Hungary’s Orban Isn’t Another Putin

Style versus substance.

Photographer: Yuri Kochetkov/AFP/Getty Images

Given Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's reputation — he's been called a dictator and an autocrat, albeit a "soft" one — as a Russian in Budapest, I couldn't avoid wondering whether his rule was anything like Vladimir Putin's in Russia. So I asked some people who'd know — both Orban loyalists and members of civil society groups that have come under attack from the government and its media.

As a result, I think that Orban's style of running his country resembles Putin's in a number of important ways. But the differences, at least so far, outweigh the similarities — they're on key issues that determine whether a country is a democracy or a dictatorship. It's important to make a clear distinction between a government that legitimately pursues illiberal and often noxious policies and one that is fundamentally illegitimate, repressive and a danger to its citizens, whether they realize it or not.

Orban and Putin share an obsession with sovereignty — the kind that critics would call unlimited personal power. Their goal is not to allow any external force to undermine their power to make decisions on their nations' behalf, be that wealthier Western countries, multinational corporations or non-governmental organizations. Orban, however, has been far more sophisticated than Putin in reaching for that goal. That sophistication isn't "softness" — rather, it's a sharper sense of what's sufficient. 

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