptation and coercion.

This sounds a lot like Hungary today, and the similarities don’t end here. Other observations about the Balkan autocracies from the report that also perfectly describe Hungary:

  • “Citizens are alienated from politics and vote for personal, tangible benefits or out of fear.”  

As written elsewhere, when you feel you are helpless to stop or ignore the economic bulldozer of cronyism, you might try to jump on the bandwagon.

  • “Beyond the “Russian threat”, other geopolitical crises have been a welcome distraction for autocrats. The refugee crisis and the Western Balkan route have been a convenient opportunity … carefully stroked by political elites… The EU and many of its members have been tolerating this dynamic, some out of persuasion, some out of inertia and some out of laziness.”

PM Orbán has also greatly benefited from the refugee crisis. While there was no threat of a single migrant wanting to stay in his country, his grandstanding earned him strongman-credits with his powerless followers and a free pass to continue building his cronyism from Western conservative and nationalist elites.

  • “The more entrenched autocratic governments become, the less institutional mechanisms are likely to be sufficient. In combination with entrenchment, the costs and risks of loosing office for autocrats are much greater, both in terms of the loss of access to the clientelistic networks that state capture provides, but also regarding the risk of legal cases brought against them. Thus a change of government becomes harder, more risky and potentially destabilising.”
  • “The rise of geopolitics is promoted by autocrats who are not in the process of EU integration or reform due to any commitment to the underlying norms and values, but exclusively for strategic reasons. They will switch elsewhere, if the offer is better. Furthermore, they will seek to play off competing external actors. Thus, the increasingly antagonistic global configuration benefits them, allowing them to extract maximum resources from multiple actors.”

Just one thing to add: Nothing ensures that they are right and successfully pay those powers against each other. Autocrats are not as smart as they are alarming and they can be screwed by global actors. If not personally, then their country, but definitely the people who live in those countries (although their interests is irrelevant to everyone).

Autocrats will also always keep the flames of animosity alive. Unable to bring the economic benefits, they will rely more and more on common enemies and divisions within their populations to hold on to power.

  • “The status-quo is thus not just unsustainable, but it entails considerable risks. The belief that the EU integration process will gradually improve the state of democracy and make the countries stable, future member states has to be put to rest.

It’s not just accession that needs to be reinvented now. Hungary has already joined the club – but instead of remaining part of it, it started diverging from the European norms. Appeasement by the EU combined with the belief in the power of institutions to curtail Orbán’s power grab has led to contamination to Poland – rather than a pacified Orbán with more modest personal ambitions. Who would have thought?

  • “Autocrats might be able to secure elections through their control of the timing, the patronage of many voters and control of the media, but many citizens are deeply dissatisfied with their governments.

The report also pins a lot of hope on the fact that the EU is still very popular in these countries – even though the chance of accession is considered low. But at the end of the day that’s all what matters.

  • The informality of domestic authoritarian practices makes them an elusive target of the EU’s democratic conditionality.”

There are so many ways to be corrupt – making a rule against all of them and an agency to enforce the rules will be costly. And of course, local governments can always resort to blatant legalism to explain away their own unique blend of corruption.

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