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Russia’s war in Ukraine: has oscillating Orbán run out of steam?

Eager to attract investment from Russia and China and prove his independence, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has pursued a foreign policy independent from Brussels. Unwilling to give up EU membership or his opposition to EU principles, he has aspired to reframe the idea of Europe into one of sovereign Christian nations. The war in Ukraine, however, may be about to put an end to his strategy.

April 1, 2022 - Victoria Harms - Articles and Commentary

"Let's preserve the peace and security of Hungary!" parliamentary election campaign poster with the picture of Prime Minister Viktor Orban Photo: Raketir / Shutterstock

During his address to the EU Council on March 25th, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked the assembled EU leaders one by one for their support. However, he did not fail to differentiate between those who had been supporters from the first hour and those who had expressed their solidarity only with some delay. When Zelenskyy arrived at Hungary on his list, he paused and directly addressed Prime Minister Viktor Orbán: “Hungary… I want to stop here and be honest. Once and for all. You have to decide for yourself who you are with. You are a sovereign state. I’ve been to Budapest. I adore your city. I have been many times – very beautiful, very hospitable city. […] You have had tragic moments in your life. I visited your waterfront. I saw this memorial… Shoes on the Danube Bank. About mass killings. I was there with my family. Listen, Viktor, do you know what’s going on in Mariupol?”

Zelenskyy exposed what many observers and politicians in the wider West have ignored. While many have preferred to talk up supposed unity in the face of Russian aggression, Hungary has veered from the EU line. Contrary to leaders in Brussels, Berlin, Paris, and beyond, the Orbán government exploits the war in a neighbouring country to rally supporters in the run-up to the parliamentary elections on April 3rd. The ruling Fidesz-KDNP party alliance has appropriated the crisis for its own campaign messages and foreign policy priorities. It has swiftly squeezed the war and the Ukrainian refugees into pre-existing narratives, especially with regards to Orbán’s self-assigned roles as defender of a Christian Europe and protector of the Hungarian nation. Moreover, despite the renewed security threat faced by the Baltic countries and Poland, Hungary’s long-time ally in the fight for sovereignty and against Brussels, Orbán continues to signal his openness to partner with less than democratic and transparent regimes in Beijing, Belgrade, and even Moscow.

Hungary and Russia’s war against Ukraine

Although Hungary formally approved the UN General Assembly’s declaration deploring the Russian aggression and joined the EU’s current sanctions, Budapest opposes additional energy sanctions. Indeed, it refuses to withdraw its agreements with Rosatom to build PAKS 2, the country’s planned second nuclear reactor. Most importantly, it has banned the transport of any weapons to Ukraine through its territory. Although it has welcomed the deployment of additional NATO forces in Hungary.

On March 15th, the prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia took a train to Kyiv to meet with Zelenskyy personally to express their solidarity with besieged Ukraine. Orbán, who currently holds the presidency of the V4 Group and usually styles himself as spokesperson for the region, remained in Budapest. At the same time as his three regional counterparts met in an undisclosed location in Kyiv, the Hungarian prime minister spoke at home to thousands of supporters on the country’s national holiday commemorating Hungary’s 1848 War of Independence. Ironically, the Habsburgs crushed this rebellion in 1849 with Russian assistance. In front of the parliament building, Orbán declared that “the best war is the one that we stay out of,” and added that “Hungary will not come between the Ukrainian anvil and the Russian sledge-hammer.”

In the early days of the Russian invasion, as the EU and NATO scrambled to respond, Orbán and Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó expressed their strong support for Ukraine’s membership in the European Union. However, apart from the unrealistic prospect of a hastened accession, such an endorsement flies in the face of years of anti-EU propaganda. Any open support for Ukraine’s EU membership has since fallen by the wayside. The Fidesz-KDNP campaign now focuses on peace and security at home. Whilst Orbán asserts that Hungary should not be drawn into the war, he claims that the opposition, if it won, would force the country into a military confrontation.

Curiously, the term “refugee”, as Ferenc Laczó noted, has suddenly been rehabilitated. But it comes with the qualification “Christian”, with Orbán underscoring the difference between the Christian refugees from Ukraine, who are welcome in Hungary, and “illegal migrants” – the predominantly Muslim refugees of preceding years – who need to be kept out of Hungary and the EU. Steadfastness in the fight against “illegal immigration” is a point the prime minister repeated again and again in his autumn interviews with the Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson.

