The Illiberal International

WARSAW – Stalin, in the first decade of Soviet power, backed the idea of “socialism in one country,” meaning that, until conditions ripened, socialism was for the USSR alone. When Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared, in July 2014, his intention to build an “illiberal democracy,” it was widely assumed that he was creating “illiberalism in one country.” Now, Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, and puppet-master of the country’s government (though he holds no office), have proclaimed a counter-revolution aimed at turning the European Union into an illiberal project.

After a day of grinning, backslapping bonhomie at this year’s Krynica conference, which styles itself a regional Davos, and which named Orbán its Man of the Year, Kaczyński and Orbán announced that they would lead 100 million Europeans in a bid to remake the EU along nationalist/religious lines. One might imagine Václav Havel, a previous honoree, rolling over in his grave at the pronouncement. And former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, another previous winner, must be aghast: her country is being ravaged by Russia under President Vladimir Putin, the pope of illiberalism and role model for Kaczyński and Orbán.

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The two men intend to seize the opportunity presented by the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum, which demonstrated that, in today’s EU, illiberal democrats’ preferred mode of discourse – lies and smears – can be politically and professionally rewarding (just ask the UK’s new foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, a leading Brexiteer). The fusion of the two men’s skills could make them a more potent threat than many Europeans would like to believe.

What Orbán brings to the partnership is clear: a strain of “pragmatic” populism. He has aligned his Fidesz party with the European People’s Party, which keeps him formally within the political mainstream and makes German Chancellor Angela Merkel an ally who provides political protection, despite his illiberal governance. Kaczyński, however, chose to ally the PiS with the marginal Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, and quarrels almost ceaselessly with Germany and the EU Commission.

Moreover, Orbán has more of the common touch than his Polish partner. Like Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister who is now President of the European Council, he plays soccer with other politicians. Kaczyński, by contrast, is something of a hermit, who lives alone and spends his evenings watching Spanish rodeo on TV. He seems to live outside of society, whereas his supporters seem to place him above it – the ascetic messiah of a Poland reborn.

It is this mystical fervor that Kaczyński brings to his partnership with the opportunistic Orbán. It is a messianism forged from Polish history – a sense that the nation has a special mission for which God has chosen it, with the proof to be found in Poland’s especially tragic history. Uprisings, war, partitions: these are the things a Pole should think about every day.

A messianic identity favors a certain type of leader – one who, like Putin, appears to be animated by a sense of mission (in Putin’s case, it is the same mission proclaimed by the czars: Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality). So, whereas Orbán is a cynic, Kaczyński is a fanatic, for whom pragmatism is a sign of weakness. Orbán would never act against his own interests; Kaczyński has done so many times. By attacking members of his own coalition government, for example, Kaczyński lost power in 2007, only two years after he had won it. He seems to have no plans. Instead, he has visions – not of fiscal reform or economic restructuring, but of a new type of Poland.

Orbán seeks nothing of the kind. He doesn’t want to create a new-model Hungary; his only aim is to remain, like Putin, in power for the rest of his life. Having governed as a liberal in the 1990s (paving the way for Hungary to join both NATO and the EU) and lost, Orbán regards illiberalism as the means to win until he takes his last breath.

Kaczyński’s illiberalism is of the soul. He calls those outside his camp “the worst sort of Poles.” Homo Kaczyńskius is a Pole preoccupied with his country’s fate, and who bares his teeth at critics and dissenters, particularly foreign ones. Gays and lesbians cannot be true Poles. All non-Polish elements within Poland are viewed as a threat. The PiS government has not accepted a single refugee of the tiny number – just 7,500 – that Poland, a country of nearly 40 million, agreed with the EU to take in.

Despite their different motivations for embracing illiberalism, Kaczyński and Orbán agree that, in practical terms, it means building a new national culture. State-funded media are no longer public, but rather “national.” By eliminating civil-service exams, offices can be filled with loyalists and party hacks. The education system is being turned into a vehicle for fostering identification with a glorious and tragic past. Only cultural enterprises that praise the nation should receive public funding.

For Kaczyński, foreign policy is a function of historical policy. Here, the two men do differ: whereas Orbán’s pragmatism keeps him from antagonizing his European and US partners excessively, Kaczyński is uninterested in geopolitical calculation. After all, a messiah does not trim his beliefs or kowtow; he lives to proclaim the truth.

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So, for the most part, Kaczyński’s foreign policy is a tendentious history seminar. Poland was betrayed by the West. Its strength – today and always – comes from pride, dignity, courage, and absolute self-reliance. Its defeats are moral victories that prove the nation’s strength and courage, enabling it, like Christ, to return from the dead after 123 years of absence from the map of Europe.

The question for Europe now is whether the marriage of messianic and opportunistic populism will go mainstream and spread across the Union, or remain confined to Central Europe. Already, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, eyeing a return to power in 2017, is adopting some of the language and postures of the Kaczyński/Orbán axis. Johnson, for his part, has shown an affinity for their methods. Will others follow?