Feb 24, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Exclusive: New democracy group targets Hungary as "battleground state"

Viktor Orban and Donald Trump

Photo: Chris Kleponis/Pool via Bloomberg

A pro-democracy group advised by top historians, diplomats, journalists and a former NATO supreme allied commander launched Thursday with an initial focus on Hungary, casting it as the "next battleground state in the global fight to defend democracy."

Driving the news: The executive director of Action for Democracy told Axios he views the nonprofit as a counterweight to the "cabal of autocrats and dictators" that has grown in strength in recent years — and which has found sympathizers among a strain of U.S. conservatives.

The big picture: Critics of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who will seek a fourth consecutive term in parliamentary elections on April 3, have accused him of dismantling democratic institutions, pursuing anti-LGBT and anti-immigrant policies, and curbing media freedoms.

  • His supporters abroad, including former President Trump, Fox News' Tucker Carlson and other right-wing populists in the U.S., view Orbán's pursuit of "illiberal democracy" as a model to be exported elsewhere.
  • The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) will host an event in Budapest in support of Orbán next month, and Trump has reportedly been invited to speak.

Details: Action for Democracy's advisory council is chaired by Hungarian American journalist Kati Marton, and features prominent figures like writer Anne Applebaum, historian Timothy Snyder, political scientist Francis Fukuyama and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Wesley Clark.

  • The group plans to use a grassroots fundraising model and work with civil society, independent media, and diaspora communities to broaden democratic participation.
  • Hungary is the first target, but the group plans to organize future campaigns around Brazil's election in October and the 2023 Polish elections.

What they're saying: Executive director Dávid Korányi, who served as national security adviser to Orbán's liberal predecessor, called Orbán the "poster boy" for "kleptocratic autocrats" in an interview with Axios.

  • He stressed, however, that this is "not just about Hungary," but about confronting the "systemic risk" that comes from other leaders emulating Orbán's "nationalist populist model" to undermine democracy.
  • "The stakes are high and the fate of Hungary will have global repercussions," Action for Democracy said in its launch announcement. "Where Hungary falls this April will affect where Europe and ultimately the U.S. goes."

The full advisory council as of launch day includes:

  • Kati Marton (chair)
  • Anne Applebaum, staff writer at The Atlantic
  • Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
  • Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European history at Oxford University
  • Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University
  • Dr. Francis Fukuyama, director of Stanford's Ford Dorsey Master's in International Policy program
  • Eleni Kounalakis, former U.S. ambassador to Hungary and current lieutenant governor of California
  • Charles Gati, professor of European studies at Johns Hopkins University
  • Gen. Wesley Clark (ret.), former Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO
  • Dr. Evelyn Farkas, former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia
  • Robert Boorstin, former national security speechwriter to President Clinton
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