Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Why Hungary is not a dictatorship - a longer version of my article published in The Times

A familiar shadow has fallen over Central Europe, warn the doom-mongers. Cue gloomy music; soldiers marching over rain-sodden fields; raving leaders and adoring masses. The Washington Post sounds the alarm about “Putinisation”. In Brussels the Eurocrats mutter about one party rule. The German press intones solemnly about a new “Fuhrerstaat” (well, they would know). The rogue nation must be censured, sanctioned and turned into a pariah forthwith.
            Is this Belarus, where Aleksander Lukashenko despatched his brutal riot police to club demonstrators senseless and scores of activists remain in prison on trumped-up charges? Or perhaps Ukraine, where President Viktor Yanukovich’s government has arrested former cabinet ministers on charges of corruption and is now gunning for former prime minister Julia Timoshenko? Er, no. It’s Hungary.
            Yes, Hungary, the small country of ten million in the heart of Europe that now holds the EU’s rotating presidency. The same Hungary that has made a solid transition from Communism, is a stable, modern democracy, with a proud history, rich culture and tradition of technical wizardry that has brought the world countless inventions from the ballpoint pen to Vitamin C.  Reading some of the press coverage of recent events here, including a call in The Times by Bill Emmott for Hungary to be expelled from the European Union, and Nick Cohen’s description in The Observer of Hungary as an “ugly little state” I get a distinct sense of the playground bullies ganging up on the new kid.
            The reality is this: since his right-wing Fidesz party won a two thirds majority, Viktor Orban, the prime minister, has used his mandate to consolidate political power with unprecedented speed and determination. A former Fidesz MEP has been appointed President; a former Fidesz MP has been appointed to run the State Audit Office; the Fiscal Authority which oversaw the budget has been abolished; the powers of the Constitutional Court have been cut back and a new National Media and Communications Authority is now in charge of print, broadcast and online, with powers to impose massive fines for vague offences such as offending “human dignity.”
            Much of this is deeply unsettling, although Government officials say these institutions will remain independent. Meanwhile, dozens of public foundations dealing with the Roma minority, arts, culture, the homeless and even the internationally renowned Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution are to be abolished and their functions taken over by the government.
            Is this an act of reckless cultural and intellectual vandalism? Yes. Sould we be concerned about Fidesz’s centralisation of power? Absolutely. Does it mean Hungary is sliding into dictatorship? No. Such wild talk helps nobody, least of all the modernisers in the government trying to drag the country into the 21st century, while the arch-conservatives seem to prefer the 19th.
            In Britain we should know the difference between an over-centralised democracy and a dictatorship better than anyone. Mr Orban’s model seems to be not Vladimir Putin but Margaret Thatcher. She too was elected on a wave of hope after years of rule by a weak and ineffective left-wing government; centralised power to an unparalleled degree; waged cultural warfare against those she considered dangerous liberals and tolerated no dissent in her party. Lady Thatcher visited Budapest in 1990 to a rapturous reception. She would feel quite at home now.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Game over for the world's dictators

My thoughts on why the Tunisian revolution marks the beginning of the end for the world's dictators - also published in The Times today:

Every revolution needs a catchphrase. The Tunisian uprising’s iconic image is a protestor holding a placard proclaiming: “Game Over”, as indeed it is for President ben-Ali. Note please that “Game Over” is English, not French or Arabic, the local languages.
    The Arab world’s first people’s revolution is also the most media savvy in history. Which is why despots everywhere should be very worried indeed. There has already been a lot of excited talk that the Tunisian uprising is the world’s first Twitter Revolution, Wikileaks Revolution and Facebook Revolution. All of these new media did play crucial roles. Twitter provided second by second updates of events on the ground, operating at its best like a crowd-sourced news agency. Col. Qaddafi in neighbouring Libya blamed a Wikileaks cable from the US embassy, which detailed the ruling family’s breathtaking avarice, for catalysing the unrest. He may be right., a Tunisian bloggers collective, even launched to highlight and discuss the cable's explosive revelations.
            Tunisia had one of the world’s strictest internet censorship regimes, but President ben-Ali did not block Facebook - probably believing that such a concession may help defuse the protests. If so, it was a massive mistake. Facebook is hugely popular in Tunisia and was probably the primary channel for organising protests and uploading video. Outsiders also chipped in. Anonymous, the hacking collective which led a cyber-onslaught on Pay Pal and Mastercard, launched ‘Operation Tunisia’ and brought down the Tunisian government website. Television was also crucial. Al-Jazeera, the region’s most popular television channel, broadcast powerful images of the unrest and police brutality to the millions of its viewers who are not on Facebook and have never heard of Twitter. New and old media converged to frame a narrative of the people vs the government that is still sending shock waves through the Arab world.
            Ultimately, the internet, television and social networking were tools to be used by the Tunisians who took to the streets. Internet revolutions are a work in progress that began in Belgrade. In 1998 Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Yugoslavia, banned the opposition radio station B-92. Its journalists used the internet  and servers in Amsterdam to get their stories out. Two years later the Milosevic regime was brought down by a popular uprising.
    The people, not streams of binary code, depose tyrants. But the internet provides ever more efficient ways to communicate, collectively organise and channel years of pent-up fury. This convergence of popular anger, globalised information, decentralised, spontaneous networks with access to modern technology is unstoppable. For dictators across the world, ultimately, it’s game over.