The lynchpin of Viktor Orbán’s political ideology – his notion of “illiberal democracy” – parallels, in many important respects, the earlier Russian doctrine of “sovereign democracy”.

The proliferation of “democracies with adjectives” presents a particular danger to democratic institutions. Namely, while the fans of “adjectives” do not do away with the general idea of democracy altogether, they work from the inside to introduce their own “mutation” into its “DNA” – much in the way a virus does in a cell.

In doing so, they make use of actual problems and conflicts that democracies have to face. This includes the conflict between globalisation and the nation state (and globalised and national identities) the left-right or the liberal-conservative conflict of values, including such highly sensitive topics as family, gender and sexuality, as well as social and economic inequalities.

What antidotes are there to the virus? First, the “body politic” needs to acknowledge, in full scope, the kinship of Russian and Hungarian adjective viruses and avoid sympathising with them on ideological grounds.

The real choice here is between democracy and authoritarianism, and not between the “left” and the “right” as the fans of adjectives would like you to see it.

Second, those who are trying to keep the Hungarian government at bay (this includes the EU), should clearly distinguish between ideology and democratic institutions and procedures.

Ideological criticism of Orbán allows him to tap into the ongoing “culture wars” and present himself as a European champion of “traditional values” – an idea that the Russian autocrats also previously discovered.

Meet the cousins: democracies “sovereign” and “illiberal”

Viktor Orbán

“Illiberal democracy” became the fulcrum of Viktor Orbán’s political ideology under his second government.

Ironically, the term was snatched from political science, where it was originally used in a critical way. As political scientists grew increasingly suspicious of “democracy with adjectives”, the adjectives themselves seemed to be spilling over from country to country.

Orbán’s rhetorical manipulations with the term, parallel, in many respects, the Russian doctrine of “sovereign democracy” – which is nearly a decade older.

The concept of sovereign democracy was introduced into the Russian political discourse in 2006 by Vladislav Surkov, whom many considered to be a “gray eminence” and Putin’s chief ideologist of the late aughts.

Surkov defined the “sovereignty” of democracy as the state in which authorities and decisions are controlled by the Russian nation. The silent implication was then that Russia’s previous attempts at democracy were somehow compromised by foreign control.

This implication rhymed very well with widespread ideas that in the 90’s, under President Yeltsin, the “weak” Russia was “conquered” or “occupied” by the West through its “agents” (the Russian “liberals”, “reformists”, “Westernizers” and their foreign “consultants”), and that under Putin, as somebody would put it later, Russia “rose from its knees”.

In practice, of course, the “sovereign democracy” doctrine was an ideological backdoor, allowing Russian authorities to rebuke any criticism of democratic norm violation by pointing at the special, “non-Western” ways of Russian democracy. 

As Putin’s regime evolved, “sovereign democracy” grew into more powerful ways of distancing Russia from the West through ideology. The so-called “conservative turn” resurrected the images of Russia as “another” or “true Europe”, the bastion of “traditional” or “Christian values” which stood in opposition to the spiritually “degenerate” West with its liberal progressivism and multiculturalism.

The Budapest reformation

In Hungary, Viktor Orbán eagerly picked up on many of these themes. As a matter of fact, illuminating parallels between the two countries are to be found in more than one area.  

Students of political economy have pointed at ways in which the Hungarian post-Communist “mafia state” (in the words of Bálint Magyar) parallels the ways in which power and property became fused in Putin’s system of “neo-feudalism”.

Ideological parallels that can be drawn from a systematic analysis of Orbán’s speeches over the past years are no less striking. Many arguments look as if they were simply copied and pasted from the Kremlin’s rhetoric textbook. Exploiting the historical image of Hungarians as the “bulwark of Christianity”, Orbán has consistently portrayed Hungary as a bastion.

This bastion of “true” and “Christian” Europe is constantly under attack, not only by the migrants by also by the “liberals”.  Hungary mirrors the Russian move from a country that once wanted to build a Western-style polity and economy, to a country that sees itself a better society than the degenerate “West” which has betrayed its spiritual roots.

In the once democratic West, claimed Orbán, both Christianity and democracy went into decline and were replaced by a “Europe of open society” (a clear allusion to George Soros).

In that political system, political correctness has replaced truth and argument and only in Hungary could people still speak truly and openly of political issues. In “ninety percent” of the countries in the European Union, “the elite” with the help of “orchestrated journalism” has effectively blocked the people’s ability to affect the making of policy.

