[New publication] Rule of law and constitutionalisation of memory politics in Hungary and Russia

Published 18 January 2023

© Wikimedia, Jules Verne Times Two - The Shoes on the Danube Bank, Budapest, Hungary is a memorial that honours the Jews who were massacred during WW2. Memory laws have an impact on the legal situation of individuals and groups, and they shape the historical narrative of a place and community. These narratives are increasingly codified in criminal law provisions.

In his chapter for the new book Rule of Law in Crisis- Constitutionalism in a State of Flux (edited by Martin Belov, Routledge 2023), senior Asser Institute researcher Ulad Belavusau focuses on the rise of memory laws in Hungary and Russia throughout the 2010s. According to Dr. Belavusau, Russia not only stirred up major memory wars in the region, but also uses these memory laws as a fake justification for the war against Ukraine.  

The mushrooming of memory laws in Central and Eastern Europe throughout the 2010s went hand-in-hand with democratic backsliding in the region. Hungary, in particular, has recently been at the epicentre of the EU's critique for violation of rule of law standards.

Beyond the EU, Russia has been identified not only as a rapidly degrading democracy but also as the main provocateur for mnemonic propaganda, whilst stirring up major ‘memory wars’ in the region, in particular, as a fake justification for the war of aggression against Ukraine. Such laws transcend criminal legislation and have acquired a constitutional significance, which this chapter analyses under the heading of 'mnemonic constiutionalism' (the advance of the legal governance of historical memory to the constitutional level).

Taking the country studies of Hungary and Russia, the chapter concludes that the ruling elites therein perceive ‘mnemonic constitutionalism’ not only as an ideological basis for an entire governance of historical memory but also as a foundation to justify ‘illiberal democracies’. 

Read the chapter.

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As part of the MEMOCRACY research consortium, Asser senior researcher Dr Uladzislau Belavusau studies the proliferation of the nation-centric governance of memory through laws and policies in Germany and selected countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The study unpacks the relationship of this memory governance with rising populism and the erosion of fundamental democratic rights in the region. Using the concept of ‘memocracy’, meaning ‘ruling on the basis of memory’, the study seeks to shed light on how particular abuses of memory laws and policies can undermine European values such as democracy, fundamental human rights and the rule of law. They can further facilitate authoritarianism, in particular, in Central and Eastern Europe. The project aims to raise awareness about the inherent dangers of these laws and policies. 

Memory laws in European and comparative perspectives (MELA)
The T.M.C Asser Instituut has been involved in various studies of memory laws and policies. Its Memory laws in European and comparative perspectives (MELA) research project (2016-2019), was a four-nation, EU-sponsored consortium which examined memory laws throughout Europe and the world. 

About Ulad Belavusau
Dr Uladzislau Belavusau is senior researcher in European law at the Asser Institute. Previously, he was assistant professor in EU law and human rights at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (2011-2015). He holds a Ph.D. from the European University Institute (Florence, Italy) and an LL.M. from the Collège d’Europe (Bruges, Belgium). His research and teaching cover various areas of EU (especially constitutional and anti-discrimination) law, human rights and memory politics.

Dr Belavusau is member of the Asser Institute research strand In the public interest: accountability of the state and the prosecution of crimes’, which examines the accountability of states - individually and collectively (for instance at the level of the United Nations or the European Union) – in light of public interest standards in the context of counter-terrorism; and the prosecution of individuals for international and transnational crimes in the public interest. To ensure both the accountability of the state and the prosecution of individuals, this strand also investigates the role of journalists, the (new) media, human rights NGOs and academics in protecting and promoting public interest standards.