Earlier this month, a television broadcaster came under fire in Hungary for airing an advertisement the country’s media council deemed harmful to children. The ad in question, part of a campaign by the LGBT advocacy organization the Háttér Society, sympathetically depicted “rainbow families,” pushing back against anti-LGBT stereotypes. The media authority, run entirely by members of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, announced it will take legal action against the German broadcaster RTL for airing the ad.
In the grand scheme of such rhetoric and discrimination, the RTL incident may seem like a small one. But it is part of a broader strategy in Hungary these days to suppress what Orbán and his allies decry as “LGBT ideology” imported from the West. Activists in Hungary see parallels to what’s been happening in nearby Poland over the last few years, where the governing right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) and a network of outside groups have increasingly ramped up their own rhetoric—and policy—against the LGBT community.
The watchful eye on neighboring countries—and accompanying fear among target groups—goes the other way, too. In early February, Poland’s top independent news organizations went black for a day to protest a planned new tax on their advertising revenue. They argued that the move, coming a year into the coronavirus pandemic, would financially squeeze the outlets at a time when budgets are already tight, effectively curtailing press freedom in the process. Polish journalists saw echoes of a years-long drive to undermine independent media in Hungary, where Orbán and his allies have used financial pressure rather than outright censorship to make life significantly more difficult for journalists.
Hungary and Poland are often lumped together in Western media as illiberal democracies and European Union problem children, a characterization that minimizes significant differences between the two countries. Shaped by their own histories and diverse social and religious dynamics, they have different systems of government that are at different points in their illiberal transformation. Still, it’s hard to ignore underlying similarities between the two countries’ governments as they pursue their increasingly illiberal policies, work to undermine the rule of law and democratic institutions, and shape their respective societies in the name of upholding traditional values.
Back in the heady days just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the transfer of ideas between Poland, Hungary and other central European countries was informally known as the “Warsaw-Budapest Express.” Protests against the Soviet Union and hopes of rebuilding democratic institutions traveled between countries, which in turn learned from each other. These days, there’s clearly a new version of that exchange underway—both between Orbán and the Polish PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński and among other illiberal governments across the region.
“Since 1989, policies were transported between Warsaw and Budapest and other V4 countries—the metaphor that political scientists would use was the ‘Warsaw-Budapest Express,’” said Wojciech Przybylski, editor-in-chief of the Warsaw-based journal Visegrad Insight, speaking of the Visegrád group of countries that also includes the Czech Republic and Slovakia. “Under Orban, this has changed directions: It’s the Budapest-Warsaw Express. The ideas have been traveling mostly from Budapest to Warsaw.”
Sometimes their impact on each other is indirect: Even if Orbán and Kaczyński aren’t directly coordinating their strategies, they clearly observe and learn from each other’s successes and failures—their illiberal best practices, so to say. Other times, it’s more explicit, as when leaders in both countries recently announced a new rule of law institute to team up and push back against the pressure both face from the European Union.
“There is sadly quite a lot to compare,” said Márta Pardavi, head of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights watchdog organization in Budapest. “I don’t think it’s exactly the same, but rather employing and adapting tricks and practices which ultimately serve the same kind of goal.”
When it comes to the question of “illiberal learning,” as Przybylski noted, Hungary mostly tends to be leading the way. That’s largely because Orbán, who took office in 2010, has had a head start: He’s been working to reshape Hungary for more than a decade, while PiS came to power only in 2015. What’s more, Orbán has a two-thirds supermajority in parliament, giving him the ability to change the constitution and, in effect, push through virtually any legislation he wants. In Poland, where society’s deep polarization is reflected in its razor-thin electoral margins, PiS must rely on coalition partners and has only a narrow majority in parliament with which to push through its agenda.
Nowhere is Orbán’s long-term strategy—and his potential to inspire illiberal neighbors—more apparent than when it comes to attacks on independent media. News organizations were among his first targets, and he has worked for years to drastically reduce the number of critical media outlets. Rather than overtly censoring them or placing explicit limits on press freedom, Orbán chose an indirect strategy: Fidesz allies began buying up news organizations in the early 2010s, then using their newfound influence to subtly or not-so-subtly shift the direction of their coverage and push out journalists who didn’t get on board.
The government also effectively stopped doling out lucrative advertising to outlets that published critical stories, meaning independent news organizations had to struggle to stay afloat while government-friendly ones were flooded with ad revenue. Coming at a time when the media industry was undergoing drastic change across the globe, the development forced many outlets to fail even without heavy government-led pressure.
A steady drumbeat of buyouts and closures followed over the years: Independent outlets folded or were bought by Orbán’s allies, leaving only a handful. Last summer, the owners of the popular news website Index told staff they would significantly restructure the organization due to advertising revenue losses during the pandemic. Staffers cried foul, seeing the move as a threat to their editorial independence; Index’s owners ultimately fired the editor-in-chief and mass resignations followed. And earlier this year, Klubradio, one of the last independent radio broadcasters in the country, had its license revoked.
