Hungary Is Not Out to Scuttle Sweden and NATO

Orban just wants the Swedes to kiss the ring. Turkey might still be a problem.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (left) shakes hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as he arrives for the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 11.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (left) shakes hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as he arrives for the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 11.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (left) shakes hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as he arrives for the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 11. Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

Hungary, which has for a year blocked Sweden’s bid to join NATO and appeared to definitively scupper it last week, is just holding out for a little bit of obeisance—but will ultimately ratify what will be the trans-Atlantic alliance’s 32nd member, a top Hungarian diplomat said over the weekend.

Hungary, which has for a year blocked Sweden’s bid to join NATO and appeared to definitively scupper it last week, is just holding out for a little bit of obeisance—but will ultimately ratify what will be the trans-Atlantic alliance’s 32nd member, a top Hungarian diplomat said over the weekend.

After Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto sent a letter to his Swedish counterpart last week that seemed to threaten Stockholm’s bid to join the 31-nation alliance unless Sweden muzzled opposition politicians criticizing Hungary’s democratic backsliding, Hungarian officials insisted that the ratification was still on track—if they get a little respect.

“Sooner or later we will ratify,” Zsolt Bunford, the political director of Hungary’s foreign ministry, said at a Hudson Institute event on Saturday. “It’s up to our parliament to ratify.”

Hungary’s parliament is dominated by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party. The European Parliament has gone as far as to say that Hungary can no longer be considered a full democracy, calling out the erosion of the judiciary and electoral system during Orban’s 13-year rule. Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson has not aired public criticism of Hungary, but Swedish opposition politicians have, led by former Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson.

When pressed about whether Hungary was asking for Sweden to muzzle opposition politicians in exchange for NATO membership, Bunford, the Hungarian diplomat, insisted that wasn’t the case. Instead, the hope is for a high-level Swedish visit to Budapest to iron out the renewed tensions.

“No, no, nothing like that. What we are asking for is respect,” he said. “If they want us to ratify, that will be the main part, to sit together and see how we can solve this challenge. I don’t think that is too much [to ask].” Bunford’s comments came as close aides to Orban are in Washington this week ahead of the United Nations General Assembly for meetings with Biden administration officials and members of Congress.

Sweden and Finland, both longtime neutral countries, applied together to join NATO in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. Finland got past the gate; Sweden, with its submarines and U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets and robust defense industrial base, has yet to.

Congressional aides who spoke to Foreign Policy after the exchange insisted that Hungary is unlikely to block Sweden’s bid, a notion that Hungarian officials appeared to echo on Saturday. Kissing the ring isn’t just for the Swedes, either: Finnish President Sauli Niinistö made trips to both Budapest and Turkey ahead of ratification votes in both countries. And the Biden administration says it’s planning to hold Turkey’s and Hungary’s feet to the fire when it comes to upholding the pledge they made at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, to allow Sweden to join the alliance.

“We expect Sweden to be a member of NATO,” a senior U.S. defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity based on ground rules set by the Pentagon. “We expect allies to ratify Sweden’s membership in NATO. We do not see any change in Sweden’s qualifications, which we believe are strong. We believe Sweden has met every challenge and requirement to be a member of NATO, and we expect allies to ratify—as the leaderships of those two countries affirmed they would—in October.” 

But Turkey’s opposition is still a problem. Swedish and NATO officials had initially hoped to have their bid to join the alliance in place by the Vilnius summit in July. By the end of the two-day meeting, Turkey and Sweden had a deal for Ankara to lift its long-held opposition to the bid, after Stockholm agreed to take action against Kurdish movements and NATO to set up a “special coordinator for counterterrorism” in line with Turkey’s wishes. The Biden administration was also looking into a congressional impasse over sending F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, a last installment on the payment to get Sweden into NATO.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fresh off a reelection victory in May, is asking the Biden administration to clear congressional opposition to the $20 billion F-16 deal before the Turkish parliament ratifies the Swedish bid, underscoring the independence of the legislative branch in Ankara.

“If you say that Congress will decide, then we have a Congress in Turkey as well—it is the Turkish parliament,” Erdogan told reporters last week on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in India. “It is not possible for me to say ‘yes’ alone unless such a decision is approved” by the Turkish parliament, he said.

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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