Hungary’s Rela­tions with Russia, the EU and NATO: What to Expect After the Re-elec­tion of Viktor Orbán

Photo: Attila Volgyi /​ Imago Images

Just a day after the first videos of the Bucha mas­sacre were posted to social media, on 3 April 2022, Hungary’s FIDESZ-Chris­t­ian Demo­c­ra­tic alliance won its fourth con­sec­u­tive land­slide victory with 54,10%, over 3 million votes, keeping their two-thirds major­ity in par­lia­ment, inten­si­fy­ing the EU’s conun­drum of how to cope with auto­cratic leaders and whether Hungary would con­tinue its polit­i­cal tightrope of being an EU and NATO member state while further iso­lat­ing itself on an illib­eral, pro-Putin path.

Vladimir Putin swiftly offered his con­grat­u­la­tions to Viktor Orbán for his victory and, accord­ing to the Kremlin, expressed con­fi­dence that “despite the dif­fi­cult inter­na­tional sit­u­a­tion, the further devel­op­ment of a bilat­eral part­ner­ship fully meets the inter­ests of the peoples of Russia and Hungary.” Another dubious friend, Donald Trump gave his seal of approval to Orbán: “I am grate­ful for your con­tin­ued friend­ship and endur­ing com­mit­ment to fight­ing for the ideals you and I cherish: freedom, patri­otic pride, and liberty.” Marine Le Pen tweeted: “When the people vote, the people win!” Orbán, in his victory speech, cocked a snook at Brus­sels bureau­crats, George Soros, the inter­na­tional main­stream media, and even the Ukrain­ian pres­i­dent Volodymyr Zelen­sky, as the “over­whelm­ing forces” against which FIDESZ had had to fight against in the elec­tion campaign.

Mean­while, Hungary’s iso­la­tion con­tin­ues inside the EU. Orbán’s atti­tude to the war in Ukraine has dis­tanced him from his coun­ter­parts in the Viseg­rád group, com­pris­ing the Czech Repub­lic, Poland, Slo­va­kia, and Hungary. Even his long­stand­ing Polish ally Jarosław Kaczyński has slammed him on several occasions.

Two days after Orbán’s re-elec­tion, the EU launched its pre­vi­ously uncharted rule-of-law con­di­tion­al­ity mech­a­nism against Hungary. Designed to prevent EU funds from being misused by coun­tries bending the rule of law, this could ulti­mately retain crit­i­cal EU funding from the country.

Anti-LGBTQ and anti-war

Despite pre-elec­tion polls sug­gest­ing a tense chase, the oppo­si­tional six-party alliance (rep­re­sent­ing a broad polit­i­cal range from far-right to green to left-liberal) did 20 % worse than the elec­tion winner, i.e. gaining 34,46%, less than 2 million votes. Roughly 900 000 voters who, in 2018, voted for one of these oppo­si­tional parties have now dis­ap­peared. Certain polit­i­cal ana­lysts assume that a part of them have turned to the radical right-wing Our Home­land Move­ment. The latter got into par­lia­ment with vice pres­i­dent Dóra Dúró, infa­mous for shred­ding a fairy tale book con­tain­ing LGBTQ characters.

Prime Min­is­ter Viktor Orbán also used this topic as an added fillip to “defend tra­di­tional values” in his elec­toral cam­paign, with a ref­er­en­dum on “LGBTQ pro­pa­ganda” held together with the par­lia­men­tary elec­tions. Yet what prob­a­bly con­vinced most elec­tors was Orbán’s nar­ra­tive of “strate­gic calm­ness” and nailing his elec­toral colours to stay out of the war in the neigh­bour­ing country, while casting the oppo­si­tion as pro-war and himself as a peacekeeper.

The Hun­gar­ian government’s atti­tude to those fleeing the war in Ukraine is rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from that of 2015. “Those arriv­ing here from Ukraine are coming to a friendly place”, Orbán assured fol­low­ing the out­break of the Russia-Ukraine war. Accord­ing to Péter Szi­jjártó, Min­is­ter of Foreign Affairs, Hungary has so far let 575 000 refugees enter the country from Ukraine, and has been offer­ing human­i­tar­ian aid. In his Face­book live fol­low­ing the meeting of NATO Min­is­ters of Foreign Affairs on 7 April, he staunchly insisted on not sending weapons to Ukraine and not allow­ing weapon trans­fer to Ukraine directly through Hungary.

