Can Europe Make It?

Putin’s opposition in Hungary

Activism and the retreat to digital niches actually increases the system-conformity of Orbán’s opposition, just as it does in Putin’s Russia.

Dániel Mikecz Balázs Böcskei
31 August 2016

Map of the Városliget, 2007 (Budapest's City Park), Hungary. Wikicommons/ e:Benutzer:Devil_m25. Some rights reserved.Since the Hungarian left’s post-2010 disintegration into fragmented multi-parties and loss of popularity, social initiatives have become the most trustworthy form of bottom-up politics. One after another, the second electoral defeat in 2014, in addition to the Internet tax demonstrations seemed to suggest that left-liberal parties had completely lost the initiative. At the same time it was also obvious, that none of the frequently rival civil protest groups would be capable of providing an institutionalized alternative to the government. Since then, on certain issues, occasional coalitions between parties and radical NGOs have come into existence, such as the protection of the eco-model farm in Kishantos, or the campaign around the significant environment and field reconstruction of the Városliget ( Budapest’s City Park).

The civil society organiser is typically against party politics, preferring membership of a quasi-elite team. Additionally, due to the general distrust of organised political actors, many radical NGOs are unwilling to get involved with elected political parties, which in contrast aim to organize an electoral majority and represent millions of citizens. Presumably the political machinations of parties is not something the left-liberal activist would like to be associated with. Nevertheless, this is not only a matter of taste, politically, since it has a significant impact on the politics of the opposition and also on the perpetuation of the Orbán-regime.

Inherently left-liberal activist networks are not willing to confine themselves to the political action patterns of the parties. Their repertoire of action is richer. Recently, for example, there was a debate between political experts, lawyers and activists over the spring teachers’ strike, on whether the staff walkout was civil disobedience or not. The latter politics increasingly has an expanding supporter community, which in addition goes to show that leftist-liberal, Budapest-based activist networks, as against its “illiberal” state and/or government equivalent, are reliant on the catalytic strength and effectiveness of a small-group-based, feasibly organized and focused civil disobedience, as well as direct actions capable of mobilizing more people.

This is certainly not a unique phenomenon in liberal democracies. Mass demonstrations bear witness to the strength of an issue’s support, while through civil disobedience they obtain knowledge of the state’s normative power. At a demonstration the many people who appear testify to the support, thereby following the logic of democracy. In the course of civil disobedience, as a sort of primary law, the norm violator also stands out in the name of self-determination, freedom, and the dignity of human being.

Scaling up

However, current assessments indicate that these leftist-liberal activist networks are not able to actually mobilize on a large scale against the Orbán-regime in themselves. They were not able to take advantage of the protest-buoyancy which evolved after the failure of the government led to the 2014 electoral defeat. The internet tax demonstrations gave way to post-electoral mobilization, not at all confined to leftist-liberal activist networks alone. Some civil disobedience actions have been organized with fewer participants, and these occasions are significantly mediagenic, but at the same time, it is less and less possible it seems to mount an offensive against those who believe in the power of the mass.

Leftist-liberal activist history over the last few years is not only a period of inovation for tools of protest, but also the season of unsuccessful mass mobilization. Several forms of activism are vivid, effective and quick-response, but in the long run they only succeeded in terms of wider recognition, when they organized along such tangential issues as those with which the anti-Orbán plurality could associate themselves. (See the Internet tax demo’s or the teachers’ strike generated by the Tanítanék Movement).

What the majority of the activities had in common (from protest against the “reform” of the Constitutional Court, to the press-freedom demonstrations, and also the aforementioned Városliget-project) is that they did not result in a plural movement. Although the Hungarian criteria for political activities (more accurately, passivities) do not include facilitating mass mobilization, in several cases the same symptom emerged, that the politically active majority that wants to change the regime does not understand the issues, the language, the codes, the norms of activism. While they do not place their trust in any political party, nevertheless, thanks to the political socialization they have undergone, such is their political knowledge that they still expect change to be delivered by those parties. At least, with them taking the primary initiative. 

The immediate aim of civil society activities is not naturally the formation of a majority – to paraphrase Eduard Bernstein, the issue is everything, but the majority also matters. At the same time however, civil disobedience in the absence of any capability to organize the plural ’we’ could prove itself to be the activity “best suited” to saving Orbán’s skin. 

We would like to illustrate all this through the example of Putin’s Russia. Ivan Krastev describes in his 2011 paper, the essential paradox of the Putin-regime (as of authoritarian states in general). According to Krastev, “user-friendly” regimes do not “consolidate” themselves through repression, but by ensuring freedom to a certain extent. In his opinion, a state which is organized in terms of Putin’s Russia has no ideology; the Putin-presented public interest idea is untinged by ideological definition. In the wake of the practices of the Soviet Union, it is not trying to export ideology; but it gives people an added opportunity – to leave the country.


The middle classes who could potentially be mobilized use the opportunity of exit in both its forms, namely the retreat to private digital niches and emigration. As Krastev also explains, leaving the country because it is not democratic has a different effect on the country's future than becoming part of its collective actions might do, participating in its elections in order to make it democratic. The paradox leads to a compromise: that while the Soviet Union strengthened its power on the ground, Putin’s Russia preserves itself by offering possibilities of “exit”.

Therefore, the most important innovation of the leftist-liberal activist cannot be the utilization of civil disobedience as the primary form of political action, since this turns its back on the representation of the multitude. One of the subsidiary consequences of enhancing that activism which serves the needs of identity politics and experience-accumulation at the expense of all other activities, could be the institutionalizing of a new mode of “exit”. If little by little it is becoming a acknowledged political axiom, that “force against force” is an effective form of advocacy, then the inevitable resignation from organizing mass demonstrations and events that express the problems of the majority (and are therefore plural in nature) could greatly enhance the “user-friendly” image of the Orbán-regime.

Apart from organizing protests, traditional political action can also show off the pluralist range implicit in electoral support. What is more, out of the principal options, only this kind of political action can do so. Nor is this an impossible task, as a previous generation of political activists showed when they founded the eco-political party, LMP (Politics can be different). The self-motivated adoption of the moral high ground, the forced retreat to an activist milieu and experience-oriented digital activities combined are far less risky for the Orbán-regime, as it deals with the possession and concentration of Hungary’s real resources.

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