The World

The Budapest-Warsaw Express

From LGBT rights to media suppression, illiberal governments across Central Europe are still learning from each other.

Activist with pink hair holds up her fist in front of a rainbow flag.
Thousands of LGBT supporters demonstrate in central Warsaw against the detaining of the gay-right activist Margo in Warsaw, Poland, on August 8, 2020. JANEK SKARZYNSKI/Getty Images

Earlier this month, a broadcaster in Hungary came under fire for an advertisement the country’s media council deemed harmful to children. The ad in question, part of a campaign by an LGBT advocacy group, sympathetically depicted “rainbow families” and pushed back against anti-LGBT stereotypes. The media authority, run by members of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, announced it would take legal action against the broadcaster RTL Hungary for airing the ad.

The move was part of a broader strategy to suppress what Orbán and his allies decry as “LGBT ideology” imported from the West, and one in which Hungarian activists see parallels to events in nearby Poland, where the governing right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) and a network of outside groups have increasingly ramped up their own rhetoric and policy against the LGBT community.

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Meanwhile, Polish journalists saw echoes of a years-long drive to undermine independent media in Hungary—where Orbán and his allies have used financial pressure rather than outright censorship to make life significantly more difficult for journalists—after the Polish government announced a new tax on their advertising revenue that would squeeze already tight budgets.

Hungary and Poland are often lumped together as the European Union’s illiberal problem children. That characterization minimizes significant differences between the two countries, whose histories, social dynamics and systems of government are vastly different. But it’s hard to ignore the similarities in how they undermine the rule of law and democratic institutions, and shape their respective societies in the name of upholding traditional values—and learn from each other in the process.

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Just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the transfer of pro-democratic ideas between Poland, Hungary and other Central European countries was informally known as the “Warsaw-Budapest Express.” These days, there’s a new version of that exchange—both between Orbán and the Polish PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński and among other illiberal governments across the region. Except today, says Wojciech Przybylski, editor-in-chief of the Warsaw-based journal Visegrad Insight, “it’s the Budapest-Warsaw Express. The ideas have been traveling mostly from Budapest to Warsaw.”

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Whether their impact on each other is explicit or indirect, Orbán and Kaczyński clearly learn from each other’s successes and failures. “There is sadly quite a lot to compare,” said Márta Pardavi, head of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights watchdog organization in Budapest. “I don’t think it’s exactly the same, but rather employing and adapting tricks and practices which ultimately serve the same kind of goal.”

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Orbán, who took office in 2010, has had a head start: He’s been working to reshape Hungary for more than a decade, while PiS came to power only in 2015. Orbán also has a two-thirds supermajority in parliament, allowing him to push through virtually any legislation he wants. In Poland, where society’s deep polarization is reflected in its razor-thin electoral margins, PiS must rely on coalition partners and only a narrow majority in parliament with which to push through its agenda.

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Orbán’s long-term strategy is most apparent in his attacks on independent media. News organizations were among his first targets, and he has worked for years to drastically reduce the number of critical media outlets. Rather than overtly censoring them, Orbán chose an indirect strategy: Fidesz allies began buying up news organizations in the early 2010s, then using their newfound influence to shift the direction of their coverage and push out journalists who failed to get on board. The government also effectively stopped doling out lucrative advertising to outlets that published critical stories, forcing many outlets to fail even without heavy government-led pressure.

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A steady drumbeat of buyouts and closures followed over the years: Independent outlets folded or were bought by Orbán’s allies, leaving only a handful. Last summer, the owners of the popular news website Index told staff they would significantly restructure the organization due to advertising revenue losses during the pandemic. Staffers cried foul, seeing the move as a threat to their editorial independence; Index’s owners ultimately fired the editor-in-chief and mass resignations followed. And earlier this year, Klubradio, one of the last independent radio broadcasters in the country, had its license revoked.

Journalists see PiS developing a similar playbook in Poland—although it’s taken longer to ramp up there. Taking over state media and installing government-friendly journalists was the first step: Polish state television has effectively become a propaganda tool for the PiS government, relentlessly attacking opponents and giving airtime to party officials and allies. After their victory in 2019 parliamentary elections ensured them another term in government, PiS officials began advocating for a “repolonization” of the media, claiming foreign ownership of  news outlets was aimed at influencing Polish society. That rhetoric seems to be paying off: In December, the state-run oil refiner PKN Orlen bought Polska Press, a vast network of local newspapers and websites, from the German firm Verlagsgruppe Passau.

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That deal means a government-aligned company will own 20 of 24 regional newspapers across Poland as well as hundreds of smaller newspapers and news websites. Orlen’s CEO denied it was a political move, but it’s hard to see otherwise. “There is a lot of concern now that they will be turned into propaganda outlets,” said Zselyke Csaky, director of research for Europe and Eurasia at the democracy watchdog organization Freedom House.

When it comes to campaigning against LGBT rights, however, Hungary’s government is loosely following Poland’s lead, recognizing its value in polarizing society and mobilizing its base.