Hungary’s public media, forced to toe the gov­ern­ment line, has been severely crit­i­cised for hosting ana­lysts whose inter­pre­ta­tion of the events in Ukraine resem­bled that of Kremlin pro­pa­ganda. The NGO Cor­rup­tion Research Center Budapest pointed out that the latter also appeared in the ter­mi­nol­ogy used by the website of the Hun­gar­ian Min­istry of Defence. Accord­ing to their analy­sis of the website’s content between 24 Feb­ru­ary and 10 March, the min­istry tended to use the NATO nar­ra­tive of a war ini­ti­ated by Russia, the aggres­sor, against Ukraine, the victim, when report­ing about an inter­na­tional event with NATO part­ners. Oth­er­wise, the lan­guage used by the min­istry tended to use neutral terms without clearly blaming the respon­si­bil­ity on Russia.

Orbán’s peacock dance between Putin and the EU

With most of Hungary’s gas and nuclear power relying on Russia and the government’s pledge to pre­serve the secu­rity of gas supply to its cit­i­zens’ house­holds, Orbán’s answer to REUTERS at his inter­na­tional press con­fer­ence on 6 April seems plau­si­ble: “Hungary would be ready to pay in roubles if Russia asked so.” Only: This goes against EU efforts seeking a united front to oppose Moscow’s request, fol­low­ing Western eco­nomic sanc­tions imposed on Russia over its inva­sion of Ukraine.

Yet Orbán also high­lighted the impor­tance of Hungary’s EU and NATO mem­ber­ships and their will­ing­ness to further strengthen these alliances in terms of secu­rity and build­ing a much stronger army. NATO troops have recently been deployed to Hungary as well, in an attempt to increase mil­i­tary pres­ence along the alliance’s eastern flank.

He even claimed on 6 April that “in this sit­u­a­tion” Hungary and Russia were “oppos­ing one another” and that Russia would con­sider Hungary an “unfriendly country”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had earlier declared a list of coun­tries includ­ing the EU con­sid­ered as unfriendly due to the eco­nomic sanc­tions imposed on Russia. Orbán con­demned the war as an “aggres­sion”, which “Russia started by attack­ing Ukraine”, adding that Hungary shared the EU’s stand. Hungary had a special posi­tion “on the eastern border of the western world” and was “intran­si­gent” con­cern­ing peace because of the 200,000 ethnic Hun­gar­i­ans living in Ukraine for whom Hungary “bears responsibility”.

The Hun­gar­ian minor­ity in Tran­scarpathia and their rights were often areas of con­flict between Ukraine and Hungary before the out­break of the current war, a topic that could easily be exploited by Russian inter­ests, critics say.

Orbán also stated that the sanc­tions and the pres­sure from West­ern­ers could poten­tially destroy the network of con­tacts that he had built up with Russia since 2008 and that a deep change was about to come, be it a new iron curtain or repara­ble damages. He explained his prox­im­ity to Putin as a long-term con­se­quence of the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008 when neither Ukraine nor Georgia were accepted into NATO, which Orbán had severely crit­i­cised back then, as well as fiercely con­demn­ing the Russian inva­sion of Georgia and com­par­ing it to the 1956 inva­sion of Hungary when Soviet tanks had crushed the Hun­gar­ian revolution.

Orbán: “That’s when I under­stood that times are chang­ing. Until 2008, the West was basi­cally gaining ground, expressed through NATO’s expan­sion, and in 2008 (…) they could have voted for this, the Rus­sians were weak enough too, they would’ve had to accept it. And then the West decided, we decided not to accept them. I under­stood then that from now on, these would be the power rela­tions for a long time in Europe. And then we devel­oped a new Russian policy. That’s when I reached out to Pres­i­dent Putin some­time around 2009, and (…) under­stood that Russia would be a part of the archi­tec­ture of Euro­pean secu­rity, (…) because the new border was born, which sep­a­rates the world of NATO from the Rus­sians. And between the two there’s a network of buffer states, Geor­gians in the south, and here, (…) to the west of Russia, the Ukrainians.”

The inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ists’ group Direkt 36 described at length how the per­sonal and busi­ness rela­tions between Orbán and Putin have evolved ever since. Refer­ring to FIDESZ sources they reported: “Orbán felt that it was point­less to get tough with the Rus­sians over Georgia if Western coun­tries con­tin­ued to do busi­ness with Moscow in the mean­time. He also esti­mated that the (…) 2008 eco­nomic crisis would result in a com­plete geopo­lit­i­cal shift in favour of the Eastern powers.”

The peacock dance is likely to con­tinue in the future. When asked by CNN’s Chris­tiane Aman­pour where the red line was to belong to the com­mu­nity of nations, EU Com­mis­sion Chief Ursula von der Leyen responded: “We have to be clear. So far the Hun­gar­i­ans did stick to every sanc­tion and measure we took and I think we should not judge a country before they have not broken the rules, for example. My job is to keep the 27 (EU member coun­tries) together.”

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