The Illusion of ‘Illiberal’ Democracy in Hungary & Russia’s Imperial War in Ukraine, 2010-23.

Welcome Back, Comrades!

‘Farewell, comrades!’ A poster from the first Hungarian free elections in 1990.

When I returned to Hungary in 2011 to live after a gap of fifteen years in the UK (including a year in the South of France), it was as a husband to a Hungarian citizen with family responsibilities back home in Hungary. So I took early retirement from teaching in the UK, something I had saved for even when working in Hungary in 1992-96, running a teachers’ exchange programme for Devon County Council and Baranya County Assembly, based in Pécs. At that time, I worked with politicians and officials of all political persuasions from both counties to bring about the transition to democracy that was then well underway in Hungary under a succession of liberalising governments, local and national, drawing their support from across the political spectrum. These were composed of broad coalitions of parties, and for four years we were careful, especially as ‘outsiders’ to work with all of them, without fear or favour. Moreover, the Councillors from Devon who regularly visited us were drawn from the Conservative, Liberal Democratic and Labour parties, yet demonstrated how local politics in Britain worked at its best. Added to this, we were keen to open up English Language learning to a wide diversity of students and pupils in the state education system, alongside the teaching of other ‘foreign’ languages.

Courting the Western Powers, 1998-2002:

As a ‘Christian socialist’ in British terms, and therefore, in European terms, a centrist Social Democrat, I had never had any difficulty in discussing questions of religious faith and politics in Hungary, even in my earliest ‘sojourns’ in Hungary in 1988-91 during my time working for nonconformist colleges and organisations in the English Midlands. So when I encountered misunderstandings and misinterpretations of these firmly-held beliefs in 2011-14, I was surprised by the growing sectarianism and intolerance that seemed prevalent in Hungarian public life at that time, contrasting sharply with the ‘liberal democratic’ atmosphere of the country in the 1990s, which had led to its accession to the EU and NATO by the early years of this century. My regular family visits to Hungary and my contacts among the growing Hungarian expatriate community in Britain did not suggest that anything fundamental had changed, even during the early Orbán government. But when it lost power in 2002, something did change within Fidesz, though it seemed that those now in power would be able to pick up the torch and run with it.

However, it was clear by 2010 that I was mistaken in this, and that western liberal democratic views were, already, no longer welcome. In particular, the ruling Fidesz Party was no longer the upholder of these views, despite President Bush’s speech in Budapest four years earlier. As a Christian, I supported the social conservatism of the Orbán government but saw no contradiction between ‘secular toleration’ and ‘sacred traditionalism’ in this respect.

‘Fitting in’ with Fidesz:

I had always rejected bigotry and ‘exceptionalism’ of any kind in Britain, but this was what I was now encountering for the first time in Hungary. Even in the churches and church schools, I came up against ‘exclusivist’ mantras and was made to feel that, despite (or perhaps because of) all my experience in bilingual, international and intercultural education, I “simply didn’t fit in”. I have since “shaken the dust from my feet” of those ‘church’ institutions I first served, and have kept my views to myself, except when my homeland has come under unprovoked attack for its multi-cultural and anti-racist values, which have proved to be in conflict with the increasingly monocultural direction of Hungarian society since 2015. Returning to my Anglican roots, however, I continue to be a ‘tolerated’ foreigner in the lower echelons of church-controlled (and therefore Fidesz-controlled) higher education. Here I am now permitted to express, in moderation, my ‘eccentric’ liberal educational views. Others, with similar views and values, have sadly not survived in these institutions.

The Hungarian Basic Law, the new constitution, was brought in by the second Orbán government in 2011.

However, as a British citizen and elector, I believe I have the right to comment on the UK’s relations with other NATO members and on its international relations, including the EU, even though it is no longer a member state of the latter organisation, as Hungary still is, at least for the time being. Since Ukraine is an ally of NATO in its resistance to Russia’s illegal invasions and occupations of its sovereign territory, I feel at liberty to explain and critique Hungary’s recent pro-Russian and therefore anti-NATO stance, especially on the first anniversary of the full-scale war begun on the orders of Vladimir Putin on 24th February 2022. In doing so, I will summarise and quote from Zsuzsanna Szelényi’s recently published (2022) book, Tainted Democracy: Viktor Orbán and the Subversion of Hungary, in which she gives a fuller critique of Hungary’s foreign and domestic policies under Fidesz rule.

