A most similar comparison: The authoritarianism of Poland and Hungary with Edit Zgut-Przybylska

October 24, 2022

Edit Zgut-Przybylska, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences, shares her insights about Hungarian and Polish authoritarianism on the International Horizons podcast.

Edit Zgut-Przybylska appears in a white blazer and glasses in the center, and behind her is a faded picture of puppets of Viktor Orban and Jaroslav Kuczynski

The leadership of Hungary and Poland seemingly shared the same playbook when it came to undermining judicial independence, consolidating electoral power, regulating media ownership and enacting laws against LGBTQ rights and abortion. They also work together to push back against the European Union's efforts to sanction member states pursuing illiberal reforms. However, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Poland has embraced Ukrainian refugees and promoted EU sanctions against Russia, while Hungary has taken a softer stance towards Russia. What are the prospects for these islands of illiberalism within the wider European democratic project? 

This week on International Horizons, Edit Zgut-Przybylska from the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences and vice president of Amnesty International Hungary, shares her insights about Hungarian and Polish authoritarianism with Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey. Zgut-Przybylska presents Orban's definition of Illiberal democracy and how it is intended to disseminate an image of a decaying West. She explains how Russia’s war on Ukraine is framed differently in Poland and Hungary. Moreover, she discusses the Polish and Hungarian leadership’s efforts to portray the EU and Germany as the perpetrators of economic deterioration. Finally, she discusses how Poland and Hungary are getting around Brussels’ laws and its consequences, which include freezing EU funds.

International Horizons is part of the New Books Network of academic podcasts. Subscribe to the RSS feed or find it on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. A lightly edited transcript follows below. 


John Torpey  00:00

The leadership of Hungary and Poland seemingly shared the same playbook when it came to undermining judicial independence, consolidating electoral power, regulating media ownership and enacting laws against LGBTQ rights and abortion. They also work together to push back against the EU's efforts to sanction member states pursuing illiberal reforms. However, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Poland has embraced Ukrainian refugees and promoted EU sanctions against Russia, while Hungary has taken a softer stance towards Russia, what are the prospects for these islands of illiberalism within the wider European democratic project? 

John Torpey  00:45

Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey, and I'm director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York. 

John Torpey  01:04

Our guest this week is Edit Zgut-Przybylska, she's a doctoral researcher at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences, and vice president of Amnesty International Hungary. She's currently a fellow with re:constitution, and Visegrad Insight. And was previously a fellow with the German Marshall Fund. She's a lecturer at the Foreign Service Institute of the US State Department and at the University of Warsaw. She previously worked as a political analyst and journalist, and her articles and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, the Financial Times and Politico Europe, as well as in Hungarian media outlets. Edit holds degrees in Political Science from the Eötvös Lóránd University in Budapest and the Bálint György Journalism Academy (forgive my pronunciation of the Polish and Hungarian). Welcome to International Horizons, Edit Zgut-Przybylska.

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  02:08

Hello, John, thank you for having me on the program.

John Torpey  02:11

Okay, I'm sorry, I hope I haven't butchered your name too badly. So, you've lived in both Hungary and Poland, basically grew up I guess in Hungary, and now live in Poland. And as a journalist, policy analyst, and academic, you've got firsthand insight into how those governments operate. While these countries are sometimes lumped together in discussions about illiberalism and contemporary Europe, as we were saying in the introduction, they have gone their different ways in certain respects since the invasion of Ukraine. So could you maybe identify a few of the key differences you've observed between the two countries?

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  02:55

Sure. And let me just start by saying that I think that autocratic undermining leaders are usually following more or less the same playbook to undermine democracy like all over the world. And at this point, I really like to refer to the excellent book of Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levistky, who will frame it in their work How Democracy Dies. First, this kind of three steps that these leaders are doing: so they captured the referees, they sideline the key players by using state resources against them, and they rewrite the rules to tilt the playing field. 

