Opinion: Orban’s juggling act with Putin and Europe faces a key test

Zelensky’s comment referred to the act of juggling that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who faces parliamentary elections on Sunday, has been playing since the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine a little more ago. one month.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has become a symbol of the global conflict between autocracy and democracy, and the upcoming elections in Hungary, just days away, bring this struggle to the fore. It’s unclear whether right-wing populist Orbán’s decade-long friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin will hurt him in the election.

Toeing a delicate line in his dealings with Putin, other EU member states and voters, Orbán has tried to present neutrality as being in Hungary’s best interests. Yet staying out of Putin’s war will become less feasible as the conflict drags on.

Orbán, always a nationalist, justifies his “cautious and pragmatic position” on Russia’s war as a defense of Hungarian well-being and security.

On the same day Zelensky pointed the finger at Hungary during his speech on the European Union, Orbán posted on his Facebook page a picture of NATO leaders posing and the slogan: “We support Hungarian interests. We will not let Hungary be dragged into this war! Similarly, at a rally on March 15, he told his supporters, “We have to defend our interests…We have to stay out of his war.
In reality, Orbán, Putin’s closest ally in the EU, has never been neutral towards Russia. When the country annexed Crimea in 2014, Orbán was reluctant to impose EU sanctions, arguing that “security in the region can only be ensured with Russia”. Shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine, Orbán said 2021 was the best year yet for Russian-Hungarian relations, citing Putin’s “respect” for Hungary.
While the Hungarian leader criticized the invasion and opened the country’s eastern border to Ukrainian refugees, he also refused all measures that could help Ukraine’s military defense, such as transporting weapons through its territory.
Orbán also rejects Russian energy sanctions, which would be the toughest sanctions against Putin, who has long used Russia’s rich oil and gas supplies as leverage with Germany, Serbia and Israel. other European countries.
Likewise, Orbán is also clear about his contempt for democracy. In twelve years of illiberal rule, he has rolled back freedoms of the press and justice and demonized non-white migrants in the name of predominantly white and Christian Hungary. Its repressive laws against LGBTQ people, which a referendum on the same day as the election seeks to advance, have already sparked European Commission legal action against Hungary.
This is why the upcoming elections, which represent an unprecedented challenge to Orban’s power, are important. Six parties, including his former allies in the far-right Jobbik party, came together in a coalition to try to defeat him. Led by Peter Márki-Zay, a 49-year-old conservative provincial mayor, they are united in their opposition to what Márki-Zay calls Orbán’s “corrupt dictatorship”.
Orbán has the incumbent advantage in this election – his control of the electoral machinery and the judiciary makes contestations of election results much harder to win. The war has also diverted attention from Hungary’s economic woes, and the government is betting that tax cuts and pension and wage increases will sway voters more than opposition promises to roll back autocratic abuses. .
The control of Orbán’s government over media coverage is also a key element of any success at the polls. In the 2018 legislative elections, censorship and the influence of state media meant that “the opinions of the opposition could not even reach a significant part of the electorate”, as the analyst wrote. Gabor Polyak. Since then, media scrutiny has intensified. Márki-Zay says he hasn’t been asked to appear on TV since 2019.

Finally, the war disturbs. Many Hungarians – especially in the core of Orbán’s Fidesz party outside city centers – might instead “stay out of it”, seeing Orbán’s pragmatic and cautious stance as reasonable.

At present, it does not appear that Orbán’s muted response to Putin has seriously dented his popularity, and the race for an election seems close. A March 23 poll gives Orbán and his Fidesz party 41% of the electorate and the opposition 39%. Yet even if Orbán remains in power, his rights-based governance model could become less appealing and his solidarity with Putin a growing handicap.
A survey by think tank Publicus shows that even among Fidesz voters, 44% see the Russian attack as an assault. And 60% of respondents to a recent Euronews poll felt that Hungary had gotten too close to Russia and Putin.
Hungary could also find itself increasingly isolated within Europe, as its ideological ally Poland sees the benefits of solidarity with democracies. In December 2020, the European Parliament approved a “rule of law conditionality” that linked the availability of EU funds to member states’ respect for democracy.

Before the start of the war, Poland and Hungary launched legal action against her, but the European Court of Justice rejected it. Orbán depends on EU funds, most recently for aid to Ukrainian refugees, so applying this rule could make it more difficult for him.

Ultimately, Orbán’s hedge of “strategic calm” and his desire to avoid displeasing Putin make Hungary’s opposition coalition appear as the resolute and principled force in Hungarian politics. “We have to choose Europe, the West, NATO, democracy, the rule of law, freedom of the press, a very different world. The free world,” says Marki-Zay.

This message is likely to gain momentum in Hungary no matter what happens in this election.

Mary I. Bruner