Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, an erstwhile democratizer who “played a prominent supporting role in killing communism in Europe,” is now the man responsible for leading democracy to the gallows in Hungary. Once widely considered to be an exemplar of post-Soviet democratic success, Hungary is now leading the pack of “illiberal democracies,” and Orbán is the prophet of this new authoritarianism.
Since 2010, Orbán has reduced judicial independence, restricted press freedom, and reshaped the electoral system to favor his party, Fidesz. He has fostered rampant xenophobia toward Muslims and resurrected ever-handy anti-Semitism, centering his recent successful re-election effort around a government-funded propaganda campaign against George Soros, whom he depicted as a globalist favoring open borders and open political discourse—a threat to traditional Hungarian society.
In spreading his message and blocking alternative viewpoints, Orbán and Fidesz have utilized their increasing monopoly on the media, particularly outside of Budapest, to further Hungary’s transformation from liberal to illiberal. As is the case in many nations today, Hungary’s rural areas are more culturally traditionalist, nationalist, and xenophobic than Budapest, the nation’s only truly cosmopolitan city—and Orbán’s hold on the rural media is one way he keeps them that way.
George W. Bush and Barack Obama both kept their distance from Orbán. Obama’s last ambassador to Hungary, Colleen Bell, regularly criticized Orbán’s “anti-immigration rhetoric,” as well as Hungary’s governmental corruption and diminishing press freedom. This attitude carried over briefly into the Trump era, as last November, the State Department announced a $700,000 program designed to support media outlets operating outside of Budapest—regions where independent media struggle and Fidesz maintains an electoral stronghold.
Now, however, Donald Trump increasingly favors the xenophobic nationalists who have risen to power in Europe, and his administration, following the lead of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, seeks to bolster them. Accordingly, that State Department program has now been scrapped.
“Access to information in rural Hungary is very different from access in Budapest,” Péter Ákos Bod, a former conservative minister of industry and trade and member of parliament who teaches economics at Budapest’s Corvinus University, told me. “In the countryside, the government and the ruling party (or media businesses close to it) have a near monopoly in media.”
“Independent (and particularly critical) media simply do not survive financially as state-owned firms never advertise in them, and even private businesses are shy to place ads as the government may punish them,” he added. “This is the background of the original American initiative to support undersupplied rural areas.”
Daniel Mikecz, a researcher at the Budapest-based think tank Republikon Institute, echoed Bod’s concerns. Ideally, Mikecz told me, “the role of local media is not just to transfer the opposition’s opinion and issues from Budapest to the countryside, but also to guarantee a democratic public sphere on the local level, which can also strengthen the local interests vis-á-vis the central will.”
“For Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz party, it has been a crucial issue since the late 1990s to have their own loyal media, as they perceived a liberal-socialist bias in the mainstream media,” Mikecz said. “Since 2010 [when Orbán won election], Fidesz could continue to expand its media supporters by using its governmental position and power.”
An Orbán-friendly oligarch, Mikecz noted, recently purchased a company controlling “13 rural (county level) daily papers of [the] 19 total” that exist in Hungary’s countryside.
“These newspapers are for many the most important local sources of information and [readers] buy them out of habit,” Mikecz said. “Because of these consumption patterns and the lack of resources, it would be very hard to establish new, independent local newspapers.”
Increasingly, it’s “oligarchs who are close to Fidesz and to Viktor Orbán who control local media,” Marius Dragomir, the director of Central European University’s Center for Media, Data and Society, told me. “Many of the papers were purchased before the April 2018 elections to further help Fidesz win the last elections.”
The U.S. program had planned to award $700,000 to one organization that would, at least tacitly, break Fidesz’s regional media hegemony by “support[ing] media outlets operating outside the capital in Hungary to produce fact-based reporting and increase their audience and economic sustainability,” according to the original State Department posting.
As noted by an English-language Hungarian news site, the grant was likely championed by then-U.S. Chargé d’Affaires David Kostelancik, who weeks before the grant was announced had forcefully criticized Fidesz's actions to limit Hungarian press freedom. Kostelancik is a State Department veteran who has served in numerous positions in Moscow, Washington, and Budapest since 2005. At a 2017 Passover seder in Budapest that we both attended—just a few days days after the government embarked on its anti-academic-freedom crusade—Kostelancik, speaking to the reform congregation assembled in a large conference room, expressed his support for Hungarian democracy and its people, and for the nation’s Jewish population in particular.
Orbán’s government clearly viewed the State Department grant as a threat to its power. Shortly after it was announced last November, the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade “summoned the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires, asking for an explanation, and told him that we consider this a political intervention by the U.S. Department of State ahead of the elections,” government spokesman Tamas Menczer told Reuters.
While Kostelancik still serves in the Budapest embassy, now as deputy chief of mission, the $700,000 program has been discontinued; no funds have been awarded. According to Szabolcs Panyi of Hungarian outlet Index.hu, the cancellation of the program had been rumored for months, once Obama-era officials departed and Trump’s officials took office.
U.S. embassy spokesman Richard Damstra told the Hungarian weekly Nyomtass Te is! that “the department decided to have a different approach.” Panyi takes a less charitable position: “The bid to strengthen the Hungarian independent press in the country was deferred by the leadership of the new State Department under Donald Trump.”
Former U.S. diplomats confirm Panyi’s assessment. “The Trump administration’s friendly and intensive contacts with the Orbán government represent a radical departure,” wrote Heather A. Conley and Charles Gati, former State Department officials in the George W. Bush and Clinton administrations, respectively, in a Washington Post op-ed column. “The compliant new U.S. approach was initially discussed at a Dec. 18, 2017 meeting of the National Security Council’s policy coordinating committee led by Fiona Hill … according to two sources familiar with the proceedings.”
Despite previously pledging to promote American values and repudiate anti-Semitism, David Cornstein, Trump’s appointee as the new U.S. ambassador to Hungary, quickly acquiesced to the Trumpian-Bannon worldview. Upon his July arrival in Budapest, he gave his first interview to Magyar Idők, a “government controlled” newspaper that has promoted numerous conspiracies, including that the play Billy Elliot would make children gay (the play’s run was canceled for that reason), that Jews have built “networks” to influence the world, and that the CIA was behind the Maidan revolution in Ukraine.
It is a stark and disturbing contrast with past U.S. policies and conduct—and a reflection of the administration’s contempt for even tacit democracy promotion—to see the United States’ official representative in Hungary lend America’s legitimizing force to a far-right propaganda paper, while the State Department he works for deems independent local media unworthy of similar promotion.
“What is clear here,” Bod told me, “is that President Trump does not care about ‘exporting’ democracy and American values. The United States has distanced itself from the region which is, I am sure, a mistake.”