Budapest Forum 2022 Focuses on Building Sustainable Democracies

September 26, 2022

On September 21 and 22, the Budapest Forum 2022 hosted domestic and international thinkers to discuss innovative, unusual, bold ideas and proposals to put the city back on the progressive intellectual map of the region.

"Our effort here is to foster a more inclusive and democratic society in all parts of the world, wherever democracy is under threat today. The question is why are some democracies more resilient to crises, to sudden and dramatic changes in their environment than others, and why can some others more dramatically weakened by extreme forms of political polarization, and what makes some democracies more resistant to demagogues and to the lure of strongmen, mostly men, who promise all kinds of things, which they do not deliver," said CEU's President and Rector Shalini Randeria in her welcome speech.

"We may face forces of historic scale and magnitude, but our actions can shape the course of history", said Mayor Gergely Karacsony in his opening speech, adding that "if we don't want our chapter to be written by others, we must start writing it ourselves."

"Autocracies are resilient, they adapt to the mainstream narrative. They try to make it look like they are democracies, but without any substance," Simon Cheng, exiled pro-democracy activist from Hong Kong emphasized in his keynote address.

"Democracy is not a system to uphold harmony but to process conflict," Andreas Schedler, Lead Researcher of our De- and Re-Democratization Workgroup said in the panel focusing on polarization, moderated by our Co-Director Laszlo Bruszt. “Some interests are polarizing, and for those interests voters would sacrifice democracy, but there are also interests that are not polarizing, but voters would still sacrifice democracy for them,” argued Research Affiliate Filip Milacic.

In the panel on the functioning of state propaganda machines, economist Sergei Guriev, Provost of Science Po and former adviser to President Medvedev, pointed out, among other things, that "the 21st century dictator pretends to be democratic" and that "the peculiarity of such regimes is that people do not even know at first that they are not living in a democratic country". According to Ilya Yablokov, Lecturer at the University of Sheffield, "the problem with any authoritarian leader is that he isolates himself from unfiltered information and falls prey to his own propaganda" – as is currently the case with Putin, who has "constructed a conspiracy-theory-laden, highly anti-Western narrative that is far from the way a rational leader should communicate."

Russia's war in Ukraine was also the subject of two discussions at the conference. Hanna Hopko, a former Ukrainian MP, recalled that 91 percent of the Ukrainian population supports membership and 93 percent are convinced that they will win the war, which will not only protect Ukraine's independence but also contribute to global security. Nevertheless, Andras Racz, Associate Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations emphasized that Putin's decision to mobilize more people ensured that the war is going last for at least another year.

Freezing the conflict is only the interest of Russia. Ukrainians would never accept a ceasefire without pushing Russian soldiers back to their country, Edwin Bendyk, Chairman of the Board at Stefan Batory Foundation argued. Freezing the conflict would be like "keeping a mine next to our house," Sofia Oliynyk, Program Coordinator “Democracy Support and Human Security” at Heinrich Boell Foundation in Kyiv added.

Francis Fukuyama, Senior Fellow at Stanford University Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, in a discussion dissecting the illiberal trends in Hungary, argued that a section of the US right, traditionally supportive of the small state and low taxes, welcomes Viktor Orban, who has taxed the banking system and implemented "economic nationalism".

Orban is not a trend-setter in the European far-right. If you look at the major issues, he is either following others’ footsteps or he is unable to create alliances, Co-Director Laszlo Bruszt pointed out. The thing that binds national populists is their admiration for Putin, he said. The EU facilitated the erosion of democracy in Hungary in the past years, Timothy Garton Ash, Professor at Oxford University continued.

On the second day of the conference, which focused mainly on the energy crisis and a socially just transition, Toby Trister Gati, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State responsible for Russia, Ukraine and the Eurasian region, said she believes Putin has held himself to account, both in energy and military terms: their weapons and soldiers are no match for the West, while their gas is becoming increasingly hard to sell in the West, leaving them weakened and drifting into China's arms.

In the closing panel of the conference, NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoana argued that Russia's aggression violates international law and reminded that many of us would not have believed that the Gulag could become a reality again, but the abuses of Russian forces against Ukrainian civilians and the deportation of a million Ukrainians are still ongoing. The Deputy Secretary General noted that with the current partial mobilization, Russia is de facto recognizing that the "special operation" is a real war. Geoana expressed hope that Finland and Sweden would join the NATO as soon as possible, adding that the alliance would continue its open door policy.

You may re-watch the entire conference on the links below:

  • Day 1, part 1 (Opening speeches; Welcome speech; Ambassadors Roundtable on Sustainable Democracy in the 21st century; EU expansion, Western Balkans, Eastern Partnership – What is the right way forward?)
  • Day 1, part 2 (How Autocratic Tendencies Can Spread Under the Guise of Democracy; Taiwan and Taoyuan under the Threat of China; When Fake News Goes Mainstream – State-sponsored Disinformation and Effective Countermeasures; Hungary: Global Illiberal Trend-setter and Black Sheep of the EU?)
  • Day 1, part 3 (Is Deep Polarization in Society a Driver of Autocratization?; Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: A turning point in Ukraine’s European integration?)
  • Day 2, part 1 (Socially Just Climate Transition: A Blueprint; Energy Transition and Energy Security in Central and Eastern Europe in the Wake of the War in Ukraine; How Can Cities Cope with the Energy Crisis?; Young People and Democratic Action)
  • Day 2, part 2 (Defending Democracies: The aftermath of the Madrid NATO Summit and the new Strategic Concept)

Strategic partners:

  • Heinrich Böll Stiftung
  • Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Vienna
  • ERSTE Stiftung
  • German Marshall Fund/German Marshall Fund of the United States
  • The Greens/EFA in the European Parliament
  • North Atlantic Treaty Organization
  • Open Society Foundations
  • Action for Democracy