Hungary – a Tainted Democracy?:
Cover image from Szelényi’s book: Silhouettes of demonstrators as they form a human chain around the Hungarian Parliament to protest against PM Viktor Orbán’s latest anti-LGBT law in Budapest on 14 June 2021. REUTERS/Marton Monus TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.

Szelényi, like many former leading figures of Fidesz, was once, in the 1990s, a parliamentary ally of Viktor Orbán who has now become an outspoken political opponent. The book shows, in her terms, how Hungary, once the poster child of liberal democracy, is fast becoming an autocracy under Orbán’s fourth premiership in succession. After winning an absolute majority in 2010, Orbán launched a series of ‘reforms’, abandoning the country’s twenty-year-old, post-Cold War liberal consensus and 1989 Constitution of the second post-World War II Republic (see the picture & caption below).

For domestic supporters and foes alike, the rise of Hungary’s current prime minister is a vivid example of how democracy can be subverted from within. For foreign observers, it is puzzling, given Hungary’s history since 1945, but it seems to mirror the growth of Vladimir Putin’s tsarist autocracy in Russia. Except that Russia never, even briefly, became a true democracy at the end of the Cold War, but remained an autocratic, oligarchic, imperial power. Szelényi was a leading member of Orbán’s Fidesz in its early years after the first free elections took place in 1990. She witnessed first-hand the party’s shift from liberalism to populist nationalism. She explains how the party rose to leadership of the country under Órban to make sweeping legal, political and economic changes to solidify its grip on power – from the tightening of control over the public media to slashing the number of parliamentary seats. She also asks key questions as to why Orbán has been so successful in winning support in Hungary and wielding considerable influence in European politics.

Zsuzsanna Szelényi

After working at the Council of Europe for fifteen years, Zsuzsanna Szelényi returned to politics in 2012, representing the liberal opposition in Parliament from 2014. In the election campaign of that year, She writes:

‘We were filled with excitement as we left behind the city of Kecskemét after a busy day in early March 2014. A large crowd had gathered in the dance hall of ‘Hotel Aranyhomok’ for Együtt’s campaign rally. The town of Kecskemét was a Fidesz stronghold, so even we were surprised at how many people wanted to hear us a few weeks before the 2014 parliamentary elections – at how many people wanted political change.’

Szelényi (2022), p 127.

Together with her fellow party colleagues, she had already attended three hustings a day, and their progress around the country was going full steam ahead. They travelled home feeling positive, dissecting the afternoon’s events and surveying the latest opinion polls. The figures varied, but the trend was encouraging; Fidesz was leading with 30%, but the partial opposition alliance they had created in January of that year stood at 23%. Nevertheless, all the signs pointed to a Fidesz victory. It fought a hostile campaign, portraying the opposition leaders as communists. Gordon Bajnai, the Együtt leader faced a systematic smear campaign, with Fidesz’s paid campaigners marching in front of the Aranyhomok hotel in Kecskemét to slander him. The electoral system formed in 1989 had made it easy for Fidesz to win an absolute majority in parliament, a unique case in Europe. This also made it possible for them to win more than two-thirds of the seats with only 52% of the popular vote despite representing only one-third of the total electorate.

Trianon Tropes – Forming an Elective Dictatorship, 2014-2018:

But in the run-up to the 2014 election, the Fidesz government assisted its own party’s chances by changing the election rules. They justified changing the law by claiming it would be more democratic, making the results more proportionate to the votes cast, but the reverse happened. By abolishing the second round of voting for single-member constituencies, they prevented the smaller parties from collaborating against Fidesz, thus ensuring that they would always secure the ‘central force’. Secondly, the Electoral Act reduced the number of electoral districts from 176 to 106 and redrew all the constituency boundaries. This was a typical form of gerrymandering, the political manipulation of electoral boundaries with the intent of increasing undue advantage for Fidesz. A third change was that whereas previously a form of compensation had existed to boost the parties of individual candidates who were at a disadvantage because of the ‘winner-takes-all’ principle, now even greater rewards were given to the winning party. Moreover, the Constitutional Court, which by 2011 had a majority of Fidesz appointees, found no objection to these changes.

