, Transitions Forum Visiting Senior Fellow, shared insights from his research on Romania
’s democratic development—and the threats that might lie ahead—at a roundtable discussion.
Hungary and Romania officially completed their transition process when they joined the EU, but they appear to be going in very different directions. Both countries, which until recently belonged to the “post-Socialist” European space, are still considered “flawed democracies” according to the EIU, where Hungary ranks higher than Romania. But a closer look reveals that democracy is gradually deteriorating in Hungary while it is slowly progressing in Romania.
Speaking at the roundtable, Shekhovtsov discussed the four crucial areas for democracy in both countries: political process, economy, energy politics, and media freedom.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s attack on the democratic political process provides the most important challenge for Hungarian democracy. Immediately after securing a two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2010, Orban’s government set about amending the constitution. And although some of the most controversial amendments were rejected by the constitutional court following sharp criticisms from the EU and the US, the changes that did go through set Hungary on a dangerous path. His government has been accused of undermining the separation of powers in Hungary— weakening the independence of the judiciary and curtailing the powers of the constitutional court. In the summer of 2014, Orban declared that he was going to build an “illiberal democracy” in Hungary. Orban appeals to nationalism as a source of internal political cohesion, and considers the Hungarian nation as an organic community threatened by external and internal enemies, such as foreign NGOs or so-called ‘national traitors’—a term notoriously used in Russia as well.
Romania also experienced a number of setbacks in terms of political processes since joining the EU in 2007. A referendum to impeach the president in 2012 became particularly controversial when, at the last minute, the government changed the referendum law, fearing that low voter turnout would invalidate the results. With pressure from the EU, the constitutional court rejected the amendment and the referendum was considered invalid because less than 50 per cent of registered voters had turned up at the polls (of those who did vote, 88 per cent voted in favour of impeachment). The on-going anti-corruption campaign is bringing many other undemocratic developments to light.
Shekhovtsov also discussed economics and energy dependence. The financial crisis of 2008-2009 hit both countries very hard and both economies still face a number of challenges. The Romanian economy recovered relatively quickly and the prospects of economic growth are strong. Romania is also the 3rd most independent country in terms of energy imports in the EU, even though there is little consensus on how long that will last. Romania had its eyes on shale gas, but current energy prices have made shale gas development unviable for the moment. Hungary’s dependence on energy imports is much higher—around 89 per cent of its annual gas consumption comes from Russia. Low household bills have been a key element of Orban’s populist narrative, and some would argue that his pro-Russian turn is largely determined by that.
Independent media is vulnerable in both countries, but is threatened much more directly in Hungary. One of the first pieces of legislation Orban’s government passed was to introduce a new national media information and communications authority as an institutionalised way to control the media. The prime minister appoints the president of this authority for an indefinitely renewable nine-year term, and this president also chairs the media council which regulates media content. Domestic media outlets are largely owned by Fidesz-friendly businessmen and the government stopped placing advertisements in independent media. Businesses afraid of losing governmental contracts followed suit.
Most of the popular media outlets in Romania are in the hands of media moguls who use them to advance their political and business interests. In particular, major privately-owned media tend to attack the national anti-corruption directorate because it threatens the illegal activities of their owners. A number of media moguls have been prosecuted for corruption and financial irregularities—which Romanians haven’t considered to be an attack on press freedom. The weakness of the media sector is a major vulnerability which could hurt Romania’s transition.
Shekhovtsov’s presentation was followed by a lively debate with the participants in the room—a mix of government officials, academics, businesspeople, and journalists.
The discussion was moderated by Anne Applebaum, Director of the Transitions Forum at the Legatum Institute.
About the Speaker
Anton Shekhovtsov is Visiting Senior Fellow (2015) for the Transitions Forum. His main area of expertise is the European far right and illiberal tendencies in Central and Eastern Europe. Over the course of his fellowship at the Legatum Institute, Anton will explore the rollback of transitions towards democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. Anton is also Associate Research Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation (Ukraine), and General Editor of the Explorations of the Far Right book series at ibidem-Verlag (Germany). He is the author of the Russian language book New Radical Right-Wing Parties in European Democracies (Stuttgart, 2011), and co-editor of The Post-War Anglo-American Far Right (Basingstoke, 2014) and White Power Music (Ilford, 2012). He is also a member of the Editorial Board of Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies, and published several academic articles in Journal of Democracy, Russian Politics and Law, Europe-Asia Studies, and Patterns of Prejudiceamong others.
The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.
- Hungary—Legatum Prosperity Index Country Profile (View)
- Romania—Legatum Prosperity Index Country Profile (View)