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The Balkan War on Conservatism by Sven R. Larson

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The Balkan War on Conservatism

Ever since Prime Minister Viktor Orbán began the conservative transformation of Hungary, he and his country have been relentlessly targeted by left-of-center organizations and campaigns. They have made repeated and thoroughly unsubstantiated allegations that his election victories were not “democratic,”, they have ignored his success in creating an economy that is one of the strongest in Europe, and they have gone to great lengths to vilify Orbán himself.

They have failed. Hungary’s national conservatism stands stronger and more solid than it has in 12 years. 

As such, the anti-conservative forces are now setting their sights on another part of Europe. Having failed to break the spirit of the Hungarians, they have declared an ideological war in another part of Europe. 

A declaration of anti-conservatism

Funded in part by the U.S. government, a coalition of seemingly respectable organizations has vowed to keep Orbán’s national conservatism from inspiring followers in the Western Balkans. The latest exhibit of this campaign is the so-called “Vienna declaration on dealing with authoritarianism”” which a group of self-described “researchers, activists and civil society representatives” published on April 8th in the Austrian capital.

The signatories to the declaration make no secret of their ambitions, referring multiple times to the “need” to transform countries on the Balkans in the image of the liberal-democratic ideals that are said to underpin the European Union. They use the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights as their ideological reference point, while speaking of conservatism in starkly negative terms. Conservatism is richly likened to “authoritarianism” and is tied, guilt-by-association style, to Russia and Belarus.

While the Vienna declaration itself is a hamfistedly written document, it is also a battle cry by organizations (and their funders) who want to expand the European Union’s one-size-fits-all model of government and social and cultural values. The declaration signatories marinate themselves in anti-conservative rhetoric, and they make no qualms about their intent to conquer the Western Balkan at the behest of the bureaucracies in Brussels.

According to the masthead of the Vienna declaration document, it is backed by four organizations with strikingly similar agendas:

The first three organizations are located in Vienna; the fourth operates out of Kosovo. 

They have more in common: the OIIP is interested in gender politics, an interest they share with the Renner Institute as well as the IIP. The Balkan Forum wants to empower women to increase their workforce participation.

They are also eager to exhibit their support for the EU. The IIP goes the extra mile, devoting an entire website section to the Conference on the Future of Europe. This is ironic, given how the Vienna declaration that the IIP supports repeatedly calls for more democracy, especially in the Balkans. The Conference on the Future of Europe, namely, is of such a quality that it pits democracy against freedom in the EU. Unsurprisingly, it has met with a fair amount of resistance.

Aiming for the Western Balkans

However, more than anything these four entities want to spread their anti-conservative ideas throughout the Western Balkans. As if guided by an invisible hand, they all have projects aimed at that region: the OIIP, the Renner Institute, the IIP and, of course, the Balkan Forum itself. Their Vienna declaration calls on the EU “to devise a dual strategy to fight authoritarian regimes in Western Balkans.”

They take their ambitions to such great lengths that they are getting involved in the domestic affairs of individual countries. Bosnia is of particular interest to them, where they even single out a specific individual as their enemy.

This level of meddling in the domestic affairs of a sovereign country is disturbing in itself, but it gets all the more troubling when there is U.S. government money involved. While the Renner Institute, the OIIP and the IIP refuse to disclose who bankrolls their operations, the Balkan Forum lists two American sources of funding (in addition to the European Union). One of them is the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which—notably—has its own project for the Western Balkans

The other is the National Endowment for Democracy, NED, which had this to say in its 2021 annual report:

In the Western Balkans NED’s focus on supporting civil society organizations and political actors working to counter deepening polarization that is undermining stability in countries like Bosnia and Hercegovina, North Macedonia, and Montenegro remained, coupled with programs on investigative journalism, accountability, and civic engagement. 

In their 2021 financial year, the NED received $251.7 million from the U.S. government. This amounts to 99.6% of their total revenue. They doled out $206.2 million in federal grants, essentially functioning as a pass-through entity for U.S. government funds.

As the NED’’s intentions spell out, the idea is to use this money to interfere with the domestic affairs of sovereign nations. At least one of the organizations behind the Vienna declaration is doing just that in the Western Balkans. 


However, their intrusions into national democratic integrity does not stop there. In one of the more striking points in the declaration, the signatories conclude that

a growing trend of electoral authoritarianism poses a common threat to Europe. The impact of subversion of democracy and encroachment upon rule of law is not limited to national or regional level but it is a common threat for the future of Europe. Thus, Europe must prepare to deal with the formidable challenge and work together united.

They flag up and name their prime target in the next paragraph, where they “warn” that the recent re-election of Viktor Orbán and “the recent election victory for … Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić” clearly show that “European democracy as we know it continues to be under attack.” They go on to accuse both Orbán and Vučić of undermining democracy 

by capturing state institutions, shrinking independent media, muzzling the opposition voices and repressing the rule of law and fundamental rights. 

