Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Hungary’s Orban Pivots Away From Putin as Elections Loom

For 12 years, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has carried water for Putin. Now, he’s wavering.

By , an international correspondent based in Vienna.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban attend a joint press conference outside Moscow on Feb. 17, 2016.  MAXIM SHIPENKOV/AFP via Getty Images

BUDAPEST, Hungary—Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has always been a political shapeshifter. From his early days as an anti-communist activist to his current incarnation as a global illiberal icon, the 58-year-old has shed more than one skin. But, caught off guard by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, Orban is now being forced into extraordinary contortions ahead of pivotal elections next month.

Orban, long one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s biggest cheerleaders in Europe and the poster child for illiberal democracy, has suddenly found himself backing European Union leaders levying tough sanctions on Moscow, even though Budapest is in the middle of a bitter fight with Brussels over Orban’s dismantling of Hungarian democracy. Hungary also supported Kyiv’s calls for expedited membership in the EU despite previously threatening to block Ukraine’s Western integration over reforms to Ukrainian education. Going even further, Orban reluctantly allowed NATO arms shipments to pass through Hungary—a NATO member—on their way to Ukraine after previous refusals to do so. 

Russia’s assault on Ukraine, which so far has meant bombing apartment blocks and leveling maternity hospitals while Russian tanks are mired in the mud, has thrown Orban’s affinity for Putin into sharp relief, even as Hungarian voters grow increasingly wary of the country’s eastward lurch. Weeks before Russian assaults killed thousands of civilians in Ukrainian cities like Mariupol, Orban rushed to the Kremlin for a “peace mission” where he pledged future cooperation with Russia. Unlike other Western leaders who went to Moscow, Orban did not visit Kyiv on his way home.

BUDAPEST, Hungary—Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has always been a political shapeshifter. From his early days as an anti-communist activist to his current incarnation as a global illiberal icon, the 58-year-old has shed more than one skin. But, caught off guard by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, Orban is now being forced into extraordinary contortions ahead of pivotal elections next month.

Orban, long one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s biggest cheerleaders in Europe and the poster child for illiberal democracy, has suddenly found himself backing European Union leaders levying tough sanctions on Moscow, even though Budapest is in the middle of a bitter fight with Brussels over Orban’s dismantling of Hungarian democracy. Hungary also supported Kyiv’s calls for expedited membership in the EU despite previously threatening to block Ukraine’s Western integration over reforms to Ukrainian education. Going even further, Orban reluctantly allowed NATO arms shipments to pass through Hungary—a NATO member—on their way to Ukraine after previous refusals to do so. 

Russia’s assault on Ukraine, which so far has meant bombing apartment blocks and leveling maternity hospitals while Russian tanks are mired in the mud, has thrown Orban’s affinity for Putin into sharp relief, even as Hungarian voters grow increasingly wary of the country’s eastward lurch. Weeks before Russian assaults killed thousands of civilians in Ukrainian cities like Mariupol, Orban rushed to the Kremlin for a “peace mission” where he pledged future cooperation with Russia. Unlike other Western leaders who went to Moscow, Orban did not visit Kyiv on his way home.

Now, the Hungarian government is hurriedly pivoting from advertising its relationship with the Kremlin to focusing on state security and the country’s humanitarian response. To date, Hungary has welcomed over 200,000 refugees from neighboring Ukraine, and Hungarians have been steadfast in their support of the Ukrainian people.

The country’s six-party united opposition and their leader, small-town mayor Peter Marki-Zay, have been quick to capitalize on Moscow’s influence on Hungarian politics. Speaking days after the invasion, Marki-Zay accused Orban of “copying the Putin model for 12 years” and presented voters with a stark choice at the ballot box on April 3: “The dark side of history or the right side.”

Orban “has had to redefine his whole campaign narrative. However, he is very good at changing his stripes when he needs to. He can do this with his political talents and the fact that the country’s media machine is behind him,” said Tibor Dessewffy, a Hungarian sociologist and member of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Orban’s strategy for a long time has been to keep together his own camp, and that will be enough to win. But even for his own camp, it’s not a very easy sell to shift from the old narrative.”

A war in Hungary’s backyard has also poured cold water on some of Orban’s anti-EU rhetoric as voters of Fidesz, his party, see firsthand the value of a collective response to Russian aggression and the security benefits that come with NATO membership. 

But in the runup to elections, bread-and-butter issues such as inflation and energy are becoming key talking points; headline inflation is at 7.9 percent, and Hungary’s currency, the forint, hit an all-time low against the euro. Amid growing fuel shortages, Orban is trying to buttress old pro-Russia narratives to support his decision to block EU sanctions on Russian oil and gas exports, arguing that to do so would send Hungarian household bills surging. Just four years ago, Orban was pledging to reduce “excessive reliance on Russian gas” by 2022—a line more in tune with Brussels today, but which is far from realized.

“This government’s actions and rhetoric are quite different. It’s officially supporting the sanctions in the European Council. Then in state media they say the reason the forint is plummeting is because of Brussels’s sanctions on Moscow,” said Peter Kreko, the executive director of Political Capital, a Budapest-based research group. 

A bigger question is the fate of the International Investment Bank, also known as Putin’s spy bank, a majority-Russian-owned institution that has been headquartered in Budapest since 2019.

“What’s extremely important as well is that Hungary is not leaving the International Investment Bank, unlike other Central and Eastern European states,” Kreko said. “If this remains the case, at this high moment of conflict, it can create a huge hole in European security.”

Should Fidesz maintain its two-thirds supermajority in government next month, it could spell disaster for Hungary’s precarious democracy, which has already seen the erosion of a free and independent media, an independent judiciary, and minority rights. While the united opposition has capitalized on Fidesz’s close ties to the Kremlin, the campaign has a long way to go to turn undecided voters and present themselves as a solid alternative during a period of regional instability.

That task has only gotten tougher due to Orban’s latest shape-shifting. Recent polls have shown Fidesz edging ahead after being neck-and-neck for months. “The opposition’s communication needs to be a bit more powerful, although we are still three weeks out, so things can change,” said Andrea Virag, director of strategy at the Republikon Institute, a think tank.

“They are pointing out how the government helped Putin over the last 12 years, but right now the Hungarian government has a pro-peace message, as the main focus among the electorate is still on the humanitarian situation at the border, so they will have to be flexible in their messaging to cut through,” she said.

On Tuesday, thousands of people are expected to take to the streets of Budapest for a “Peace March” organized by two pro-Fidesz groups. What was supposed to be a show of strength to Brussels will now send the message of “No to War in Ukraine.” But it remains to be seen if Hungary’s voters buy in to Orban’s latest metamorphosis.

Amanda Coakley is an international correspondent and Milena Jesenska journalist fellow at the IWM in Vienna. She covers Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Twitter: @amandamcoakley

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