Bálint Magyar, former Hungarian Minister of Education, was the latest guest of the CEA Talk podcast series where he talked about illusions after the transition, categories of post-communist societies, and his most recent publication The Anatomy of Post-Communist Regimes.

LISTEN and SUBSCRIBE to CEA TALK podcast episodes on your smart phone using YouTubeSpotifyApple PodcastGoogle PodcastsTuneInSoundCloudDeezerBuzzsprout and RSS.

Host: Zoltán Kész

A major illusion floated around the period of the transition in Central and Eastern Europe. It seemed to be only a matter of time when societies of the region would reach the status of liberal democracies.  “We thought that if dictatorships are abolished, there would be a royal road toward liberal democracy”, explains Mr Magyar, one of the founders of the Alliance of Free Democrats.

However, it took almost a decade to figure out that the majority of the former communist regimes do not want to “transform themselves” into real liberal democracies. Around the year 2000, this “became quite clear”.

After 1989, during a whole decade, the literature of transitology tried to describe post-communist regimes with categories that were applied for characterizing liberal democracies. This attempt wasn’t successful, as it wasn’t “suitable”.

West Berlin citizens continuing their vigil atop the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on November 10, 1989 – Photo credit: Reuters

Later, the literature of hybridology tried to create a scale between dictatorship and democracy. Different indicators had to be found with which they could scale the position of these countries to show where they are. The illusion, to describe the post-communist states by using the categories of liberal democracies, was still present, but failed once again.

Therefore, the creation of a new language, describing the Central and Eastern European societies, was necessary. Mr Magyar and his colleague Bálint Madlovics have delivered the answer.

Characteristics of post-communist societies

The communist regimes shared two basic features: the existence of a one-party system and the monopoly of state-ownership in these countries. Besides the similarities, these countries had different historical tracks. “This defines the diverse routes that they go through after the collapse of communist regimes,” Mr Magyar says.

Cultural differences even lead further, once these countries are separated along the lines of the major religions (Western Christianism, Eastern Christianism, Islam) characterizing them. Further towards the east, the separation of social spheres (politics, economy, communal social actions) is less and less. In the former communist countries of Eastern Europe that weren’t part of the Soviet Union, the same separation is much more progressive throughout history.

Russian Commuinsts queue to visit Lenin’s Mausoleum on Red Square in the center of Moscow in 2007.
Photo credit: EPA

Political parties are rivaling each other in patronal democracies, but they represent only a formal cover of rivaling patron-client networks. In such systems, none of the patron-client networks can reach a monopolistic position and they are not able to surrender other patron-client networks to themselves. “This can create a very delicate equilibrium”, says the sociologist. Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia are part of this category in Eastern Europe.

Bureaucratic autocracies vs patronal autocracies

Bureaucratic autocracies are classic autocratic societies where the political sphere is practically conquered by one political actor. At the same, the sphere of economy is not transformed into patron-client relations. “Poland is going in this direction.”

In a patronal autocracy, on the other hand, one patron-client network rises above the others and reaches a monopolistic position. In such a regime, a political enterprise invades the state and transforms it into a criminal organization which monopolizes and centralizes the sphere and possibilities of corruption. The government is basically operated like a criminal organization and transforms, beside the political field, the economic sphere into patron-client relations. Besides Russia and the former Central Asian Soviet republics, the Orbán regime, “an established autocracy”, belongs to this category.

Billboard on the streets of Budapest calling prime minister Viktor Orbán and three persons from his inner circle “gangsters” – Photo credit: Index

Two institutional guarantees, however, can help avoid the transformation into a patronal autocracy: a proportionate electoral system and a divided executive power between the government and the chief executive. 

While Hungary is moving towards an Eastern type autocracy, Georgia, trying to reach the status of liberal democracy, is going towards a patronal democracy.

Hungary and Russia

“The chances are not really great”, says Mr Magyar, when talking about the opportunity of the Hungarian opposition defeating the ruling Fidesz party at the upcoming parliamentary election next year. However, the chances are bigger than in Russia. “Hungary is still in the EU and this means some constrains.”

Protesters clash with riot police during a rally in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in downtown Moscow on January 23, 2021. – Photo credit: Kirill Kudryavtsev, AFP

The autocratic transformation consists of three stages: attempt, breakthrough and consolidation. Several colored revolutions in the region have been able to stop the process of creating a patronal autocracy. Although in Moldova, the Ukraine, Macedonia and Armenia the autocratic breakthrough had already happened, the consolidation of autocracy has not been able to gain ground totally.

Hungary is already in the phase of consolidation, the final stage of autocratic transformation. Hungary’s EU membership makes a real difference to Russia. “It cannot use so widely the means of physical coercion than the Putin regime,” Mr Magyar claims. For this reason, a heavier propaganda is on the way in Hungary to “convince the people.”

How to defeat Orbán?

Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz will face for the first time a united opposition. The sociologist thinks such a coalition is necessary, but “it’s not enough”. In his opinion, there is no mutually agreed upon opposition approach as far as criticizing the government goes. Some criticize the system, and some criticize ‘only’ the government. “The regime could only be overthrown at the base of a system-critic paradigm.”

Therefore, the whole ideological spectrum should concentrate in one alliance. The widest possible political opposition, from left-wing to right-wing, is required to take down the government. In his opinion, two moderate right-wing political organizations should also have place in the cooperation. One led by József Pálinkás, the former minister of economy, the other one by Péter Márki-Zay, the mayor of Hódmezővásárhely. “Should this happen, they could then say: we represent the nation against a criminal organization”, he argues. It is inevitable to deny the legitimacy of the ruling regime in order to achieve a regime change. “Without declaring that it’s a criminal organization against which the nation has to carry out a kind of liberation war, they cannot win the election.”

Opposition MPs in the Hungarian Parliament – Photo credit: Zoltán Máthé, MTI

Many critics of the united opposition forces highlight the far-right position of the Jobbik party in the past and claim that liberals and leftists are joining forces with extremists. Mr Magyar doesn’t share this view and counters the critics:

“To end the Orbán era, I’d vote for a Jobbik candidate.”

Cover photo credit: István Huszti, Index

Bálint Magyar is a sociologist and politician, who served as Minister of Education of Hungary between 1996-1998 and between 2002-2006. He was a founding member of the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ). He works currently as a researcher at the Democracy Institute of the Central European University. In his book, Post-Communist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary (2016), he described Hungary as a mafia state. The Anatomy of Post-Communist Regimes, his latest work in co-operation with Bálint Madlovics, has recently become open access. Twitter: @BalintMAGYAR
Photo credit: SZDSZ-archívum/archive