Journalists see PiS developing a similar playbook in Poland, although it’s taken longer to ramp up. Taking over the state media and installing government-friendly journalists was the first step: Polish state television has effectively become a propaganda tool for the PiS government, relentlessly attacking opponents and giving airtime to party officials and allies.
After their victory in parliamentary elections in fall 2019 ensured them another term in government, PiS officials began advocating for a “repolonization” of the media. Arguing foreign ownership of news outlets, particularly by German companies, constitutes efforts to exert foreign influence on Polish society, they encouraged bringing all media organizations under Polish control. That rhetoric seems to be paying off: In December, the state-run oil refiner PKN Orlen bought Polska Press, a vast network of local newspapers and websites, from the German firm Verlagsgruppe Passau.
The deal to acquire Polska Press means a government-aligned company will own 20 of 24 regional newspapers across Poland as well as hundreds of smaller newspapers news websites—therefore taking control of some of the primary sources of news for Poles, particularly those outside Warsaw. Although Orlen’s CEO defended the acquisition as a business decision intended to strengthen the company’s profile rather than a political move, it’s hard to see how the government’s control doesn’t increase in some form.
“These are important because they help reach PiS’s domestic voting base outside the capital,” said Zselyke Csaky, director of research for Europe and Eurasia at the democracy watchdog organization Freedom House. “There is a lot of concern now that they will be turned into propaganda outlets—it hasn’t happened yet because the acquisition just happened, but I think that’s something everyone will be watching very closely.”
That acquisition, taken together with the proposed tax on media advertising revenue, has the potential to significantly shrink the ecosystem of independent journalism in Poland.
“What we are witnessing is a blatant attempt to muzzle free media,” Adam Michnik, editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, wrote in a recent op-ed. Of the media tax, he wrote: “If it succeeds, Poland will join the ranks of Russia and Hungary—countries with virtually no independent media.”
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On one issue, however, Hungary’s government seems to be loosely following Poland’s lead: Its campaign against LGBT rights and the intensification of rhetoric decrying “LGBT ideology” in the defense of so-called traditional family values. Although Orbán’s government has made his own moves to codify those values and limit the influence of pro-LGBT messaging in Hungary, similar efforts have been underway in Poland for years.
The issue of LGBT rights and anti-LGBT rhetoric “is actually the first example where Viktor Orbán seems to be taking cues from Kaczyński and not leading the way,” Csaky told me. “It took some time for the [Hungarian] government to really take this route, but because they saw that it was so successful in Poland—that this has become the new political arena, cultural issues—they thought this can be the new wedge issue that they can use to foster further polarization and to mobilize their own base.”
Although anti-LGBT rhetoric in socially conservative Poland is nothing new, it picked up significantly around 2015, Piotr Godzisz, a lecturer at Birmingham City University in the United Kingdom, told me via Zoom recently. Godzisz, who researches anti-LGBT efforts in Poland and previously worked with the LGBT support and advocacy organization Lambda Warsaw, pointed to two converging developments around that time: PiS taking over the government after winning the 2015 parliamentary elections, and the increasing influence of an ultraconservative legal group called Ordo Iuris, founded in 2013.
While much of the anti-LGBT rhetoric in Poland has come from the ruling PiS party and its elected officials, they are not the only ones seeking to exploit the issue. Groups like Ordo Iuris and the Catholic Church, not to mention PiS-controlled state television, have also vocally opposed LGBT rights. Those different actors all approach the issue in different ways and with different motivations, but the result is the same: They are seeking to turn back the clock on what they see as harmful values imported from the West.
“The same anti-LGBT sentiment is expressed by a number of different groups in Poland with different origins and different tools and different ideas in other areas of policy,” Godzisz said. “But when they converge or when their demands are singular, they definitely feed off each other and collaborate in many ways.”
Things came to a head in 2019, when Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski released a declaration affirming the equal rights and equal dignity of LGBT people. In response, the right-wing magazine Gazeta Polska began printing stickers for residents outside the capital to declare their cities and towns “LGBT-free zones.” The idea quickly caught on, taking on a life of its own: Spurred on by Ordo Iuris, local and municipal officials began picking it up, posting signs and prompting a wave of anti-LGBT discrimination and counter-protest across the country.
“They know that this is a marathon, not a short walk,” said Bart Staszewski, an LGBT activist from the eastern Polish city of Lublin who has chronicled the development of LGBT-free zones. “It’s this boiling frog effect: They are slowly taking the temperature higher and higher, and they know it will take time to take control over the things they want.”
It’s not just rhetoric anymore—they can change the laws and they are willing to change the laws.
PiS politicians have kept up their rhetorical assault on so-called LGBT ideology. Kaczyński, the PiS leader, called it a “threat to Polish identity, to our nation, to its existence and thus to the Polish state.” And in last year’s presidential election, incumbent PiS-aligned President Andrzej Duda mobilized his base by relentlessly attacking LGBT ideology as “even more destructive” than communism.
