By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
In a tour de force published earlier this year, University of California at Berkeley Professor John Connelly surveys the past thousand years in his book From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe. It will be the standard text for years to come.
One of these peoples, the Magyars, or Hungarians, have played a major role in the region. By the late middle ages, the medieval Kingdom of Hungary was an important Christian state. That kingdom, however, was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, when Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent wiped out much of Hungary’s nobility and clergy.
Defence against Ottoman expansion shifted to the Habsburg emperors of Austria, and by 1700 all of Hungary had come under their rule. In 1867 Hungary became an autonomous partner in the renamed Austro-Hungarian Empire, but the “Dual Monarchy” was defeated in the First World War and the empire dissolved.
The post-war collapse of the Habsburg and three other major empires led to the formation of new states throughout the region, each determined to establish boundaries that would provide it with the largest possible territory.
Some succeeded, others failed, and this was particularly true of the nations defeated in the war. For instance, the map known as the “Carte Rouge,” created by the Hungarian Count Pal Teleki in 1918, represented the density of different Hungarian regions’ by ethnic population.
Created as a scientific backing for Hungary’s position at the peace talks after the end of the conflict, it was of little help. The 1920 Treaty of Trianon saw defeated Hungary lose two-thirds of its pre-war territory and some 60 per cent of its population. It remains a sore point among Hungarians to this day.
Hungary, an ally of Nazi Germany in the Second World War, again ended up on the losing side, and became a Soviet Russian satellite state. Although the 1956 uprising failed, Communism in Hungary thereafter tended to be more tolerable than in other states behind the Iron Curtain.
The decades of the 1960s-70s saw economic reforms, known as the “New Economic Mechanism, popularly called “Goulash Communism.”
So by the time the Cold War ended, the country was virtually free of Marxist dogma. In 1989, there were few doubts about the bright democratic future of post-communist Hungary. But it hasn’t turned out that way. Instead, there has been a bitter repudiation of liberal democracy itself.
Some fifteen years ago, Hungary looked firmly like a success story, having made considerable progress on all sorts of metrics of democracy, rule of law, and institutional quality. Today, on measures such as Freedom House’s Freedom of the World Index, the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, and the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index, Hungary has undergone a degree of “democratic backsliding” or “de-democratization.”
In the 1990s the judiciary was insulated from political pressures, following recommendations by international authorities. Hungary’s constitutional court was also hailed as one of the strongest in the world, pushing back assertively against government legislation, including striking down its fiscal consolidation package in 1995.
It also deployed the doctrine of an “invisible constitution,” filling the gaps in the text of the constitution by borrowing from international law and developing and applying its own abstract concepts, such as human dignity.
Yet far from entrenching the principles of judicial independence in Hungarian legal practice and political life, these early reforms led to a backlash and ultimately to the full-fledged politicization of the courts under the rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his FIDESZ party.
In elections held in 2010, Orban secured a constitutional majority and passed a new Fundamental Law with FIDESZ votes only. By doing so, he also ensured that the entire pre-2011 jurisprudence of Hungary’s constitutional court went out the window.
Since then, we have seen the forced retirements of large numbers of judges, compromising the judiciary’s integrity; crackdowns on independent media; and the branding of foreign-funded non-governmental organizations as “foreign agents.”
Orban has also hounded the western-oriented Central European University out of the country and forced the university to move to Vienna. However, the European Court of Justice recently ruled that Orban’s decision was not in line with European Union law.
Some analysts blame this as resentment against those forces, spearheaded by the United States and Western Europe, which sought to turn Hungary and other Eastern European nations into copies of the West, without much regard for local realities. It may be a bitter lesson in ideological “overreach.”