Present-day ‘revisionist’ symbols

What also affected the outcome of the elections was that the Fidesz government amended the Citizenship Act, making it possible for ethnic Hungarians living beyond its borders could obtain Hungarian citizenship even without ever having been domiciled in Hungary. What’s often referred to as the ‘Treason of the Trianon Treaty’ of 1920 has continued to sour relations between Hungary and its Slavic neighbours for more than a century, especially those to the East on the edges of the Carpathians. It was therefore no coincidence that Viktor Orbán chose to make his key speech announcing his policy of illiberal democracy in Transylvania. The government in Budapest actively supported Hungarian language organisations in Romania, Serbia and Ukraine that advocated the simplified naturalisation procedure. This meant that hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hungarians living in neighbouring countries were entitled to take part in Hungary’s parliamentary elections in 2014, 96% of them voting for Fidesz.

While these ‘newly minted’ citizens were eligible to cast postal votes, expatriate Hungarians studying or working abroad could only cast their votes abroad in person at Hungarian embassies and consulates. Exchange students living temporarily across the EU, including in the UK, had to travel for hours to their nearest consulate, whereas, in the Romanian region of Szekerland, Hungarians in small villages voted en masse by mail. They also had a vote in Romanian elections, of course, and did not pay taxes in Hungary. It was therefore no surprise when the turnout was far lower among ex-pats than among ethnic Hungarians from neighbouring countries. This discriminatory aspect of the new law was unsuccessfully challenged in the Constitutional Court.

Ethnic Hungarians campaigning for an autonomous homeland in Szekerland, Romania.

With campaigning rules tipped so heavily in favour of Fidesz, it was difficult to predict the extent to which this would distort the result. With less than 45% of the votes, Fidesz once more gained power. In 2010 they had won a two-thirds majority with 52% of the votes; now, in 2014, it gained the same result with less than half the votes, due to the changes in electoral law. Despite having lost a fifth of its supporters over the four years, it still retained its supermajority, if only by one seat. When Zsuzanna Szelényi was sworn into parliament in June 2014, she found herself surrounded by Fidesz politicians, and she felt isolated. Twenty-four years previously, when she had first taken her parliamentary seat bursting with pride, her experience had been completely different:

‘Back then, as members of Fidesz’s small team, we saw ourselves as the anointed representatives of democracy. In the 1990’s, the rule of law was one of Fidesz’s guiding principles, and not once did we critique a law without making reference to democratic norms:

“We responsibly declare that all of Fidesz’s policies in all circumstances are guided by its belief in pluralism, which includes a changing {government}”, we said in 1990 when debating the governmental programme.

Viktor Orbán criticised the government, saying:

“Stable legal principles worked out over millennia cannot be made subservient to short-term political aims”.

It was unacceptable, in our view, for the government to reject the opposition’s criticisms:

“… such scenes bode ill for the future of democracy”.

‘…In 2014, twenty-four years after first being sworn in, I had to ask myself another question: what point was there in working as an opposition member of Parliament? … The leaders of state institutions were chosen by a single person. Though it was difficult to imagine, Fidesz could do whatever it wanted.’

Szelényi, pp. 134-136.

Viktor Orbán in the first ‘liberal’ Fidesz government of 1998-2002.

However, Fidesz lost its supermajority in a by-election the following year and was therefore no longer able to alter the system ahead of the next contest in 2018. At the same time, the governing parties gained considerable influence in the market for billboards and other media. Government propaganda, disguised as public information advertising, flooded both state and commercial broadcasting stations. This further distorted the 2018 parliamentary contest. The Election Observation Mission of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) found that the elections were…

‘… characterised by a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resource, undermining contestants’ ability to compete on an equal basis’.

