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