This conspiratorial thinking about civil society and the media as mere puppets or elements in a larger plot has clear parallels in how Kremlin has viewed the working of Western democracies: as a façade for the elites who manipulate politics from the backstage.  Putin’s outrage at the “color revolutions” stemmed from his (apparently genuine) inability to believe that political mobilisation in Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries was actually possible without “orchestration” from abroad.

If Western democracy went into decline, in Central and Eastern Europe it still preserved “greater vitality” than its “Western European variant”. But Europe as a whole, according to Orbán, has been “betrayed” and, unless “we do not stand up for it”, it will soon “see realization of the outlandish dream of some well- organised unelected activist leadership presiding over huge flows of capital, thinking in terms over and beyond the framework of nation states”.

These threats have one natural answer. In order to escape what Orbán dubbed “liberal non-democracy”, Hungary needs to build an “illiberal democracy”, that is, a democracy that restrains liberalism in the name of the “community” and the “nation”.

This, he argued, does not mean, throwing away liberal principles like freedom altogether, but replaces the liberal ideology with a “different, special, national approach”.

In connection to that, there can be no universal criterion of being democratic, no one “true description of democracy”, which could be “imposed” on the rest of the world.

Instead, all cultures were different, each nation “had its own character” and therefore a “unique political system”. Again, these arguments to culture, national character, and uniqueness (the Russians would say “samobytnost’”) look painfully familiar.

Avoiding the game of adjectives

In his understanding of “illiberal democracy” Orbán follows in the footsteps of Putin.

From the ideological point of view, this game of adjectives allows to rebuke criticisms much in the same way that “sovereign democracy” was a backdoor escape route for the Kremlin. As the situation deteriorates, we can expect to see this game played more often.

But there is more to it. Like Putin, Orbán tries to market his political project internationally, and unlike Putin, he actually has immediate access to European political institutions that he uses as fora.

Orbán’s FIDESZ is a member of the European People’s Party and, so far, neither this powerful political grouping, nor any European institution has been able to effectively reign him in.

Moreover, Orbán’s political message resonates with many in the West (as does Putin’s). Illiberalism has a powerful appeal to those in the West who fear global migration, are opposed to a hypothetical transformation of the EU into a “federation” at the expense of national sovereignty or feel that left-liberal progressivism has now overstepped the limits of common sense.

Somewhat paradoxically, Orbán’s Hungary also seems to have an appeal among people living in or coming from Russia and the post-Soviet space, that is, even among those who are, for historical and political reasons, highly unlikely to sympathize with Putin.

The “conservative” appeal seems to be working despite the fact that from both the ideological and the political economic points of view the two regimes clearly demonstrate too many unpleasant similarities – even if Hungary is a much softer version of  “illiberalism” than Russia.

What the conservatives in both the “West” and the “East” really need to understand is that this is not a duel between conservatism and liberalism, in the first instance, but between democracy and Eastern European patrimonial authoritarianism.

Eastern Europeans from countries like Belarus and Ukraine should understand clearly that, when they are cheering on Orbán, they are also cheering, indirectly, on Putin.

Political differences, however irritating, must be put aside in this case, so that the overarching political framework of democratic institutions, standards and procedures, which allows  these political differences to be fought out in a civilized way, can be preserved.

Having said that, Orbán’s critics, especially from the left, should also be smarter. Orbán is not only a charismatic, but a very clever and politically gifted man.

So far, he has been often successful in manipulating the debate in such a way as to shift it from specific issues of Hungarian democracy to the general conflict of values along the liberal-conservative (or the “left-right”) divide – which has been exacerbated in the recent years.

Therefore, agendas like migration, multiculturalism, sexuality and family, which are also subject to legitimate political debate within a democratic society, should be – whenever possible – separated from the more specific points of democratic standards in Hungary, such as inequal access to the media for the opposition and the abuse of public resources in favour of the ruling coalition (documented in the 2018 OSCE report on the Hungarian election).

For sure, decoupling the two is not always an easy thing to do, as the EU is legally bound to human rights protection – which also includes minority rights.

Yet, Orbán’s critics inside the EU should be wise to limit his opportunities to tap into the ongoing “culture wars”, to rebuke domestic international criticisms of Hungary’s “illiberal democracy” as elements of a liberal conspiracy against Christianity and the Hungarian nation, and to present himself as commander of the bastion of “European traditional values” under siege.


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project and was also published in Russian on Reform. Click here to read the Russian version.

Aliaksei Kazharski is researcher working at the Charles University in Prague and the Comenius University in Bratislava. He is the author of The End of ‘Central Europe’? The Rise of the Radical Right and the Contestation of Identities in Slovakia and the Visegrad Four as well as Eurasian Integration and the Russian World. Regionalism as an Identitary Enterprise.

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