Hungary’s PM faces voters at home – and isolation abroad

Viktor Orban’s fence-sitting between Moscow and EU key issue as country goes to polls

Addressing EU leaders this month, Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskiy named their countries one by one. "Za nas" (with us) he said each time, meaning they stood with his country against Russia. Then he came to Hungary.

After a pause he launched an emotional appeal to prime minister Viktor Orban, one of Russia's closest friends in Europe, who has voted with the West to help Ukraine but rejected military aid to Kyiv and contended that he must keep trade ties with Moscow.

“Listen, Viktor, you know what’s going on in Mariupol?” Zelenskiy said of the city under bloody siege over weeks. “Mass killings can happen again in today’s world. And that’s what Russia is doing today . . . Once and for all you have to decide who you are with.”

Zelenskiy’s finger-pointing at Orban showed the tight spot for the veteran Hungarian politician – the EU’s longest-serving leader. Orban has made something of an art form out of standing against mainstream western leaders in defence of his “illiberal” values. But as he seeks a fourth successive election victory on Sunday, his lonely defiance has become more of a political weakness than a strength.

At home, his closeness to Russian president Vladimir Putin has become a turn-off for many voters, although Orban remains favourite to win. Polls give his Fidesz party a lead of about three percentage points.

Abroad, as Zelenskiy's comments suggest, Orban faces growing isolation. A fourth term is likely to define how far he will go to tack away from Russia and back towards mistrustful Nato and EU allies.

"Everything changed . . . It's like when the Berlin Wall fell, or 9/11," a European diplomat said of Orban and his limited room for manoeuvre. "This is an era-defining moment, the decisions he makes now will stick with him for a long time."

Publicly, Orban has stuck to his line that his stance on Ukraine, Russia and the war is best for his country. Dismissing Zelenskiy’s plea in a state radio interview three days later, he said: “Our moral responsibility is not for Ukraine. I don’t have to face the Lord for Ukrainians, but for Hungarians. I must consider the Hungarian interest.”

Rhetoric on Russia

For years, Orban has often used what has been called his "peacock dance" to push disputes with allies before making tactical retreats. While he has chided Kyiv – with which Budapest has a long-running dispute over ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine – and declines to attack Russia as harshly as western colleagues, he has consistently voted with the EU on sanctions.

But Putin's invasion of Ukraine has made Orban's friendly rhetoric on Russia, and defiance of the West, less tenable. In particular, the war is driving a wedge between Hungary and Poland, which has been a close ally in EU affairs but is deeply hostile to Moscow.

Brussels has been at loggerheads with both Hungary and Poland over what it sees as abuses of the EU's adherence to the rule of law. So far, Warsaw and Budapest have backed each other up to veto any EU punitive action. In return, both countries have faced a potential withholding of EU funds. Neither has received a cent from billions of euro allotted to them under the EU's coronavirus recovery scheme.

But Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland's ruling Law and Justice party and the country's most powerful politician, has heralded a potential rupture with Orban. "If you asked me whether I was happy [about Orban's position] I would say no," Kaczynski said on Friday. "Let's see what happens after the elections, then it will be possible to formulate a final assessment."

Kaczynski's intervention was followed by stronger criticism from Poland's president Andrzej Duda, who said Orban's position on the Ukraine conflict would be "very costly for Hungary".

How consequential any break may be for Orban’s EU plans will only become clearer after Sunday’s election. But analysts expect the EU to treat Orban differently from Poland, which has grown closer to Brussels with its resolve during the invasion and its welcome for more than two million refugees.

"There is a great chance that Hungary and Poland may separate on the rule-of-law procedure and the coronavirus recovery fund, potentially affecting EU voting rights as well," said Peter Kreko, the director of Political Capital, a Budapest-based think tank. "The EU may well choose the political strategy to lure back Poland, which is a far more important player anyway."

‘Blackmail potential’

Pawel Musialek, of the Klub Jagiellonski think tank in Warsaw, said: "Today there is already a weakening of contacts and a weakening of relations. If Orban's approach doesn't change after the elections, then the downgrading of Orban in Polish politics will probably be far-reaching."

Still, the need for EU unity amid the Ukraine crisis means Hungary has cards to play, since fellow EU member states will not want Budapest to become an obstacle to collective decision-making. "Unity is by far the top priority in the EU and Nato," said Daniel Hegedus, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. "Nobody will pick on Hungary now when Orban has such a huge blackmail potential."

As long as Orban does not break EU unity on Russia, his other actions may continue to be overlooked. “That is precisely his strategy: block nothing but do nothing more,” Hegedus said, alluding to Orban’s votes for sanctions but reluctance to send weapons to Ukraine or even allow direct weapons shipments through.

Tamas Deutsch, Fidesz’s leader in the European parliament, said he believed Hungary would be able to maintain its ties to Poland, even though Orban has said Hungary will not cut its need for Russian energy any time soon and preserves the right to its own foreign policy towards Moscow.

“We are parts of Nato and the EU, not out of pressure but because we think it’s the right thing, while at the same time we follow our self-interest as well,” Deutsch said.

Meanwhile, Orban still has to get through an election on Sunday that looks closer to call than it did before Putin invaded Ukraine five weeks ago.

Andras Pulai, director of Budapest think tank Publicus, said Fidesz voters were split in about half by Orban's stance on the war, which has increasingly dominated the campaign, while the opposition had strong support for its clear pro-western, pro-Ukraine politics.

“This will have a significant impact on the vote,” Pulai said, noting that two-thirds of Hungarians think Orban is eroding European unity with his strategic friendship with Putin, while also reaping the benefits of EU membership.

“That strategy is dead,” he said. “Much as Orban may try, he can no longer swing both ways.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022