Although anti-LGBT rhetoric in socially conservative Poland is nothing new, it picked up significantly around 2015, says Piotr Godzisz, a former official at the LGBT support and advocacy organization Lambda Warsaw. He points to two converging developments around that time: PiS taking over the government after winning the 2015 parliamentary elections, and the increasing influence of an ultraconservative legal group called Ordo Iuris, founded in 2013. Groups like Ordo Iuris and the Catholic Church—not to mention PiS-controlled state television—have also chimed in against LGBT rights, denouncing what they see as harmful values imported from the West.

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Tensions boiled over in 2019, when Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski released a declaration affirming the equal rights and equal dignity of LGBT people. In response, the right-wing magazine Gazeta Polska began printing stickers for residents outside the capital to declare their cities and towns “LGBT-free zones.” The idea quickly caught on, taking on a life of its own: Aided by Ordo Iuris, local and municipal officials began picking it up, posting signs and prompting a wave of anti-LGBT discrimination and counter-protest across the country. “They know that this is a marathon, not a short walk,” said Bart Staszewski, an LGBT activist from the eastern Polish city of Lublin.

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PiS leader Kaczyński, for his part, called LGBT ideology a “threat to Polish identity, to our nation, to its existence and thus to the Polish state.” And in last year’s presidential election, incumbent PiS-aligned President Andrzej Duda mobilized his base by relentlessly attacking it as “even more destructive” than communism. While Polish officials claim to oppose only this so-called LGBT ideology, not LGBT individuals themselves, activists say life has become significantly less safe for openly gay and lesbian people across the country.

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Things aren’t nearly as bad in Hungary, but LGBT activists see the country on a troubling trajectory, with rhetoric now being paired with shifts in policy. Last spring, amid the pandemic, Orbán’s government passed a law banning legal recognition of gender changes, effectively making it impossible for transgender people to be formally recognized. Although the move wasn’t completely unexpected, it was a major blow. “For the community, that was devastating,” said Luca Dudits, a spokesperson for the Háttér Society, the organization that produced the “rainbow families” ad. “I think that was the moment we realized it’s not just the rhetoric anymore.”

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Orbán’s government has since taken additional steps to define and promote its idea of a traditional family. In December, it changed Hungary’s constitution to define family as “based on marriage and the parent-child relation,” specifying that “the mother is a woman, the father a man.” Also added was a line giving children the right to “identify with their birth gender” and grow up in a manner “based on our nation’s constitutional identity and values based on our Christian culture.” Around the same time, the country effectively banned same-sex adoption by limiting adoption to married couples; same-sex marriage is illegal, but in the past couples worked around that by having only person handle the adoption.

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In addition to the recent RTL incident, authorities have pushed back against positive media portrayals of LGBT couples. Last summer, the consumer protection agency fined Coca-Cola for running an ad featuring two men with the tagline “#LoveIsLove: Zero Sugar, Zero Prejudice.” And earlier this year, the government required a disclaimer sticker be put on a children’s book called Wonderland Is for Everyone, which features some LGBT characters, stating it contains “behavior inconsistent with traditional gender roles.”

Like in Poland, ultraconservative groups are contributing to the rhetoric: Early last year, Ordo Iuris announced a partnership with the Hungarian Center for Fundamental Rights aimed at “establishing a broad coalition to defend fundamental values,” giving them a direct opportunity for coordination with their Polish counterparts. The rhetoric—like that railing against refugees or the European Union or the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros—is particularly effective in Hungary because it plays on people’s worries about the future, said Dudits, the Háttér Society spokesperson: “They see that there is a generational gap, they see that their children won’t have the life they had.”

Central Europe’s so-called illiberal democracies aren’t the first to employ such strategies. Whether pressuring independent media outlets, squeezing NGOs or rolling back LGBT rights, many observers trace the original ideas to another source: Russia. Stronger versions of many of the laws and strategies employed by Orbán and other illiberal leaders were already being used by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. “I don’t think either of these two [Orbán and Kaczyński] are really very original in doing to democracy what they’re doing,” says Przybylski, of Visegrad Insight.

Hungary and Poland still occupy different positions along the illiberal spectrum, and no strategy or policy translates exactly between the two: An issue potent in deeply Catholic Poland might be less so in Hungary, or a policy possible in Hungary with Orbán’s two-thirds parliamentary majority may be tricky to pass in Poland’s hyper-polarized legislature.

Still, the apparent end goal of the ruling parties in both countries—to centralize power and reshape society in their own image—feels remarkably similar. It’s not just on media issues that Polish liberals have a wary eye on Hungary. From reshaping judicial systems to reforming school curricula to curbing academic freedom, it’s clear they are taking inspiration from each other. Many Poles “recognize Hungary as a warning,” said Anna Wojcik, an analyst for Freedom House in Poland. “What’s happening in Hungary might arrive in Poland sooner or later.”

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