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Victory for Hungary's Orban means a headache for the EU

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Image source, EPA

You could almost hear the collective thud of EU hearts sinking on Sunday night as Viktor Orban made his victory speech.

“Our win is so huge you can see it from the Moon, never mind from Brussels,” he gloated pointedly.

A self-styled illiberal democrat, Hungary’s prime minister has repeatedly clashed with Brussels over rule of law issues, like press freedom and migration.


They’ve fallen out over Moscow too.

That’s why there was so much international attention on Hungary’s election.

Orban is famed for his warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He buys a lot of energy from Moscow. But so do many other EU countries.

It’s more the similarity critics see between the two men. Both, they say, are disdainful and dismissive of Brussels, of political opposition, of questioning media, of the LGBTQ+ community.

Of course Orban is no Putin. Though an election billboard on Hungarian highways, sponsored by opposition parties, suggested as much.

Next to black-and-white photos of the two leaders facing one another, the caption summarised the choice allegedly facing voters: “Hungarian Putin” or Europe.

Numerous populist, nationalist, or right-wing politicians with a penchant for strong man (or woman) politics, have admired Putin over the years – or sought to emulate some of his traits. Think Italy’s Matteo Salvini, France’s Marine Le Pen, the US’s Donald Trump.

But Orban is the leader of an EU and Nato member country, at a time when both are deeply at odds with Moscow over the invasion of Ukraine.

“I worry about our friend in Budapest,” a foreign minister from a key EU power told me in a whisper, just before the Russian invasion.

In fact, Hungary signed up to Western sanctions, which came thick and unexpectedly fast, via Brussels.

But at the same time opponents back home complained Hungarian state media was churning out propaganda-like news, “Russia-style” about the war in Ukraine.

Opposition politicians made a formal complaint to the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Co-operation that monitors human rights and elections in early March.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban holds his ballot paper, at a polling station during the Hungarian parliamentary election, in Budapest, Hungary, April 3, 2022

Image source, Reuters

Most state and private media in Hungary have been taken over by Orban allies during his last 12 years in government.

Loyalists head up key institutions across the country in business, academia, media and NGOs too.

This system of patronage has given birth to an elite class of wealthy conservative cronies in Hungary.

Critics call them Orban’s oligarchs.

“There’s been an orgy of disinformation over Ukraine,” political commentator Peter Kreko told me. So much so, he said, that many Hungarians believe the war was triggered by Kyiv.

The war ended up dominating the last weeks of the election campaign here.

You’d have thought the Hungarian opposition would have had a field day exploiting Orban’s known ties to Moscow. Instead, the well-oiled government PR machine slickly transformed him into Orban the peacemaker – allowing him to avoid directly antagonising Moscow.

Ukraine borders Hungary, and around 400,000 refugees have fled here since Russia’s forces invaded.

But Orban said Hungary should keep out of the conflict itself – a war, he said, between two giant countries. Too dangerous, he insisted.

He has refused to send weapons into Ukraine or to allow other countries to transit their arms destined for Ukraine through Hungary.

He is the only EU leader to openly criticise Ukraine’s president.

Orban’s entourage accused Vlodymyr Zelensky of forming a “pact” with the Hungarian opposition to drag Hungarian soldiers into the war with Russia.

It was striking this Sunday, that in addition to his supporters, the majority of anti-Orban voters I spoke to in polling stations were ambivalent about who was to blame for the bloodshed in Ukraine.

A huge contrast to public opinion I’ve come across elsewhere in central and eastern Europe over the last month, in capitals awash with Ukrainian flags.

Not a sight that greets you in Budapest.

For years, Orban has prided himself on his “political pragmatism”. An outspoken anti-communist after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he’s now a nostalgic nationalist conservative.

He dallies with allies east and west. Always pushing the boundaries. Just about getting away with it.

But the war in Ukraine has changed things. It’s thrown loyalties into sharp relief.

Orban’s attitude towards Ukraine sits uncomfortably with EU and Nato allies.

Hungary is becoming increasingly isolated.

Orban has even succeeded in alienating his closest EU ally. The similarly “illiberal”-minded government in Poland.

Warsaw is one of the most hawkish Western powers when it comes to Russia. And right now it’s furious with Viktor Orban.

And yet, he is the longest-serving leader around the EU table. He knows how things work.

Neither Nato nor the EU will want to ostracise him altogether.

The West aims to present a united front when facing Vladimir Putin.

With his fresh election victory, Viktor Orban will remain an unpredictable thorn in their side for some time to come.

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