The report concluded that the media were highly biased towards the ruling party and that any intimidating rhetoric and opaque campaign financing had severely restricted the arena for genuine political debate and limited voters’ ability to make a fully informed decision. For the third of the voters who did not have access to the internet, it was as though the opposition was non-existent. When Fidesz regained its supermajority, it once again altered the Electoral Act. This further restricted the opposition’s room for manoeuvre.

Populism & ‘The Hungarian Fairy Tale’ – The EU’s funding of Fidesz:
Only Fidesz! Orbán the populist in April 2018.

“‘The Hungarian fairy tale’, or the Hungarian example, will be a successful one in a year” asserted György Matolcsy to Richard Quest, a CNN Business presenter, when asked about the quirks of Hungary’s unorthodox economic policy. International markets did not appreciate the Orbán government’s initial steps, and the political battles fought in support of this policy, and for a while, they turned their backs on it. But in 2016 international credit rating authorities raised Hungary’s rating to investment grade and by 2019, the national debt had fallen to 66% of GDP. Economic growth started slowly post-2012, but after 2014 it reached 4%-5% per annum, which was good even by global standards. In 2010, the GDP per capita in Hungary was 65% of the EU average, but by 2019 this had risen 73%. People’s income had risen significantly in ten years and unemployment had fallen to a very low level. Between 2010 and 2017 export revenues poured in from trade with the West. The decade saw a boom in public investments and several thousand kilometres of roads and railways were modernised, hundreds of public buildings, schools and kindergartens were built, and churches were renovated, as were castles and town squares, mostly with funds from the EU. And football stadia, in line with Orbán’s personal interests and priorities, were built in numbers hitherto unseen.

At first glance, the economic achievements of the Orbán government’s economic policies seem striking. Fidesz claimed that a country on the brink of state bankruptcy was saved because of its commitment to national sovereignty and unorthodox policies, breaking with the global liberal order. In reality, one of the fundamental sources for creating macroeconomic stability was the enormous sums flowing in from the EU. In the seven years following 2013, the EU funds arriving in the country were equivalent annually to 4%-6% of Hungary’s GDP. Never before had Hungary had access to such large funds that were not loans. In terms of their scale, these funds can be compared only with the Marshall Plan disbursed to the war-torn countries of Western Europe after the Second World War. Of course, countries in the ‘Soviet sphere of influence’, including Hungary, were prevented from accessing this aid. In exchange for the opening up of EU development funds to the ‘accession states’ of 2004, the Central European states opened up their internal markets, from which Western European companies profited greatly. However, few ‘public servants’ in Hungary benefited from the EU funds, certainly not health workers and teachers.

Many public sector workers benefited from working in other EU countries, including the UK. But, far from losing out from this mass temporary migration, the Hungarian economy benefited from the transfers made by these migrant workers. The sheer scale of this financial resource promoted economic growth and exercised a positive effect on the balance of payments. Paradoxically, the expatriates, many of them escapees from living under the Orbán régime, contributed to its continuity by sending money back home. Salaries and wages in Western countries were worth three times as much in central Europe, and though accommodation costs were concomitantly expensive, there was still a considerable surplus which could be redirected home.

One government-commissioned study showed that without the EU funds, the Hungarian economy would have flatlined and not grown at all. In addition, the second Orbán government came to power after the international financial crisis of 2008-2010, when productivity in EU countries was rising by 8% after the worldwide slump; in Germany, this figure was 14%. Since the Hungarian economy was already heavily dependent on German manufacturing, primarily through automotive, machine and electronics manufacturing, growth in Germany had a knock-on effect on Hungary. Finally, in 2014 oil prices on the world market fell, which also had a favourable impact on economic growth, with much of the country’s energy supplies coming cheaply from Russia. These fortunate circumstances naturally not only benefited Hungary but the whole of Central Europe. In fact, after 2008, Hungary’s achievements lagged behind those of its neighbours by 1% to 1.5%.