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  03:33

And I think that the differences between Hungary and Poland, it lies in three key factors. The first is about the methods of this change, so how they actually did this procedure. So since the Polish government didn't have a 2/3 majority, it could not change the constitution like Mr. Orban did at least 10 times. So therefore, the process of this kind of democratic backsliding in Poland was a lot more driven by the violation of the Polish Constitution. In contrast to that, the Orban government did not have to act in a sort of, like a blatant way, because it got this constitutional supermajority. So it could implement a new fundamental law which gives them this kind of formal legal justification for further changes. 

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  04:24

And as I said, so they changed the constitution 10 times to capture the referees and sideline the opponents. And the political decision-making is very often formally taken in accordance with the national legislation, and here comes the tricky part. So the government is not always formally violating the constitution like the Polish government does. And I think the democratic declaration here in Hungary happens through rather to select the law enforcement and the instrumentalisation of the law in order to feed the authoritarian goal of the regime. 

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  05:03

The second difference is the systemic outcome of this democratic backsliding. And Viktor Orban's Hungary I think it perform not only democratic backsliding, but it was also autocratizing at a very great speed. So it went further down the road, like it was the regime was shifting from liberal democracy to non-democracy. Now, we can call it electoral autocracy or competitive authoritarian regime. But it definitely crossed the Rubicon like years ago; it became a hybrid regime in which both the quality of governance and the quality of democracy have been deteriorated. And I think Poland is not there yet. I mean, it's rapidly shifting towards the same direction. But Jaroslav Kaczynski's Poland, I think it experienced rather democratic backsliding at a greater length. So it was like declined from liberal democracy to electoral democracy. And it is rapidly catching up with Hungary. But there are some institutional guarantees that are slowing this down.  

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  06:06

And this brings me to my last third point, this last distinguishing factor, which is about the importance of decentralization and multi-level governance in Poland, because I think it serves as kind of a security break here. So strong local municipalities, very strong civil society organizations on the local level, it matters a lot, because it can actually act as a counterbalancing towards national level populism and authoritarianism. There is also a second, like the upper house can slow things down, and President Duda has powerful veto power also to block things. 

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  06:48

So there is a, sort of say, different kind of institutional setup, and there is also a very well-functioning free market with a very diverse media market as well. And I just named a few things which doesn't exist in Hungary anymore, because the political decision making has been a lot more centralized at the first place. But most importantly, because checks and balances have been completely hollowed out in Budapest, and local governances have been weakened. And the most crucial difference is that the free market economy has been also like butchered where the clientelistic network of the prime minister has gained a dominant position, not only in the media, but also in the most important economic sectors in Hungary.

John Torpey  07:38

Got it. Well, that's all very helpful in distinguishing between what's going on in Hungary and what's going on in Poland. But as you were talking, I realized that I'd recently had a conversation (or online conversation anyway) with a couple of people who I generally regard as exceptionally well informed. And they said, "Well, we've never heard this term illiberal democracy." And I realized that it might be useful -- I mean, it's particularly Hungarian kind of idea, I suppose -- but it'd be useful, I think, if you could explain for people what that means. I mean, it involves many of the factors that you've just been describing. But is that particularly a kind of Hungarian thing? I mean, I was struck by some of the things that Orban has been saying about LGBTQ rights and other issues of gender identity, and how they actually sort of resembled some of the things that Vladimir Putin was recently saying in this big speech in which he kind of declared war on the West and its culture. So could you talk a little bit about that? I mean, what does this mean, what is this notion of illiberal democracy? These people I was communicating with basically thought liberalism and democracy were somehow something that went hand in hand and I would say, generally speaking, we agree with that. But how would you sort of describe also this larger dimension? And how much is that an issue in Poland as opposed to in Hungary? I hope that makes sense.

