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Viktor Orbán, Putin's Trojan Horse In Europe

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is trying to keep the EU and NATO happy without upsetting Vladimir Putin. The war in Ukraine has upped the stakes in Hungary, where tense elections are just a few weeks away.

Photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin whispering in Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a meeting in Budapest

Whispers between Russia's Putin and Hungary's Orban

Taylin Aroche

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been engaging in political contortionism in recent weeks to keep his country in the sphere of the EU and NATO without provoking Vladimir Putin. Less than a month before the elections in which Orbán and his Fidesz party will try to keep a majority against a unified opposition, the Hungarian leader maintains his camaraderie with Putin in the midst of the war that is ravaging Ukraine.

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Budapest yesterday authorized the parking and passage of the alliance’s forces through its territory but prohibited the transport of lethal weapons and equipment to Ukraine.

In an extensive official statement, Orbán made it clear between the lines that he does not want to be an enemy of Russia and Putin. “We have to look at this conflict not with American, French or German eyes, we have to look at it with Hungarian eyes. And from the Hungarian point-of-view, the most important thing in this conflict is the peace and security of the Hungarians. To do this, we must stay out of the war." In reference to his administration's denial of arms transit, he declared: "Against those who use these weapons, we will be their enemies."

Péter Márki-Zay, the opposition candidate, said that Orbán "has been copying Putin's model for 12 years. He has been inciting a discourse against Europe, the West and European unity for 12 years ... We are not protected by Orban, but by NATO."

The biggest media crisis in Europe

In the elections, Hungarians will have to choose between "you [Viktor Orban] and Putin or Europe," Márki-Zay declared at a rally, calling for greater cohesion with the anti-Orbán alliance of six parties and Brussels.

On April 3, Hungary will have to decide where it wants its policy to go for the next four years.

The latest Politico poll gives 49% of the vote to Fidesz and 45% to the opposition. The numbers predict the last few weeks to be full of promises and fierce media clashes between the two candidates. In the country, a large percentage of the rural population lives under the government's information bubble.

Orbán managed to undermine the EU without breaking the rules.

When Orban came to power in 2010, his main priority was to secure absolute control of the press. It was done with the management of the Media Council, an organization that is dedicated to the supervision of the information that is broadcast throughout the country. A study on press freedom in Hungary by the International Press Institute cataloged the current state of the media in the country as "the biggest media crisis in the EU", where a "sophisticated control system that doesn't use violence” governs.

Phot of Putin and Orban sitting on either side of a long table during a meeting at the Kremlin on Feb. 1

Putin hosting Orban at the Kremlin on Feb. 1

Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin Pool/PlanetPics/ZUMA

Free but not fair elections

European observers said the 2018 elections had been free but not fair, partly because there is no room for opposition in the public media. A group of European parliamentarians, from six different parties and 16 nationalities, asked the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to send a large-scale mission to monitor the upcoming elections. Their demand arose in response to petitions from various NGOs that accuse the Hungarian leader of committing a democratic backslide and endangering the legitimacy of the institutions.

With an absolute majority in Parliament in 2011, the Hungarian Prime Minister changed the Constitution. Orbán managed to undermine the EU without breaking the rules. The president skillfully uses the unanimity that some European policies require to continue weakening the Union. Working in tandem with Poland, the rule of law is diluted. The government is increasingly authoritarian, with pending cases in Brussels related to judicial independence.

The Kremlin maintains strong commercial ties with Hungary. In November 2021, Russia exported 256 million worth of euros and imported 178 million euros, giving Moscow a positive trade balance of 78.7 million euros.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Russia's Wartime Manipulation Of Energy Prices Could Doom Its Economy

A complex compensation mechanism for fuel companies, currency devaluation, increased demand due to the war, logistics disruptions, and stuttering production growth have combined to trigger price rises and deepening shortages in the Russian energy market.

Photograph of Novatek's gravity-based structure platform for production of liquefied natural gas, floating on a body of water.

Russia, Murmansk Region - July 21, 2023: A view of Novatek's gravity-based structure platform for production of liquefied natural gas.

Ekaterina Mereminskaya

In Russia, reports of gasoline and diesel shortages have been making headlines in the country for several months, raising concerns about energy supply. The situation escalated in September when a major diesel shortage hit annexed Crimea. Even before that, farmers in the southern regions of Russia had raised concerns regarding fuel shortages for their combines.

“We’ll have to stop the harvest! It will be a total catastrophe!” agriculture minister Dmitry Patrushev had warned at the time. “We should temporarily halt the export of petroleum products now until we have stabilized the situation on the domestic market.”

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As the crisis deepens, experts are highlighting the unintended consequences of government intervention in fuel pricing and distribution.

The Russian government has long sought to control the prices of essential commodities, including gasoline and diesel. These commodities are considered "signalling products", according to Sergei Vakulenko, an oil and gas expert and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment. Entrepreneurs often interpret rising gasoline prices as a signal to adjust their pricing strategies, reasoning that if even gasoline, a staple, is becoming more expensive, they too should raise their prices.

The specter of the 2018 fuel crisis, where gasoline prices in Russia surged at twice the rate of other commodities, haunts the authorities. As a result, they implemented a mechanism to control these prices and ensure a steady supply. Known as the "fuel damper," this mechanism seeks to balance the profitability of selling fuel in both domestic and foreign markets.

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