Media freedom concerns in Hungary and tacit legitimisation of authoritarian governments to the EU's east may not be unconnected.
Two European countries, both in the former Eastern bloc, both considered democratic free countries in recent years, and both following the election of powerful new governments, have come under fire in recent months under accusations of deteriorating media freedoms. One, Hungary, has been on the EU's official radar of accession since the early 90's and joined the club in 2004. The other, Ukraine, for various reasons has been and continues to be dealt with strictly at arms length by Brussels. A direct comparison obviously presents many inconsistencies. Hungary's new government has an overwhelming democratic mandate from a strong showing at the ballot box, whilst the strength of Ukraine's new rulers comes in no small part from a somewhat creative approach to constitutionalism.
The powers that be in Ukraine moved first, bringing in self-censorship in the dominant television media owned by east-leaning pro-government interests, and depriving two independent news channels of broadcasting rights. As a result the free media environment has seriously deteriorated and news broadcasts have certainly become neutered where news detrimental to the authorities is concerned. But next, consider the current actions of the Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán, whose new media law would have encompassed tv, print media and even the blogosphere, an area which has come under attack in authoritarian regimes such as Azerbaijan. Orbán's robust approach, promising a "new system" of power, could almost have been directly inspired by the Viktor sitting in his eastern neighbour's Presidential Palace. The new media law has been watered down somewhat from that originally proposed, but something has clearly emboldened the Hungarian Prime Minister to think beyond most other European leaders.
Other broad similarities in approach are in evidence. Orbán's stuffing of various posts with Fidesz cronies is but a milder echo of the shameless cronyism that can be evidenced in Ukraine. The pressure to oust András Simor from his post at the Hungarian National Bank seems like hard work compared to the recent appointment of a friend of one of Yanukovych's sons of unknown pedigree as the head of the National Bank of Ukraine. Playing with the constitutional court is another common theme. In Ukraine it has become known as the 'konstitustska', a play on the word 'prostitutska' for its pliancy to the authorities, whilst in Hungary the jurisdiction of the court is being shrunk away from certain key areas. Of course, it's simplistic and probably grossly insulting to Hungarians to say that Hungary is like Ukraine, but there is certainly a general theme that can be picked up here. After all, the EU is still dealing with Ukraine as a 'fellow democracy'.
Another event this year has also suggested that the virtual democracy of the east is infecting the established democracy of the west. The extraordinary playing out on the European stage of Ukraine's internal political struggles via the groupings of the European Parliament has, in the author's view, seriously compromised the European Parliament. The European Peoples Party's established association with Yulia Tymoshenko's party was audaciously challenged by the Party of Regions' infiltration of the European Socialist Group, delaying a European Parliament Resolution on Ukraine which might have sent a strong message prior to local elections which were widely considered a democratic relapse compared to the three free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections which followed the Orange Revolution. Romania's Adrian Severin was on hand to defend the Ukrainian authorities, but the recognition of an oligarch-financed party as a kindred spirit of socialist parties in Europe looked flimsy to say the least.
The EU has been understandably careful in its handling of the Yanukovych administration in Ukraine, which seems to currently occupy a kind of ambiguous limbo between democratic legitimacy and authoritarianism (the soon to be released Freedom House report for 2010 will probably clear up any doubts). However, in not wishing to push away Russia and the six Eastern Partnership countries, the EU (and/or its member states) are now in the business of not only engaging but deal-making with countries which, to a greater or lesser extent, have dubious credentials, particularly compared to the Copenhagen criteria that future members in the Western Balkans and Asia Minor are at least officially encouraged to aspire to. The deals are potentially serious tie-ups. In Ukraine's case the DCFTA, membership of the European Energy Community and possibly visa free travel to the EU. All apart from Belarus continue to be welcome in the Council of Europe.
The danger here is that well-intentioned realpolitik begins to rub off on the EU itself. If Ukraine's rulers can bend democracy to suit their aims and still be endorsed as legitimate, why not Hungary's too? We shouldn't forget that none of the rulers of the CEE countries grew up in free democracies (the occasional returning diaspora member excepted) and the temptation to follow the Ukrainian example of simply considering the art of the possible may be very acute, particularly in a time of crisis (even the Chancellor of Germany did not grow up in a free society). Tymoshenko famously commented that European leaders were branding as 'stability' what was in reality undemocratic manipulation, and that if they weren't prepared to call a spade a spade they would have actually been better off keeping their mouths shut. If we acept her argument, we should look at the implications for ourselves in the EU. If we're praising 'stability' in a neighbouring country, we might be tempted to try and have a bit of that 'stability' ourselves. The alleged closeness of Berlusconi to Putin might be another example, or the relationship between Germany and Russia. The more we engage with these regimes and say that what they're doing is actually ok, the more this has the potential, however subtly, to affect our behaviour at home. Don't be naive.