Hungary’s illiberal influence on Georgia’s European integration: a worrying pattern
Author: Volodymyr Posviatenko, Jagiellonian University in Kraków and the University of Padova
Since 2010, Hungary ruled by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party, has steadily displayed illiberal and authoritarian tendencies. Hungary’s democratic backsliding has undermined fundamental European values and damaged its international reputation. Hungary’s illiberal turn spills over further than the domestic level, though, hindering the EU’s decision-making process and adversely influencing the EU foreign policy and its substantial component – the EU enlargement policy.
Hungary has always been a staunch proponent of EU enlargement. However, with the illiberal turn came changes to Hungary’s traditionally positive influence on this process, turning the country into an unwanted advocate for EU-aspiring countries.
Traditionally, Hungary’s long-term priority in the EU enlargement has been the Western Balkans’ European integration. However, of late, Hungary has increased its involvement in Georgia. Considering the recent adverse dynamics of Hungary’s involvement in the EU enlargement process, the question arises: what threats might Hungary’s growing cooperation with Georgia pose to its European integration?
Hungary’s newfound approach to EU Enlargement
Hungary’s newfound approach to EU aspirant countries is based on engaging explicitly with selected political parties displaying characteristics compatible with his illiberal ideology, even if such cooperation is done at the expense of the security, stability and progress of European integration of these states. Orbán’s possible intention is to expand his leverage within the EU by creating a coalition of illiberal undemocratic states to challenge the influence of dominant Western EU Member States and the whole system of liberal values. Crucially, one of the pillars of Orbán’s approach is the “traditional values” sentiment, instrumentalised to promote his illiberal vision within the aspirant states by stirring up Eurosceptic and antidemocratic sentiments.
Orbán’s approach undermines the EU enlargement policy as an effective foreign policy tool for the democratisation of European countries. Orbán’s actions and consequent impunity send a message to illiberal politicians that once their countries join the EU, they can exploit the economic benefits of being in the bloc while ignoring political alignment and European values. As a result, Hungary’s engagement in the domestic politics of the aspirant countries hinders the stated objective of their rapid EU accession, further dividing the opinions of EU Member States about enlargement.
Examples from the Western Balkans
Hungary’s current approach can be best exemplified by its engagement in the Western Balkans. Analysing Orbán’s influence in Serbia, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina can help us to understand the potential consequences of Hungary’s involvement in Georgia.
Viktor Orban’s key illiberal ally in the Western Balkans is Serbia. In Serbia, Orbán firmly supports the current government led by President Aleksandar Vučić, who displays similar authoritarian, populist, and illiberal traits. In June 2021, Orbán included the immediate accession of Serbia into the EU as one of seven steps of his proposed vision to reform the EU. While Serbian accession to the EU is Hungary’s long-term goal, it is illiberal Serbia that the current Hungarian government wants to join the EU immediately. The accession of such a state is undesirable for the EU. Thus, considering Hungary’s current reputation, Orbán’s strong pro-Serbian lobbyism hampers Serbia’s European integration.
In North Macedonia, the Hungarian Prime Minister supports the largest opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, which often acted undemocratically while being in power from 2006 to 2017. Its former leader, Nikola Gruevski, was granted political asylum in Hungary, despite being convicted of corruption in his home country. Since 2017, North Macedonia has seen a rapid expansion of Hungarian influence on media. Media outlets acquired by Hungarian businessmen have engaged in increased influencing of North Macedonian public opinion by undisguisedly supporting VMRO-DPMNE and spreading Eurosceptic and anti-liberal narratives. Orbán’s further divisive actions have included calls to block North Macedonia’s name compromise with Greece, which was a condition for Greece to lift its veto on North Macedonia’s EU and NATO integration.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Orbán’s closest ally is Milorad Dodik, the current President of Republika Srpska. Dodik has spent years championing a secession of Republika Srpska from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Hungary’s open support of Dodik’s secessionist regime directly assists his attacks on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Orbán’s influence over Dodik offers him leverage inside the EU by projecting himself as a key player for regional stability. Therefore, Orbán’s policy jeopardises the common security efforts of the EU and NATO in the country, which puts the whole security architecture in the Western Balkans at risk and can cause further adverse consequences for wider European security.
Georgia – a new target?
