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András Simonyi Headshot

Hungary Has No Business in That Russian Orbit and Neither Does the Ukraine

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If you haven't noticed, there is something going on in Eastern Europe that resembles the bad old days of the Cold War.

There is a striking similarity between the events in the Ukraine and those almost sixty years ago in my own Motherland. Hungary's quest for democracy in 1956 was also its quest for modernization. The Hungarian struggle for independence was also an effort to break out of the Soviet-Russian orbit, the Eastern type of social development that did not bode well for the development of the country.

The Eastern model of development is back with a vengeance. To refresh your memory, that model is authoritarian, it is rigid, there is a concentration of power at the top and a lack of checks and balances, lack of an independent judiciary and a free press. It is characterized by a corrupt in-transparent economic system, dominated by oligarchs. Social life and education are over-regulated. Individual human rights are overruled by the "general interest of the public good." It is also usually repressive towards national or social minorities; it is xenophobic, with degrees of anti-Semitism and hatred against LGBT people. In their international relations (check it out) authoritarian leaders, big or small, look for the enemy abroad. The outside world is to blame for the failures of their economies.

A strong leader around whom a loyal "court" is built also characterizes the Eastern model. This leader usually has great abilities of organization and management, and is good at keeping his underlings under control. He (woman dictators in modern times are nonexistent) divides and rules, does not believe in win-win deals and only zero sum games. They are good at temporarily fooling faint-hearted leaders of democracies.

No one disputes that this system of organizing societies is legitimate. It is just not democratic. It is just not a system that will use the resources of a country best. It will not be able to unleash the incredible creative power of its people: the artists, scientists and entrepreneurs. It is just not the system that we want our societies to adopt.

Democracies must be aware of the dangers that loom down the road: our way of life is being contested even threatened. Russia is now taking the lead on aggressively reintroducing a model, we thought was slowly withering away. It leads the efforts to push back on the advances of democracy. We have become complacent in the last decades about the embrace of democratic values. We let down our guard in defending human rights and freedom. We failed to see that transition to democracy in Central and Eastern Europe is incomplete and that democracy can be reversed. Even Hungary, once the proud leader of democratic transition is sliding backwards, its recent dealings with Russia are worrying.

Elites in a number of CEE countries failed their people. Greed and its sister, corruption, are factors. It is a cancer that has been devastating for nascent democracies with weak institutions, weak checks and balances, a population where losers of democracy outnumber the winners.

Democracy in Central Europe is good stock. The fundamentals are there. But like companies, with bad management, they will fail. We must hold on to them, long term, and if necessary give them assistance, fresh capital and if help their new management. However only responsible investors should touch these sensitive "stocks." We must keep reckless brokers away.

Ukrainians should make us all proud. They are standing up for their democratic future and ours. The European Union has nothing to be proud of. Europe failed to see the big picture. It failed to understand, that Ukraine is a country whose future will strongly influence the trajectory of Europe. It failed to see that this is not just about Ukraine; this is a proxy war between our democratic way of life of respect for freedom and democracy and the authoritarian way.

Have no doubt. Democrats in Central and Eastern Europe are holding their breath. They are watching carefully whether history will repeat itself, when Hungarians fought a fight for freedom with promises of help from the West, which never arrived. Authoritarian leaders are watching and holding their breath. They too are curious to know if the West will act or if, like in the past, it will settle for words and empty threats.

As I was writing this blog, John Kerry's statement came in from the Munich Security Conference. The Secretary said "Nowhere is the fight for a democratic European future more important today than in Ukraine.... their futures do not have to lie with one country alone and certainly not coerced." This is a good sign that there is an awakening, a realization of what is at stake. In the efforts to defend our way of life, US leadership is once again called for.

And to be perfectly clear: Hungary has no business in that other orbit. Neither does the Ukraine.