Der Untergang

Can the militarization of the regime really not happen?

R. Daniel Kelemen from Rutgers has given an interview to Népszava and in it he mentioned that the benefit of an EU-membership might be that Orbán will not resort to Lukashenko-like violence because an EU member state can not sink as deeply into autocracy as a non-member could.

Népszava: “What are the limits to right wing extremism in an EU member state? Can you see a chance that the oppression becomes violent?”

Kelemen: “I think EU membership means that the regime can’t go beyond today’s legalizing autocracy. It uses oligarchs to shut down independent papers rather than arresting journalists, for instance. It uses the election law to fine the opposition and make their situation impossible instead of beating up their members. This is the benefit of EU-membership, that it probably holds government from further backsliding. Because if anything would trigger the use of Article 7, it is a Belarus-type, violent autocracy. Many are asking me if Orbán would leave power in case of an opposition victory in 2022. I think they would try everything – except for open violence.” 

It sounds soothing. And I usually read Kelemen’s articles with great interest, he really has the perfect insider-outsider perspective understanding Hungarian but also being an expert in European law and American interest. And until very recently I would have said the same. But I wonder if it is a form of wishful thinking. After all, EU membership didn’t protect Hungary from backsliding this far. And as Kelemen explains, European leaders aren’t keen on confronting each other for autocratic power grabs. Some may even admire it. 

And there is this new trend of Orbán using and displaying the military everywhere. 

Fear of physical violence has not been an issue for the Hungarian opposition under Orbán. And the military has not been on anyone’s mind, they have never played a role in Hungarian politics. If anything, analysts concerned themselves with what one could call Orbán’s private army, the Anti-Terror Center (TEK) that didn’t appear to be under any kind of jurisdiction apart from their minister – who in turn in an Orbán loyalist – but who amassed increasingly broad, virtually unlimited powers of surveillance as early as 2011.* 

Up until February 2020, TEK would have been everyone’s first guess when asked if Orbán’s autocracy could ever turn violent. As far as we know, they haven’t been used for the purpose of political violence yet.

And then Orbán’s 2020 state of the nation speech happened and the entire leadership of the military made an appearance. Now, Orbán’s state of the nation speech might look like an official thing, but it takes place regardless of whether he is in power, and it is a party event. The heavily scanned and hand-picked audience of the event could not have included military leaders by accident – neither were they allowed to attend a party event in uniform. And yet, Orbán even pointedly posted about them on his all-important Facebook feed. 


If Orbán suddenly looks like he has new friends, it can have more than one reason. For instance, he may have got a new whisperer, a new person close to him that could steer his thinking. And that is what it looked like when on the August 20th national holiday Orbán’s son graduated from military school out of the blue. Since Orbán is not the dad who would not call his son’s school, it is easy to see how people from the military got his ear and may have used the opportunity to influence him on the usefulness of the military. His son also graduated from Sandhurst, so the new military interest makes sense. 

When in March 2020 the pandemic started, it became clear that the minister to whom healthcare belongs (among disturbingly many other fields) is not up to the task. Even Orbán thought so and made him step aside. (Not resign, one can never resign if the opposition wants his head. The old man now concerns himself with exhuming old kings and financing the invention of ethno-fitness, but not the pandemic, while officially he is still the healthcare minister.) 

As he was brushed aside, the interior minister took his place. During the pandemic we have seen “hospital generals”, soldiers on the streets were enforcing the 8pm curfew, and the military was sent into private companies that the government deemed “strategic” (or just interesting). On anonymous police forums the talk of the day is why the military gets so much money while police is starved. 

Orbán has always used military rhetoric on every possible issue. Politically he fancies himself as a general, he thrives in “war” situations, he seeks out and creates political and ideological “wars” because that is the only way he can do things. But no actual wars. And this is the first time he is interacting with the actual military. And their presence on the streets, in the hospitals, and the quasi-military status of healthcare workers pushed through during the pandemic – these all may talk about a new trend. 

When it comes to an autocrat, the question we should ask is what would happen to him if he did backslide even further. And it better be something that affects him personally. His money, his power, his right to organize UEFA events. (Seriously, Orbán is more afraid to aggravate UEFA than Merkel.) And if the answer is nothing, he will do it. 



* There is a tldr and unnecessarily overwritten piece on Krugman’s blog in 2012 by Kim Lane Scheppele, expert on Hungarian constitutional law at CEU. It is trying to cover at least three alarming things while also placing Hungary on the map for the American reader and gives an anecdote about Brad Pitt – but how often do you get to write about Hungary in The New York Times? Not in 2012.

The interesting part starts late in the text (emphasis mine):

TEK is now the sort of secret police that any authoritarian ruler would love to have. Its powers have been added slowly but surely through a series of amendments to the police laws, pushed through the Parliament at times when it was passing hundreds of new laws and when most people, myself included, did not notice. The new powers of TEK have received virtually no public discussion in Hungary. But now, its powers are huge.

“What can the TEK do?

“TEK can engage in secret surveillance without having to give reasons or having to get permission from anyone outside the cabinet. In an amendment to the police law passed in December 2010, TEK was made an official police agency and was given this jurisdiction to spy on anyone. TEK now has the legal power to secretly enter and search homes, engage in secret wiretapping, make audio and video recordings of people without their knowledge, secretly search mail and packages, and surreptitiously confiscate electronic data (for example, the content of computers and email). The searches never have to be disclosed to the person who is the target of the search – or to anyone else for that matter. In fact, as national security information, it may not be disclosed to anyone. There are no legal limits on how long this data can be kept.

“Ordinary police in Hungary are allowed to enter homes or wiretap phones only after getting a warrant from a judge. But TEK agents don’t have to go to a judge for permission to spy on someone – they only need the approval of the justice minister to carry out such activities. As a result, requests for secret surveillance are never reviewed by an independent branch of government. The justice minister approves the requests made by a secret police unit operated by the interior minister. Since both are in the same cabinet of the same government, they are both on the same political team.

“TEK’s powers were enlarged again in another set of amendments to the police law passed on 30 December 2011, the day that many other laws were passed in a huge end-of-year flurry. With those amendments, TEK now has had the legal authority to collect personal data about anyone by making requests to financial companies (like banks and brokerage firms), insurance companies, communications companies (like cell phone and internet service providers) – as well as state agencies. Data held by state agencies include not only criminal and tax records but also educational and medical records – and much more. Once asked, no private company or state agency may refuse to provide data to TEK.”

“…After December 2011, their data requests no longer had to be tied to criminal investigations or be approved by the prosecutor. In fact, they have virtually no limits on what data they can collect and require no permission from anyone.”

“…TEK’s legal status is blurry, as some parts of its activities are authorized under the police law and others parts are authorized under the national security law. Different rules and standards apply to police agencies and to national security agencies. Moreover, TEK seems to have some powers that exceed those of both police and national security agencies, particularly in its ability to avoid judicial warrants. No other agency in the Hungarian government has both police and national security powers, and it is unclear precisely how the agency is accountable – for which functions, under what standards and to whom.


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