Collapse of Orban's Kremlin policy leaves him precariously balanced between East and West

Collapse of Orban's Kremlin policy leaves him precariously balanced between East and West
Viktor Orban has built up an illiberal regime over the years that in many ways resembles Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
By bne IntelliNews March 6, 2022

Hungary’s general election campaign has so far been completely overshadowed by the war in Ukraine: Public discourse has not been about Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s massive handouts or his government’s massive corruption, but about Russia’s unprovoked attack on Hungary’s eastern neighbour.

So far this seems to be benefiting the government, which already has a head start over the opposition, but the final outcome will only be known after April 3.

The government, which has forged strong ties with Russia over the last 12 years, was unprepared for the "worst-case scenario" of war and has had to conduct a precarious balancing act of meeting its obligation to its Nato and EU allies while trying at the same time to appease its pro-Putin base.

"For the first time in the past 12 years, Fidesz’ voter base is split on a major political issue," commented political analyst Gabor Torok.

This division within the ruling camp stems from the way Fidesz has "raised a monster" – its propaganda bred a way of thinking that threatens and limits its course of action, Torok said, referring to its anti-EU and pro-Russian stance, as Orban built up an illiberal regime over the years that in many ways resembles Putin’s Russia.

While Hungarians are overwhelmingly in favour of EU membership, the support for EU institutions is lower among Fidesz voters, according to previous polls. A GlobSec survey from 2018 found that Vladimir Putin was the most popular foreign leader among Hungarians, with a 33% rating compared to then German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 27%.

The low approval rating of EU leaders is clearly linked to Orban’s constant battle with the EU. Brussels has taken long-overdue measures to punish Hungary’s illiberal leader for dismantling democratic checks and balances and silencing independent media, as well as rampant corruption. The conflict escalated last year over the bloc’s new rule-of-law mechanism, which risks cutting off EU funds vital for the economy.

All stations East

As he has become increasingly isolated in the EU, Orban has sought new allies in the East, forging strong political ties with Russia and China. Economically, the Opening to the East strategy has failed, as 80% of Hungary’s trade is still with its EU neighbours. But the strategy is important in propaganda terms because it can persuade voters that Hungary is playing a major global role, and that it has other options apart from the EU.

This shift towards the east is typical of the way Orban has changed course throughout his political career. He was a liberal, anti-Communist leader in 1988, later he moved to the centre-right, but after a sweeping victory in 2010 he shifted to the radical right and began to build up an illiberal regime.

As an opposition leader, he lashed out at Russian aggression during the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. He warned of the risks of over-dependence on Russian energy and the building up of ties with Russian state energy companies such as Gazprom.

But he then began a U-turn after his first visit to the Kremlin even while an opposition leader in 2009. Hungary now makes a virtue of having ditched a value-based foreign policy in favour of striking pragmatic deals with autocratic regimes such as Russia and China.

After returning from his 13th meeting with Vladimir Putin since 2010 on February 1, the Hungarian premier boasted of the “success” of the Hungarian model during his leadership. The cooperation between Russia and Hungary as an EU and Nato member was an example that could be followed by others, he said. Orban also claimed that his February "peace mission" was a success, a claim that was quickly contradicted by the events that followed.

In the current conflict Orban has found himself in a very uncomfortable position, with calls for him to end the double game of looking east and west. The government has come under criticism by the opposition for its neutral stance and for not fully backing allies.

Western diplomats and sources close to the government interviewed by liberal news website agree that this Opening to the East policy led by Minister Peter Szijjarto will be untenable in the future.

Yet he cannot admit any new shift without losing face, analysts said, and that is why he will continue the "peacock dance", an approach designed to appease critics with only cosmetic policy changes.

So far Orban has condemned Russia’s military intervention and stood by Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and has belatedly offered Ukrainian refugees help. But unlike his EU or V4 peers, he has not come down hard on the Kremlin. While Hungary’s V4 partners were calling for more and tougher sanctions, he has only grudgingly accepted the EU’s list of sanctions, including cutting off Russia from SWIFT, and only because he feared the backlash if he broke the bloc’s unity. 

But he has made it clear that energy issues, including Rosatom’s expansion of the Paks nuclear power plant (Paks II), must be left out of the sanctions list. Maintaining ties with Russia on the energy front is vital for Orban as Hungary relies on cheap Russian gas to keep household prices low, and is dependent on Russian technology to expand Paks. The government froze retail electricity prices in 2013 and keeping the bills low are key parts of Orban’s re-election campaign.

Man of peace

Fidesz’s spin doctors have now come up with a new communication strategy to make the best of Orban’s uncomfortable position, by portraying him as the leader who wants to keep Hungary out of the military conflict. According to sources close to Fidesz, the party is trying to bridge the division within its voter base by emphasising "neutrality" and the desire for "peace".

Orban is depicted as a leader who provides security, in contrast with the opposition, which wants to drag the country into war by sending weapons and soldiers to Ukraine.

Orban has imposed a ban on the transit of arms to Ukraine through Hungary after reports that a Hungarian-flag carrier took part in an operation delivering arms from the Netherlands to Poland. This stance angered Nato and EU allies, but is backed by a two-thirds majority of voters.

The government has also ruled out accepting the stationing of Nato troops on its territory, unlike ruling Slovakia, where accepting foreign troops is also unpopular, given both countries’ experience of Russian military invasion and occupation when they were members of the Warsaw Pact.

The government’s propaganda machine has unleashed an attack on Peter Marki-Zay, taking comments by the opposition’s alliance joint prime ministerial candidate out of context. Marki-Zay has not ruled out sending Hungarian soldiers and weapons to help Ukraine, but only if requested by Nato.

It remains to be seen how this game will play out among the undecided, analysts said. A recent Median opinion poll indicates that the ruling Fidesz party widened its lead at the end of February, but that is was still within the 4pp margin of error. A Republikon poll showed that 48% of decided voters would vote for Fidesz and 46% for the six-party alliance

Polls also show that many disenchanted pro-Russian Fidesz voters could now pick pro-Kremlin radical rightwing Our Homeland party, with has 3-4% support, close to the 5% threshold to enter parliament.

A recent poll by Opinion showed that 60% of people thought the prime minister’s close relations with Putin impeded him from taking a tougher stance against Russia. But the same poll showed that some 72% think Hungary should keep an equal distance from Ukraine and Russia, and 69% agree with the ban on the transfer of arms.

The opposition should take into account voters’ desire for peace and stability, Torok noted, saying comments by Marki-Zay that Orban is responsible for the war could be counter-productive. The quest for stability amid turbulent times generally helps the incumbent, he added.