In recent years, Hungary’s illiberal influence has spread into Georgia. This is reflected in the growing cooperation between Orbán’s government and Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party, which displays ideological compatibility with Orbán’s Fidesz. The most noticeable examples of this are the insistent promotion of Christian-conservative “traditional” values, an anti-LGBTQ+ stance, Euroscepticism, and an ambiguous or even positive opinion on cooperation with Russia. In resemblance to Hungary’s illiberal turn, the Georgian government tries to curtail its citizens’ civil liberties, consolidate control over the judiciary, impede democratic electoral processes, and restrict media and academic freedoms. Thus, it is not coincidental that Georgia’s cooperation with Hungary started to increase in correlation with the intensification of its democratic backsliding.
The GD government eagerly embraces growing illiberal ties with Hungary. This dynamic became especially noticeable during the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. A crucial development in this regard occurred on 27 October 2022, when Prime Minister Gharibashvili visited Hungary, where he and his Hungarian counterpart signed a declaration on strategic partnership between the two states. In his remarks during the visit, Gharibashvili praised Orbán’s rule and openly stated that, for Georgia, Hungary serves as an example of the successful democratic reforms, which it wants to emulate.
One more similarity between Orbán’s and GD’s governments is their attitude to Ukraine and Russia during the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. During his October 2022 visit, Gharibashvili claimed that both Georgia and Hungary are doing their utmost to support Ukraine, simultaneously defending their countries’ national interests first. The similarity of both states’ positions is reflected in their calls “to end the war as soon as possible” by imposing an immediate ceasefire and halting military assistance to Ukraine. Additionally, both the Hungarian and Georgian governments have made comments accusing the Ukrainian government of being hostile to them. At the same time, Georgia’s economic ties with Russia are growing, with imports increasing by 79% in 2022, and direct flights between the states being restored, while Hungary continues to import Russian gas and crude oil, cooperate in the nuclear energy sphere, and make reciprocal diplomatic visits.
Another defining visit of Prime Minister Gharibashvili to Hungary occurred on 4 May 2023, when he visited the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Budapest. At the conference, the Georgian Prime Minister once again praised “Orbán’s leadership” and made several remarks indicating a growing tide to illiberalism, increasing Euroscepticism, and anti-Western rhetoric. The visit became representative of the GD government’s insistent promotion of “traditional values” and demonstrated that the illiberal course of the GD is firm. As a result of Gharibashvili’s participation in the CPAC, the Party of European Socialists expelled the GD from its ranks.
In 2023, Hungary actively engaged in the promotion of granting the EU candidate status to Georgia. However, it is highly dubious that Hungary’s support of this matter is fully sincere. According to Rikard Jozwiak, Hungary may block Ukraine from opening its EU accession negotiation, unless the EU gives Georgia candidate status, which amounts to using Georgia as a bargaining chip to blackmail the EU and increase Hungary’s leverage over the decision-making process. Moreover, the promotion of illiberal Georgia’s accelerated accession process correlates with Orbán’s goal of creating a group of illiberal states within the EU. These actions compromise Georgia’s already deteriorating reputation and strain its prospects of receiving candidate status.
Potential risks of Hungary’s involvement
Hungary’s lobbyism of Georgia receiving candidate status regardless of its progress in the implementation of the European Commission’s 12 priorities might have a negative effect. The sincerity of Orbán’s support of EU enlargement based on the Copenhagen criteria is undermined by the instrumentalisation of Georgia’s status issue to increase his leverage over the EU’s decision-making process.
The GD’s choice of Hungary as the role model looks like a further attempt to sabotage Georgia’s European integration process, undermine its democratic foundations, and oppose European values. Considering Hungary’s current reputation among EU Member States and its divisive activities in the Western Balkans, Georgia’s growing cooperation with Hungary might antagonise Brussels and individual EU Member States in their opinions on Georgia’s European integration. Emulating the Hungarian “success” hinders Georgia’s European perspective, as European leaders may be wary of inviting “another Hungary” to the bloc.
Nevertheless, even if Orbán’s tactic succeeds in providing Georgia with candidate status, a further European integration path is not guaranteed. In this regard, Georgia’s cooperation with Orbán’s Hungary might bring precarious long-term effects, adversely affecting Georgia’s democratisation process and, consequently, its European path.
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