BELGRADE — Back in the late 1990s, a group of Serbian dissidents, independent journalists and the opposition fled Slobodan Miloševićs dictatorial regime to Hungary. In an open-air tavern under the Buda castle, we dreamt of a democratic Serbia. Ironically, it was Viktor Orbáns government that offered us refuge and a free space to work toward democratic change back home.
Since then the world has turned upside down. Within a month, Orbáns government is expected to table a set of laws authorizing police raids on any organizations or activists deemed a threat by the ministry of internal affairs. The ministry will be able to shut down those it disagrees with. The move caps off a two-year campaign of publicly vilifying critical NGOs, activists that offer support to migrants, and my own organization, Open Society Foundations.
As a result, we were forced to announce that our international operations in Budapest will move to Berlin. Hungarian civil society is to be muzzled, like the Hungarian press before it. In this latest assault on dissenting voices, the courts will be bypassed altogether.
Balkan nations aspiring to join the EU are watching Orbán establish a one-party state inside its borders with interest. They see European leaders failing to adequately confront his government or tackle its rampant corruption. Regional strongmen are starting to believe they can import the Orbán model of fake democracy, its rhetoric and tactics. Some of it has already seeped into the political discourse in Macedonia, Serbia and Albania. Should the EU let Hungary slide further into kleptocracy, Brussels can be sure the Balkans will follow.
The reason Orbáns “illiberal democracy” is so infectious is that it requires no coherent ideology; only the simple rejection of another one. The Hungarian prime minister makes no commitments other than to fight foes that dont exist anyway.
The Balkans are still scarred by important structural problems inherited from our communist past.
For Balkan leaders looking to emulate him, the blueprint is clear: Have your friends buy up the media early, then take big business, the courts and law enforcement under party control. Replace university heads and directors of schools and cultural institutions with party loyalists. Finally, to hush remaining independent voices, introduce Russian-style laws that make operating an independent NGO a hazardous activity. Use your imaginary enemies to justify everything.
Orbáns illiberal playbook, already carefully being applied by Polands ruling Law and Justice party, is familiar to all of us who lived under the yoke of Milošević in the 1990s. But back then, autocratic practices in the Balkans were roundly condemned in EU capitals. Today, as a result of the EU alliances of Orbáns regime and his party, Fidesz, in the European Parliament, this is no longer the case.
The Balkans are still scarred by important structural problems inherited from our communist past. The regions development is on a knife-edge, with some signs that we may be sliding in the wrong direction. Freedom Houses 2018 Freedom in the World report lists all countries in the western Balkans as free or partially free, but Serbia and Montenegro are dropping down the rankings.
Thats why its so important that the EU adopt the Commissions recent proposal for a new regulation to stop the flow of funds from the blocs budget to countries with a serious rule of law problem. If adopted, the rule could not only put the brakes on repression in Hungary and Poland; it could act as a deterrent for wayward Balkan states once the bloc grows. Serbia and Montenegro have set their sights on joining by 2025.
Brussels should go further still. It should make any forwarding of EU funds to pre-accession countries conditional on tangible progress toward rule of law. It also needs to recognize that European democratic development is not irreversible. EU funds available for NGOs promoting the rule of law are currently off limits for organizations within member countries. Its time to change that — by setting up a fund to help civil society promote European values in countries where they are under threat.
If the EU is unable to reverse a one-party takeover in countries that have already joined, its aspirations for enlargement will be endangered — and the bloc will be on course to becoming a collection of democracies and autocracies held together only by the promise of free trade. That cant be the future that Brussels wants.
Srđan Cvijić is a senior policy analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute.