'Putinism', a new creed for Europe's tough men

Hungary's Prime Minister is following Russia's illiberal lead in political and social repression

Fareed Zakaria
Sunday 03 August 2014 05:40 BST
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban with Russian leader Vladimir Putin
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban with Russian leader Vladimir Putin (AFP)

When the Cold War ended, Hungary occupied a special place in the story of the revolutions of 1989. It was the first country in the Soviet orbit to abandon communism and embrace liberal democracy.

Today it is again a trendsetter, becoming the first European country to denounce and distance itself from liberal democracy. It is adopting a new system and set of values that are best exemplified by Vladimir Putin's Russia but are finding echoes in other countries as well.

In a major speech last weekend, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban explained that his country is determined to build a new political model – "illiberal democracy".

"The most popular topic in thinking today is trying to understand how systems that are not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies and perhaps not even democracies can nevertheless make their nations successful," said Mr Orban. For him, the world changed fundamentally in 2008 with what he called "the great Western financial collapse".

Since then, he argued, American power has been in decline and liberal values today embody "corruption, sex and violence". Western Europe has become a land of "freeloaders on the backs of welfare systems". The illiberal role models for the future, he explained, are Russia, Turkey, China, Singapore and India.

Mr Orban's actions over the past few years demonstrate that his own role model has been Russia under Mr Putin. Mr Orban has enacted and implemented in Hungary a version of what can best be described as Putinism. To understand it, we need to go back to its founder.

When he came to power in 2000, Vladimir Putin was determined to bring stability as Russia reeled from internal chaos and economic stagnation. He sought to integrate it into the world and wanted good relations with the West. Over time, Putin established order while presiding over a booming economy. He also began creating a repressive system of political, economic and social control.

The crucial elements of Putinism are nationalism, religion, social conservatism, state capitalism and government domination of the media.They are all different from and hostile to modern Western values of individual rights, tolerance, cosmopolitanism and internationalism.

Mr Orban has followed in Mr Putin's footsteps, eroding judicial independence, limiting individual rights, speaking in nationalist terms about ethnic Hungarians and muzzling the press. The methods of control are often more sophisticated than traditional censorship. Hungary recently announced a 40 per cent tax on ad revenues, which seems to target the country's only major independent television network and could result in its bankruptcy.

There are others who have embraced core elements of Putinism. Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan has veered away from his reformist agenda towards one that is more socially conservative, Islamist and highly nationalistic.

The success of Putinism will depend a great deal on the success of Mr Putin and Russia under him. But if Russia's leader triumphs in Ukraine, turning it into a basket case that comes begging to Moscow, he will look like a winner. If, on the other hand, Ukraine succeeds outside of Russia's orbit and the Russian economy continues to weaken, Putin might find himself presiding over a globally isolated Siberian petro-state.

Washington Post

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