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POLITICS

Dancing with Putin. How Orban’s Hungary ended up being Kremlin's only EU ally

Diana Fishman

At the beginning of April parliamentary elections were held in Hungary and Viktor Orban’s right-wing populist Fidesz party won for the fourth time in a row. The Hungarian prime minister has been regularly accused of the abuse of power, corruption, undermining democracy, and close ties with the Kremlin which were not severed even with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. The European Union has criticized Hungary for not being tough enough on the Russian aggression: after letting in hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, the country has denied Kyiv military aid and periodically blocked anti-Kremlin sanctions. The friendship between the countries is partly based on cheap gas and corrupt contacts, but just as importantly, by controlling the media Orban manages to promote in Hungary a conservative propaganda very similar to Putin's.

ALL CARDS
  • Putin's “Trojan Horse”

  • Corruption that binds together

  • Anti-Western unity

  • Shifting attitudes

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“We have won such a significant victory that it can be seen even from the moon, and it can certainly be seen from Brussels ... This victory will be remembered for a lifetime, because so many forces turned against us: the Hungarian left and the left abroad, the bureaucrats in Brussels, the Soros empire with its money, the leading international media and finally even the Ukrainian president.”

This is an excerpt from the victory speech of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Union party once again won a constitutional majority in parliament in early April, defeating the united opposition in the election. Political analysts have called the elections “free but unfair,” pointing to nontransparent campaign financing and the ruling party's use of propaganda and administrative resources. However, the key factor that afforded Orban such a strong voter support was a populist promise not to drag Hungary into the war between Russia and Ukraine.

Putin's “Trojan Horse”

Once a staunch fighter with communism, Viktor Orban has been Vladimir Putin's staunch ally in Europe for the past few years. After February 24 he did not make any drastic changes in his foreign policy, although he formally condemned the Russian invasion. Hungary is the only EU country neighboring Ukraine that not only denied Kyiv military aid, but also refused to allow supplies of weapons for the Ukrainians to pass through its territory.

Volodymyr Zelensky said that after the footage from Bucha was made public, one of the European leaders questioned its authenticity and demanded proof that the mass killings of civilians had not been staged. According to Ukrainska Pravda, the leader in question was the Hungarian prime minister. Later, Budapest strongly opposed the inclusion of Patriarch Kirill in the sanctions list and the imposition of a full embargo on Russian oil imports - as a result, the Druzhba pipeline, which supplies oil to Hungary, among other countries, was excluded from the sixth sanctions package.

Hungary is the only EU country neighboring Ukraine that not only denied Kyiv military aid, but also refused to allow supplies of weapons for the Ukrainians to pass through its territory

Because of its openly pro-Russian policy, Hungary had already been called Putin's “Trojan horse” in Europe, and since the start of the war there have been even more reasons for that. Sharp criticism of Orban comes not only from Kyiv and Brussels, but also from his key EU partners. For example, head of the Polish ruling party Jaroslaw Kaczynski said in an interview that Orban should consult an ophthalmologist if he “does not see what exactly happened in Bucha” and also warned that the position of the Hungarian prime minister puts into question the future of the alliance between the two countries. In recent years, Warsaw and Budapest have jointly confronted the European Commission, which accused them of failing to comply with EU democratic standards and threatened to freeze payments from the common budget. A rift has also emerged within the Visegrad Four, an informal group consisting of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary, the countries that usually speak with one voice when important issues are discussed in Brussels.

How is it that the head of government of an EU and NATO member state has turned into a conduit of the Kremlin's interests? And why was this possible in Soviet-oppressed Hungary?

Corruption that binds together

In the 2000s Orban, first as prime minister (first elected in 1998) and then as the leader of a major opposition party, harshly criticized Russia and called for Hungary not to return to Moscow's sphere of influence and not to turn into “Gazprom's happiest barrack” (in the 1970s and 1980s Hungary was called “the happiest barrack in the socialist camp” because of its relatively high living standards). This went on until 2010, when Fidesz won the elections again and Orban returned to the premiership. What made him change course abruptly?

In 2017, The Insider wrote that Russian authorities may have dirt on the Hungarian leader. It became known that in the mid-1990s he was involved in corruption schemes of the Russian crime lord Semyon Mogilevich, who was then living in Budapest. In 1994, shortly before the parliamentary elections, Orban may have received a suitcase with one million German marks as a “campaign donation.” It is possible that Mogilevich, in exchange for his freedom, handed over to Nikolai Patrushev a video recording which proved the bribe - and the Kremlin has been blackmailing the Hungarian prime minister ever since. “Orban has become a puppet who does Putin's bidding,” The Insider source stated five years ago.

