Orban and Fico herald new era in Hungarian-Slovak relations

Orban and Fico herald new era in Hungarian-Slovak relations
Viktor Orban (right) said Slovak-Hungarian relations – which have often been rocky – have never been better. / bne IntelliNews
By Albin Sybera January 18, 2024

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico’s official visit to Budapest to meet his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban on January 16 has demonstrated that the Hungarian strongman may indeed have found a new ally to replace the recent loss of Poland, following the election defeat of the Law and Justice (PiS) government.

Orban said Slovak-Hungarian relations – which have often been rocky – have never been better, while Fico, in only his second official foreign trip since his election victory in September, pledged that his government would never support any proposals to take away the European Union voting rights of Hungary, which is "fighting for its sovereignty and interests". 

This would mean current attempts by some European Parliamentary politicians to push the European Council to use the Article 7 procedure over Hungary’s violation of EU values will be stillborn, as this requires unanimity. Once isolated Hungary can now count on a Slovak veto, even as it may have lost Poland’s following the change of government last month after October’s general election there.

The press conference of the two premiers also confirmed that they share the same vision on migration, the war in Ukraine, the question of “sovereignty” in EU voting rules, and cooperation among the Visegrad Group (V4) countries of Central Europe, which Orban has tried to use in the past to promote his policies inside the EU.

European leaders will now be asking themselves whether the new Budapest-Bratislava axis will enable Orban to continue to be so obstructive in EU discussions, particularly when it comes to the Ukraine war, where the Hungarian premier acts as Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the EU. Unlike the former PiS government but like Orban, Fico is also sceptical about the efficacy of sanctions on Russia and calls for peace now, and his new government, also like Orban’s, refuses to make donations of defence equipment to Kyiv.

The Hungarian premier blocked a planned €50bn four-year aid package for Ukraine at last month’s European Council summit. The EU will try again to win approval for the package, which requires unanimity, at the next summit on February 1. 

Hungarian media are already expecting great things of the two leaders’ bromance. Pro-government English language outlet Hungary Today wrote recently that “Hungary and Slovakia are ready to enter the best chapter of cooperation between the two countries in the coming years”.

Unlikely bedfellows

Fico and Orban are unlikely bedfellows, if only because they come from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Fico declares himself a socialist (though his Smer party has been suspended from the PES European grouping because of his coalition with the far-right SNS party and his stance on the Ukraine war), while Orban sees himself as the leader of Europe’s radical right.

Slovakia and Hungary have also had a troubled relationship stemming from Budapest’s  domination of “Upper Hungary” for 1,000 years until 1918, and its frequent attempts since to speak out on behalf of Slovakia’s half a million ethnic Hungarians, who mainly live just across the Danube.

Slovak national identity was, in the words of political scientist Tim Haughton, “the dominant axis of competition” on which Vladimir Meciar, the country’s first premier, based his dominance of Slovak politics following the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993.  In the 1990s the Slovak public sphere was filled with nationalist shouts such as “speak Slovak in Slovakia” and “send Hungarians over the Danube”.

“It was unthinkable in the 1990s that a Slovak leading nationalist such as [Andrej] Danko of SNS would support Hungarian politicians,” Zsolt Gal, a Slovak-Hungarian lecturer at the Comenius University in Bratislava, told bne Intellinews in an interview.

But the Hungarian issue in Slovak politics has since become less heated, and Fico has increasingly moved closer to Orban in his populist views and authoritarian methods. The Slovak leader, who has become an open admirer of Orban’s success at maintaining power since 2010, has adopted his playbook, both in terms of campaigning on themes such as tougher measures against migration, and in the way he has moved quickly since the election to consolidate his power by replacing key officials and targeting liberal media and NGOs.

There is now little real divergence in the two leaders’ political outlook despite their supposed ideological differences, with both emphasising nationalism at home and “sovereignty” abroad, or the freedom to hollow out democracy without interference from the EU.

Therefore when Fico's Smer formed a coalition with its breakaway party, the centre-left Hlas, and the far-right SNS last October, Danko described the coalition as bringing together left-wing and far-right parties “united by Christian nationalist policy”.

Danko’s words were echoed by Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Peter Szijjarto, who welcomed Fico’s cabinet, describing it as “a patriotic government in the neighbouring country, committed to the national interest and pursuing a sovereign policy”, when he visited Bratislava in November.

Growing convergence

This convergence between Orban’s Fidesz party and Fico’s Smer is shown by the frequency of high-profile meetings between party officials. After the Budapest meeting, Orbán told the  press conference that since 2012 he and Fico had met 33 times. “Maybe that’s a European record,” he said.

A Slovak academic residing in Hungary, who wished to stay anonymous, told bne IntelliNews “I am convinced that Smer and Fidesz have been cooperating at least on the level of inspiration on a long-term basis”.

