CEA Talk podcast

In the latest edition of the CEA podcast Dalibor Rohac, a Slovakian researcher and economist at the American Enterprise Institute, talked about US relations with Central and Eastern Europe, Hungary’s perspectives ahead of the 2022 parliamentary elections and the possible future of the Visegrad Four alliance.

Host: Zoltán Kész

To claim that the US-Hungarian relationship has been a success from the US standpoint is far-fetched,” starts Mr Dalibor his criticism when asked about a tweet that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had sent out regarding Hungary with the following message: “We’ve renewed important ties while urging respect for democratic norms.”

At every conceivable juncture Hungary acted against US interests in the region, be it rule of law or democracy.

Hungary tried to derail Ukraine’s relationship with NATO, struck a deal with Rosatom to build the new block of the Paks nuclear power plant, welcomed Chinese investments to Hungary and granted all diplomatic privileges and immunities to the International Investment Bank. “I don’t see the US got anything materially out of it,” the researcher points out.

“Viktor Orbán is very effective in playing to both sides and presenting different versions to different audiences – except the fact that Brussels may be running out of patience.”

Trump and Congress divided on Hungary

Was there a pushback by the Trump administration against what was happening in Hungary in recent years? “I can’t remember a single episode,” Mr Rohac argues.

Capitol Hill sees Hungary with a more critical eye. In Congress, there is “to a large extent” a bipartisan consensus regarding Hungary. A letter, signed by, among others, Senator Marco Rubio, criticizing Mr Orbán’s trip to the White House in May 2019, is just one of the examples.

“No matter the pushbacks against NGOs, the expulsion of CEU from Hungary, the State Department has followed a consistent pattern of turning a blind eye to whatever has happened in Hungary,” Mr Rohac explains.

2022 elections

In Hungary, Fidesz and Orbán derived a lot of the strengths from the divided and desperate nature of the opposition’s inability to coordinate. The researcher sees similarities with Russia. “Putin’s rise was facilitated by the opposition’s inability to organize as well,” he says.

However, a wide coalition from Momentum to Jobbik, including post-Communists and Greens, will take on Mr Orbán’s Fidesz at the upcoming parliamentary election. The question is, in Mr Rohac’s opinion, “how such a coalition would govern and stay in power for four years?”

Nevertheless, he sees no other option to unseat Prime Minister Orbán. “If there is a chance to defeat Fidesz in 2022, it will involve a unified opposition.” The election will be crucial. „You either defeat Fidesz in 2022 or you might never get another chance of having democratic elections again,” he empshasies.

Orbanism in different places

Mr Rohac doesn’t think that “Orbanism” would be restricted geographically as there are politicians worldwide acting according to the same principles.

He defines “Orbanism” as a political platform “combining the rejection of the left-liberal agenda and migration with a heavy-handed approach to economic policy”. In his view, it also includes “rejection of the conventional constraints that are imposed on political power.”

This kind of political philosophy takes a different shape in different places.

However, the US is finishing a four-years experience with this brand of politics. Mr Rohac thinks that by large the US institutions “have withstood the pressure.”

“Many of these groups seem to share a more cynical view of international affairs and of the post-war rules-based order partly because they approach these issues through national lenses…There is not simply a neglect of those structures, but sometimes deliberate efforts to tear down aspects of that system.”

All this could easily lead to a comeback of an anarchic and more dangerous state of affairs. The danger of it is particularly pronounced in Central Europe. “For Hungary, Poland and Slovakia it is vital that there be a rule of law on the international ground and that America is present in Europe caring about rules being followed and preventing return of unchecked nationalism into international relations,” he claims.

New administration, big change in style

Mr Rohac thinks there will be a “dramatic shift” in style of US diplomacy with the incoming Biden administration. “In terms of substance I expect changes in the issue of climate change,” he says.

Not that much of a change is expected in US-China relations as the Asian economic behemoth represents a challenge to the global order. “America and Europe have an interest in containing the rise of China and it will be important for the two to engage on this,” the researcher asserts.

There is an asymmetry between the West and China. “Western companies in China are there to make money, Chinese companies in the West might have political goals.” Huawei is just one of the examples. “We can’t be naive that the company is in the business simply to make money.”

“A clear-eyed view of China will be necessary in Europe for the transatlantic partnership to flourish and prosper.”

EU budget deal a disappointment

Mr Rohac sees the EU’s landmark budget deal with Hungary and Poland with heavy criticism. “It is almost worse than having to face the possibility of Huxit or Polexit.”

In his opinion, it was a mistake to “dilute the rule of law requirements.” There is little willingness to do anything about the real crisis of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe and it creates another risk for the unity of the EU. “German companies don’t really care about the nature of governments in these countries.”

The deal would “essentially make it impossible for the European Commission to challenge the flow of EU funds to countries having a problem with the rule of law.” This could plant the seeds of a “new populist revolt.”

Visegrad Four (V4) losing power

The cooperation of the Visegrad Four countries (Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia) has a long history. However, in his view, the voice of the Visegrad alliance was stronger when all four countries shared “significant interests”.

Those interests with the EU and NATO accession are mainly gone as the Visegrad countries are different: “There is a Czech Euroscepticism, a Slovak rush to join the Eurozone and there are nationalist governments in Warsaw and Budapest,” Mr Rohac says. Different interests lead to different solutions: “In Slovakia, there are already efforts to find “new friends”. The Baltic countries are in the focus.”

He doesn’t expect the V4 to go away completely, but it has been “de-emphasized by the Czech and the Slovak Governments.”

Cover photo credit: Tamás Kovács, MTI

Dalibor Rohac is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies European political and economic trends, specifically Central and Eastern Europe, the European Union, the Eurozone, US-EU relations, the post-Communist transitions and backsliding of countries in the former Soviet bloc. He was affiliated with the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. He is the author of “In Defense of Globalism” (2019). His earlier book, “Towards an Imperfect Union: A Conservative Case for the EU” (2016), was included on Foreign Affairs magazine’s list of best books of 2016. His commentaries have been widely published in the Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Twitter: @DaliborRohac
Photo credit: Dalibor Rohác