Orban has become a puppet who does Putin’s bidding

Today, however, the experts questioned by The Insider do not tend to overestimate Putin’s and Orban's personal ties: a revelation of corruption 30 years ago is unlikely to shake the Hungarian prime minister's position at home. His relations with Moscow are governed by purely pragmatic considerations, which he uses to consolidate his power. From the point of view of Orban's voters, the main benefit of Hungary's close cooperation with Russia is a favorable gas price (allegedly five times below the market price).

Hungary is indeed highly dependent on Russian energy imports: 85% of the gas and 65% of the oil consumed in the country comes from Russia. Last September Budapest signed a 15-year contract with Gazprom for gas supplies bypassing Ukraine. It is no coincidence that one of the key items on the ruling party's election agenda this year was ensuring Hungary's energy security.

Joint business projects with Russia are a source of enrichment for Orban's inner circle. For example, in 2014, Rosatom was awarded a contract to build two new units at Hungary's Paks nuclear power plant. The parties agreed that Moscow would finance up to 80% of the project cost with a loan of up to 10 billion euros; one of the main Hungarian subcontractors was the oligarch Lorinc Meszaros, a longtime friend of the prime minister. Another businessman close to Orban, and now the country's defense minister, Kristof Szalay-Bobrovniczky, became the owner of half of the shares in the Russian-Hungarian consortium Transmashholding Hungary in 2019.

Joint business projects with Russia are a source of enrichment for Orban's inner circle

Anti-Western unity

Economic benefits are not the only thing that Orban enjoys from his friendship with Moscow. Since taking office in 2010, he has adopted a multi-vector foreign policy, developing a strategic partnership with Russia and China (“openness to the East”), while remaining a full member of NATO and the EU, says researcher Daniel Hegedüs from the German Marshall Fund. In Orban's view, balancing between the West and the East could act as a leverage in his relations with his Western partners, and above all in the decisions of Brussels, which is concerned about Hungary's authoritarian backsliding.

“What is surprising is not Hungary's attitude toward Russia as such, but the fact that it has not changed since February 24. Most likely, Orban is convinced that his influence will be greater if he remains a pro-Russian player in the EU than if he abandons his friendly relations with Russia and turns westward. The Hungarian regime may try to act as a conduit for Russian and Chinese interests in the European Union. Moreover, Orban may believe that Putin's Russia will remain an influential global and European player even after this war, and he is therefore interested in maintaining good relations with the Kremlin.”

Such a strategy in foreign policy has found support in society. The last year's poll conducted by the non-governmental organization Globsec showed that one-third of the Hungarian population considers the West as their country’s preferred geopolitical orientation, while the majority sees their country’s place “between the East and the West”. At the same time, about 80% of citizens support Hungary's membership in NATO and the EU.

Only a third of the Hungarian population considers the West their country’s preferred geopolitical orientation

It is also important that Orban and Putin are close ideologically: both believe in the decline of the West and have contempt for Western values, political analysts interviewed by The Insider say. In this sense, Russia has become Orban's counterweight to liberal Europe. In July 2014, the Hungarian right-wing leader announced the construction of a new model of state - “illiberal democracy.” “It does not deny the fundamental values of liberalism, such as freedom and so on. But it does not make that ideology the centerpiece of the polity, instead it adopts a specific, national approach,” Orban said, speaking to ethnic Hungarians in the Romanian city of Baile Tusnad. He named Singapore, China, India, Turkey and Russia as successful examples of “illiberal states based on national values.” Western observers have noted with concern that Hungary is drifting toward authoritarianism under the Fidesz leader.

During the years of Orban's presidency the country's democratic institutions have indeed severely degraded. Harsh anti-migrant policies, discrimination against minorities, from Gypsies to LGBTQ+, persecution of organizations financed by Budapest-born George Soros (whom Orban considers an “enemy of the Hungarian people”), changing election laws in favor of the government, appointing members of the Prime Minister's inner circle to key positions, controlling the media - this is a partial list of the processes described by experts as “democracy withering.” Today Hungary is the only EU country that the human rights organization Freedom House categorizes as only “partly free.”

Hungary is now the only EU country that human rights organizations refer to as merely “partly free”

According to political analysts questioned by The Insider, the Russian and Hungarian regimes have a lot in common. Like Putin, Orban has dismantled the system of checks and balances that limited his power. There is almost no independent media outlets left in the country: most of the privately owned media belong to businessmen loyal to the prime minister. In 2018, about fifty editorial offices were merged into the Central European Press and Media Foundation, fully controlled by Orban's people.

