Hungary flirts with Russia amid Ukraine invasion

“Oil may come from the East, but freedom always comes from the West,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in a speech in 2007. 

Orbán — who then served as Hungary’s opposition leader – was criticizing the Hungarian government for falling back into “Moscow’s orbit” after a proposed gas deal with Russia. Now, 15 years later, Orbán is doing exactly what he once so vehemently opposed.

Orbán has long had a reputation as an extreme opportunist in Hungarian politics. He first drew national attention in 1998 when he demanded that Soviet troops leave the country as the head of the Alliance of Young Democrats, a liberal student activist movement. Orbán has transformed that same party into Fidesz, a national-conservative populist group whose government Orbán has described as a “Christian illiberal democracy.” 

Now, years after he made his name calling for the removal of Russian troops in his own post-Soviet country, Orbán has placed himself firmly on Putin’s side as Russia continues its incursion into neighboring Ukraine.

With Hungary a member of both the EU and of NATO, Orbán’s close relationship with Putin could prove difficult as NATO forces gather in Eastern Europe. Hungary has been a thorn in the side of the EU since Orbán came to power in 2010, repeatedly strengthening ties with Russia — even as the rest of the EU distances itself. After the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, many EU members were hesitant to continue bilateral talks with Putin, but Orbán invited him to Budapest. This relationship continues to the present: as tensions between Russia and the EU increase, Orbán and Putin met to discuss expansions on a 15-year gas contract Hungary made with a Russian energy company in September.

The additions to the gas deal proposed by Orbán would see Hungary further dependent on Russia, which already supplies 80% of the country’s gas. While the exact details of the new deal have not yet been released, Putin claims that Hungary is receiving the gas at one-fifth of the European price while experts estimate the price at around market price. Hungary has also been working with Russia since 2014 to increase its nuclear power supply, planning for the construction of two new nuclear plants funded by an $11.3 billion loan from a Russian state bank. 

Last month, Orbán spoke on Hungarian public radio of his plans to strengthen economic ties in the tourism, food industry, and space research sectors. While Orbán claims that the restored relations between Hungary and Russia are in an effort to bridge the gap between East and West, economic factors may be playing an outsized role.

Orbán is essentially selling Hungary’s position as a member of both the EU and NATO to Putin, using Russia’s lack of allies in western Europe as a bargaining chip for cheap gas and nuclear power.

Domestically, Orbán justifies his actions by playing on historical tensions between Ukraine and Hungary. Controversy over the national treatment of the Hungarian minority in western Ukraine and Hungary’s support of Russia after the annexation of Crimea has soured relations between the two countries. A 2017 language law that prevented minority languages such as Hungarian from being taught in schools and a 2018 military base constructed in an ethnic Hungarian village in Ukraine led the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs to threaten to block future efforts to integrate Ukraine into the EU if Hungarian concerns weren’t addressed. The previously mentioned 2021 gas deal between Hungary and Russia also increased tensions between the two countries as it bypassed Ukraine and would deprive the country of transit fees on Russian gas. 

Ukraine and Hungary’s complicated history set Orbán to take advantage of the current crisis in order to publicly demonstrate his commitment as Putin’s ally within the EU.

In April, Orbán will face what is projected to be the closest re-election race of his career. For the past 12 years, he has been positioning Hungary as Russia’s key ally within the EU and NATO. Whether or not Orbán is reelected will likely be determined by the outcomes of the Ukraine crisis. While Orbán has pushed for a peaceful agreement to be reached by the two countries, Russian aggression in Ukraine will undoubtedly influence Hungarians voters. Whether or not Orbán’s commitment to Putin will win him support in the April elections depends on how the situation in Ukraine develops. Facing a unified opposition, Orbán will have to justify the political and economic dependence Hungary now places on Putin’s Russia. 

This reelection could see Hungarians steering their country in a new direction or, as Orbán put it, plunging Hungary deeper into “Moscow’s orbit.”

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