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  09:22

Sure, okay. So, let me try to explain and describe the way how the very concept of illiberal democracy had been used misused and captured by the Hungarian government. So the way how it works, how Orban has been presenting it in 2014, it was this kind of infamous speech in Romania, Baile Tusnad, when he said that they are aiming to build an illiberal democracy. They were pushing this notion, and presenting this notion as a positive notion that as something which is like a deteriorated form of democracy or the interpretation of Fareed Zakaria or anyone else in political science. They are claiming that illiberal democracies are defective democracies in the sense that although the government is like maintaining and running elections, but at the same time it is undermining the very liberal principles of democracy and the protection and human rights and so on and so forth. 

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  10:25

So, Viktor Orban has been presenting it as something rather positive notion, by referring to Singapore, Turkey, back then Russia and so on and so forth, by claiming that a democratic institutional basis should not necessarily be based on liberal principles in order to make it economically efficient. So he was pursuing this kind of notion of building up a work-based democracy where, for instance, social handouts shouldn't be directly given to people who are deprived, but rather, would be needed to be provided with the opportunity structures to work.  

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  11:08

But the trick is that no matter what he said in 2014; this was kind of like a speech, which had been framing and also explaining, to some extent, what happened after the government took over in 2010. And this was exactly getting back to the notion of illiberal democracy meaning, undermining the liberal principles of democracy. And I would certainly describe it on a normative basis as an oxymoron. Because if we deprive democracy of its liberal principles, meaning the protection of minority rights, the constraints on checks and balances, and the executed power, or the self governance of the people, then I think that democracy itself becomes merely formal, and it is being deprived of itself so to say protections at the same time. 

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  12:00

So I would certainly step away from describing Hungary as an illiberal democracy, not only because, as I said, it has been used and misused politically by the government, but at the same time, because I think, not only by now, but also by 2014, the Hungarian system has gone beyond any kind of system which can be described as liberal; it is becoming more and more autocratic, it has become hybrid regime by 2016 and 18. And all the democracy indices and all the global rating bodies are declaring that, that Hungary is beyond the point of any kind of like democratic category, and it is rapidly shifting towards -- it's not a full fledged dictatorship, but this is certainly in the gray zone, and a lot closer to autocracy than to democracy.

John Torpey  13:00

Right. But then there's these sort of culture war aspects that I was also referring to. I mean, is that part of the illiberal democratic project, so to speak? I mean, is this a characteristic of what's going on in contemporary Poland? Or is this really just kind of Hungarian and Russian thing? Is it not connected at all to the Ukraine War? I mean, the fact that Orban is saying some of the same kinds of things that Putin is saying about the description of the West essentially is decadent, right, and particularly in regard to issues of gender and sexuality. How do you see that fitting into this larger picture? And is it also characteristic of what's going on in Poland? Or is that not a feature in Poland?

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  13:54

It definitely is and in order to get a better understanding about that, I think it's very fluid throughout the exploratory paradigm of populism, because what you just explained or mentioned about Hungary and Poland, this kind of blaming the decadent West -- European Union, and from Hungarian perspective, also the Democratic leadership of the United States -- it nicely fits into the broader context of right-wing populism in Hungary, but also in Poland. So, this way of thinking, like polarizing the society between us versus them, it goes hand in hand with the notion of the corrupt elite; the local opposition is cooperating with the decadent West in order to undermine national sovereignty and to impose values that are not necessarily fitting the local cultural, sociocultural kind of setting. Meaning the protection of the LGBTQ minorities, the protection of women when it comes to reproductive rights, and so on and so forth. 

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  15:07

And if you have, like, from the first perspective, take a look at the Polish on the Hungarian government, I think they're very much like similar to what we're witnessing in Western European countries or in the United States about right-wing populism in a sense that this whole kind of cultural power struggle, as you just mentioned, it nicely fits this kind of notion of blaming the decadent West, and the historical cultural kind of decay of modernity and the West, about everything, all economic and political hardship that these governments would need to face on the local ground. Just to give you one example: the latest development in Hungary is that there is going to be a national consultation, which is about blaming the European Union sanctions against Russia for all economic hardship that Hungary has to face right now. And this is a crucial moment, because the economic situation hasn't been so severe as it is right now since the Eurozone crisis. So this is really huge. The Hungarian economy is in a very difficult situation. So what they do is that they blame everything on the European Union on the American leadership.

