Authoritarian Trends in NATO Member States Undermine the Alliance’s Already Fragile Legitimacy
For months now, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been embroiled in a resurgent geopolitical conflict with Russia over events in Ukraine. Beginning in March, when Russian-speaking separatists in the Crimea region of Ukraine voted in referendum to join the Russian Federation, NATO and Western leaders called the referendum “a breach of international laws and norms“, citing the Russian use of “little green men”, or off-duty Russian soldiers being unofficially deployed to Crimea to incite rebellion and fight Ukrainian forces. With the annexation of Crimea a forgone conclusion, Western leaders have continued their strong rhetoric and defensive posturing amid the continuing rebellion of Ukraine’s eastern provinces, especially surrounding the cities of Donetsk, Mariupol, and Luhansk. Sanctions leveled against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his benefactors in the private sector, coupled with the ruble and energy export prices in freefall, have taken a toll on the Russian economy. The ruble is now worth roughly half of what it was a year ago. Despite the economic downturn, Russian sponsoring of the Ukrainian rebels in the form of money, equipment and alleged reinforcements is ongoing. Surely such open disdain for Western punishment would meet with greater solidarity within the ranks of NATO. However, new forces seek to undermine NATO’s legitimacy, and they have nothing to do with the Russian military.
A rash of Putin-style authoritarianism is underway in two key NATO allied states; Turkey and Hungary. For NATO to continue to be the bulwark of liberal democratic values that it has professed to be since its 1949 founding, it may have to quash dissension within its own ranks.
President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has tightened his grip on power, ordering Turkish police to raid media outlets affiliated with his political opponents. This clamping down on free speech is seen by many in the West as less than ideal, but Turkey remains THE crucial NATO ally in the fight against the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS). “Turkey’s strategic geography dictates that its allies continue giving it some leeway … People simply can’t afford to ignore Turkey, whatever the policies of President Erdogan,” said Fadi Hakura, Turkey analyst at the London think-tank Chatham House. This may be the case, but the trampling of free speech, a major critique of the Putin regime, undermines NATO legitimacy in its dealings with Russia. Hypocrisy breeds illegitimacy. And especially given Turkey’s prime geographic location, not only when confronting ISIS, but Russia as well, its sure to be an ally that needs to have a strong voice at the NATO table.
While the geographic location of Hungary is not quite as strategic in the conflict with Russia or ISIS as Turkey’s, a pro-Russian state that is quite literally the center of Europe is nonetheless alarming to NATO officials. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, now in his third term, has consolidated power over his rightist Fidesz Party, created a ruling class of oligarchs, and most alarmingly, expanded ties with Moscow. He even praised “illiberal democracies like Russia, Turkey, Singapore and China.” Orban, who at the time of the fall of Communism was an anti-communist activist, has alarmed his Western allies and other countries in eastern Europe, including the staunchly pro-West Poland and the Czech Republic. While Hungary’s recent orientation towards authoritarianism is alarming, Orban also enjoys none of the political capital enjoyed by Erdogan. Western European leaders in NATO and the EU could exercise some geopolitical clout and lean on Orban to orient him back towards the West. The right amount of rhetoric in favor of his opposition could pressure the Hungarian electorate to lean on Parliament to oust Orban as Prime Minister in favor of a pro-Western candidate. However, with little hard power to back up their rhetoric, it is unlikely Europe will do so without U.S. leadership.
In the post–Cold War era, NATO leaders repeatedly stress the organization’s commitment to democracy and human rights. It would be more than a tad embarrassing to have a Putin-style autocracy emerge in NATO’s ranks. Given the rapid backsliding into authoritarianism in both Hungary and Turkey, a major intra-alliance crisis appears imminent. Much as they might like to, civilian and military leaders in Europe and NATO’s cheerleaders in the United States will not be able to wish away that problem.