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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.

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.