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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán © Kremloin.ru

In the summer of 1998, Viktor Orbán stepped onto the big stage for the first time as Hungarian Prime Minister, his rise shrouded in an air of promise and opportunity. Twenty-five years ago, however, the world had no idea that this one-time champion of liberal ideals and ardent advocate of Hungary’s harmonious integration into the European Union would eventually embark on a turbulent journey, transforming himself into a formidable embodiment of the perilous phenomenon known as authoritarian backsliding within the borders of an EU member state.

The long-standing alliance between Russia and Hungary – both described as authoritarian regimes – has gained attention, especially after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. Within the European Union, Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán is increasingly labelled as “Putin’s ally” as Budapest has actively obstructed European attempts to impose sanctions against Russia, not supplying arms to Ukraine and even hindering the transit of weapons through Hungarian territory.

In return, Russia continues to supply Hungary with energy resources, contributes to the construction of the new Paks-II nuclear reactor and even supplies spare parts for the Soviet-era Budapest metro system. However, Hungary’s most important contribution to Putin’s regime is of a symbolic nature. Viktor Orbán and other Hungarian politicians have regularly appeared on Russian state media and been frequently featured in their broadcasts. Within these programs, they have been portrayed as representing the ideal of “true Europe” through their autonomous position regarding the war in Ukraine, implicitly supporting Russia’s perspective on the conflict.

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Paks Nuclear Power Plant, Paks, Hungary © Hungary Today

| Orbán’s political paradox

However, relations between Budapest and Moscow have their own twists and turns, which are anything but innocent. In 2007, Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party were in opposition and became embroiled in a heated political debate revolving around a monument honouring Soviet soldiers who died in World War II. This memorial was located in the prominent Freedom Square in the centre of Budapest and evoked deep emotions and conflicting feelings in Hungary.

Interestingly, Orbán appeared at the time to be in favour of moving the memorial to another location. His stance seemed to be a symbolic gesture, suggesting that Hungary was turning its back on the Russians, the USSR and even communism as a whole, and seeking a more westernised orientation.

Orbán’s bold statements and endeavours to move the monument however, were met with an unexpected and fierce backlash from the Kremlin that effectively prevented any attempt to move the monument, which symbolised the Soviet presence in Hungary.

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Soviet Liberation Monument, Budapest © Wikicommons

Orbán’s about-turn on the monument issue highlighted the complex dynamics and pressures that exist between Budapest and Moscow, where even symbolic gestures can provoke fierce reactions and thwart attempts to reshape the historical narrative.

In 2008, when he was still in opposition, Viktor Orbán took a courageous stand against Russian aggression against Georgia. He not only condemned their actions in the strongest terms but went one step further by advocating the immediate admission of Georgia and Ukraine to NATO, thereby signalling his support for their security and integration into Western alliances.

Even after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, which strained relations between many countries and Vladimir Putin’s regime, Orbán’s friendly relationship with Putin remained surprisingly intact. However, a new challenge arose in 2016 when Russian TV presenter and propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov made a controversial statement in which he described the Hungarian uprising of 1956 as the first “Orange Revolution” and claimed that Western intelligence services had orchestrated it in the pro-Moscow states.

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Dmitry Kiselyov © Telegram

This put Orbán and his Fidesz party in a dilemma. Previously, like most Hungarian political groups, they had portrayed the events of 1956 as a heroic struggle to liberate Hungary from Soviet control. Kiselyov’s statement challenged this narrative, but surprisingly it did not escalate into a major diplomatic scandal.

The Russian ambassador to Hungary at the time reiterated that Russia’s official position on the 1956 uprising remained unchanged. In 2006, Putin expressed his regret and sense of “moral responsibility” for the suppression of the uprising, and he maintained this stance. Therefore, the issue was treated with caution and tensions were kept relatively low.

