Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the EU, has failed to call out the Russian invasion as aggression, instead stressing that Hungary must stay out of the military conflict. Orban is in a precarious situation as he faces a tight election in less than six weeks and has made Hungary dependent on Russian energy and nuclear technology.
"What matters most to us is the security of the Hungarian people," he said in a short message posted on Facebook, after an extraordinary session of the National Security Operative Corps. No details were published of the meeting.
"Sending either troops or military equipment to Ukraine was out of the question, though we will, of course, provide humanitarian aid,” Orban said, reflecting on comments by Peter Marki-Zay, the prime ministerial candidate of the united opposition, who hinted that if he was in power, he would comply with Nato's request to help Ukraine with guns and even with troops.
Orban claimed the opposition's proposals would endanger Hungary's gas and energy supplies and the utility price cuts.
Hungary’s strongman, who was a guest of the Kremlin just three weeks ago and hailed his trip as being on a peace mission, has been one of the last EU leaders to condemn Russia’s invasion. It was just a short comment in his Facebook video and did not go beyond that, unlike his V4 or EU peers, who used strong words to denounce Russia’s military action.
The government's communication showed signs of wavering, as a Facebook post well into the morning was talking just about a "military operation in Ukraine". The pro-government press still echoed the pro-Russian stance when the conflict started. Defence Minister Tibor Benko on Wednesday evening basically repeated the Russian position on the two breakaway regions, blaming Ukraine for the threat of war.
Just a couple of days ago, Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto was talking about the need to tone down the hysteria, referring to US and Nato warnings about a possible Russian attack. On the morning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he posted from Bahrain, saying war was the worst-case scenario and the task now is to ensure the security of all Hungarians
Political analysts say Orban is treading a careful line as he is under pressure to supports sanctions imposed by the EU, but also being closely aligned with Moscow, he has a lot to lose economically if they are too strong. Stressing the importance of energy supply and maintaing low gas prices was clearly a message to voters before the April 3rd elections.
Fidesz' base also remains predominantly pro-Russian and by condemning Putin with harsh worlds, he risks losing voters to radical rightwing Our Homeland, which is just barely below the 5% ceiling.
Orban went to Moscow on the first day of February to hammer out a deal to increase Russian gas supplies by 1 bcm to 5.5 bcm, but no agreement was reached. Hungary signed a 15-year contract with Gazprom in October.
The expansion of the Paks power plant could be in jeopardy if Russian businesses are hard-hit by sanctions. The main constructor of the project, Rosatom, has failed to receive the final permit for building two 1,200 MW blocks and the €12.5bn investment is five to six years behind schedule. VTB, the bank financing the €10bn loan, is on the sanction list.
Opposition parties criticised Orban for "his refusal to condemn the war started by Russia" and the steps taken by Putin "even when the lives of Transcarpathian Hungarians are in danger". An estimated 150,000 ethnic Hungarians live in the western part of the country.
Hungary has attacked Ukraine’s education law for being discriminatory, creating a bitter dispute between the two countries. Hungary has blocked Ukraine’s talks on Nato accession unless Kiev changes the regulations.
"As a member of the EU and Nato, Orban should condemn Putin's aggression against Ukraine and join EU sanctions against Russia by suspending the expansion of the Paks power plant and expel with immediate effect the Russian spy bank", Marki-Zay said on Thursday, referring to Budapest-based International Investment Bank (IIB), which moved its HQ from Moscow in 2019.
The opposition alliance is planning a rally in a show of solidary for Ukraine in front of the Russian embassy in Budapest.
Hungarian authorities, churches, and charity groups are preparing for the flood of refugees. Traffic has jammed up at the half dozen border crossings on the 130km long border with Ukraine, with a waiting time of one to two hours, according to police reports from the late afternoon.