A meeting of two authoritarian leaders serves to demonstrate their joint defiance against external criticism while both leaders launch a renewed crackdown on their oppositions.
Seldom has an official meeting with a foreign prime minister been better suited to strengthen the rule of the authoritarian leader of Belarus than the recent visit of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The timing was very convenient for Lukashenko. The meeting took place on June 5 in Minsk, in a period when the president has been under growing political pressure due to both his catastrophic mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis and his new campaign to oppress the opposition. The fact that Orban chose this moment to show his support, and to urge the EU to lift sanctions against Belarus, is a textbook example of authoritarian leaders helping each other in times of crisis.
The official agenda of the meeting was to strengthen economic co-operation and exchange knowledge and technologies, and to promote a closer relationship between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union — an initiative launched by Russia to increase its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
The two peoples and countries are much closer than one might thinkViktor Orban, Hungarian Prime Minister
As an analysis by Dominik Istrate from Political Capital rightly pointed out, the real significance of the meeting was political rather than economic. The two leaders demonstrated their defiance in the face of external pressure or criticism of their authoritarian rule. Orban said “the two peoples and countries are much closer than one might think,” a statement that reflects his government’s political distance from the democratic norms of the EU. Lukashenko emphasised that Orban “understands us more than anyone,” referring to his known record of breaking EU consensus on certain matters of principle.
Orban breaks the EU consensus again
With the help of Orban, Lukashenko can show the world and his people that his position is strong and he has allies even in the EU. In exchange, Orban can position himself as a key player between the East and the West, breaking the EU’s consensus on applying any democratic norms and guiding principles in its foreign policy, a barrier to his own authoritarian aspirations. This is part of the so-called Eastern Opening foreign policy doctrine of the Hungarian government, which legitimised establishing stronger ties with oppressive regimes whilst waging a cold war against some EU member states that criticised rising authoritarianism in Hungary, such as Finland. This is not the first time Orban has broken the unity of the EU’s foreign policy. He has built controversial partnerships in defiance with the EU’s common position with Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Erdogan, and other authoritarian leaders in the past as well.
The latest episode in this show of defiance is especially worrisome in light of the fact that Olivér Várhelyi, a former Hungarian civil servant considered highly loyal to Mr. Orban, holds the position of the EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement. When he received this position, it was considered as one of the least significant by some commentators, signifying the general suspicion against Orban among the leaders of the EU. Although Mr. Várhelyi claims he rejects any efforts from member states to influence his decision making, Orban’s call for the lifting of sanctions against a neighbouring country puts his alleged independence into a different perspective.
Orban’s support helps to ease the political isolation of Lukashenko’s regime, dubbed “the last dictatorship of Europe”, amidst a very serious crisis that could likely disintegrate his rule. The president of Belarus is one of the few leaders of the world who said the pandemic is nothing more than a “psychosis” and wearing masks is a “fraud”. Consequently, he failed to introduce any adequate prevention and control measures. On May 9, the country held an immense Victory Day military parade, with an estimated 15,000 spectators and 4,000 military personnel. Belarus has since emerged as Eastern Europe’s COVID-19 hotspot, with the highest numbers of new infections and deaths.
A new wave of repression in Belarus and Hungary
With the October parliamentary elections approaching, Lukeshenko faces a growing opposition at home. Human Rights Watch warned that the Belarusian authorities have intensified their crackdown on independent activists and journalists. Between May 6 and 13, 2020, the authorities arbitrarily arrested over 120 peaceful protesters, opposition bloggers, journalists, and other critics of the government in 17 cities. Just two days after Orban’s visit, the largest opposition demonstration this year took place in Minsk, with hundreds of protesters demanding democracy and wearing masks in defiance of the president’s direct disapproval of them. 50 demonstrators were arrested by the authorities. On Monday, a leading opposition figure, Nikolai Statkevich was jailed on charges of organizing a mass demonstration in July to protest against joint military exercises with Russia.
Meanwhile, Orban’s regime has come under heavy criticism for launching a crackdown against his opposition in recent weeks as well. The international media widely reported that several opposition activists were arrested by the police on the suspicion that they spread rumors, an offense that is punishable by up to 5 years of imprisonment under the same law that gave emergency powers to the government. Some of the 90 people who were arrested by the police were released with no charge because the cases were so weak and were in clear violation of the freedom of expression. An opposition activist in Gyula, a small town in Southern Hungary, was arrested because he posted about how the hospital in his town sent home severely ill people because of an anti-pandemic measure that freed up 60 percent of all hospital beds in Hungary. He was reported to the police by the mayor of the town himself. The chilling effect of these arrests are felt widely and sent a message to the critics of the government.
Honking is dangerous in Hungary — chanting racist slogans is not
Another sign of repression is how the so-called “honking protests” were handled by the authorities in Budapest. Back in April, opposition politicians called people to drive their cars to the city center and honk in protest of Orban’s authoritarian policies. According to the organisers of the series of protests, this has been the only responsible way to express their discomfort against Orban’s power grab and mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis during social distancing measures. Although the drivers did not endanger anyone by sitting in their cars and honking, they met fierce resistance from policemen, who imposed heavy fines on participants. An elderly protester was punished with a fine of more than EUR 2,000. The protester said he will rather go to jail because he is unable to pay the fine.
The police were less repressive when several hundred people, mostly football fans and members of radical right groups, gathered in the heart of Budapest. The pretense of the demonstration was to commemorate the death of two young football fans who were stabbed to death last week. The circumstances of the crime are still unclear; both the victims and perpetrators had illicit drugs in their possession and were known to the police because of previous offenses, such as vandalism. Our Homeland, a far right political party, declared, without any evidence, that these were “ethnic crimes” committed by Roma people against ethnic Hungarians. A political demonstration organized by Our Homeland in front of the office of a Roma organization on the same day was dismantled by the police. However, police claimed the “commemoration” organized by football fans was not a political assembly. Although organizers of the “commemoration” said they had no political or racist motivations, the crowd chanted “Gypsy Crime” (cigánybűnözés) – a racist term coined by the far right to stigmatize the Roma community for its alleged links to high crime rates.
Contributed by Péter Sárosi.
Illustration by István Gábor Takács.
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Executive Director of the Rights Reporter Foundation.
He is a historian, a human rights activist and drug policy expert, the founder and editor of the Drugreporter website since 2004, a documentary film maker and blogger. He has been working for the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) for more than 10 years. Now he leads the Rights Reporter Foundation.