Readers of TOL regularly see here pieces from BBC Monitoring, which translates into English articles from media from around the world. The other day I came across a commentary by Ivor Mickovski, writing in Skopje’s Utrinski Vesnik newspaper that I thought was fascinating but that probably needed a little more context than could be elegantly provided in an editor’s introduction. So I’ve decided to use this post to reprint it and offer an explanatory comment. It compares the methods and mindsets of Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, and Nikola Gruevski, his Macedonian counterpart. Orban’s conservative-populist Fidesz party spent years in the wilderness before defeating a discredited left in elections last year. Since then it has moved to change the foundations of Hungary’s government, through constitutional rewrites and other maneuvers, in order to guarantee that its influence outlasts its term in office. It’s not only the opposition in Hungary that is concerned about creeping authoritarianism and overreach. In Macedonia, Gruevski has adopted a socially conservative platform, aligning himself closely with the Orthodox church and sometimes annoying the country’s Albanian Muslim population. He has also dealt with a dispute with Greece over the use of the name “Macedonia” by aggressively claiming historical figures, such as Alexander the Great, that its Hellenic neighbor sees as its own. Even some who side with Macedonia on this issue wonder if its people wouldn’t be better served by a more measured approach to the controversy. But it appeals to nationalists. Anyway, see what you think. I have to say, I don’t think either Gruevski or Orban deserves to be compared with Mugabe.

Text of report by Macedonian newspaper Utrinski Vesnik on 16 May

[Commentary by Ivor Mickovski: "Chavez visits Mugabe"]

The European Chavez has visited the European Mugabe. [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban has come for a pre-electoral visit to visit his [Macedonian] counterpart Nikola Gruevski in the name of Christian Democratic solidarity, which is a euphemism for ultra-conservative and right-wing closeness.

In my view, the timing of his visit is irrelevant, although I am convinced that Gruevski expects to gain kudos from the visit of the prime minister of the state that is the currently holding the EU presidency. What is of crucial importance here, but what Gruevski does not heed at all, is the negative aspect of the identification of the nationalist and populist projects of these two politicians.

Viktor Orban and Nikola Gruevski do not only share a physical resemblance, but they also suffer from the same illness. They are determined to distance their states from the European continent both in ideological and moral terms. They both dream of and move toward “a brave new world” in the spirit of national-populism. They are equally brutal in revising the history, identity, and culture of their own states and nations. Moreover, they both dream of a sort of nationalist revival and they both regard moving forward as a return to the proud nationalist past.

When it comes to Gruevski’s Macedonia, this is happening through the search for ancient and biological roots. As for Orban’s Hungary, this process is taking place through the cult of St Stephen’s crown, a national symbol that was used many times in the past, especially in the regimes of Miklos Horthy and Ferenz Szalisi, [Hungary’s prewar leader and his successor] both Hitler’s allies until the last moment. Just as in our state they glorify the Macedonian nation’s foes, such as Vancho Mihailov [who in the early and mid 20th century led a guerrilla movement for an independent, Bulgarian Macedonia], in Orban’s Hungary no one mentions the criminal years that are being evoked in this way.

You see: Orban and Gruevski need each other! They are both the carriers of an unfortunate and sad totalitarian experiment. Orban needs someone around, a subordinate party that would serve as an example that he is not the only eccentric and that this is actually a new normality. Gruevski needs him for the same reasons, as well as due to the fact that Orban’s Hungary is an EU member, and he needs a European example that he may quote and emulate.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit [German European Parliament member] was so right to fiercely criticize Orban in the European Parliament for distancing himself from the EU values with the scandalous Hungarian media law. He was right to say then that Europe must primarily shine with credibility and to ask him how Europe can talk with [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka or China with credibility, given the example that he gave with Hungary and if his totalitarian policies were accepted. Now, this is the question that is reverberating in our heads: how can the European Union talk with Gruevski and discipline him, when someone like [Orban] exists within it?

Gruevski, for his part, intends to take full advantage of this similarity to legitimize his policies. How sad are these similarities! Still, there are some stylistic differences in institutionalizing dictatorship.

