Thoughts from the Budapest Balkans Forum: Connecting Illiberalism

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to go to Hungary to attend the Budapest Balkans Forum. In addition to being happy to have a chance to visit that beautiful city again, I was curious to hear not only how Hungary’s relationship vis-à-vis the Western Balkans would be framed, but what the overall event might signal in terms of the country’s emergence as a leader in demonstrating how a country with nominally democratic institutions can through structural, social, economic and cultural engineering and effort put the country to the service of illiberalism through a ruling single party regime.

The BBF is organized by the Hungarian Institute for International Affairs (HIIA) to discuss issues related to the Western Balkan region with the aim of influencing policy and decision-makers. The HIIA is not an independent think tank, but in keeping with Orbán’s aim of consolidating state, society and politics through his party, “belongs to the wider work environment of the Prime Minister” of Hungary, as a “non-profit economic organization with the ownership of the Hungarian state.” 

I left with seven main takeaways.

The first was perhaps the most obviously and clearly telegraphed, and that was the issue of energy, consistently framed as “energy security” and “energy independence.” The issue was connected to both the availability of local sources as well as various interconnected import possibilities. A common refrain from Hungarian speakers was that while efforts were being made to expand supply, that deals with current suppliers (e.g., from Russia) would not necessarily be downsized as new supplies were lined up. There was a very clear emphasis on the role of natural gas, in terms of ensuring sufficient pipelines through the Western Balkans to get this gas to Hungary and beyond, but a mantra of gas as a “transition” fuel. (I wrote “clean coal” and a question mark in my notebook.) Elements of the European Union’s Green Agenda were either noted merely in passing or substantially dismissed as unrealistic or “ideological;” something that might be possible in the future, but that should not distract from the needs of today. There was no discussion of innovation beyond fossil fuels, no aspirational moonshot initiative mooted, and the sole reference I heard about the potential for more energy efficiency was noted by a speaker from Turkey.

Second, the issue of “illegal migration” to the European Union via the Balkan Route was a key theme and message, with Hungary’s approach towards hardening its borders noted as an example from which others could learn. The content and tone were both threat-focused, and often framed in the context of the relationship between Hungary and Serbia, suggesting that Serbia could play a specific role in preventing migration towards the EU; however while the threat was framed as high, and Serbia’s role as a partner was emphasized, there were no specifics on what any of this would entail, nor exploration of what a stronger Serbian role might be, for example in securing its own borders to prevent movement through the Western Balkan route. Panels on other aspect of migration – people from the Western Balkans leaving to go to EU, or migrants from Nepal and parts east coming to the region to work in menial positions – was addressed mostly through a transactional and economic lens, with little reflection on what these trends could means for domestic cohesion and resilience in the Western Balkans. In one breakout panel an Austrian speaker gently challenged the idea that people in the region are leaving only because of wages, noting the need to build the “infrastructure of the good life” to keep young people from leaving – for example, high-quality social housing, green spaces, etc. This was a rare non-economic nuance reflecting an understanding of societal complexity; there was unfortunately no time to explore this further.

Third, issues related to general security and stability, in Europe and in the region were noted, including by a number of military commanders involved in peacekeeping operations in the region, past or present. The war in Ukraine (caused by Russia’s full-scale invasion of that country, but rarely characterized as such at the Forum by the hosts) was noted as the key destabilizing factor, with the Orbán government policy of calling for a ceasefire and peace talks (even if that would result in capitulation) repeated.

The overall message on the Western Balkans was that the two peacekeeping forces, EUFOR’s ALTHEA in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and NATO KFOR in Kosovo are necessary, though generally the risk of the initiation of large-scale violence was characterized as low, though local political obstacles remain. Speakers framed these obstacles in a manner reminiscent of “ancient ethnics hatreds;” an easier trope for outsiders to rely on than characteristics such as corruption, self-dealing and power.  On BiH vague references were made to the role of the “central state;” in one side panel a speaker twice referred to “Serbia and Republika Srpska” as if they were both countries, and in another plenary a speaker referred the BiH’s “three entities.” (It was at times difficult to know if phrasing was intentional or just revealed superficial regional knowledge.)    On Kosovo, the message was that there is no alternative to “dialogue,” but nothing about the lack of progress on “dialogue” over more than a decade. The thwarted terrorist attack at Banjska was downplayed by all but KFOR itself, with no mention of the Serbian militants or the Serbian state involved. It is hard to imagine the incident being glibly waved away had such an attack been planned by Kosovar Albanians.