Orbán’s political path showed a paradoxical relationship with Russia, in which he displayed both condemnation and support, moved through different historical narratives and maintained a delicate balance between Hungary’s interests and its relations with Moscow.

| Hungary in the spotlight

Hungary had relatively low visibility in Russian state media until 2022 — less coverage than right-wing or pro-Russian politicians from France, Germany and Italy. Russia perceived these Western countries as representatives of the “true Europe”, which aroused greater media interest in their affairs.

However, a joint data study of Russian and Hungarian journalists revealed a significant shift in 2022. In that year, Russian state online media began to mention Hungary twice as often as in 2021. In the first four months of 2023, mentions increased by almost a third compared to the previous period.

Russia Today (RT) in particular reported extensively on tweets and statements by the Hungarian prime minister. The broadcaster interpreted Orbán’s John Travolta meme as criticism of EU budgets, and generated a story from just two words in a tweet in which Orbán compared the transfer of assets by George Soros to his son to a scene from “The Godfather”.

Although the Russian coverage is aimed at international viewers, some suspect it conveys a more nuanced, pro-Hungarian view. According to the researchers, the increase in mentions by the Russian state warrants a closer look at Hungary’s evolving role in broader geopolitics. As the frequency of mentions increases, observers are taking a closer look at the dynamics between Hungary and its prominent media supporter, Russia.

| Illusionary ambassador of peace

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Hungarian Parliament Building, Budapest, Hungary © Wikicommons

Russian state media have built a sophisticated narrative around Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, portraying him as Europe’s only “dove of peace” in the midst of the war in Ukraine.

Using distortions and selective narratives, Russian propagandists have portrayed Budapest as the only EU member committed to peace. They emphasise that Hungary abstains from helping Ukraine’s defence while blocking support from others.

Whenever proposed ceasefires coincide with Russia’s wishes, Orbán is portrayed in a flood of articles as Europe’s exceptional peacemaker. His support for proposals such as China’s plan is widely reported.

But behind this apparent “peacemaker” façade lies a more sophisticated goal. By championing Orbán, Russia is trying to demonstrate the West’s approval of its demands in Ukraine – including the annexation of parts of the country.

Instead of truly proclaiming peace, the Kremlin has turned Orbán into a helpful messenger to legitimise its war aims against Ukrainian sovereignty. While the prime minister is portrayed as a peace-loving diplomat, Russia’s ultimate script is one of continued conquest.

The Kremlin’s propagandists have found fertile ground by emphasising the supposed cracks in the Western alliance. They have developed clever narratives that play on these rifts.

A frequent focus is disagreement over Ukraine’s NATO aspirations. Every sceptical statement from Hungary is met with a great deal of attention. Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjártó’s rejection of NATO-Ukraine meetings or Orbán’s rejection of Jens Stoltenberg’s statements of support are prime propaganda fodder.

Russia also draws attention to Budapest’s efforts to prevent Sweden from joining the alliance. In these reports, NATO is portrayed as fragmented in its response to the Kremlin’s aggression.

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Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjártó © Elekes Andor

When Hungary speaks out against EU sanctions, questions new collective punishment measures or argues with Brussels about the rule of law, Russia strikes. Such tensions are presented as proof that normal countries are striving for sovereignty, while “bureaucrats” want to isolate Moscow.

Less conspicuously, but still purposefully, Russia’s spinners portray disharmony within the bloc. The aim is clear: to create the impression at home that there are cracks in the opposing alliance and that not all of Europe is on the side of the sanctions. By skilfully staging the division, the Kremlin is fuelling doubts about the unity of the West.

| The blame game

The Kremlin has created the image of an unwilling warrior who is forced to draw his sword only against stronger enemies.

Russian propaganda eagerly reinforces any statement that shifts the blame away from Moscow. They have found a willing ally in Hungary’s parliamentary speaker László Koevér. His statements suggesting that the US was pulling the strings that triggered the war found a large audience, including President Orbán himself who has supported him by making fun of the current US leadership.

These statements only serve to dilute the question of responsibility as Russia would no longer stand alone as the instigator of this conflict. Instead, an opaque interplay of foreign forces seems to have left Moscow with no choice but to defend itself against the approaching dangers.

