VISEGRAD BLOG: Orban should hold the champagne just yet

VISEGRAD BLOG: Orban should hold the champagne just yet
Viktor Orban (left) congratulated Robert Fico (right) for his bigger than expected election victory on September 30. / Viktor Orban/X
By Robert Anderson in Prague October 2, 2023

Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban has looked a forlorn figure since his triumphant re-election in April last year for a fourth consecutive term. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has left him isolated as President Vladimir Putin’s only remaining supporter in the European Union, and divided him even from his ally Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Poland. The Visegrad Group (V4) of Central European countries, which he often used as his megaphone in Europe, was silenced.

Yet the likely re-election of leftwing populist Robert Fico as Slovakia’s new prime minister on Saturday offers a ray of hope for the Hungarian radical right-wing strongman.

“Guess who’s back!” Orban said on the social media X on Sunday. "Congratulations to Robert Fico on his undisputable victory at the Slovak parliamentary elections. Always good to work together with a patriot. Looking forward to it!

Orban could even receive more good news in two weeks if Kaczynski’s Law and Justice is re-elected for an unprecedented third consecutive term.

"This dark alliance of Fico, Kaczynski and Orban is something that Brussels should be afraid of,” Michal Vasecka, head of the Bratislava Policy Institute think-tank, told a recent VOICEE webcast.

Despite their ostensible ideological differences and Slovakia’s sometimes tense relations with Hungary, Fico admires Orban and has copied parts of his playbook.

Like Orban, Fico has made the “illegal migration” scare a key part of his rhetoric. In his first press conference after the election on Sunday, the Smer leader said it would be necessary to use force to suppress "illegal" migration, which has been on the rise in recent weeks. "They won't be pretty pictures," he warned. Under Fico, Slovakia would be likely to refuse to accept refugees reallocated from Mediterranean countries.

He has also tried to stoke culture war, accusing Progressive Slovakia, which came second at the election, with backing Western European gender politics that are alien to Slovakia’s Catholic traditions. He has said of his own party, “Smer is a left-wing, social-democratic party, we use the expression that we are of the rustic type, more down-to-earth, we are not Brussels homosexuals".

On Russia, Fico has also often criticised sanctions on Moscow and called for “peace now”, even though that is likely to reward Putin’s aggression. He could join with Orban to oppose further punitive measures against Moscow.

Fico has also been a critic of Ukraine, expressed scepticism of its Nato ambitions, and he has threatened to cut off military aid to Kyiv – though this is largely empty rhetoric as Bratislava has already emptied its military depots of old Soviet materiel. He said on Sunday, “People in Slovakia have bigger problems than Ukraine.”

If he becomes premier he is, however, unlikely to stop Slovak arms companies from making a good business selling arms that end up in the hands of Ukraine’s troops. “He will not stop his business backers from making money by supplying Ukraine,” says Milan Nic, senior fellow at the German Council of Foreign Relations (DGAP).

In Brussels, Fico could also be an ally in the war Orban and Kaczynski are fighting against the European Commission. This could make it much more much difficult for the European Union to move towards majority voting and to reach deals by the end of the year on an increase to the bloc’s budget, a new agreement on rules governing member-state budgets, a decision on beginning accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova and the formal implementation of a new system for handling asylum seekers and migrants.

Nevertheless, analysts bne IntelliNews talked to in Bratislava last month suggested that Orban should hold the champagne for now. To achieve a majority, Fico will have to form a coalition with the more moderate centre-left Hlas party of his former colleague Robert Pellegrini, who will want to restrain any radical shift in Slovakia’s foreign policy.

Moreover, Fico has little interest in foreign policy and is unlikely to deliberately choose to antagonise the Commission, as Orban often appears to. In his three previous governments Fico has appointed diplomats as his foreign minister and left most of his inflammatory comments for domestic audiences. It is even possible that Smer would give Hlas the foreign ministry, with former diplomat and Hlas MP Peter Kmec seen as a strong potential candidate.

Fico also has good reasons not to pick a fight with Brussels, which may restrain any “Orbanisation” of Slovakia through interference in the country’s police, prosecution service and judiciary or attacks on independent media and NGOs.

Slovakia’s economy is forecast to grow just 1% this year by the EBRD and the current technocrat government predicts a budget deficit of close to 7% of GDP, which would be the largest in the EU. If Slovakia were to have EU funds suspended like Hungary or Poland, this would not just hurt economic sentiment but it could also create a big hole in the government’s budget.

This blog first appeared on bne IntelliNews's Editor's Picks. To sign up for the daily Editor's Picks newsletter, please click here.