Orban’s project is more difficult because he has to enact Hungary’s nationalist revival within the EU’s framework, so he carries out all the changes in the state through the drastic modification of the Hungarian Constitution. Gruevski does not need to do this because he has a different strategy. He deliberately distances Macedonia from the EU and he amends the system through ordinary laws, vulgar corruption, and criminal ‘VMRO-ization’ [referring to Gruevski's party – Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity - VMRO-DPMNE]. We certainly cannot expect any sophistication from Gruevski, nor does he need any!

With the new ultra-conservative constitution, Orban is transforming Hungary into an authoritarian state. All of the power is being concentrated in the executive government’s hands, all the control bodies are being reshaped, while freedom of expression is being drastically reduced. The new text of the constitution suspends any social right, whereby he has achieved a sort of practical Thatcherism. In a nutshell, the state’s role in the social policies and relations will be annulled, but the state’s power in retaining order will grow endlessly. This is happening in our state as well, because people are being left to the mercy of poverty, as opposed to the progressing police state.

There is one fundamental or – may I say – philosophical conclusion here, too. Both in Hungary and Macedonia, the laws and their enactment or failure to do so contravene basic human rights. The rights are no longer treated as natural, which is normal for any democratic society, but as secondary and dependent on the people’s obligations. In Hungary this means that whoever receives state assistance, pension, or health insurance is entitled to have rights only if that person performs services useful to the community. In Macedonia, this matter has been reduced to an even more primitive level. It is through the VMRO’s lists that we understand that in Macedonia people have the right to get a job, receive a salary, or have in-vitro fertilization only if they meet their obligations toward the prime minister’s party. This means that the tragedy is even greater in Macedonia. If in Hungary, instead of “natural rights,” there are rights on which the state decides arbitrarily, in Macedonia there are rights on which the ruling party decides arbitrarily.

The comparisons do not end here. Orban has changed the media law in compliance with Orwell’s spirit, whereas Gruevski is closing, indirectly repressing, or controlling the media with managerial efficiency that resembles that of the Gestapo. Orban has promised millions of new jobs. Gruevski has pledged 8 billion euros of investments. Their popularity functions on similar grounds and they obviously have similar PR advisers as well. They are both the carriers of Christian democratic fundamentalism: the state and the church, or the party and church, to put it in Macedonian terms. They both equalize the political with the ethnic nation, the Christian roots, the family, and the church. They put importance on defending fetuses. The people of other religious confessions, the atheists, laymen, Roma, and homosexuals are not their priority. Both Orban and Gruevski want to rename things. While Orban renamed the Budapest airport after the famous composer Franz Liszt, Gruevski renamed our airport Alexander the Great. And he did not stop there! The two of them want to provoke their neighbors to a large extent. Orban provided the people of Hungarian provenance living in the neighboring states with the right to vote, which irritated Slovakia in particular, but Serbia, Romania, and Ukraine did not remain indifferent, either. Gruevski does not stop, either, especially when it comes to Greece, which is provoked by the names of a highway and the airport, as well as the megalomaniac sculptures. They both find the judiciary’s autonomy unnecessary, whereas they evaluate culture through constructions and facades. We could go on enumerating.

The essence is the same. Hungary and Macedonia are laboratories for the new ultra-national right. We are the ringleaders and the bastions of the totalitarianism on the Gdansk-Gevgelija line. Who could have thought 15 years ago that new totalitarianism, nationalism, racism, and xenophobia would be born precisely along this line, which was supposed to be the symbol of new freedom and democracy? Our reality is cruel and such a future is miserable. We are living in a progressive cultural gap between the right-wing politicians’ ideas and our people’s needs. They call themselves “people’s parties,” but they have devastated the people. Both our revivalists and their pseudo-intellectuals have betrayed us. What do they offer? Arbitrariness, abuse, excuses, fatigue, and identity crisis. We have no new practical horizons, no sane collective mobilization, and no attainable or real ideals. They have replaced the only post-socialist culture left for the people, the culture of nation, with the (lack of) culture of nationalism, populism, and totalitarianism. [as published] They have taken our history away from us and they have evicted us from the continent where democracy was born 2,500 years ago. They have deprived us of our freedom. As Cohn-Bendit put it, not a single democracy has died because of too much freedom. Democracies die once freedom is restricted.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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