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  16:28

Situation is a little bit different in Poland, because yes, it is very much Euroskeptic, and it is very much tied, I would say, directly towards Western Europe, and in particular, Germany, not necessarily and not that much towards the United States. But the messages are very similar: we have to protect our traditional way of living, the traditional family is the very last bastion that we have to protect against the latent attack of modernity. And the West, which is under the influence of neo-Marxist kind of conspirators were collaborating with sinister platforms like Google and Amazon. 

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  17:09

So I think we can identify interesting opportunity structures, synergy structures here. So this is not only kind of against neoliberalism kind of thing, but also their connecting it with anti-gender movement. And there is also a great sort of cooperation between these right-wing populist parties and traditionalist extremist organizations, for instance, like Odrodzenie in Poland. So they're pushing the same envelope when it comes to reproductive rights, and restricting abortions or pushing back human rights organizations that are protecting LGBTQ minorities. So we can nicely connect the dots. And when it comes to Hungary, this is even more prominently overlapping with pro-Russia entities and organizations such as World Congress of Families which is, obviously, an international network and platform of the Kremlin in order to pursue their kind of weaponization of culture at the end of the day.

John Torpey  18:14

Right. So a lot of this, as you were sort of hinting, has played out as a kind of conflict with the European Union with Brussels. And the differences that you've pointed to between Poland and Hungary have sort of been heightened by their respective stances towards the conflict in Ukraine. The Poles, in some ways following their historic relationship or antagonistic relationship with Russia have been very pro EU, and pro-Ukraine, and have taken in millions of millions of refugees from Ukraine, we actually did a podcast about that some weeks ago. 

John Torpey  19:04

And Hungary has taken a very different position. And so that is to say, essentially a more pro-Russian position. And so as I say, a lot of this has played out as a kind of conflict with Brussels, which many people think should be sanctioning both of these countries for their refusal to institute or sort of defend checks and balances and civil liberties and that sort of thing. So could you talk a little bit about that, and about how the Ukraine situation is affecting the EU's efforts or expectations that the EU will impose sanctions on these countries because of their governmental behavior.

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  19:53

Okay, I guess it just boils down to the question of how the foreign policy actors of these two governments are facing a very oppositional kind of direction when it comes to Russia. So I will probably start with that. So, I mean, I don't want to speak like the obvious here, but the Russian war is really like a matter of security and a matter of self-identification for Poland. And it is based partly on this kind of so-called anti-morale narrative, which is very much anchored in the Polish conservative political thinking in Poland. It's projecting Poland as a protector of Christianity, both from the barbaric East, like Russia, and from the barbaric West, like Germany, and Russia is definitely the greatest existential threat here in this equation. Which means that all the territories, with Polish minorities in specific, need to be protected at all costs. So Ukraine, you know, goes without saying that. 

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  20:58

But this is not really the case for the Hungarian government. The Hungarian government is still not really considering Russia as a direct security threat. Rather to the contrary, they seek to maintain a very good relationship with the Kremlin, and slowing down and harshly criticizing the EU sanctions that I said. So, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been strengthening this economic and political ties with Russia for a decade now, despite the annexation of Crimea, and right now the war. And as I just mentioned this national consultation that has been just launched this week in Hungary is a complete propaganda tool; it is promoting, as I said, Brussels as totally responsible for economic hardship. 