The narrative of a reluctant campaign that is only being waged through external manipulation provides the perfect foil. It allows the Kremlin to justify the continuation of hostilities to its population, even if the war drags on and there are no easy victories in sight after almost two years.

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© Eestieest.com

Even before the war against Ukraine was unleashed, Russian propagandists were keeping a close eye on Budapest’s attitude towards Zakarpattia – a crossroads of civilisations in the Carpathians region of western Ukraine.

The region’s mixed heritage included large parts of the Hungarian-speaking population, whose rights, according to Orbán, were often trampled underfoot by Kyiv’s dictates. He called laws that prioritise Ukrainian in schools, shameful discrimination against linguistic minorities.

In the bloody interval since the invasion, references to Zakarpattia’s diverse languages have multiplied in the Russian media, and every news item from Budapest denouncing alleged scandals against speakers of other languages is widely echoed.

With such episodes, the Kremlin has created a convenient pretext to justify the subjugation of Ukraine. It was no longer a matter of aggression, but a noble endeavour to emancipate Russian and other languages suppressed by a monolingual ruler.

By reinforcing the narrative of systemic bigotry against linguistic diversity, the propaganda machine is turning Russia’s violent campaign into a crusade in defence of diversity against the Ukrainian government.

| All eyes on Orbán

On 13 December, leaders of the European Union gathered in Brussels for a two-day summit where the future of the bloc’s Ukraine policy was to be defined, and momentous decisions to be taken, including the opening of accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova. The summit’s packed agenda included various other topics such as relations with candidate countries Georgia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the situation on the Finnish-Russian border, migration and security and defence.

But above all, this tense summit underscored the difficulties ahead for the bloc as it plans to let more members join.

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Viktor Orbán Prime Minister of Hungary and Petr Fiala Prime Minister of the Czech Republic) at the European Council in December 2023 © Europa.eu

As widely expected, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán positioned himself as a central figure at the summit and launched a strong opposition campaign to block the accession talks with Ukraine and prevent the provision of additional financial and military aid. As these decisions require the unanimous consent of the 27-member states, they are vulnerable to national vetoes.

Orbán’s campaign against accession talks with Ukraine and the provision of further financial and military support has unfolded in theatrical fashion, encompassing impassioned speeches, attention-grabbing posters, captivating social media posts, thought-provoking newspaper interviews and not one but two carefully crafted letters addressed directly to European Council President Charles Michel.

In response to the escalating tensions, Michel spoke out on 13 December, in a moment of diplomatic finesse, emphasising the importance of mutual respect and striving for a united stance. “Even with differences or divergences,” he explained, “it is crucial to recognise and appreciate each party’s point of view and look for ways to form a formidable common front, because true strength lies in unity”.

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Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis (left); French President Emmanuel Macron (centre) and Viktor Orbán, Hungarian Prime Minister at the European Council, December 2023 © Europa.eu 

The Hungarian Prime Minister has sharply criticised the European Commission’s assessment of Ukraine’s readiness to join the European Union. The European Commission has, in fact, found that Kyiv has successfully implemented four of the seven required reforms, with efforts continuing in areas such as anti-corruption, de-oligarchisation and minority rights.

Previously, Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, visited Budapest to win the support of the Hungarian head of government. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, received Orbán in Paris, and in a final attempt, Macron and Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, were among the high-ranking politicians who held talks with the Hungarian head of state.

Be that as it may, Orbán described the EU’s assessment as “unfounded and insufficiently prepared”. He has also expressed fears that Hungary would lose billions in agricultural and cohesion funds if Ukraine were to join the EU. As an alternative to EU membership, the prime minister has proposed a “strategic partnership” with Ukraine, although he recognises that full membership could take several years.

On his arrival in Brussels on 14 December, he emphasised that enlargement is not a theoretical matter, but a process based on merit and detailed legal requirements. He explained that there is no possibility to start negotiations if the preconditions are not met.

