The War in Ukraine Undermines Orban’s Illiberal Project

By dividing the Visegrad Group, Russia’s invasion gives Europe’s mainstream an opportunity to fight back.

By , a freelance journalist and analyst based in Prague.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gives an international press conference.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gives an international press conference.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gives his first international press conference after his Fidesz party won the parliamentary election in Budapest, Hungary, on April 6. ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images

Recent elections in Europe resurfaced fears about Russia’s support for an illiberal bloc to sow discord within the European Union and NATO. The reelection of authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary on April 3—and even far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s strong showing in the first round of the French presidential election on April 10—confirmed that right-wing populism remains a threat to democracy in Europe. However, Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has presented mainstream parties with the opportunity to fight back, and it may have pushed the anti-establishment project back to square one.

Orban’s rise as a far-right icon made him the point man for building an illiberal bloc in Europe, and he has strived to bring together a political force capable of disrupting the West’s course. But despite his overwhelming victory at the polls last month, the Hungarian prime minister has never seemed more isolated. Russia’s war in Ukraine appears to be tearing his populist network apart, driving a wedge between Orban and the regional governments he once sought to unite: the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia.

The deterioration of this alliance, known as the Visegrad Group (V4), is a major hit for Orban. The group was formed in the 1990s to push post-communist states toward EU membership. When populist governments came to power in the other countries in the wake of the European debt crisis and a major increase in migration to the EU, Orban sought to weaponize the alliance to disrupt the EU—with like-minded politicians by his side.

Recent elections in Europe resurfaced fears about Russia’s support for an illiberal bloc to sow discord within the European Union and NATO. The reelection of authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary on April 3—and even far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s strong showing in the first round of the French presidential election on April 10—confirmed that right-wing populism remains a threat to democracy in Europe. However, Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has presented mainstream parties with the opportunity to fight back, and it may have pushed the anti-establishment project back to square one.

Orban’s rise as a far-right icon made him the point man for building an illiberal bloc in Europe, and he has strived to bring together a political force capable of disrupting the West’s course. But despite his overwhelming victory at the polls last month, the Hungarian prime minister has never seemed more isolated. Russia’s war in Ukraine appears to be tearing his populist network apart, driving a wedge between Orban and the regional governments he once sought to unite: the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia.

The deterioration of this alliance, known as the Visegrad Group (V4), is a major hit for Orban. The group was formed in the 1990s to push post-communist states toward EU membership. When populist governments came to power in the other countries in the wake of the European debt crisis and a major increase in migration to the EU, Orban sought to weaponize the alliance to disrupt the EU—with like-minded politicians by his side.

But in the last two years, disillusioned Czech and Slovak voters have thrown their populist leaders out of office. The centrists that replaced them have made clear their commitment to the EU and NATO, as well as their doubts about Orban. Late last month, one of Orban’s closest regional allies, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, lost elections in a surprise victory for the Freedom Movement, a green party founded last year. “Orban now sees his allies losing power,” said Milan Nic, an expert on the region at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

The Visegrad Group has long held divergent views toward Moscow. Although Orban is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the EU, Poland’s Law and Justice party government is one of Europe’s most hawkish on Russia. For years, the Visegrad Group put these differences aside, but the invasion of Ukraine sparked a rampage. The conflict has revealed the links between Russia’s support for populism and its own imperial ambitions. “Putin has been supporting right-wing populists in Europe for years,” said Daniel Freund, a German member of the European Parliament. “Now that he’s sending tanks and troops, many realize what we’ve been calling the ‘crisis of democracy’ is part of the Kremlin’s aggression.”

The Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia are now front and center in efforts to help Ukraine. All three countries are sending heavy weapons to Kyiv, and Poland is the main player pushing for an EU embargo on Russian energy. Meanwhile, Hungary has held up EU sanctions on Russian oil and gas and refuses to allow weapons bound for Ukraine to transit through its borders. The response from its regional peers has been furious. In late March, the trio forced the cancellation of a Visegrad Group defense ministers’ meeting in Budapest, Hungary. “I have always supported the V4, and I am very sorry that Hungarian politicians now find cheap Russian oil more important than Ukrainian blood,” Czech Defense Minister Jana Cernochova tweeted at the time.

The tension over the conflict in Ukraine has led some analysts and politicians to suggest the alliance has run its course. After all, the Visegrad Group is undermined by the fact that it excludes Germany, Central Europe’s economic and political powerhouse. “The V4 has never meant much. But the region will now turn even more to Germany, which is the prime partner for all,” a Czech government source who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Foreign Policy. Others have noted that alternative formats for regional cooperation are growing stronger, such as the Slavkov Declaration (Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia) or the Three Seas Initiative, a U.S.-backed group of 12 Central and Eastern European states that aims to improve regional infrastructure.

The responses to recent events from Prague and Bratislava aren’t likely to surprise Orban. Although all members of the Visegrad Group share certain outlooks—none is especially enthusiastic about climate action or LBGTQ rights—both the Czech Republic and Slovakia are now led by governments that have pledged to reassert a Western orientation. This shift had already essentially turned the club into the Visegrad 2+2, with the group limping on by simply avoiding its many points of disagreement.

However, a split with Poland over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could leave Orban on shaky ground. For years, Hungary and Poland have supported each other in confrontations with the EU over democratic standards and the rule of law. But Warsaw’s position toward Moscow threatens that arrangement. “My assessment is unequivocally negative,” Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s deputy prime minister and de facto leader, said last month. “When Prime Minister Orban says that he cannot see clearly what has happened in Bucha, then he should be advised to go and see an eye doctor. We cannot continue to cooperate as we have so far if it continues like this.”

Hungarian officials have also expressed anger. “Poland can’t blackmail us. We won’t let them back us into a corner,” Zoltan Kovacs, Orban’s spokesperson, told Foreign Policy before insisting that the pair’s mutual support regarding “the EU’s political witch hunt won’t change.”

The EU is seeking to exploit the schism by persuading Kaczynski to abandon Orban, Freund said—although the German politician cautions that those discussions are not easy. Meanwhile, Hungary’s increasing isolation may have encouraged the EU to flex its muscles in another way. Two days after Orban’s reelection, the bloc announced the launch of a long-delayed mechanism that could block billions of euros in funding to Hungary over rule of law violations. This would be a significant blow for Orban, who uses the funds to underpin his regime. Notably, the EU has not launched the mechanism against Poland; its negotiations with Warsaw are believed to involve access to funds frozen last year due to concerns that Kaczynski has hobbled the country’s judicial system.

Regardless of any deal that Kaczynski reaches with the EU—and some politicians argue it would be a misstep for the bloc to give his violations a pass—it seems that the conflict in Ukraine has dulled the Visegrad Group’s potential as a launch pad for an illiberal force capable of undermining the European Union. But this isn’t likely to quash Orban’s dream of an international populist alliance. He may turn his attention toward EU accession candidates in the Western Balkans, which already receive Hungarian investment.

On the other hand, Orban may harbor hope that the fallout of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which will leave neighboring countries hosting large numbers of refugees as their economies suffer, could eventually revive the populist tide.

Tim Gosling is a freelance journalist and analyst based in Prague, covering Central and Eastern Europe. Twitter: @TGosCEE

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