But otherwise, the smaller countries in the region (BiH, Kosovo, Montenegro, and North Macedonia) were mostly not mentioned, nor the regional role of Croatia, as the main focus was on Hungary’s relationship with and the role of Serbia in the region, a fourth takeaway. This was framed partly through the lens of the Hungarians living in Serbia’s Vojvodina region. (When Hungarians in other countries were noted, and a reference was made at one point to Trianon, I jotted down Magyarski Svet, as echoes of Srpski Svet and Russkiy Mir came to mind.) But even more so it was conveyed through the general Hungary-Serbia partnership potential. This suggested to me Budapest’s interest in a hegemonic approach focused on Belgrade, and a doubling down on the politics centered on Belgrade. While an Albanian speaker was present in at least one presentation, it was minimally mentioned. The Hungary-Serbia nexus was impossible to ignore.

The rationale for this can be seen in a fifth theme that came through loud and clear: EU enlargement, primarily through the accession process of the Western Balkans 6 (WB6), but also to a lesser extent of Moldova or Ukraine. It was made very clear that Hungary intends to use its position at the helm of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, beginning on July 1, to make enlargement a key focus, with one speaker noting that this would be the most “pro-enlargement presidency ever.” However, it was also clear what Hungary hopes enlargement will entail or yield, and a readiness to accept this process as if not fully a geopolitical imperative, then as nearly totally such. The notion of the EU being a club to which countries that have achieved certain democratic and economic standards could apply to join, was broadly set aside, with the very notion of conditionality being called “blackmail.” Instead of being seen as an aspirational relationship, the notion of a partnership approach was parroted. And rather than use the opportunity of interest by Moldova in Ukraine in meeting the terms to join the club to increase pressure on the performance of the WB6, the very fact that these eastern neighborhood countries have been accepted into the process so far was presented as evidence that the process should not be seen as a technical one, but as a political one, full stop. And Hungary would clearly like to see countries like Serbia in the club alongside them.

Sixth, in contrast to the hundreds of conferences, forums, and workshops held on or in the Western Balkans over the past generation, certain topics were noticeably absent: the importance of an independent judiciary, good governance, anti-corruption, transparency, free media, governmental accountability, environmentalism, civil society, human rights, and so on; in other words much of the backbone of the Copenhagen Criteria. In fact not only were these issues not mentioned, but to the extent that they were mentioned in passing they were dismissed as “ideological.” In one discussion, a speaker suggested that the EU itself can be blamed for the entrance of China into various infrastructure or industrial endeavors in the WB6, as China saw these opportunities while the European Union was focusing on things like “civil society and public administration reform.” China was willing to invest in old and dirty industries now, while the EU spoke of clean investments in some future.

And that leads to my seventh observation from this forum, which may be last in this list but is by no means the least important. That is the extent to which this event demonstrates the confidence that Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is showing on the European and global stage in terms of its role as a model for his style of illiberal, single-party, pseudo-democratic, autocratic governance. This role has been emerging for some time, and in addition to being served for domestic consumption, has for some years also been exported.  While these issues were not discussed (that would have likely been characterized as “ideological”) the increasing connectivity and cross-pollination among illiberals seems to be intensifying and becoming more overt, particularly in terms of the affinity some American illiberals have for Hungary as their Piedmont.

It’s easy to understand why Orbán had an interest in his recent trip to Florida; he is positioning himself as a key European player in the event of a second Trump administration. (He was also likely happy to get out of his country in the wake of a scandal involving his party providing a pardon to a man convicted of sexual abuse of minors in a children’s home; a particularly sordid affair for a party that paints itself as pro-family and feeds fear of feminism and LGBT activists.) But he has eager students on the other side of the Atlantic.  CPAC – the American Conservative Political Action Conference – founded in 1964, has evolved over the past several years into a sort of international illiberal conclave and brand. (In April CPAC Hungary will have its third iteration since CPAC landed there in 2022, when it then organized under the theme “God, Homeland, Family.”) Tucker Carlson (who more recently travelled to Moscow to speak with Vladimir Putin), spent a week in Hungary and interviewed Orbán in 2021. Other American illiberals who have fallen under the Hungarian illiberal spell include writers and thinkers like Rod Dreher (author of The Benedict Option), and Gladden Pappin, the American President of the organizing HIIA who gave the keynote remarks at BBF just days after Orbán’s meetings in the US with Donald Trump and representatives of the Heritage Foundation; in short, they serve as key connective nodes who can also be viewed as interpreting the road map to an illiberal American future.

So the tone and timing of the BBF should send warning signals in the Western Balkans region, and points further west. The values-free transactionalism at the center of a Serbia-focused, extractionist, gas-centric regional foreign policy will exacerbate the worst of the political instincts on display in the region for years. The small countries in the region – BiH, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia – will definitely be on the menu. In the US, the true implications of living in an illiberal regime in which key elements of society have been consolidated through party capture should be more deeply considered, and not ignored as collateral damage of a “burn it all down” mentality. And in the trans-Atlantic arena, those who hold the liberal values that are squarely in the crosshairs would do well to learn from their strategic policy failures and messaging weaknesses, their hubris and their factional squabbling, and begin to coordinate in support of the values and values-linked openness and prosperity that have led people to seek to join the EU and trans-Atlantic institutions for decades.