He further explained that the issue can be taken up again at a later stage when Ukraine has fulfilled the preconditions.

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President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky and Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán at the Special European Council in February 2023 © Europa.eu

The discussion on enlargement could face additional obstacles, as the “Friends of the Western Balkans” group is calling for Bosnia and Herzegovina to be placed on an equal footing with Ukraine and given the opportunity to start accession talks.

However, this appeal by the coalition which includes Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic is met with scepticism by the countries of the North and the West. They are of the opinion that Bosnia is a long way from fulfilling the reforms demanded by the Commission.

| Bargaining and illogical tactics

After hours of talks and hard bargaining, Orbán relented and walked out of the room, leaving the other 26 leaders to agree to start membership negotiations. However, he promptly blocked the proposed Ukraine Facility, which envisages a €33 billion support programme in the form of low-interest loans and €17 billion in the form of non-repayable grants. He claims that the funds would be susceptible to corruption and difficult to trace. The prime minister proposed instead granting Ukraine long-term aid outside the regular framework of the EU budget, thereby exempting his country from the obligation to contribute. “Short-term funding for Ukraine is already provided for under the EU budget. If we intend to provide larger and longer-term funding, we need to manage this outside the EU budget. We are in favour of supporting it,” Orbán explained.

The extensive list of grievances led diplomats in Brussels to ponder how to reconcile the conflicting demands and prevent the Hungarian veto from derailing the two-day summit. Officials realised that it was imperative to reach an agreement by the end of the meeting, even if discussions had to be extended until the following weekend. The need to increase European Union financial support for Ukraine emerged as a “crucial” priority as American aid is blocked in the US Congress with no foreseeable solution, according to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. “We will see how far we get,” Rutte told reporters in Brussels. “So far, we have always managed to reach unanimous decisions, even with Viktor Orbán.”

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Mark Rutte, caretaker Prime Minister of the Netherlands © Europa.eu

However, Viktor Orbán’s veto threat is not the only problem; there are other significant obstacles to the implementation of the Ukraine Facility. The €50bn plan is part of a wider €100bn review of the European Union’s multi-annual budget proposed by the Commission to tackle challenges such as irregular migration, high technology and rising interest rates. Brussels is asking member states to contribute €66bn in new funds, but most capitals are strongly opposed to this proposal. Discussions between heads of state and government will decide how much money will be allocated and how much will be redistributed from existing programmes within the current EU budget.

The negotiations are expected to be intense and contentious. Southern countries such as Italy and Greece remain resolute to uphold funding for migration-related issues, whereas economically prudent states such as Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden insist on a budget exclusively for Ukraine. The latest compromise proposes to allocate around 22 to 25 billion euros in new funds while reallocating and saving funds from other areas.

Complicating matters even more for the heads of state and government is the fact that the budget negotiations are taking place at a time when there are fears that Orbán is seeking a quid pro quo to regain unrestricted access to Hungary’s cohesion and recovery fund, which was frozen last year due to ongoing rule of law problems. In a move that many critics have described as a bribe, the Commission authorised the release of up to €10.2 billion in cohesion funds, while over €20 billion remains blocked. Budapest has requested that the entire amount be released.

“I do not want to get involved in some kind of haggling where we swap one for the other. It’s about the security of Ukraine,” explained Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. “We must do everything we can to preserve unity and I am confident that this is possible with a clear mind and good will at the negotiating table.”

