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The end of a friendship? Orbán’s opportunism on Russia may break the Polish-Hungarian axis in the EU

Orbán’s Russia-friendly course over the last year strained relations with EU institutions and put the country at odds with fellow EU member states. With no imminent end to Russia’s war in Ukraine in sight, the continuation of this opportunism may cost him dearly, as Hungary could lose its last ally in the EU, Poland, for good.

May 15, 2023 - Gabriela Greilinger - Articles and Commentary

Hungarian President Katalin Novak meets Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in Warsaw in May 2022. Photo: Salma Bashir Motiwala / Shutterstock

Hungary and Poland, two European Union member states that are often mentioned jointly when talking about illiberalism and democratic erosion, and known as fierce allies within the EU, have increasingly mimicked each other’s undemocratic turns and backed each other up in their disputes with the EU over the years. Already in 2007, they introduced Polish-Hungarian Friendship Day, which stands symbolically for the two countries’ centuries-long relationship and shared history.

However, despite the two EU members’ mutual support in the past, their relationship took a hit last year due to their differing stances on Russia, Ukraine and the Russian war in Ukraine. Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán’s continuous opportunism and Russia-friendly stance estranged the former allies. His reluctance to back down from his Putin-friendly position now has the potential to break the Polish-Hungarian axis in the EU for good.

The Russia factor in the Polish-Hungarian relationship

Hungary has previously been called the EU’s “Russian Trojan horse” due to its friendly relationship with Putin. The Russian financing of the Paks II nuclear power plant in Hungary, as well as the moving of the International Investment Bank, a “Russian Spy Bank”, to Budapest are cases in point for these accusations.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the criticism of this Russia-friendly policy became more fierce as the Hungarian government regularly undermined EU support for Ukraine by delaying the adoption of EU sanctions against Russia, denying military support and refusing to allow the transfer of weapons to Ukraine through Hungary. In return, Hungary’s relationship with the EU and its members has been further strained due to Orbán’s unwillingness to reconsider relations with Russia, as well as his readiness to undermine the common EU position on Moscow. Over the past few months, the Hungarian government also repeatedly reiterated that they are on the side of “peace” and called for a ceasefire, an indication for some that Fidesz is deep in Putin’s camp and wants to return to the status quo ante as soon as possible.

However, contrary to confirming Orbán’s position as Putin’s Trojan horse, this policy is in line with the opportunism that marks Hungary’s foreign policy. Over the past few years, Orbán became known for using his position to blackmail the EU and get the best result possible for himself and his cronies. His relations with countries outside of the EU, most notably China and Russia, are prominent examples of this conduct and line of policy.

In light of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Orbán’s opportunistic approach to foreign policy proved to be ill-advised, as it strained relations with Hungary’s most important ally in the EU, Poland. Contrary to Budapest, Warsaw has come out as a staunch supporter of Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. Poland is a prominent voice advocating for more military aid to Ukraine and a leading provider of humanitarian aid. The country also helps with weapons supplies and holds the largest share of Ukrainian refugees.

From the outset, the differing positions on Russia and the war in Ukraine caused disunity between the two countries, who would otherwise often see eye to eye on political issues. Last year, the chair of the Polish ruling PiS party, Jarosław Kaczyński, even openly expressed his disappointment with Hungary. This shows the growing rift between two countries that used to present an “illiberal axis” within the EU and shield each other from the bloc’s condemnations. Also, Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki acknowledged that the paths of the two nations have diverged.

Despite Warsaw’s criticism, in September 2022, Poland demonstrated its readiness to mend its relationship with Hungary. In addition, as the war entered its second year with no imminent end in sight, Orbán showed the first signs of potentially reconsidering Hungary’s relations with Russia.

Is Hungary ready to change its course on Russia?

In March 2023, Orbán surprisingly stated that “Hungary will have to think long and hard about diplomatic and economic relations it can create and maintain with Russia in the next 10 to 15 years,” indicating that there might be some deliberation happening in inner government circles as to the future of the Russian-Hungarian relationship.

