What The West Gets Wrong About Orbán's Stance On Russia
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán appears to be courting Vladimir Putin, and turning his back on the EU. There is a clear strategy behind his rhetoric — but it is not any personal affinity for Russia.
BERLIN — In its latest "public information campaign" just in time for the first anniversary of Russia's attack on Ukraine, Hungary's government portrays its own country as a peacekeeping power fighting against the Western war machine.
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This rhetoric, along with continued attacks on the "Brussels superstate," are prime examples of pure Viktor Orbán propaganda, which Hungary's prime minister has been peddling for years.
Orbán's pro-Russian stance, however, is often misunderstood. It is purely strategic, not personal, aimed at weakening European support for Ukraine for other reasons. It is a relatively new position vis a vis Moscow, an expression of his self-serving political style and his willingness to take risks to strengthen Hungary's position on the international stage.
Ultimately, Orbán is not pro-Russian; he is simply pro-Orbán.
Opening to the east
To understand how and why Orbán has advocated a "non-aligned" position in the Ukraine war, a brief review helps. When Russia attacked Georgia in 2008, he — then in political opposition — condemned Russian aggression, stating bluntly that "military aggression is military aggression."
It was a turning point in Hungary's two-decade foreign policy stance.
Only in the period that followed, against a backdrop of economic uncertainty, did Orbán's so-called "illiberal" experiment take hold, and with it his change of heart toward eastern autocracy.
After his 2010 election victory, he concluded that the "domination of the West" in the world was in decline and found that partisanship would be detrimental to him. Orbán was determined that Hungary should go it alone and play a leadership role within a new Central and Eastern European economic space in which smaller powers could establish themselves.
Rapprochement with Moscow was a central component of this "opening to the East". Just two years after Orbán called Russia a "military aggressor," he called on Central European states to engage in a new dialogue with Russia, marking a turning point in Hungary's two-decade foreign policy stance.
Nationalized energy companies
In part, this change was fueled by economic considerations and the influence of Russian loans. Between 2010 and 2014, the Orbán government nationalized the country's energy companies and pried them out of foreign hands before reselling them to pro-government Hungarian companies. In other words, to Orbán's confidants.
This allowed Orbán to control negotiations in the energy sector: in 2014, he secretly negotiated the construction of a nuclear power plant with Russian state financing, as well as the southeastern TurkStream gas pipeline, which was commissioned in 2021.
A new 15-year gas contract with Russia was also agreed, and the country became the headquarters of the pro-Russian International Investment Bank. By 2019 at the latest, Hungary's dependence on Russia was greater than it had been since 1990. This shift in the balance of power was accompanied by annual meetings with Putin, the most recent of which, in February 2022, was described as a "peace mission."
Thus, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Orbán was faced with the choice of either continuing to balance on a fine line between Western and Eastern interests or showing solidarity with Europe in support of Ukraine. He chose the former, spending the past year criticizing the EU's role in the war while calling for "peace."
Putin and Orban discussed the prospects of Russian-Hungarian cooperation in trade, economic, energy, financial and cultural spheres.
"We should stay out of this war" has become Fidesz's campaign slogan. Walk the streets of Budapest today and you will inevitably see government-ordered posters criticizing Western sanctions policies. Orbán knows how to use the power he and his allies wield over the media and news coverage to defame political opponents as "warmongers."
Even with his back to the wall, Orbán once again found a way out.
However, the energy crisis could ultimately be his undoing. After energy tariffs for households had been frozen since 2013, drastically increased bills are now a shock to the Hungarian electorate. Currently, inflation is at 25 percent, largely due to the government's mismanagement of the economy and pushing a significant part of society — including the Fidesz electorate — into poverty.
Orbán's repeated provocations toward the EU have finally led to belated efforts to put him in his place. At the end of 2022, the European Commission conditioned the granting of €7.5 billion in funding from the Corona Reconstruction Fund on Hungary meeting democratic "milestones."
But even with his back to the wall, Orbán once again found a way out. In December, he threatened to veto an €18 billion aid package for Ukraine while rebuking the Commission's behavior. So far, he has successfully used Hungary's "non-aligned" position in the war to continue siphoning off funding.
Rooting for Trump
In every crisis related to the EU and Russia, Orbán has managed to dodge potential landmines and assert his interests. And as the war in Ukraine drags on, he has other opportunistic cards on the table.
He knows, for example, that Europe is paying a high price for supporting Ukraine and that some political parties in Europe are now calling for a quick resolution of the conflict. He is also counting on dwindling support for the war and on Donald Trump's reelection in 2024 to change the rules of the game once again.
Orbán's balance of power shows, above all, that he is willing to take risks and put Hungary's position on the international stage at risk in order to stay in power.
Even when he takes morally questionable positions, he remains confident that his "pragmatic" support for "peace" will pay off. He has won a great deal with this strategy in the past — and if no one slows him down, he could win a lot again.
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