There are also parallels in the domestic policies of the Russian and Hungarian leaders. When Orban returned to presidency in 2010, without consulting the opposition parties, he proposed a new constitution that, according to critics in the European Parliament, threatened to send the country back into the “dark past.” Among other things, it included provisions on a united Hungarian nation, protection of Hungarian communities abroad, and the family as a union of man and woman. In the following years, the constitution was amended several times to concentrate political power in the hands of the ruling party. In 2017, the country adopted a law on nonprofit organizations, apparently based off of the Russian norms on “foreign agents” (the European Court of Justice found it contrary to EU law). Last year's law on “protecting children,” originally aimed at combating pedophilia, in its final version restricted sexual education in schools and largely mimicked Russia's odious law banning “gay propaganda.”

According to András Tóth-Czifra, a freelance political analyst at the Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), because of Hungary's membership in the EU and NATO “the political systems of the two countries may be similar only to a certain extent, but Orban is constantly and largely successfully pushing those boundaries”.

Shifting attitudes

By betting on friendship with Russia, Orban has gone against the traditions of the Hungarian right, says Péter Krekó, director of the independent Budapest think tank Political Capital. Until 2010 Fidesz voters were highly critical of Moscow - the memory of the crimes committed by the Communist regime was alive. Orban had to change not only his party, but also the mood of his voters. All the forces of the media empire under his control were thrown at that task.

In the early 2010s, approximately 15% of Hungarian citizens were sympathetic to Russia; today that percentage may range from 40% to 60%, says Daniel Hegedüs. This shift was not achieved through external Russian propaganda and disinformation - the main source of pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda messages was the Hungarian state itself.

From 40 to 60% of Hungarian citizens sympathize with Russia today

At the same time, the historical narrative promoted by the ruling party changed. People began to talk about Hungary as a unique small country with a unique language and culture, and with more than a thousand years of resistance to the empires that tried to conquer it, says András Tóth-Czifra. In his public speeches, Orban often extolled the heroism and national unity of Hungarians in the “struggle” against such empires. He repeatedly referred to the European Union as one of them. Paradoxically, “in Orban's view, the ideological successor of the USSR is the EU, while today he considers Russia his ally against the global liberal elites,” adds Daniel Hegedüs. The pro-Kremlin media have also made sure that the public at large does not identify today's Russia with the Soviet Union or Soviet crimes (such as the suppression of the 1956 Budapest uprising), with Russian imperialism.

Within Fidesz itself, there are still those with clearly pro-Western views. However, key decisions in the party are made by Orban's associates and supporters, including Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, who calls Sergey Lavrov his friend, and Hungarian President Katalin Novák, a well-known advocate of traditional family values.

The authorities' anti-European, anti-Ukrainian and pro-Russian rhetoric was intended to reinforce Orban's image as a national hero who fights foreign enemies, patronizes Hungarians living in neighboring countries, and defends conservative “normality,” András Tóth-Czifra explains. For example, Budapest's relations with Kyiv deteriorated noticeably after Ukraine passed laws on language and education that the Hungarian authorities viewed as violating the rights of the Hungarian-speaking minority in Transcarpathia.

Budapest's relations with Kyiv deteriorated after Ukraine passed laws on language and education

It was almost impossible to change the situation after February 24, according to Tóth-Czifra, especially since Orban was facing elections in April.

“Instead, pro-Russian narratives were “outsourced” to a few professional “talking heads”, while Orban himself and other government officials began promoting the idea that war is certainly an unfortunate thing, but it will only affect Hungary if we are “dragged” into it by external forces. In the pro-government media, the war in Ukraine was initially presented as a post-Soviet conflict that is not directly related to Hungary, as long as it does not threaten the ethnic Hungarians living in Transcarpathia. Thus, the refusal to provide aid to Ukraine should be considered a manifestation of a pacifist position.”

“Hungary should stay out of this war and protect the financial security of the economy and families,” Orban stressed in late May, introducing a state of emergency in the country due to the aftermath of the events in Ukraine.

Political scientist Péter Krekó adds that “Hungarians have not become more pro-Russian as a result of the invasion.”

“Fidesz voters believe in the authorities' statement that peace and cheap gas in Hungary can be guaranteed by its refusal to take sides in the conflict. Such “neutrality” fits well with Orban's narrative that Hungary should form its own foreign policy and not follow instructions from the West. In reality, by advocating greater sovereignty, he is increasingly linking himself to Russia and undermining relations with the West.”

In late June, the NATO summit in Madrid endorsed a new strategic concept for the alliance, calling Russia “the most significant and direct threat” to the security of the allied countries. Whether Viktor Orban will be able to keep balancing between the West and Russia in such conditions is an open question. There’s only one thing that analysts are certain about: in the coming years Hungary will be sinking deeper into authoritarianism, becoming an increasingly serious problem for the “liberal elites” in Brussels.

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