VISEGRAD BLOG: Cold shower for Orban

VISEGRAD BLOG: Cold shower for Orban
Viktor Orban's meeting with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin (right) last week sparked outrage. / bne IntelliNews
By Robert Anderson in Prague October 23, 2023

Hungarian radical right-wing premier Viktor Orban received a cold shower from the recent elections in Poland, while the Slovak result offered cold comfort.

In Slovakia the elections were won by populist leftist leader Robert Fico, an Orban admirer, who could form his fourth government this week.  While in Poland, Donald Tusk, leader of Poland’s centre-right and a firm Orban critic, looks set to put together his third government before Christmas, even though Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s radical right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), Orban’s allies, came first.

The Polish result leaves the Hungarian strongman looking even more isolated in the European Union (EU) as the only truly committed opponent of Brussels, as well as the only ally of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin in the bloc. The elections simply mean Orban is losing a strong ally in Poland and gaining a less reliable smaller one in Slovakia.

The results confirmed that Orban’s grand hopes of a radical right-wing surge in Europe were misplaced. Even the election of Georgia Meloni as Italian prime minister has proved to be a big disappointment, as she has tacked to the centre and continued to strongly back Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Orban’s Fidesz party remains without a  group in the European Parliament (EP) after quitting the centre-right European People’s Party just before it was about to be expelled for trashing European values. The Hungarian leader has been unable to form a new stronger group from among the EP’s feuding nationalists and populists.

While Poland under Tusk is expected to move fast to repair bridges with Brussels, Orban’s conflict over fundamental values with the EU looks set to continue, even if Hungary is able to secure the release of some frozen EU funds if Brussels follows a naïve box-ticking approach.

Hungary’s rotating presidency of the European Council in the second half of next year will therefore be an embarrassing exercise in futility. Eurocrats are reportedly fretting over the security risks of Hungary taking over the presidency. Western security agencies already are said to refuse to share secrets with Budapest because of Orban’s Russian ties and Moscow’s infiltration of his regime.

Silenced megaphone

In the past Orban has been able to play an outsized role in the EU because he was allowed to use the Visegrad Group (V4) of Central European states as his megaphone. But the group has been moribund since Hungary refused to support Ukraine after the Russian invasion, while Poland, Czechia and Slovakia were among the strongest backers of Kyiv.

The deadlock in the V4 will not change with Tusk eventually replacing PiS premier Mateusz Morawiecki, and Fico succeeding Slovakia’s caretaker technocrat premier Ludovit Odor.  

Tusk was a longstanding critic of Orban as head of the European Council and will offer him no favours as Polish premier. He will likely withdraw Poland’s blanket protection of Hungary, for instance its implicit pledge to veto any withdrawal of voting rights from Budapest under Article 7 of the Treaty on the European Union.

However, Tusk is unlikely to want to become emtangled in such disputes, as he will have to focus on domestic policy and solving Poland’s own disputes with Brussels.

As for Slovakia, like Orban, Fico has also blamed Ukraine for the Russian invasion, pledged to stop military aid, criticised sanctions on Moscow and called for peace talks now. But for the Slovak populist this is just rhetoric for domestic consumption, rather than part of an ideological crusade, as it is for Orban.

Fico has a reputation for saying one thing at home but another thing in Brussels, rarely going out on a limb. It is doubtful that Fico would join Orban on the barricades on Ukraine if it involved any significant political costs. His pledge to halt Slovak military aid is an empty one as Slovakia has already given all its usable spare heavy weapons and jets.

Some argue that Fico is now a changed man after being forced from power by huge demonstrations in 2018, and that this time around he will act as Orban’s new shield man in Europe. The nomination for foreign minister of Juraj Blanar, a Smer MP who opposes aid for Ukraine, rather than another diplomat, might indicate that Fico will indeed take a tougher line.

Yet Slovakia is much more closely integrated with the EU as part of the Eurozone, and Fico’s government will be desperate for EU aid to help fund investment to revive a flagging economy at a time when the budget coffers are empty.  Optimists therefore hope Fico will be pragmatic and seek allies, rather than fighting Orban’s battles in Brussels.

Point scoring

Nevertheless, Orban’s Hungary will continue to see eye to eye with the rest of the V4 on many issues, notably on migration, climate change and protecting states’ vetoes, though they will be trying to reach solutions to these problems, while he will simply be point scoring.

Also, though Poland, Czechia and Slovakia all support EU accession for Ukraine, they are also worried about what this will mean for their agricultural subsidies and cohesion funds, so their differences on this with Hungary may narrow in the future. Ukrainian membership of the EU would mean Czechia at least would become a net contributor to the EU, and possibly Poland too.

Orban can afford to take a long view of all these international shifts as he has hollowed out Hungarian democracy so thoroughly that it is extremely difficult for the opposition to win.  In his rather ludicrous and grandiloquent way, Orban argues that the EU is a bloc in inexorable decline, and that Hungary, as a supposedly middle-ranking power, has to therefore broaden its network of allies.

He has built close ties with Putin’s Russia and  Xi Jinping’s China, holding meetings with both leaders at the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit in Beijing last week. He has also tried to expand Hungarian influence in the Western Balkans, partly through corporate takeovers, and beyond into the South Caucasus, Israel and Central Asia.

How much this all amounts to is debatable. Yet Orban can always wait for other elections to go his way. Austria could elect a Freedom Party led government next autumn, which could give him more cover to continue his guerrilla campaign against Brussels. And of course the whole international picture could change radically if Donald Trump is re-elected as US president next November.