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Prime Minister of Belgium Alexander De Croo © Europa.eu

In the event that Orbán insists on the compromise approach, diplomats are already working on alternative plans to create a parallel system supported by 26-member states. This system would provide Ukraine with uninterrupted financial support. Kyiv is facing a budget deficit of around 40 billion euros in 2024 and so far Brussels has only made a single payment. “We have to come to some kind of agreement. We cannot allow ourselves the luxury of delaying or postponing the matter. That would send out a negative signal. We hope that we can reach an agreement on at least some of the most important aspects,” said Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, emphasising the importance of focusing on “Plan A” When asked about her outlook for the upcoming negotiations, Kallas replied: “Not optimistic, no”.

| ‘Orbán effect’energises European nationalists

Since 2010, Viktor Orbán has pursued increasingly nationalist and authoritarian policies that have changed the country’s political landscape. However, he is by no means the only one to pursue this nationalist-populist agenda in Europe. A number of other prominent European leaders share Orbán’s worldview and have pursued similar policies, reflecting a broader trend to the right in some countries’ national politics.

The most recent example is the case of the Dutch nationalist leader Geert Wilders whose recent electoral victory has, according to a number of political analysts, not only drawn inspiration from the Hungarian Fidesz Party, but has even bolstered Viktor Orbán’s policies. Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) won the Dutch elections by a large margin, but it is far from certain that it will come to power. However, by mandating Wilders, Dutch voters sent a strong message that they are against immigration.

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Geert Wilders speaking to reporters © Facebook

However, Wilders’ anti-establishment positions make it difficult to exert significant political influence without broader alliances. The ongoing coalition talks will determine whether outgoing Mark Rutte returns as prime minister at the head of a centre-right government or whether a different constellation emerges in the politically fragmented landscape.

Be that as it may, there are some important aspects in which Geert Wilders and Viktor Orbán share a number of similarities in their political outlooks. Nationalism and opposition to immigration/multiculturalism: both are strong nationalists who vociferously oppose immigration and multiculturalism and instead favour national and cultural preservation. Authoritarian leadership style: Both Orbán and Wilders are accused of steering their countries in a more authoritarian direction by consolidating power and weakening control of the executive. Traditional social values: Both are in favour of socially conservative policies and have spoken out against issues such as LGBTQ rights and political correctness. Euroscepticism: While neither wants to leave the EU, both are critical of the EU on issues of sovereignty and oppose further European integration. Populist rhetoric: Their messages emphasise the representation of the “true people” over the detached elites. They portray themselves as defenders of national culture. Alliance against the left: They position themselves in sharp opposition to left-wing and progressive politics in their countries and in the Western world as a whole. Criticising the media/opponents: Both are accused of curtailing press freedom and cracking down on political dissent or criticism. However, Wilders leads a smaller fringe party in the Netherlands, while Orbán has a supermajority, allowing him to more effectively translate his vision into political change. Overall, however, their nationalist-populist ideology and rhetoric are quite similar.

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President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky and Prime Minister of Poland Mateusz Morawiecki in Kiev, Ukraine © Gov.pl

One of Orbán’s most important allies was until recently the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who led the Law and Justice party. Like Fidesz in Hungary, the Law and Justice party represents a cultural conservatism that goes hand in hand with economic intervention. Under its leadership, Poland has also taken steps to tighten state control over the media and suppress protests. Poland and Hungary formed until recently, a united front against more progressive policies at EU level.

In Italy, prime minister Giorgia Meloni rose rapidly to the top of the nationalist Brothers of Italy party. She openly admires Orbán’s model of “illiberal democracy” and advocates strongly anti-immigration policies..Her views are in many respects aligned with Orbán’s ultra-nationalist form of right-wing populism.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has consolidated his power through increasingly authoritarian means and plays on Serbian nationalist sentiments, closely aligning himself with Orbán on issues of EU enlargement and Kosovo. In France, Marine Le Pen continues to represent the protectionist and anti-immigration programme of her Front National party, although she has also toned down some extreme ideas, she remains a fervent nationalist. These examples illustrate how Orbán’s brand of illiberal right-wing politics has gained influence across Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in parts of Western Europe.

By portraying himself as a defender of national cultures and traditions, Orbán has led the rise of a new nationalist wave that is challenging the post-war liberal consensus in Europe. Other leading politicians have followed this pattern on their way to prominence, cementing his legacy as the standard-bearer of the new populist right in Europe.

hossein.sadre@europe-diplomatic.eu

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