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  21:45

But most importantly, it doesn't say a word about the war in Ukraine or the responsibility of Russia in waging a war on Ukraine. And it comes along with this robust national billboard campaign financed by state funds, and it is using very powerful visuals. So you can see billboards right now in Hungary depicting Brussels that is throwing bombs on Hungary. And this is really like scary, the bomb is a symbol of the sanctions against Russia. And it's also ridiculous. So but again, the consultation is about strengthening the Euroskeptic and pro-Russia narratives of the governing party. 

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  22:27

Why? Because this is the beginning of the winter season. There is, as I said, a lot of troubles economic-wise. And so later on Viktor Orban can blame the EU, why Hungary is not able to heat up homes and public buildings properly, because of lack of energy resources, for instance. So this is certainly an issue where these two governments are never going to be on the same page. And yes, PiS [Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, Law and Justice, the ruling party] is also Euroskeptic. But when it comes to the role of the Kremlin and the geopolitics of Russia, these two governments were never going to be on the same page for sure.

John Torpey  23:05

Right. So how do you think this is all going to play out? I mean, you've already mentioned that Hungary is in a difficult situation already, economically, but of course, inflation is sort of spreading across Europe and elsewhere in the world, for that matter. And there's no real sign of a ceasefire, negotiations, resolution to the conflict, any of that, really. None of that's really in sight. And I think it's long been thought that it was Putin's strategy in part to make it difficult for Europeans to maintain a pro-Ukrainian stance as the winter approaches in particular, and heat becomes more expensive and that sort of thing. So how do you see this playing out in the two countries? I mean, Hungary has adopted this sort of pro-Russian stance, and is in better shape, I suppose, with regard to things like gas that will be used for heat. How do you think this is all going to play out as the winter descends and people start to get cold and things keep getting more expensive?

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  24:27

Okay, so the question is whether it's going to have a negative impact on the durability of the regime, and that they're going to fall soon or Poland is going to lose elections, the upcoming elections. Do I understand it correctly?

John Torpey  24:42

Well, I'm sort of curious how their divergent stances are going to affect their added, I don't know like, what the Hungarian population as opposed to Victor Orban's perspective stance vis-a-vis the war has been. But so the question is what's the popular kind of response going to be? I mean, I was just reading something in this morning's New York Times about Italy. And a lot of people apparently, saying, "everything's getting too expensive. It's caused by the Ukraine war. So we should stop sending all these weapons to Ukraine, we should stop sending all this money, because it's starting to hurt us." And I think that's been, as I say, thought to be a kind of predictable outcome. You know, there's questions, in other words about the popular enthusiasm for this conflict. Whether they have any real control over what happens is a different question. But how much ordinary people sort of are prepared to support this conflict, and/or Ukraine in the conflict. And how it differs in the two countries, one of which has been quite supportive of Ukraine and the other, which has been not supportive.

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  26:07

Okay, so I don't want to tap into research field where I don't have valuable data to share you with. So I would rather step away from the public attitudes. And I would rather get back to --I think this is going to come down at the end of the day about whether there is going to be an agreement between these countries and the European Union. And this is where I can provide some expertise. Because I think that that's what's crucial, and this is what is going to have a very crucial impact on the operation of this regime; whether they can deliver to their voters or not. 

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  26:41

And I believe that the Hungarian government is in a better situation in this regard. So, the thing is that -- and I wanted to talk a little bit about that, when we were teasing out the differences between Hungary and Poland, that I think what's fundamentally and crucially shapes democratic backsliding in this countries -- it is not necessarily what we're talking about this kind of former legal changes, violation of the Constitution, and the undermining of checks and balances and the human rights. Yes, I mean, yes, we know about that, there is tons of research on that, everybody has been discussing it back and forth. But the problem is that these are the things which have been, so to say, partly addressed by the EU institutions, not too successfully but at least there were some intentions to address it like with the legal tools of the European Union. 

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  27:33

With which, the European Union cannot do that much, is that these regimes are rather operating under the legal radar of the European Union, by imposing and misusing informal power in these countries. This is my main field of expertise. And by informal power, I mean, I'm thinking about clientelist corruption, informal media capture and electoral clientelism. So, different kinds of building up like structures, which are based on interdependencies, coercion, intimidation, of the business elite, the electorate, and so on, and so forth. 