Polish officials thread a fine line with their rhetoric, stressing that they oppose only this so-called LGBT ideology, not LGBT individuals themselves. Still, that distinction hasn’t stopped some from resorting to anti-LGBT discrimination or even outright violence, and activists say life has become significantly less safe for openly gay and lesbian people across the country.
“For normal citizens, local council members understand ‘ideology’ as everything that connects to LGBT people. Of course they usually say, ‘We are not against the people, we are against the ideology,’” Staszewski said. “But when the ideology is basic rights, of course you’re hurting the people.”
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Things are not nearly as bad in Hungary, but LGBT activists see the country on a troubling trajectory, watching what’s unfolded in Poland with concern. Rhetoric is now being paired with actual shifts in policy, they say, and they worry Orbán’s intensifying rhetoric will begin to affect public opinion on LGBT rights.
Last spring, amid the pandemic, Orbán’s government passed a law banning legal recognition of gender changes, effectively making it impossible for transgender people to be formally recognized. Although the move wasn’t completely unexpected, it was a major blow.
“For the community, that was devastating,” said Luca Dudits, a spokesperson for the Háttér Society, the organization that produced the “rainbow families” ad. “I think that was the moment we realized it’s not just the rhetoric anymore—that they can change the laws, and that they are willing to change the laws.”
Orbán’s government has since taken additional steps to define and promote its idea of a traditional family. In December, the government changed Hungary’s constitution to define family as “based on marriage and the parent-child relation,” specifying that “the mother is a woman, the father a man.” Also added was a line giving children the right to “identify with their birth gender” and grow up in a manner “based on our nation’s constitutional identity and values based on our Christian culture.”
Around the same time, the country effectively banned same-sex adoption by limiting adoption to married couples; same-sex marriage is illegal, but in the past couples worked around that by having only one person handle the adoption.
And in addition to the recent RTL incident, various government authorities have pushed back against positive media and advertising portrayals of LGBT couples. Last summer, the consumer protection authority fined Coca-Cola for running an ad featuring two men with the tagline “#LoveIsLove: Zero Sugar, Zero Prejudice.” And earlier this year, the government required a disclaimer sticker be put on a children’s book called Wonderland Is For Everyone, which features some LGBT characters, stating it contains “behavior inconsistent with traditional gender roles.”
It comes as no surprise that, like in Poland, ultraconservative groups are contributing to the rhetoric. Early last year, Ordo Iuris announced a partnership with the Hungarian Center for Fundamental Rights aimed at “establishing a broad coalition to defend fundamental values,” giving them a direct opportunity for coordination with their Polish counterparts.
The rhetoric—like that railing against refugees or the European Union or the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros—is particularly effective in Hungary because it plays on people’s worries about the future, Dudits said: Orbán “is trying to capitalize on the fear that a lot of people have in the changing world. They see that there is a generational gap, they see that their children won’t have the life they had.”
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Of course, Central Europe’s so-called illiberal democracies are not the first to employ such strategies. Whether it’s finding ways to put financial pressure on independent media outlets, squeezing NGOs or rolling back LGBT rights, many I spoke to said the original ideas can be traced back to yet another source: Russia. Stronger versions of many of the laws and strategies employed by Orbán and other illiberal leaders—from “foreign agent” laws targeting NGOs to financial pressure on media to anti-LGBT legislation—were already being used by the Kremlin.
When I asked Przybylski, of Visegrad Insight, about the idea of illiberal learning, he said Russia under Vladimir Putin has been employing such tactics for years and it’s no surprise other illiberal leaders in Europe have picked them up.
“I don’t think either of these two [Orbán and Kaczyński] are really very original in doing to democracy what they’re doing,” he said. “If you look back at what Putin has been doing in Russia… these words and this seemingly perfectly consistent ideology of ‘illiberal democracy’ is in fact only a cover-up for exploiting deficiencies of democracy in order to extract profit for themselves and for their circles.”
It bears repeating that Hungary and Poland still occupy different positions along the illiberal spectrum, and no strategy or policy translates exactly between the two: An issue potent in deeply Catholic Poland might be less so in Hungary, or a policy possible in Hungary with Orbán’s two-thirds parliamentary majority may be tricky to pass in Poland’s hyper-polarized legislature.
Still, the apparent end goal of the ruling parties in both countries—to centralize power and reshape society in their own image—feels remarkably similar. It’s not just on media issues that Polish liberals have a wary eye on Hungary. From reshaping judicial systems to reforming school curricula to curbing academic freedom, experts and activists see echoes and ties between strategies.
“Poland does not border Hungary, but there is this old saying that the countries are brothers in arms,” said Anna Wojcik, an analyst for Freedom House in Poland. “Mostly Poles who are against the current government recognize Hungary as a warning… there is commonsense knowledge that what’s happening in Hungary might arrive in Poland sooner or later.”
Pardavi, of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, put it this way: “This is really about remaking a society and its values. And in that sense, I think this is the ultimate commonality with Poland.”
A version of this dispatch appeared in Slate.
Top photo: A rainbow flag hangs from a window in the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Warsaw in October 2020 (Cybularny, Wikimedia Commons)