In particular, since the United States imposed sanctions on the so-called “Russian spy bank” in Budapest, more officially known as the International Investment Bank (IIB), the Hungarian government has turned down its anti-US rhetoric. Despite initial criticism of the move by Hungary’s foreign minister, the country finally withdrew from the IIB, and Prime Minister Orbán later in a radio interview stated that the United States is Hungary’s friend and important ally. Given the rumours that the United States is preparing sanctions on Hungarian government officials, this friendly rhetoric might be an attempt to discourage such action.

Besides, the prime minister’s visit to France in March 2023, to meet with President Macron, sparked assumptions that Hungary might try to seek a way out from the controversial Russian-financed Paks II nuclear reactor project, and instead look for financial support from the French Framatome. As the Financial Times reported, “Hungary has begun talks with France over an increased role in its nuclear programme, which may eventually lead to replacing Russia at its only atomic power plant.”

The Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, however, refuted these claims on Twitter, claiming that “It is a lie that the government will stop working with Russia’s @rosatom on the Paks expansion.” As a result, he suggests that increased cooperation with the French Framatome is due to the supply of control systems for which the “German consortium partner @Siemens_Energy has not yet been granted export license due to political reasons.”

Then, in April 2023, Szijjártó, for the third time since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, travelled to Moscow to ensure Hungary’s energy security, thereby demonstrating once more that Hungary seeks to maintain its energy cooperation with Russia. 

Despite these conflicting statements and events, there is still reason to believe that Hungary may realise that its reliance on Russia could be, in the long run, unwise and that it needs to reconsider its relationship with Moscow. In particular, recent reports that Hungary was added to the Russian government’s list of “unfriendly countries” should lead to a reckoning that abandoning EU allies for Russia is ill-advised and would lead to further isolation in the West.

Reconsidering its Russia policy would ultimately likely benefit Hungary’s relationship with the EU and its member states, most importantly, Poland. Both countries will likely need each other’s support in the future, specifically in their upcoming rule of law battles with the EU and fights over the suspension of EU funding.

The future of the Polish-Hungarian alliance

Hungary has demonstrated its readiness to throw overboard values and morals for personal gains, undermine allies, and turn a blind eye to blatant violations of international law. The recent announcement by Gergely Gulyás, the minister of the Prime Minister’s Office, that Hungary would not extradite Putin were he to visit the country, adding that the government would not take a position on the warrant as they considered the ICC decision “unfortunate” given that it does not lead to peace, further confirms the view that Hungary cannot be considered a trustworthy partner for the West.

While it is reasonable to argue that relations between Warsaw and Budapest will go back to normal because the two countries need each other in the EU, this could still be an overly optimistic calculation for the near future as the war in Ukraine continues with no imminent end in sight. With the conflict dragging on in to its second year and Hungary continuing its anti-Ukrainian course by thwarting EU policies and support for Ukraine, the relationship between Poland and Hungary is unlikely to drastically improve soon. Hungary is, for now, unlikely to change its course on Ukraine and start supporting the EU’s military and financial aid packages. The Hungarian government maintains a deep-seated antagonism vis-á-vis Ukraine for various reasons, such as Ukrainian language policies that affect Hungarian minorities living in Western Ukraine. The Hungarian government will therefore continue to speak out against the war and present itself as a protector of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine, given that this is most beneficial for the Fidesz party domestically. Thus, while the Fidesz government might, with time, become less Russophile, it is still unlikely to become pro-Ukraine.

With neither an end to the conflict in sight nor a change in the Fidesz government’s approach to Ukraine, Polish-Hungarian relations are unlikely to improve anytime soon. And yet, it is nonetheless fair to assume that if Hungary and Poland find themselves targeted by the EU due to rule of law violations, they will cooperate again, out of sheer necessity. However, even if the Polish-Hungarian axis makes a comeback, the memory of Hungary’s negligence will remain.

Gabriela Greilinger is an Austrian-Hungarian political scientist and the Co-Founder of the youth platform, Quo Vademus. She regularly writes about EU politics and international affairs and specifically about democracy and populism, with a regional focus on Hungary and CEE. Her work has previously been published in New Eastern Europe, Modern Diplomacy and The Diplomat.

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