After throwing Poland into the same bucket, the declaration tops its disdain for parliamentary democracy with conservative outcomes by stating that “Russia and Belarus must already be regarded as oppressive dictatorships.” 

In short: they accuse Poland and Hungary of becoming tyrannies.

As always when anti-conservatives attack Hungary, they have no substance to show for it. There is no mention in the Vienna declaration of any actual laws passed by the Hungarian government, nor do they specify any regulations or policies that could substantiate why the Hungarian government can be said to qualify as “authoritarian.”

This lack of specifics is important in the context of what the Vienna declaration signatories are trying to accomplish in the Western Balkans. Activism without substance is often a sign of ulterior motives. 

Much of the inflammatory rhetoric against Hungary is nothing more than primitive Magyarophobia, but with a little generosity it is actually possible to find a grain of substance, hidden deep behind the Vienna declaration. In a speech in 2021, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen defined what conservative “authoritarianism” is all about: she criticized Hungary for banning the transmission of homosexual propaganda to children. 

Do the Vienna declaration signatories share von der Leyen’s belief that the worst sin of conservatism is to protect children from sexual exploitation? This might be good to know for people in Bosnia, whose future the declaration signatories aim to influence. This would allow the Muslim leaders in Bosnia—whom the declaration has sided with in the country’s internal conflict—to know the price of getting closer to the European Union. They would have to open their media and their schools to sexual propaganda aimed at their children.

Stirring up hostility

As if to make sure their involvement foments conflict, the Vienna signatories have targeted “Bosnian Serb separatist Milorad Dodik” as their Bosnian enemy. They accuse him of deepening ethnic rifts and propagating secession.

Here we have four organizations, three of which are long-standing, supposedly reputable think tanks in Austria, who single out one person, in one country, with unabashedly hostile rhetoric. Furthermore, their explicit ambition to interfere with the internal affairs of Bosnia is all the more troubling given that the facts on the ground in Bosnia are very different from how the Vienna declaration describes them. 

In other words, by targeting Mr. Dodik, the declaration sponsors have sided with the Muslim Bosniaks against the country’s Christian Serbs and Croats. Their harsh, inflammatory rhetoric stirs up division and hostility. They could very well be contributing to an open, violent ethnic and religious conflict in the heart of Europe. 

The declaration signatories do this in the name of “fundamental rights” and “democracy,” words that ring hollow in the context of their attacks on Hungary and their express purpose of meddling with internal Bosnian affairs. The entire declaration comes across as a pretextual project concealing a more sinister purpose. 

That purpose, which is to stop the spread of national conservatism at all costs, is anchored in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Those rights are divided into “human dignity, freedom, security, and solidarity.”

Given the vehemence with which the Vienna declaration signatories attack Hungary, it seems as though they do not believe the Charter rights apply to Hungarians. They would presumably not apply its principles to conservatives in the Western Balkans either.

Fireworks of illogical reasoning

In fact, people in the Balkans should take note of how Hungary is being treated. Take, e.g., Article 11 in the Charter, which grants every European “the right to freedom of expression.” This includes ”freedom to hold opinions”—without restrictions, notably. In other words, according to the Charter the Hungarians who voted for Viktor Orbán have the same right to express their opinions as those who voted against the Hungarian prime minister.

It is easy to infer from the utterly false accusations against Hungary, and the constant mentions of “authoritarianism,” that the Vienna declaration signatories only believe in one form of democracy for the Western Balkans: that which produces the political outcomes that these organizations like.

In fact, under fireworks of illogical reasoning the declaration explains:

In dealing with the threat of authoritarianism and engaging in conflict resolution in divided societies based on factors such as rural-urban, east-west, nationalities, and religion, it is important to work with local actors and support forces of change on the ground by applying a bottom-up approach and establishing formal and informal networks. In that sense, priority is to support human rights defenders and activists fighting for their rights and facilitate a path for those in immediate need of protection. 

They say this shortly after they attack the Serb leader in Bosnia for not conforming to the intentions of the central government. Apparently, when they single out one man and his entire ethnic group as separatists, the declaration sponsors “work with local actors and support forces of change on the ground by applying a bottom-up approach” to conflict resolution.

All the vows by the declaration’s signatories to engage in “conflict resolution” and to fight “authoritarianism” also come on the heels of their singling out Hungary as a bastion of everything they don’t like. Their motives for doing so are squarely ideological: Hungary does not conform to the top-down imposed liberal democracy model that emerged in western Europe during the Cold War. 

The Hungarians have had the audacity to apply a bottom-up approach to governing their country, under which they freely and democratically put conservatism to work.

It is not hard to see the spelled-out anti-conservative intentions behind the Vienna declaration. The four organizations that officially sponsor it strongly promote the European Union, running its opinion-forming errands in the Western Balkans. Given their hostility toward Hungary, the signatories have openly declared an ideological war on conservatism.

Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.