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  28:14

So this is something which is definitely a lot more difficult for any kind of international organization to address, because this is usually happening in a very unqualified way. There's also like a lot of researchers saying that this is the most difficult to address it from a legal perspective. So, and this is where the negotiation with the European Union comes into the picture, because although the EU institutions couldn't really slow down this democratic backsliding for like years, this year the European Commission seems to have started to take its role seriously, by withholding the EU funds from these countries. 

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  28:58

And as per usual, the Hungarian government is acting in a very tricky way. I mean, it's showing willingness to comply with the former legal requests of Brussels to undercut, for instance, clientelistic corruption. They say that they're going to introduce legislative changes, there is going to be a huge breakthrough, and they're going to establish new institutions, like anti-corruption bodies, for instance, at the end of the day in order to fulfill the expectations of Brussels. And this is what not only me, but the literature also called, this is like symbolic or creative compliances. 

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  29:37

So, they're making like great legislative promises, but at the end of the day, they're getting around it, maintaining political favoritism and reallocating EU funds the way they see fit within their own clientelist structures. And that what we see is that, anyhow, that the government is becoming very cooperative for very good reasons, as I said, because the state finances are in a lot worse situation than in 2008, during the Eurozone. And they simply need the EU funds, and also the European Union cannot afford that there is going to be a bankrupting government, going down this road of economic bankruptcy. So, I think it's going to be a crucial litmus test for the Commission, whether they're going to fall again for this kind of creative compliance, or they're going to push the envelope to establish real accountability structures.

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  30:38

It's a matter of time; we're going to see before Christmas, I think. And I think the Polish government is a lot more worse situation, because here in Poland, the access to the European funds became a hostage of a domestic political power struggle. So the parliamentary elections are in the doorway next year, and there is a constant power struggle within the ruling camp between the Euroskeptic PiS and the hardcore, even more anti-European flank, which is led by the Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro. 

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  31:10

So it has a crucial impact on the strategic behavior of the Polish government, because this power struggle makes sure that the Polish government will not fulfill any rule of law requirements of the European Commission. The Polish government still hasn't complied with the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. And there has been also a change in the Polish Foreign Minister recently, which shows that they're not going to be willing to do so, to try to comply with the requirements. 

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  31:41

So rather to the contrary, what I see is that the Polish government is fueling this fight with external enemies like Germany and the EU right now. And this is going to be a very cold winter, as we just discussed, and the campaign is all about inflation, and the missing coal supplies. And not receiving these recovery and inclusion funds, which is being withheld for Poland right now, could seriously shake the image of the Polish government that it can actually deliver to the people, because it has been running on this ticket of "we are the can-do party, we can keep our promises." 

Edit Zgut-Przybylska  32:16

And, John, let me emphasize that I'm not predicting that the PiS government is going to fall and that there's going to be a shift in power next year. But I think that history has taught us that populist autocrats can actually maintain power, even despite economic hardship. So I think this is pretty much like still too close to call. Not to mention that one year in politics is way too long to predict anything.

John Torpey  32:45

Right, well, we'll have to see how all this plays out. I mean, the controversy between the EU and these two countries is obviously a major factor in the whole situation, and so is the war. So we're going to have to wait and see how all this plays out. 

John Torpey  33:02

But that's it for today's episode. I want to thank Edit Zgut-Przybylska (I hope that's halfway right) for sharing her thoughts on the similarities and differences in the illiberal politics of contemporary Hungary and Poland. Look for us on the New Books Network and remember to subscribe and rate International Horizons on Spotify and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Merrill Sovner for her production assistance and Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance and to acknowledge Duncan Mackay for sharing his song "International Horizons" as the theme music for the show. This is John Torpey, saying thanks for joining us and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.