Hungary has attracted criticism lately from the European Union for passing controversial new laws that the EU believes are suggestive of authoritarianism. Specifically, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban recently passed measures to limit the independence of Hungary’s central bank and its data protection authority.
As you read about Hungary in the news, keep in mind this short version of the country’s history.
An Abridged History of Hungary
A landlocked country, Hungary is bordered by Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. Hungary’s ancient history is rooted in semi-nomadic tribes that moved from Southern Russia and the Black Sea coast. After the 16th century, Hungary became part of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires. It became a partner in the Austro-Hungarian empire in the mid-19th century and finally became an independent kingdom following World War I.
World War I left millions of Hungarians living in nearby countries due to European countries redrawing national borders. Today, many ethnic Hungarians continue to dispute their status and complicate Hungary’s relations with neighboring countries.
After World War II, Hungary became a communist state. In 1956, Hungarians led an uprising against Soviet communism that was unsuccessful but led to more economic freedom down the road. Hungary remained under communist rule until 1968, when it decentralized the economy.
In 1990, Hungary held its first multiparty elections. Hungary’s landscape changed drastically post-communism, as the private sector rapidly expanded and foreign direct investment poured into the country. Ten years later, in 2008, private and public borrowing had reached such high levels that the Hungarian government was forced to borrow from the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank to prevent a major economic collapse.
Displeased by the poor handling of the economy, Hungarians supported a right-wing nationalist party in parliamentary elections, which brought current Prime Minister Viktor Orban to power. Since he’s been in office, Orban has pushed through sweeping measures to reshape the government, setting off alarms across Europe. He passed a new constitution, which critics say increases the government’s control over the news media and courts, seriously weakened the independence of the nation’s central bank, and dismantled democratic aspects of the judiciary.
European Union Policy Concerns
By January 2012, the European Commission issued a final warning to Hungary to modify its policies or face formal legal action. In mid-January, the European Commission said it would initiate legal proceedings against Hungary over its concerns that Orban’s government is undermining democracy. Hungary may be forced to change its rules, or it can be taken to the European Court of Justice. Hungarian officials say that the country is ready to negotiate with the European Commission as a partner.
The Hungary turmoil has highlighted a broader policy issue in the EU. Once a nation becomes part of the EU, the bloc struggles to prevent member countries from adopting policies that undermine the EU’s basic principles. The outcome of the Hungary case may set a new precedent for how the EU will monitor and oversee EU member governments.
Facts About Hungary
- Official Name: Republic of Hungary
- Capital: Budapest
- Population: 10 million (2011)
- Area: 35,910 square miles, about the size of Indiana
- Major Language: Hungarian
- Major Religion: Christianity
- Main exports: Machinery and transport equipment, foodstuffs, chemicals