Putin’s Trojan Horse Inside the European Union

No matter what Moscow does, Hungary’s prime minister consistently carries water for the Kremlin.

By , an international correspondent based in Vienna.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives for a European Council meeting.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives for a European Council meeting.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives for a special meeting of the European Council in Brussels on May 30. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

BUDAPEST, Hungary—When Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban unleashed a racist tirade during an annual address to ethnic Hungarians in Romania on July 23, in which he argued that his supporters do “not want to become peoples of mixed race,” the international community recoiled in horror at the vitriol being espoused by the leader of a NATO and European Union member state. One of Orban’s longtime advisors, Zsuzsa Hegedus, resigned after the speech, calling it a “pure Nazi text … worthy of [former Nazi leader Joseph] Goebbels.”

Many others in Hungary were less surprised. Since returning to power in 2010 with a two-thirds supermajority in parliament that has allowed him to dismantle Hungarian democracy, Orban has used such language to justify discriminatory policies on immigration and minority communities. The only slight difference this time was that the mask slipped completely and Orban’s far-right sentiments were now evident to the world. 

Of more immediate concern in recent days was Hungary’s continued water-carrying for Moscow. Last week, the 27 EU members agreed to a voluntary 15 percent reduction in gas use. The lone holdout, of course, was Orban, who called the move “another step toward a war economy.”

BUDAPEST, Hungary—When Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban unleashed a racist tirade during an annual address to ethnic Hungarians in Romania on July 23, in which he argued that his supporters do “not want to become peoples of mixed race,” the international community recoiled in horror at the vitriol being espoused by the leader of a NATO and European Union member state. One of Orban’s longtime advisors, Zsuzsa Hegedus, resigned after the speech, calling it a “pure Nazi text … worthy of [former Nazi leader Joseph] Goebbels.”

Many others in Hungary were less surprised. Since returning to power in 2010 with a two-thirds supermajority in parliament that has allowed him to dismantle Hungarian democracy, Orban has used such language to justify discriminatory policies on immigration and minority communities. The only slight difference this time was that the mask slipped completely and Orban’s far-right sentiments were now evident to the world. 

Of more immediate concern in recent days was Hungary’s continued water-carrying for Moscow. Last week, the 27 EU members agreed to a voluntary 15 percent reduction in gas use. The lone holdout, of course, was Orban, who called the move “another step toward a war economy.”

The same week as the Goebbels-style speech, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto made a surprise visit to Moscow, a move that broke ranks with Western partners and firmly cemented Hungary’s place as Russia’s only ally in the European Union. Posing for photographs alongside his counterpart, a beaming Sergey Lavrov, Szijjarto was in town to ask for more Russian gas. “In the current international situation, the most important thing for us is to ensure Hungary’s energy security,” he said following his 90-minute meeting with Lavrov.

Since the early hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, Budapest has been cautious of directly criticizing the Kremlin, though it has condemned Moscow’s military aggression, which has claimed the lives of at least 10,000 people. But as they’ve consistently done since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Orban and his Fidesz party have objected to sanctions on Russian energy. In May, Orban held up the EU’s sixth package of sanctions until he had negotiated an exemption for Russian oil imports delivered by pipeline to satisfy Hungary’s needs. In July, he played spoiler again.

Once again, European Union leaders and foreign-policy analysts are asking what lies behind Budapest’s almost obsessive obeisance to the Kremlin, even as Russian shells continue to rain down on Ukrainian civilians. It boils down to molecules and models.

“There are objective and subjective motivations behind Hungary’s Russia policy,” said András Rácz of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “It all starts with the objective motivations, and the most important ones are energy related; parts of these have been inherited from communist times, mainly oil and gas supplies. Among the subjective motivations has been the praise of Russia as an illiberal state. When Orban announced Hungary as an illiberal democracy in 2014, Russia was mentioned as a model of ruling.” 

With around 80 percent of its natural gas and 65 percent of oil coming from Russia, Hungary does have genuine supply concerns, but Orban has been deliberately increasing his dependency on Russian energy for years despite saying his country would work to wean itself off excessive reliance on Russian gas as late as 2018. In 2014, Budapest struck a controversial deal with Moscow to expand the country’s Paks Nuclear Power Plant, an agreement that was shrouded in secrecy and not put out to tender. 

Orban’s courtship also appears linked to a desire to protect Hungarian assets in Russia, especially those linked to the MOL Group, the country’s leading oil and gas company, and the OTP bank, both of which are run by wealthy Hungarians sympathetic to Fidesz. When French car manufacturer Renault departed from Russia, it had to sell its holdings in a Russian car company for a symbolic, and worthless, 1 ruble.

“Protecting the MOL Group is of key concern,” Rácz said. “When you look at what happened to Renault earlier this year, Orban won’t allow that to happen.”

Orban hasn’t always been a Moscow fanboy. When he was still in the opposition, Orban was a vocal critic of Moscow. In 2007, he decried thatoil may come from the East, but freedom always comes from the West.” When the Russo-Georgian War erupted the following year, Orban was swift to condemn Russia and warned of excessive dependence on Russian energy. But Orban’s tone changed around 2009 and significantly after he won the 2010 election. According to Zsuzsanna Szelenyi, a member of Fidesz until 1994, it’s difficult to know exactly what game Orban is playing with Russia. 

“He introduced this tap-dance politics where he wanted to exploit Hungary’s position being in the EU and also outreach to Eastern powers, specifically Russia. He has always explained this is nothing with business … but it’s clear that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has him on a certain track and he cannot go back from there.”

Meanwhile, Orban has also taken a wrecking ball to the EU, dismantling the judiciary, rigging a once-vibrant democracy, and invoking the wrath of Brussels. But EU leaders appear to have little stomach to cut EU funds earmarked for Budapest as it boldly erodes the rule of law, a fundamental value of the bloc.

Although it has cost him friends in Europe, across the Atlantic Ocean, Republicans are lining up to hear the illiberal politician speak. Last year, Fox News host Tucker Carlson anchored his show from Budapest and former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence spoke at Orban’s demographic conference in September. On Thursday, Orban will take the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas alongside a close friend, former U.S. President Donald Trump. In a speech entitledHow We Fight,” Orban will indulge a fawning audience with far-right tropes, even if it’s likely he’ll keep his prosperous dalliance with Putin under wraps.

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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