The unique ‘unorthodox economic policy’ called ‘the Hungarian Way’ by the Orbán government brought no special success to Hungary at all. The Hungarian National Bank kept interest rates even lower than other European banks so that the government’s so-called unorthodox actually merged into liberal European trends they liked to attack. It kept the budget deficit below 3% and reduced government debt until 2020. Its main trading partners continued to be in the EU, so a radically different economic policy would have been inconceivable. But government propaganda glossed over the reality that the good results were not only due to the performance of the Hungarian economy but to favourable external conditions and EU subsidies.

The funds that were disbursed did something to raise living standards and soften indignation at the enormous wealth amassed by political leaders. Szelényi maintains that the long-term interests of the country would have been better served if the government had reduced the deficit more significantly, improved the competitiveness of small and medium enterprises (SMEs), invested in developing a knowledge-based economy and the diversification of Hungary’s energy sources. Economists warned in vain that the Hungarian economy, beset by structural problems, was in no position to ride out an unexpected crisis. In the event, it faced two in quick succession, created by the Covid pandemic and then by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Blood or Oil? – The 2022 Hungarian Election, Propaganda & Putin’s War:

When the Russian all-out invasion of Ukraine occurred in February 2022, Hungary was at the height of its General Election campaign, with Fidesz and Orbán looking for a fourth successive term in office. The war revealed Orbán to be on the side of the aggressor, Vladimir Putin, but Fidesz’s by now well-developed communications apparatus was able to construct a narrative and reach every household within days. Government propaganda spun the opposition’s message to stand by Ukraine and with the rest of the West, claiming that they were dangerous warmongers whereas Orbán was a man of peace and stability. Billions of forints were spent on a billboard and social media campaign, and the news outlets, controlled by Fidesz, diluted the natural desire of Hungarians to help their stricken neighbour. Orbán’s message as his country’s leader was simple: Do you want blood or oil?

Millions were persuaded that they did not want the former, associated with the opposition and that neither did they want an oil embargo which would shut off their direct, cheap supplies from Russia by pipeline, ironically through Ukraine. People voted for the ruling party en masse, turning what had seemed like a highly unfavourable political position into another triumph for the Orbán propaganda machine. In his victory speech, Orbán went on to include President Zelensky as among his ‘opponents’, implying that Putin was his ally. When the Ukrainian leader expressed his objection to this and disappointment with Hungary for its refusal to back its NATO allies, Foreign Secretary Szíjjártó called in the Ukrainian Ambassador in Budapest for a severe reprimand.

Of course, every country has its communication institutions serving the aims of its government, exploiting these resources to gain an upper hand, and Ukraine’s, exemplified by its President’s speeches, has been an outstanding success over the past year, but in Orbán’s Hungary, the communications apparatus of government and Fidesz were, and are, one and the same. This has become most apparent in the use of ‘government’ questionnaires to bypass parliamentary debate and decision-making and to ignore EU solidarity. One recent such official ‘poll’ was widely advertised as showing that 97% of Hungarians were opposed to ‘Brussels’ sanctions on Russia. It was reminiscent of the Nazi plebiscite of 1938 in Austria (below), conducted with German tanks in occupation, except the tanks are now Russian, camped on Ukrainian territory.

The penultimate page of ‘These Tremendous Years, 1918-38’, a journalistic album. Below, are an article and the cartoon from The Moscow Times from 2014 showing the similarities between Hitler’s occupation of Austria and Putin’s initial invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Only a tiny minority of Hungarians return these questionnaires, whose usefulness seems mainly to be in expanding the Fidesz Party database. Tax databases were also used to send a letter from the government telling taxpayers that they would receive tax rebates, but only the return of the current government would guarantee these. Even expatriate taxpayers living and working in Hungary received these, even though most don’t have a vote. Besides these, there were a host of conspiracy theories spread through these Fidesz-controlled outlets. In any country with a free, diverse and balanced media, the government would have countered these. But in Hungary, they were allowed to spread, as in the case of a picture circulated on the internet of a bundle of mailed-in ballot papers in Transylvania, Romania, which had apparently been tampered with and destroyed (purportedly by ‘opponents’ of Fidesz).