Curiously, in statements in support of the current refugees, the prime minister’s office mostly avoids mentioning Russia or Russian aggression. Orbán has stopped using the name of Vladimir Putin, with whom he enjoyed a close relationship for years, earning him the moniker of “Putin’s strongest ally in the EU.” Between 2010 and 2022, the two met eleven times for one-on-one meetings, regardless of the illegal annexation of Crimea or the ongoing war in Luhansk and Donetsk. A month into the war, the government’s rhetorical balancing act almost suggested that Orbán left the door open to resume the relationship once the war had reached a stalemate, or once Russia had secured a victory.

Whereas in the early years, between 2010 and 2013, Orbán exhibited a confrontational, if not combative attitude towards the EU, today he seems to prefer a two-faced approach. This has been especially true since Fidesz’s suspension from the European People’s Party in 2019. He feigns compliance with the EU and exploits crises– be that the sovereign debt crisis, Brexit, discord over the EU refugee quota, or the war in Ukraine – as a cover to send a different message at home and in Hungary’s regional backyard. Apparently, Orbán acknowledges that Hungarians largely think of themselves as Europeans. Leaving the EU, a civilisational marker for many, is out of the question. So changed his anti-EU rhetoric and has reinterpreted the idea of Europe making himself the “true” representative and guardian of a Europe of sovereign Christian nations.

Orbán’s oscillating strategy and China’s Belt and Road Initiative

The Hungarian prime minister was an early supporter of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In 2012, Budapest joined Beijing’s 17+1 strategy for Central and Eastern Europe. As part of Hungary’s alliance with China, the government agreed to build a campus for the Shanghai-based Fudan University in Budapest with the help of a 1.3 billion euro loan from the Chinese Investment Bank. The government had aspired to replace the expelled Central European University with an internationally renowned university of its own. When news of the project’s financial implications leaked in the summer of 2021, thousands came out to protest. Independent Mayor Gergely Karácsony threatened a referendum as well as a veto against the 2023 World Athletics Championship.

Initially, the government suggested that the project had been suspended. In December, however, it became clear that it is holding on to its plan that is worth billions of Hungarian forint. Like many other Fidesz-KDNP prestige projects, this one is mired in nepotism, bribery and corruption allegations. At the same time, the fact that the country’s high-speed train line to Serbia is funded by loans from Russian banks and the Chinese Investment Bank has ruffled feathers in Brussels and Washington. Overall, they fear that Beijing is driving a wedge into the EU’s southeastern flank. Orbán seemed only pleased that he could “stick it” to EU officials, again pursuing his own foreign policy in the region and, with Chinese and Russian assistance, positioning Hungary as an anchor and key player in that part of Europe.

The railroad that is to stretch from the Chinese-owned port in the Greek city of Piraeus to Budapest represents a key part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. On March 20th, Orbán travelled not to Kyiv but to Belgrade to inaugurate the tracks between the Serbian capital and Novi Sad. He praised the railroad as a symbol of Hungary and Serbia’s friendship. He also reiterated his commitment to stay out of the conflict in Ukraine, saying that “We will implement all our great plans together with your president [Aleksandar Vučić], despite the difficult circumstances.” One day into the Russian invasion, Vučić announced that Serbia would not join the sanctions that were being discussed at the time. Belgrade would only recognise Russia’s aggression if President Zelenskyy denounced NATO’s attacks on the country in 1999.

Orbán as the champion of western civilisation

Last summer, as part of its “Eastern Opening Policy”, Orbán publicly embraced President Vučić, who had been leading his country away from the EU and towards Moscow and Beijing. Chinese investments have not met expectations in Serbia, which will also go to the polls on April 3rd, and the country is losing the young, educated and skilled to the EU – a problem not unfamiliar to Hungary. Orbán stepped in and offered his services as a close partner of Belgrade in the EU. Last year, on “Independent Hungary Day”, which commemorates the departure of the last Soviet troops in 1991 (as a young and very different Orbán had demanded on June 16th 1989), the prime minister announced his “Seven Theses on the Future of the European Union”. He laid out seven recommendations with which he has aspired to bring the EU, which allegedly has lost its way, back on track. He painted a dire picture of Europe’s decline in economic growth and innovation. In contrast, he talked about China’s seemingly unstoppable rise. He declared that Hungary’s recurrent freedom fighters, whose mission would now be to save the Europe, should stop the EU from becoming an inefficient, lethargic, and repressive superstate. Six of the seven recommendations are fully in line with the essence of Orbán’s governance in the last decade. The last one calls explicitly for Serbia’s accession to the European Union.

Following years of anti-EU rhetoric and policies, this position might appear contradictory. But Orbán’s policies do not have to be consistent. Overall, they are all a thorn in the EU’s side. They allow the Hungarian prime minister to promote his contrarian views and style himself as a maverick, as the one who upholds Europe’s true values. He claims that the current EU represents a perversion of “western civilisation”, which only Hungary and Poland would still embody.

