The Imperium Targets Hungary
Washington impulsively wields the power to discipline the slightest deviation from American unipolar hegemony.
Last week, the U.S. government sanctioned the International Investment Bank, a Russian multilateral development institution based in Budapest. It was the first time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that Washington has targeted an entity based in a NATO and E.U. ally nation, marking a nadir in U.S.-Hungarian relations. The IIB’s operations were “rendered impossible,” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said, forcing his government to pull its 25 percent stake.
The dismantling of the IIB—and plans for wider sanctions against Orbán’s circle—are a reminder of the immense financial power at Washington’s disposal. It is a power the feds wield with growing caprice, disciplining even the slightest deviation from the path of ideological conflict against what I call the New East Bloc: the emerging constellation of powers from China to South Africa and Brazil to Russia that reject American unipolar hegemony.
The IIB itself was a relatively unimportant institution, a relic of the old East Bloc, used to promote development and trade in Cold War days. No doubt, the IIB had some ties to the Russian security apparatus, much as American tech and corporate giants maintain close ties with the U.S. security apparatus, even giving the apparatchiks private jobs following government service, in which they just happen to pursue the same broad aims as they did while in taxpayers’ employ.
The Hungarians had apparently priced in a potential Western move against the IIB, since they were so quick to withdraw their funds and move on. Hungary’s Ministry for Economic Development noted that the bank no longer held much relevance for a country now deeply embedded in the European market.
More alarming are bipartisan plans to sanction several prominent figures associated with Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party, as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty first reported. “The legislation has been in preparation since last year and is expected to go before Congress as soon as next month, where it is likely to draw broad support,” avers the Guardian. It’s still unclear what specific Hungarian misdeeds lawmakers have in mind. Chances are, they will cite issues such as corruption, “rule of law,” and LGBT rights—even as everyone knows the real cause is Budapest’s reluctance to go whole hog on anti-Russian escalation.
As the socialist writer Thomas Fazi has written, “the crimes Hungary [is] accused of aren’t unique” to Hungary. “Politicized courts”? If there are nonpolitical courts anywhere, they have yet to be discovered this side of academic textbooks.
Corruption? According to Transparency International, Hungarians perceive less graft in their government as do populations in comparable states like Romania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria—and Western ones like Spain, Portugal, and Italy.
Press freedom? Yes, Orbán has consolidated control over many media organs through allied oligarchs. But likewise in the United States, a relatively few oligarchs—erm, excuse me, “entrepreneurs”—control much of the mainstream media. And if you think our oligarch-owned media are bastions of independence, I have an Iraq War, a mask, a lockdown, and a laptop full of Hunter Biden’s dirty pics to sell you.
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LGBT rights? Yes, Fidesz has enacted laws restricting the teaching of gender ideology in Hungarian classrooms, reflecting the country’s conservative cultural attitudes. But Hungary isn’t Saudi Arabia. Gay people are not hunted by Orbán’s morality police. And yet it is Fidesz—not the House of Saud—that is facing U.S. sanctions.
No, Hungary’s real crime is holding on to the quaint belief that countries have the right to act like independent, sovereign nations; that maybe it’s not such a good idea for Europe to stoke a potentially nuclear confrontation with Russia; that a conflict like the one in Ukraine is best understood through a realistic, geopolitical lens, rather than a hyper-ideological one pitting “Freedom” against “Unfreedom.”
“We accept and understand that we represent different positions,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said. “But we don’t understand why pressuring other states to change theirs is necessary.” Why, indeed.