Secrets in the Kremlin.
‘All that Gaz!’ Economic Imperialism & Weaponising Energy Supplies:

Orbán’s secret agreements with Putin on the construction of two new nuclear reactors in 2014 and on gas prices drew attention to his complete change of attitude to Russia. In 2008, when Putin stormed into Georgia, Orbán had said:

‘Nothing like this has happened since the end of the Cold War. The enforcement of brute imperial power politics that Russia has now undertaken has been unknown in the last twenty years.’

‘Russian military action reminds Orbán of 1956’ (Hungarian), Index, 14 August 2008 (index. hu).

One year later, in 2009, Orbán met Putin and a new chapter in their relationship began, in contrast to the cool reserve that had previously marked their interaction. Like most Central European states, including Germany, Hungary gets most of its energy sources from Russia, and so at this meeting, they talked about the oil and gas supplies. Later, it transpired that even then there was also talk about plans to expand the nuclear power station in Paks, Tolna County, an idea Orbán himself had previously condemned. One of the PM’s old acquaintances explained this ‘change of heart’ towards Russia to a journalist by saying that Viktor realised that this had the potential to give him leverage over the EU. However, it was not easy for the Orbán government to achieve this ‘volte fáce’ because of Fidesz’s traditional anti-Russian sentiment dating back to Orbán’s own famous speech in May 1989 at the re-internment of the Prime Minister in 1956, Imre Nagy (see the pictures below) executed by the Kádár régime in 1958, at which he called for the swift withdrawal of the Soviet troops that had been occupying Hungary since 1956. In 1990, the cries of Fidesz supporters at the elections were Ruszkik háza! (‘Russians go home!’)

To build a new, pragmatic relationship with Russia it was necessary for Orbán to commit to the construction of a new nuclear power station in Paks (II), based on a Russian system and using a Russian loan, although the country was not at that time in need of them, because the existing power station was guaranteed to produce electricity until 2032. Since only a small circle of ministers and officials knew of the secret Paks agreement, it took even Fidesz MPs by surprise and caused them grave concern. But they persuaded themselves that if a good relationship with Russia was necessary for pragmatic reasons, they should try to get the most out of it. This central-eastern ‘entente cordiále’ became a sensitive topic after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the Russian incursions into eastern Ukraine. This territorial aggression was sternly condemned by the EU and the United States, who both introduced economic sanctions and suspended bilateral diplomatic relations with Russia. Orbán tried to ‘strike a balance’ in this increasingly divisive conflict. As a gesture towards Putin, he protested noisily against the sanctions, but in the European Council, he voted for them repeatedly. In February 2015, Putin arrived in Budapest with unprecedented security measures in place which blocked the capital’s transport network for an entire day and closed half the country’s airspace.

Opposition politicians were primarily outraged because Orbán’s reception of Putin was in contravention of the European Council’s decision to suspend diplomatic relations with Russia, which Orbán had voted for a year earlier. But MPs were never told what unusual matter justified Putin’s personal visit. Their indignation grew even greater when Putin made use of the Budapest press conference to call on Ukraine to abandon part of its own sovereign territory. Without any alternative reasonable explanation, the visit could only be interpreted as showing Orbán’s support for a demonstration of Russian strength to the western powers, showing that Putin could still be received with pomp in central Europe when the leaders of the continent were punishing his country with sanctions.

Protests in Budapest against Orbán’s ‘illiberal state’ laws.
The ‘Illiberal State’, Fake News & Geopolitics:

Despite the repeated assertions by government ministers that the Russian relationship was merely a matter of business, the political nature of the relationship became all too apparent when Orbán seemed to try to copy Putin’s ‘illiberal state’ system. For some years, Orbán had been systematically bolstering a national business ‘élite’ linked to himself, rather like Putin’s ‘oligarchs’. There were also many new laws curtailing democracy in Hungary, such as the ‘foreign-funded organisations’ law denigrating and intimidating NGOs, many of which had assisted Syrian refugees, and the so-called ‘anti-paedophile law’ which was actually homophobic, prohibiting schools from acknowledging same-sex relationships or dealing with student questions about them. These are similar in tone and content to Russian legislation on these social issues and responsibilities under human rights agreements. The huge Fidesz media empire systematically made use of fake news and propaganda disseminated by Russian state media.

