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Standing Up to Illiberalism

LONDON – It is a rare political speech that stops me in my tracks. But that is exactly what happened this summer when I read a remarkable address by Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian prime minister.

Orbán rarely commands attention outside of his country. The last time he gave a speech as noteworthy as this summer’s was 25 years ago, when, as a young man, he helped break the back of communism in Europe. Speaking in June 1989 at the reburial of Imre Nagy – who led Hungary during its 1956 anti-Soviet uprising – Orbán angrily demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Hungarian territory.

This summer, however, Orbán struck an entirely different note. He delivered a speech in favor of what he called the “illiberal state,” offering five examples of successful “systems that are not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies, and perhaps not even democracies.” Russia and China were among them. It was as though the Iron Curtain and the tanks that crushed Nagy’s government – let alone Orbán’s younger self – had never existed.

Russia and China may no longer be communist, but they certainly are illiberal and definitely not democratic. Russia is poised somewhere between authoritarianism and totalitarianism; and, for all of China’s recent economic progress, the rising Asian power remains squarely in the same camp.