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Meeting with a handful of journalists in Budapest last week, I found one question kept coming up again and again: What’s happened to Hungary?

Back when I was covering Central Europe as a journalist about 15 years ago, Hungary was in many ways the model for the region. The country’s economic reforms and relaxation of travel restrictions had actually started in the 1980s, before the Wall fell, giving Hungary a jump on its more authoritarian neighbors in the Soviet bloc. But even in the late 1990s, it seemed to be racing ahead of its post-Communist peer group.

When Viktor Orbán first came to power in 1998, he seemed to have figured out how to balance concepts of liberal reform and European aspirations with traditionally held values in a way other politicians in the region had failed to do.

Today, well into Orbán’s second chance at the helm after years in opposition, Hungary seems like a different country altogether. Disturbingly, we’ve seen the rise of the radical right and anti-Semitism in what is best described as an alarming climate of intolerance. What’s more, a vast number of legal and constitutional changes have been eating away at the rule of law and human rights protection. Even something as fundamental as media freedom is now under serious threat.

What happened? The journalists I met in Budapest painted a complex picture. The shock Orbán and his FIDESZ party felt after getting kicked out of power last time perhaps made them overly eager to do everything possible to hold on to it this time, including through extensive changes to the law and constitution. Also, maybe public expectations were simply too high in the 1990s, and leaders were able to exploit the inevitable anger and disappointment in dark directions with crude populist slogans.

The European Parliament recently adopted a resolution on Hungary, underscoring its deep concerns about the country’s rights record and urging specific steps to address them. So far, the response from Hungarian leaders seems to be chiefly denials and attempts to blame foreign conspiracies for the negative attention. It would be far wiser if Hungary instead listened to its friends and partners: the government should heed those calls and get the country back on track.

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