Orbán’s belief in his own exceptional abilities, that he could keep Russian policy in check, could not be relied upon, because Putin’s policies were shot through with imperialism. Ever since 2005, Putin had been of the opinion that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century. Without it, of course, Hungary and the other central European states, including the GDR (DDR) could not have won their freedom. Putin himself had been a KGB operative in East Berlin at that time. I recall that in 1991, at the time of the attempted coup against Gorbachev in Moscow and Crimea, there were real concerns among my Hungarian relatives that the ‘Ruszkis’ would be returning to Hungary, just as they had in 1956.

From 2005 onwards, Putin pursued expansionist strategies and since he always considered NATO as the greatest threat to Russia’s security, Hungary, as a NATO member, could only play a role as a channel through which to influence Western institutions. However, this did not preclude Russia from making deals with various European countries, including Germany, which (under Merkel) had made itself dependent on the direct ‘Nordstream’ pipelines from Russia. It was convenient for Putin to trigger conflicts between the Western allies through Hungary.

Budapest & Brussels – poles apart?

After 2014 Hungary pursued contradictory politics with its neighbours, especially Ukraine. While, on the one hand, it appeared to stand in solidarity when Russia invaded Crimea and the Donbas, within NATO the Orbán government made it impossible to set up a joint commission with Ukraine, claiming that the new Ukrainian language law infringed on the rights of the Hungarian minority in the sub-Carpathian west of the country. In 2017, Ukrainian legislators amended the country’s Education Act, restricting the rights of national minorities (primarily the Russian minority) to use their own languages as media of instruction in schools. The amendment would have had a potentially adverse effect on the 150,000-strong Hungarian community and the Orbán government used it as a means to forge a common cause with the Russian imperialists in their designs upon the largely Russian-speaking eastern parts of Ukraine. The law was later declared unconstitutional by Ukraine’s Constitutional Court, but not before Orbán had used the row to block dialogue between Ukraine and NATO. This was a disproportionate reaction to the language law problems and continued to sour relations between the two neighbours.

‘Mutti’ has harsh words for Viktor.

Meanwhile, the Orbán government continued to improve Hungary’s economic ties with Russia. As well as his shift to ‘illiberalism’, and autocracy within Hungary, his anti-immigration stance in the wake of the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis served the same foreign policy end, antagonising Angela Merkel (above) and Germany in particular. In September 2021, he signed a new fifteen-year natural gas supply deal with Russia’s state-controlled giant Gazprom. Gas started to flow to Hungary through the TurkStream gas pipeline, which opened at almost the same time. This enabled Russia to transport gas to Hungary and other ‘southern’ EU countries by completely avoiding Ukraine, detrimental to Ukraine’s interests. Over several years, therefore, Hungary was actually representing Moscow’s interests on various platforms, and the long-term gas deals made Hungary’s energy supply almost entirely dependent on Russian gas for more than a decade. Thus, Orbán’s already decade-long special relationship with Putin put the Hungarian government in an almost inevitable conflict with its EU partners when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The War, the EU & NATO – the future of Hungary’s Foreign Policy:

The striking growth in the influence of Orbán’s regime in the 2010s was due to the flawed EU system which gives the smallest countries vetoes over decisions. They exploited this to the utmost with aggressive rhetoric and political manoeuvres. But for the Eastern autocratic powers, ‘little Hungary’ was only of interest as long as it sat at the same table as the most important decision-makers. These régimes made the most of Orbán’s ‘double-step’ diplomatic dance: they took advantage of a greedy, corrupt government to help divide the EU. The Hungarian autocracy, therefore, represented a threat to European integration. Hungary became an unreliable, perpetually revisionist partner.

