For three terms, the Hungarian prime minister has fought with Brussels and moved closer to Moscow. Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine — a painful reality check. But it seems that Orbán still does not want to fall out of Putin’s good graces.
“I want to win, and I have good hopes that we can work together for many years to come,” Viktor Orbán said after five hours of talks with Vladimir Putin on February 1. The Hungarian prime minister, who is set to win his fourth election in a row on April 3, also said he had travelled to Moscow on a “peace mission”. He left satisfied, with a billion cubic metres of natural gas promised as a bonus by the Russian president.
A little over a month before the Hungarian general elections, Orbán has woken up to find more than a decade of Russophile foreign policy crumbling on him. A sudden change of direction was needed and he had to explain things to his electorate. Many are now quoting Orwell’s 1984, saying “we have always been at war with Eurasia”. This is not without some basis.
Meeting Putin 12 times in 13 years
After 2010, Viktor Orbán announced a policy of opening to the east, and sought to strengthen Hungary’s ties with Russia. The Hungarian prime minister said proudly on his recent trip to Moscow that he had met Putin 12 times in 13 years. And Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó recently received the ’Friend of Russia’ award (the highest state honour for non-Russians) from his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. It has been a long road between the two governments, paved with favours.
Rosatom, the Russian state’s nuclear energy corporation, plans to build a nuclear power plant in Hungary financed by Russian loans. With government backing, the Russian International Investment Bank moved to Budapest. Oligarchs close to Putin and their family members could buy golden visas. Russian arms dealers arrested in Budapest were handed over to Moscow rather than Washington by the Hungarian government, despite an explicit request from the Americans. And the list goes on.
In return, Russian gas came, and Orbán’s Fidesz party could continue to campaign for a reduction in utility bills. So important was this to them that after the invasion last week, the Foreign Minister said that he would support any sanctions against Russia, but that the cuts in gas prices should not be jeopardised. The same message was also included by the Government Information Centre in a letter sent to all Hungarian citizens who registered for Covid-19 vaccination.
When reality struck
Viktor Orbán has repeatedly stated his geopolitical credo: he thinks in terms of a Berlin-Moscow-Istanbul triangle and has pursued a swing policy in recent years. He has fought his fictitious battle with ‘Brussels’ with great verve, but he has never really criticized Moscow, the EU’s strategic adversary. Orbán was increasingly seen as Putin’s outpost in the EU and NATO; the allied secret services no longer trusted Hungarians, and the concentration of Russian spies in Hungary was growing rapidly.
And for years, the media, trumpeting the government narrative, have been telling us that Putin is a friend and there is nothing wrong with Russia. Then, on February 24, reality struck.
What exactly happened behind the scenes is unknown, but it is certain that Viktor Orbán, after initial hesitation, fell in line. He extended Hungary’s support to all sanctions against Russia. The illusion of a war against the EU has been shattered by the reality of war, and Orbán had little choice but to comply. Nevertheless, he said he did not consider sanctions rational, – as they were also damaging the Hungarian economy. But he noted there was no room for such reflection now.
Voters have been conditioned to be Russian-friendly and anti-EU. This U-turn divides them.
There is also the fact that the Hungarian government’s relations with Ukraine have deteriorated in recent years, especially because of the Ukrainian language law, which also affects Hungarians in Transcarpathia in western Ukraine. In early February, an article on the language law and attacks on the Hungarian minority in Ukraine appeared on a propaganda site under the title ‘Siding with Ukraine is treason’. After the war the title was changed to ‘Siding with Ukraine?’.
The rush, the cluelessness, is palpable: never before has reliable government propaganda been so inconsistent and chaotic. Day in and day out, contradictory statements are made, government pronouncements and the government media are out of sync. True, the latter tells us more about what the government wants to communicate to its electorate: on state TV and pro-government Facebook pages, the Russian narrative continues to be played out, and government ‘experts’ tell the camera with a straight face that Ukraine provoked the war.
Siding with both, going it alone
Orbán is trying to signal “officially” that, great unity or not, he is going his own way. Hungary, unlike other EU countries, does not export arms to Ukraine, nor does it even allow arms transfers. All this is on the grounds that it would involve Hungary in the war. Meanwhile, election campaign mode is also in full swing, and the opposition candidate for prime minister, Péter Márki-Zay,is being smeared by the government with the claim that he wants to send Hungarian soldiers to Ukraine.
It is interesting how important security has suddenly become to the Hungarian government, given that when the war broke out, it was still trumpeting that the Hungarian defence forces were capable of defending the country. On this basis, the Hungarian prime minister refused to deploy further NATO troops to the country, while all NATO member states close to Ukraine welcomed the soldiers with open arms. A few days later, even an arms shipment was considered a serious risk, and deputy prime ministerZsolt Semjén said that if a missile were fired from Miskolc, the eastern Hungarian city would soon be levelled to the ground.
It is clear from all this that Viktor Orbán has sidled closer to the EU, but he continues to make gestures to Putin. And therefore to his voter base, to whom he has been applauding the Russian autocrat for a decade.
Tuesday saw another act in this double-crossing. In the European Parliament, Fidesz MEPs also voted that the Russian investment bank should go and that nuclear cooperations with Rosatom should be stopped. This would mean the end of the Paks 2 nuclear power plant project. However, the vote does not seem to have been taken seriously by the government. The next day, the Ministerof the Prime Minister’s Office, Gergely Gulyás, said that the nuclear power plant would be built and the bank would stay.
These refugees are not refugees
Another spectacular turn by the Hungarian government does not carry similar political risk. In 2015, the government built a fence, imprisoned refugees fleeing war and waged a hate campaign against them. State media was abuzz with the threat of Muslim terrorism, while Christians fleeing terrorists or regimes that persecuted Christians were also deported back to Serbia.
In 2022, anyone can come from Ukraine without documents, while this could pose the same significant national security risks as someone coming from Syria without papers. The government is urging everyone to help, and we welcome those fleeing war with open arms. It is a testament to the Hungarian state that NGOs and enthusiastic civilians are doing most of the work.
The difference between the refugees of 2015 and 2022 is obvious: their skin colour. It is undeniable that the perception of refugees from the two crises depends to a large extent on this, even if the Hungarian government puts it nicely that people of “similar culture” are now fleeing from the neighbour, so the situation is different.
In 2015, the hypocritical question was often raised on the government side: why are people not fleeing the conflicts in the Middle East to neighbouring countries? They knew very well that most of them were fleeing to their neighbours, as is the case in the Sahel region in Africa: only a minority of people were heading to Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are doing the same: fleeing to Poland, Hungary, Romania. But there is no reason why they shouldn’t continue their journey towards more distant countries, in the hope of a better life, if they have been forced to leave while their homeland is being shattered.