Such inconsistencies shine through in Tucker Carlson’s interviews with the man Steve Bannon, former Breitbart News editor and White House advisor, once called “Trump before Trump”. The love affair between US right-wing pundits and politicians and Viktor Orbán reached new heights in 2021, when both Budapest and Warsaw retained and publicly displayed their reservations regarding new US President Joe Biden. The far-right Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) even flirted with hosting one of their meetings in Budapest in spring 2022. CPAC then deferred responsibility for this to its subsidiary, the American Conservative Union. The events have since been moved from late March, days prior to the elections, to late May.

Orbán, Zelenskyy and the V4 response

Such developments illustrate that many of Orbán’s foreign relationships constitute marriages of convenience. The Hungarian prime minister has been trying to have it both ways for years, and, with an opposition candidate running for his office who for the first time poses a serious challenge, he is not above exploiting the war for his own benefit. Government-critical intellectuals such as János Széky have decried Orbán’s disingenuous call for calm, his unwillingness to cut ties with Russia, and his two-faced balancing act. On March 2nd, Manfred Weber, leader of the European Peoples Parties in the EU parliament and long-time Orbán enabler, called on the prime minister to rally behind the EU line. On March 8th, a group of Hungarian scholars living abroad warned of the country’s growing international isolation and the urgent need to overturn Orbán’s policies. At the time, their appeal, published in several independent media outlets, did not prevent a massive turn out for Orbán’s “peace” rally on March 15th.

Unexpectedly, using the cover of the arrival of “450,000” Ukrainian refugees in Hungary (UNHCR put the number at below 350,000), Orbán appealed to EU Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen to urgently release frozen funds from the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Plan, intended to assist digitisation, energy independence, sustainability, and environmental policies, to help Budapest in these extraordinary times. The March 18th letter appeared in the Hungarian news only four days later, thanks to the independent news portal 444.hu, two before Orbán was to travel to Brussels for the EU Council meeting.

It now appears that President Zelenskyy has spoilt Orbán’s plans and narrative. Calling “Viktor” out on March 25th shined a light on the prime minister’s selfish balancing act. During his weekly radio interview on Kossuth Radió two days later, Orbán tried to brush off Zelenskyy’s reprimand during the EU Council meeting. He defended his unwillingness to support further sanctions and particularly not energy sanctions as in the Hungarian people’s best interest. He also said that he would not risk further inflation and would only pursue “Hungarian-friendly” policies, as his responsibilities lie with Hungary first and foremost. The government already used these arguments to justify Orbán’s marked absence from the Polish, Czech and Slovenian prime ministers’ trip to Kyiv. “I am a lawyer,” Orbán added, “I live from the knowledge, which I have gathered in the world of law. He who is an actor, will work with the knowledge that he can muster as an actor.”

However, Zelenskyy’s criticism of the Hungarian leader might have made all the difference regarding international perceptions. News outlets across Europe were discussing Zelenskyy’s reprimand. Even Jarosław Kaczyński, the Polish Law and Justice Party’s leader, publicly expressed his discontent over Orbán’s oscillating in this crisis. With that, the Hungarian prime minister has upset his strongest allies within the EU. Brussels has still upheld its penalties imposed on Poland and Hungary for their rule of law violations. Whether Orbán can still bank on Warsaw’s unquestioned loyalty in the fight for national sovereignty against Brussels and left-liberal “activists” now seems doubtful. Zelenskyy’s reprimand has in fact alarmed all the V4 countries. After the Czech defence minister announced her withdrawal from the V4 meeting in Budapest on March 30th and 31st, her Polish and Slovak counterparts followed suit and the event had to be cancelled. A response to Orbán’s letter to von der Leyen is still pending. It will be interesting to see whether his request to divert the recovery fund to humanitarian relief for Ukrainian refugees in Hungary is approved. Polls so far have predicted that Fidesz-KDNP will win the elections. Zsolt Bayer, editor of the widely read conservative Magyar Nemzet and longtime Orbán friend, published a bizarre op-ed on March 26th, in which he repudiated and ridiculed Zelenskyy. More importantly, Bayer echoed Putin’s claim to Ukraine and his justification for the war. Only Sunday will show which arguments prevail and whether the wholesale repudiation of Orbán’s attitude towards the war by his V4 neighbours will make Hungarian voters reconsider and finally put the opposition in power.

Victoria Harms is the DAAD visiting assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University. She specializes in Central European history and Cold War studies and authored the upcoming monograph The Making of Dissidents. Hungary’s Democratic Opposition and its Western Friends, 1973-1998.

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