But Vladimir Putin’s bloody war against Ukraine has shown clearly how restricted Hungary’s room for manoeuvre is in today’s rules-based world. Seeing Orbán’s reluctance and hesitation in standing by Ukraine, his central European allies have fallen away, especially Poland, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to opposition to Putin. But Hungary has lost its leadership of the Visegrád group of the five central European nations. Hungary’s overdependence on Russian energy gave Orbán a severe headache, as his country is both an established member of NATO and a full, though an increasingly isolated member state of the EU. In February 2022, with NATO and EU members rapidly converging and unifying in opposition to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Hungary had finally arrived at a crossroads and had to choose between its membership of the EU and NATO on the one hand and its support for the Russian autocracy on the other. A year on, Orbán continues to balance, precariously, on the fence.

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission since 2019.

On the eve of the anniversary of Putin’s all-out invasion, Ursula von der Leyen sent the following message to the Ukrainian President and his people:

“We have been with you in this existential fight from the beginning. Ukraine has become the centre of our continent. The place where our values are upheld, where our freedom is defended, where the future of Europe is written. Слава Україні.”

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the @EU_Commission. 23 February 2023.

Looking forward, the effects and outcomes of the war in Ukraine are likely to further weaken Hungary’s roles in both international organisations, making them increasingly untenable, especially in the context of the Orbán government’s continuing issues in meeting the rule of law requirements of EU membership. Equally, its continual refusal to send or allow military aid to cross its territory to arm Ukraine may lead to eventual ‘retribution’ from NATO allies, including the USA. Either way, its international diplomatic relations within the transcontinental and transatlantic alliances will undoubtedly suffer long-term damage. That includes the UK, its first and strongest western ally in post-Soviet times, which is already seeking to improve its relations with its continental neighbours. If Ukraine wins the war, it is likely to gain access to EU membership in due course, perhaps by the end of the decade, perhaps sooner, and to become a strong liberal-democratic state within the bloc.

A poster outside Parliament in 2021, before the invasion, showing how unpopular Boris Johnson was until the war seemed to give him a lifeline, but he was forced to resign after a series of scandals continued in 2022. Britain’s relations with the EU have improved recently, due to cooperation over Ukraine.

No doubt Orbán’s autocratic régime will remain a serious challenge for Hungary’s European partners, at least until the next elections in 2026 by which time the outcome of Putin’s imperial war may be known. Although some steps have been taken by the European institutions to sanction the hard-line government in Budapest over its rule of law violations, the EU itself still lacks coherent and strategic policies to push back against autocracy both within the bloc and at its borders. However, Russia’s war in Ukraine has so far served as a warning sign for Europe’s complacent political élite that history does not progress like a consistently rising straight line on a graph, and that the turbulent geopolitical forces now in play must not be allowed to inhibit visionary thinking for an integrated European Union. Above all, if this war is to be won, the transcontinental alliance must not allow Trojan horses to be deployed among the allied European nations. It cannot rely on the USA’s involvement beyond the 2024 Presidential elections; it must work out its own strategic salvation, and that of Ukraine, before that.

Published Sources:

Zsuzsanna Szelényi (2022), Tainted Democracy: Viktor Orbán and the Subversion of Hungary. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd.

Rudolf Joó (1999), Hungary: A Member of NATO. Budapest: Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Susan Kovalik Tully, et. al. (2007), The United States & Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington D. C.: US Department of State Publications

Bencsik Gábor (2015), Magyarország Alaptörvénye (2012. január 1.). Budapest: Magyar Közlöny Lap- és Könyvkiadó Kft.

Online articles by this author:

Orbán’s Hungary – a member of NATO or Putin’s Fifth Column?: Hungarian Foreign Policy and Euro-Atlantic Integration, 1989-2019.

Who are the Ukrainians? Mythology & History, Part II: 1801-2001 – From Napoleon’s Empire to end of Empires?

Who are the Ukrainians? Mythology & History, Part I, 862-1796: Kyivan Rus & Cossacks; Great Powers & Empires.

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