Viktor Orban, Hungary’s far-right populist prime minister, was re-elected last week in a landslide victory that pro-democracy advocates fear sends a hair-raising signal to the rest of the world: the rise in autocratic leadership witnessed across the globe in recent decades is not going away.
An ally of fellow authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin and endorsed by former U.S. President Donald Trump, Orban’s re-election came as no surprise to many, including Northeastern professor Peter Fraunholtz, who teaches history and international affairs with a focus on Russia and the former Soviet Union.
Part of what is to blame for Orban’s consolidation of leadership and the spike in nationalism in Eastern Europe is what Fraunholtz describes as an emphasis by the West on “markets over democracy” in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. As the United States sought to bring free market economic systems to Russia and other countries, it had an unintended effect: rampant inequality and workers being left behind in the global market.
“It’s not a surprise,” Fraunholtz says about Orban’s re-election. “I tend to take a longer view of this. I was living in Russia during the early ‘90s. I trace some of what’s going on now to then, when the Soviet Union folded, and there was a big push to make this transition in Russia from a communist system to capitalism and democracy. Ultimately, I think democracy was sacrificed for markets.”
Neoliberalism and globalism, Fraunholtz explains, focused on rapidly breaking down barriers and building nations’ economies, and while it may have been beneficial for consumers, it was not so for working-class people in Eastern Europe, the U.S., and countries throughout the world.
“The shock therapy was sort of predicated on moving quickly to liberalize the economy and to avoid political resistance, but it wreaked havoc with the country, with the population. The country wasn’t ready for what was coming,” Fraunholtz says about Russia. “And when the resistance came, Boris Yeltsin rolled a tank over it. For a lot of Russians, democracy was gone then.”
Fraunholtz is not alone in his opinion. Ben Rhodes, the former deputy national security adviser under the Obama administration, shares similar analyses in his book, “After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made,” where he traces the rise to power of Orban, Putin, and other so-called “strongmen” world leaders, among them Trump and President Xi Jinping of China.
Rhodes spoke to an audience of Northeastern students in September about the breakdown of democratic systems in the past few decades, noting that in every nation he has traveled to that has experienced an increase in authoritarian leadership, these strongmen politicians—like Orban, Putin, and even Trump—had exploited their citizens’ resentment over globalization to gain favor and popularity.
“This is how you get blue-collar populism,” Fraunholtz says. “Trump is just another variant of it. This was starting in Russia and Eastern Europe before him.”
“The white working class across the North Atlantic is feeling like they got left out of the bargain. Even if they’re paying less at Walmart, their stature has fallen quite a bit,” he adds.
For the past few decades, Orban and his conservative party, Alliance of Young Democrats (Fidesz), have taken advantage of engrained xenophobia and nationalism, increasing economic inequality, and a growing suspicion in the West to consolidate power. Once in leadership, they cemented control over the media, reshaped political districts to their advantage, and continued to play on people’s fears of immigrants and other populations, Vox reported.
This is a signature of many authoritarian governments, even ones that have not seen as much economic turmoil in the wake of the Soviet Union’s fall, including France, Italy, and Poland, explains Northeastern human services professor Matthew Lee, who teaches about ethnic identity and conflict in Poland and other countries.
Poland, in particular, Lee says, has had a “very interesting” economic history in
the past 20 or so years, where its Gross Domestic Product has risen steadily, but its politics have remained conservative, with discrimination on the rise.
When Trump was elected in 2016, many Polish citizens were championing his political win, while much of Western Europe was frightened by it. Lee noticed a rise in xenophobia and anti-Semitism as well as anti-Black, anti-Asian, and anti-LGBTQ+ behavior in the country around that time.
“A lot of conservatives in Poland were trying to promote this sense of ethnic purity,” he says. “From a human rights perspective, it’s alarming.”
Lee’s class on race history and empowerment was particularly interested in how in Krakow, Poland, many Jewish people fled the country after World War II and how their descendants are now trying to return to reclaim their ancestral property. However, the Polish government, run by the conservative Law and Justice party, recently ruled they were not allowed to do so.
“From a government perspective, that’s horrifying,” Lee says. “Many people see this as anti-Semitic. They’re limiting their own people, Jewish people with Polish ancestry, from coming back.”
Another signature of countries that are experiencing spikes in authoritarianism are efforts by autocratic politicians to rewrite history and restrict education, according to Lee. Hungary, he points out, has a policy limiting what people are allowed to teach in schools, going so far as to ban gender studies. The U.S. is also seeing state legislatures pass laws limiting education on race and LGBTQ+ issues, and in Poland, the Law and Justice party has sought to eliminate stories from school books that paint the country in a bad light, including educational material on the Holocaust.
“It paints a very white-washed version of what happened,” he says. “If we don’t learn about it, we’re doomed to repeat it. People are not learning the true history.”