War in Europe
Viktor Orbán’s Close Ties to Putin’s Russia Have Become Increasingly Dangerous for Him
For a long time, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been accused of representing Russian interests in the EU. In his 2014 speech about the transformation of Hungary into an illiberal democracy, he depicted the Russian social and state model as a good example for the country. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is happening right before the Hungarian parliamentary elections, is forcing the Hungary's Prime Minister to alter his campaign. The Hungarian united opposition is not convinced by this change of Orbán's strategy and calls attention to numerous deals between the Hungary’s Prime Minister and the Kremlin.
Ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán strives not to be associated with Putin's regime, just like his European allies Marine Le Pen in France and Mateo Salvini in Italy. As it was the case during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, he now hopes that, because of the war in the neighbouring country, the Hungarian citizens will rally around the flag, a behaviour characteristic for times of crisis, and stick to the status quo. For him, the status quo means not jeopardizing the long-term gas contracts negotiated with Russia and the financial agreement for the expansion of the nuclear power plant in Paks, while at the same time preventing a stir before the parliamentary elections on 3 April.
Searching for a new campaign narrative
Although Orbán supports the economic sanctions directed against Russia, at home he tries to show restraint and promote peace. At the same time, the state media in Hungary are spreading Russian conspiracy theories about the war in Ukraine and downplay the Russian aggression. Orbán's smear campaigns directed against the Hungarian-born US philanthropist and billionaire George Soros, migrants, LGBTIQ people or the so-called "Brussels bureaucrats" are proving to be ineffective in times of real danger. Now, shortly before the election, his campaign team has to come up with a new narrative. From now on, Orbán has to get used to a peaceful tone in his campaign messages. His campaign is now based on an image of a peacemaker who guarantees security of his own people through neutrality and distancing. Peace and security have become his campaign motto. Nevertheless, in these troubled times, with people longing for stability, the strength of such message cannot be underestimated.
The Hungarian opposition keeps reminding Hungarian voters of Orbán's boasting about his friendly relations with the Russian president. For example, last week, the liberal opposition party Momentum published an online list of the pro-Russian policy measures enforced by Orbán's governments over the past 12 years. One of those measures is a long-term gas contract between Hungary and Russia in exchange for lower prices in comparison to its European partners. Capping electricity and gas prices plays an important role in Orbán's re-election campaign.
In addition, the united opposition accuses Viktor Orbán and his national-conservative Fidesz party, who have been in power since 2010, of dismantling of the rule of law, political favouritism in the Hungarian public procurement system and the instrumentalization of children’s and young people's rights in the government’s campaign against LGBTIQ people. The referendum on the controversial anti-LGBTIQ law, scheduled for April 3 , shows the paradox of Fidesz’s election campaign that is based on both the calls for peace and the ostracising of sexual minorities.
Orbán's positioning towards the war in Ukraine is certainly a complicated balancing act. If he moves too far away from Putin's regime, his campaign strategy based on low electricity and gas prices will be ruined and he could lose many disappointed pro-Russian Fidesz voters to the radical right-wing party "Our Homeland" (Mi Hazánk). This party, polling between 3 and 4 percent, is getting closer to the electoral threshold of 5 percent. On the other hand, since 78 percent of Hungarians support EU membership, Orbán cannot move too far away from the EU’s response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Close business ties with Russia
Although his government originally threatened to block Ukraine's NATO and EU ambitions due to a dispute with Kyiv over the rights of the Hungarian minority in the country, Orbán has supported both Ukraine's fast-tracked EU membership and international sanctions against Russia. However, he is still eager to secure the cheap Russian gas supplies for Hungary and continues to reject Hungarian involvement in military support for Ukraine.
Moreover, despite the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Orbán's government still defends the 12.5 billion euro construction deal concluded with the Russian state corporation Rosatom intended for the expansion of the Hungarian nuclear power plant Paks.
The International Investment Bank (IIB), described by the opposition as a "Putin's Trojan horse", moved its headquarters from Moscow to Budapest in 2019. The united opposition now calls on the Hungarian government to withdraw Hungary from the Russian-majority-owned financial institution.
The war in Ukraine comes at a particularly inconvenient time for Orbán. For the first time since 2010, the opposition stands a chance against the Prime Minister and his Fidesz party.
According to the latest poll by the Republikon Institute from Hungary, 40 % of decided voters would vote for the ruling Fidesz-KNDP alliance and 39 % for the opposition alliance, which is made up of the centre-left’s Democratic Coalition (DK), the far-right-turned-conservative Jobbik, the liberal Momentum Movement, socialist MSZP and the green LMP and Párbeszéd.
For more information on the upcoming parliamentary election in Hungary, follow our focus "Hungary Election Countdown".
Toni Skorić is Project Manager for Central Europe and the Baltic States at the Foundation's office in Prague.