The EU’S Mafia State

The Baltic Times - - COMMENTARY - Bálint Mag­yar

Fol­low­ing the col­lapse of com­mu­nism, many of us in Cen­tral and East­ern Europe had hoped that the re­gion would steadily move to­ward lib­eral democ­racy, and that any ob­sta­cles en route to that goal could be over­come. But in many former com­mu­nist coun­tries, older sys­tems of pa­tron­age and cor­rup­tion have sur­vived, and taken new forms. What we thought was a tran­si­tional phase has be­come a per­ma­nent state of af­fairs.

Con­sider Hun­gary, which has be­come a mafia state dur­ing the seven years of Vik­tor Or­bán’s rule as Prime Min­is­ter. Hun­gary is unique in that it moved to­ward lib­eral democ­racy and joined the Euro­pean Union be­fore chang­ing course and headed to­ward au­toc­racy. The rest of the re­gion’s mafia states, such as Rus­sia, Azer­bai­jan, and other Cen­tral Asian former Soviet re­publics, ei­ther passed through a pe­riod of oli­garchic flux, or took a di­rect path from com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor­ship to crim­i­nal en­ter­prise.

In these coun­tries, oli­garchs and the or­ga­nized un­der­world have not cap­tured the state; rather, an or­ga­nized “up­per­world” of elites have cap­tured the econ­omy, in­clud­ing the oli­garchs them­selves. The re­sult is a mix be­tween a crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tion and a pri­va­tized, par­a­sitic state.

Most analy­ses of post­com­mu­nist au­toc­ra­cies tend to fo­cus on the po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions and ide­olo­gies un­der­pin­ning the state. But while these regimes make pop­ulist ap­peals, they are not driven by ide­ol­ogy. Their pri­mary con­cern is to con­sol­i­date the ruler’s power and per­sonal wealth through what­ever means nec­es­sary.

In to­day’s mafia states, key de­ci­sions are made through in­for­mal mech­a­nisms cre­ated by the regime, in­stead of through for­mal in­sti­tu­tions. In terms of struc­ture and cul­ture, these ar­range­ments re­sem­ble an adopted fam­ily, which the regime cre­ates by sys­tem­at­i­cally re­plac­ing po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic elites.

In a democ­racy, these elites would be au­ton­o­mous ac­tors. But in a mafia state, their po­si­tion is sub­sumed in a sys­tem of pa­tron-client de­pen­dency, of­ten through regime-led cor­po­rate raid­ing and rent-seek­ing. The clas­sic mafia tech­nique of phys­i­cal co­er­cion is thus re­placed with a blood­less, “le­gal” form of com­pul­sion over­seen by public au­thor­i­ties.

To be sure, cor­rup­tion is en­demic in other post­com­mu­nist coun­tries that have joined the EU, such as Ro­ma­nia and Bul­garia. But be­cause these coun­tries have pro­por­tion­ate elec­tion sys­tems and di­vided ex­ec­u­tive power, no cen­tral pa­tron­age net­work has emerged.

Un­like Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland’s fa­nat­i­cally ide­o­log­i­cal de facto leader, Or­bán is a cynic. The type of au­to­cratic regime that he is try­ing to es­tab­lish in Hun­gary is very dif­fer­ent from Kaczyński’s in Poland, de­spite the ide­o­log­i­cal sim­i­lar­i­ties.

Whereas Or­bán’s regime seeks wealth, and is sus­tained by an adopted po­lit­i­cal fam­ily that op­er­ates out­side the con­straints of for­mal in­sti­tu­tions, Kaczyński is con­duct­ing a con­ser­va­tive-au­to­cratic ex­per­i­ment that is driven as much by ide­ol­ogy as by the quest for power.

In Hun­gary’s 2010 par­lia­men­tary elec­tion, Or­bán’s Fidesz party won 53% of the vote, and 263 of the Na­tional Assem­bly’s 386 seats. Or­ban used this strong po­si­tion to al­ter the con­sti­tu­tion, ap­point loyal fol­low­ers to demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions that oth­er­wise would have checked his power, and ma­nip­u­late elec­tion laws to ce­ment his rule. In the 2014 par­lia­men­tary elec­tion, Fidesz needed just 44% of the votes to main­tain con­trol.

Or­bán’s mafia state will be very hard to dis­man­tle. Its pyra­mi­dal pa­tron­age net­work, sim­i­lar to that cre­ated by Vladimir Putin in Rus­sia, ap­pears to be nearly in­de­struc­tible. In Ukraine, it should be noted, rev­o­lu­tions have been re­quired – first un­der Leonid Kuchma, and then un­der Vik­tor Yanukovych, to pre­vent such a sys­tem from be­ing es­tab­lished (whether a third at­tempt is cur­rently un­der­way to­day re­mains to be seen).

It will be im­pos­si­ble to vote Or­bán out of power as long as he can ma­nip­u­late Hun­gary’s elec­tions. Fidesz has tight­ened its con­trol over the ju­di­ciary and politi­cized law en­force­ment, by turn­ing the Chief Pros­e­cu­tor’s of­fice into what is es­sen­tially an arm of the party. More­over, most news­pa­pers and ra­dio sta­tions are now owned by oli­garchs close to Or­bán, and state tele­vi­sion has be­come a ve­hi­cle for govern­ment pro­pa­ganda.

The com­mon val­ues that the EU was es­tab­lished to up­hold have been fa­tally un­der­mined in Hun­gary. In re­sponse, the EU could have the Euro­pean Court of Hu­man Rights in­ves­ti­gate Hun­gary’s vi­o­la­tions of EU rules, or an Eu-level pros­e­cu­tor could bring civil or crim­i­nal ac­tions against Hun­gary’s mis­use of EU funds.

But, so far, the EU has been re­luc­tant to take se­ri­ous puni­tive ac­tion against Or­bán’s regime, be­cause it does not want to risk push­ing Hun­gary fur­ther into Rus­sia’s em­brace. And the EU’S tacit ac­cep­tance of a “mul­ti­speed Europe” im­plies that it can live with a buf­fer zone

The com­men­tary first ap­peared on www.project-syn­di­cate.org

Bálint Mag­yar, a so­ci­ol­o­gist, is the former Hun­gar­ian Min­is­ter of Ed­u­ca­tion.

Bálint mag­yar

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