This academic adds that it is quite possible that the latest political campaigns of Smer and Fidesz were supervised by “identical people”, pointing out “the remarkable similarity” between the two campaigns, which “in the Slovak conditions often turned even comical”.

Gal also argues that towards the end of the election campaign, “Fidesz people operated in Slovakia, helping Smer” with its campaign.

According to the VSquare investigative news site, Orbán's main campaign strategist, Árpád Habony, as well as his main policy think-tank/advisory firm, Századvég, helped  Smer.

Hungary’s Fidesz-dominated media also gave overt support to Smer in the election campaign, according to Gal, which helped the party win support among ethnic Hungarians, who often read or watch it.

“The Hungarian state media empire was able to turn the Slovak Hungarian electorate” and “it looks like Fico collected voters also from Aliancia”, says Gal. This ethnic Hungarian party consequently finished below the 5% threshold necessary to enter the parliament.

“It was absolutely clear” that the state-linked media in Hungary were leaning towards Fico during the campaign, Adam Kolozsi, a seasoned journalist at an independent Hungarian outlet !!444!!!  told bne IntelliNews.   

Hungary may also helped Smer by releasing 2,000 people traffickers before the election and deliberately relaxing its otherwise tough stand on what it describes as “illegal migration”.   The flow of refugees from Hungary  soared during the peak of the Slovak election campaign, backing up Smer’s propaganda.

“There is no doubt that Fico benefited from so many refugees appearing in the Slovak-Hungarian borderlands all of a sudden,” Gal observes, adding that “there needed not to be any formal agreement on this” between Fico and Orban.

After the final results made it clear Smer would be able to form the government, daily Magyar Nemzet, which describes itself as a “conservative newspaper close to the current Hungarian government led by Viktor Orban”, wrote that Fico’s incoming cabinet will be “setting Slovakia on a straight course and recalibrating the balance of power within the Visegrad Four in a way that is good for us”.  

Working together

Going forward, Hungary and Slovakia may try to promote infrastructure projects in the Hungarian-Slovak borderlands, a large part of which is separated by the Danube River.

Following a recent meeting with Slovakia’s new Minister of Regional Development Richard Rasi, Szijjarto posted on Facebook:  “We agreed to continue cross-border infrastructure development, given that the cross-border bridges and roads built in recent years have been of great help to communities along the border.”

In foreign policy, the two countries may also try to reactivate the V4 grouping of Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland, which has been moribund because of Orban’s isolation over the Ukraine war.  In Budapest, Fico vowed to put pressure on Czechia to call a V4 meeting.

“V4 and cooperation within V4 have been intentionally made dysfunctional,” Fico claimed following his meeting with Orban.

However, the stance of the other two members of the V4 may render this moot.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, who currently holds the rotating V4 Presidency, said recently that he did not see any point in holding the traditional V4 meeting before the February 1 EU summit. Poland’s new premier Donald Tusk has also been sceptical about the role of the V4, and he is expected to prioritise direct bilateral links with Germany and other big players.

Slovakia will also support Hungary on resisting changes to EU voting rules.

Fico said that the “dictate of large [countries] towards small ones” could occur if the EU agrees to limit the issues on which states can use their veto rights. 

Blocking Ukraine

On Ukraine, Fico’s and Orban’s views are close. After initially pledging "not one more bullet for Ukraine", Fico has made it clear he won't obstruct commercial military aid to Ukraine, but he and other Smer officials have continued to spread negative comments about Ukraine, much in line with Kremlin and Orban's propaganda, in an apparent effort to further alienate the Slovak public from supporting Ukraine

This is particularly visible in Fico’s incessant descriptions of Ukraine as “a corrupt country”, despite a series of scandals surrounding his own party, as recent protests in Slovak cities show.

However, it is still unclear how firm an ally Fico will be for Orban in terms of blocking EU policy on Ukraine. At last month’s European Council summit, Orban was left isolated on opposing aid for Ukraine and over the opening of accession negotiations, as Slovakia backed the EU proposals.

At the Budapest meeting, Fico appeared to change tack and said that he would support Orbán's proposals to keep the Ukraine aid package separate from the EU budget. "The Slovak government will support proposals the premier of Hungary has already put forward or will put forward," he said.

This may indicate that Slovakia will support Hungary’s push to give member states a chance to regularly question the four-year aid programme.

Yet Fico is unlikely to exercise Slovakia’s veto over Ukraine, despite his aggressive rhetoric. Consolidating his rule remains his number one priority and as long as the EU does not interfere with that, he is likely to be prepared to go along with the bloc’s Ukraine policy. However, if the EU starts to intervene to question the rule of law in Slovakia, as it has in Poland and Hungary, then he would back Orban.

“I expect Fico to trade not-blocking and not-vetoing the EU policies towards Ukraine, much like Orban, in exchange for being left alone to do what he wants at home as long as it does not shout out loud abroad too much”, says the Slovak academic in Hungary.