Freedom House’s Nations in Transit 2012 is out. These yearly reports are always anxiously awaited in Hungary just as, I assume, in all other countries that emerged from Soviet domination twenty-three years ago. The Orbán government wasn’t exactly happy last year because Freedom House reported a noticeable deterioration in the state of democracy in Hungary since the elections of 2010. The situation in Freedom House’s estimation is even worse this year. If this trajectory continues, Hungary will soon drop out of the category of “consolidated democracies.” As is it, Hungary just squeaked through with the lowest score behind Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Slovakia.
In the region only Bulgaria and Romania are behind Hungary; they fall into the category of “semi-consolidated democracies.” The other countries in this category are Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia, all situated in the Balkan peninsula. In addition, Freedom House set up three more categories: (1) transitional governments or hybrid regimes (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova), (2) semi-consolidated authoritarian regimes (Kosovo and Armenia), and (3) consolidated authoritarian regimes (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan). In the text of the report Hungarian developments in the last two years are most often compared to those in Ukraine, a country called a hybrid regime that is neither truly democratic nor completely authoritarian.
The report begins with an analysis of the overall situation in the eastern part of Europe by Christopher Walker and Sylvana Habdank-Kołaczkowska, entitled “Fragile Frontier: Democracy’s Growing Vulnerability in Central and Southeastern Europe.” Hungary receives early mention in the study, and its recent history is described in grave terms: “Hungary’s precipitous descent is the most glaring example among the newer European Union (EU) members. Its deterioration over the past five years has affected institutions that form the bedrock of democratically accountable systems, including independent courts and media. Hungary’s negative trajectory predated the current government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, but his drive to concentrate power over the past two years has forcefully propelled the trend.” The authors added that in this latest edition of Nations in Transit Hungary suffered declines in every category set up by Freedom House, which is a “rare occurrence in the history of the report.”
What are these categories? (1) electoral process, (2) civil society, (3) independent media, (4) national democratic governance, (5) local democratic governance, (6) judicial framework and independence, and (7) corruption. Finally, Freedom House gives an overall assessment dubbed the “democracy score.” The best possible score is 1 and the worst is 7. Just to give you a perspective on Hungary’s standing over the years here are some scores from the past. While in 2003 Hungary’s overall “democratic score” was 1.96, today it is 2.86. Even in 2008 the score was still 2.18.
Where did Hungary lose the most points in the last two years? Anyone who has been watching Hungarian developments will not be surprised that one field where the Orbán government did poorly was the independent media. Between 2003 and 2009 Hungary consistently received 2.25-2.50 points. Then in 2011 it was up to 3.25 and in 2012 it reached 3.5. When it comes to national democratic governance the situation is equally grim. While in 2003 Hungary got 2.50, today the score is 3.50. Another sensitive area is the judicial framework and independence. Before the arrival of the Orbán government Hungary received an excellent score of 1.75. Today the score is 2.75.
But let’s return to the analysis of the Hungarian situation. The authors of the assessment admit that the peculiar political circumstances in Hungary made “the swift dismantling of democratic checks and balances” easier. Walker and Habdank–Kołaczkowska refer here to the super majority of the “illiberal ruling party.” But, they continue, “the Hungarian example has raised new questions about the vulnerabilities of other young democracies in the region, where the combination of poorly rooted traditions of democratic practice, resilient networks of corruption and clientelism, low levels of public trust and engagement, and shaky economic conditions have hampered the achievement of indelible democratic reforms.”
In the report Hungary is most often compared to Ukraine and Viktor Orbán to Viktor Yanukovych. Discussing Ukraine, the authors describe the Yanukovych government’s “assault on institutional accountability and transparency” to that in “Hungary, its neighbor to the west.” The report mentions that both Orbán and Yanukovych have been accused of the “Putinization” of their countries. The authors marvel at the speed with which the Yanukovych government managed to close “the democratic space that was opened after the Orange Revolution of late 2004” while Hungary, “once among the strongest performers in the study,” experienced sharp declines in several categories. They call attention to “Hungary’s media climate that also grew more restrictive thanks to new legislation that gives government appointees considerable power to limit freedom of expression and punish perceived violations.” Freedom House paid special attention to judicial independence and found that in Hungary a major overhaul of the judicial administration cleared the way for more direct political manipulation of the courts. In Ukraine the Yanukovych administration is using the law enforcement system to persecute political opponents. Hungary didn’t get to this point yet, but it is evident that Orbán is contemplating such a move.
The authors’ final conclusion is that “Hungary is now sorely testing the assumption that such transformations are irreversible, and its experience has cast doubt on the future of potentially more vulnerable states.”
MTI released the news about the Freedom House report at 6:01 p.m. and one minute later the Ministry of Justice and Administration reacted. This is the ministry led by Tibor Navracsics where Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary, is in charge of communication with the international community. His reaction was to the point: “Freedom House is lying.” Tomorrow I will collect the various government reactions to the report. I expect many similar reactions from government officials and from journalists working for the right-wing media.