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A Hungarian Hero of the Kremlin who Understands Vladimir Putin “in Particular“

In the elections held in Hungary at the beginning of April, the ruling Fidesz Party and its indispensable leader Viktor Orban won a constitutional majority in Parliament for the fourth time (since 2010), and winning 135 of 199 seats. The victory means that Vladimir Putin’s most important friend in Europe will rule for at least four more years, for a total of at least 16 years.

Viktor Orban was 24 years old when, in 1988 he became the founder of the first opposition party, the Alliance of Young Democrats (Fidesz for short) still in the socialist Hungary. At the age of 26, he won fame  when he told a crowd of 200,000 in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square during the burial of Imre Nadis and other Hungarian politicians killed after the 1956 uprising drowned in Soviet blood: (…) We can elect a government that will immediately negotiate the withdrawal of the Russian army from our country!”

In January 1990, the former Communist Party secretary and graduate of the Budapest University Law School abandoned his internship at Oxford’s Pembroke College in favour of participating in the first free elections. He earned the opportunity for one-year internship as a liberal by receiving a scholarship from the Open Society Foundation of the financier and philanthropist George Soros in 1989.

Fidesz then got 9% of the vote. In the 1994 elections, the representatives of the liberal, “green”, slightly anarchist party, Therenius, with 7%, spotted a “vacant” seat on the right flank of Hungarian politics and started to rebrand themselves as conservatives.

Even at the beginning of his career, political values did not seem very important to Viktor Orban.

The tactic worked, and in the 1998 elections Fidesz already won 29% of the vote. Its 30-year-old leader became the youngest Prime Minister in the history of Hungary. He regained the premiership from the Social Democrats in 2010 and has not relinquished it since.

Money from European Union (EU) funds, which has helped the country’s economic growth, helped Viktor Orban to build his political empire. EU funds account for 4% of Hungary’s GDP and the government is vigilant to ensure that they reach the business structures close to the Prime Minister.

Systemic corruption is an exceptional feature of the political system created by Viktor Orban. As Julia Kiraly, former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Hungary, points out that business companies associated with the Prime Minister and his entourage control around 30% of the country’s GDP.

The state media serves the ruling party that was “fed” with 130 billion forints from the national budget in 2022. There are also around 500 media companies that have been acquired by Fidesz-loyal businessmen over the years.

According to a report by K-Monitor, a non-commercial organisation that investigates corruption, Transparency International and the analytical centre Political Capital, Fidesz spent 3.1 billion forints (EUR 8.4 billion) on advertising in March, which is three times more than the statutory limit.

On the other hand, Viktor Orban is a truly charismatic politician. Journalist Gergő Plankó: “Since the 1990s, a great deal of work has been done to build a myth about himself and his party.” For example, since the first pro-government “Peace March” was organized in 2012 and since then they have been held annually, attracting hundreds of thousands of participants, and have acquired the status of a ritual.

If at the beginning of his career he resembled the current President of France Emmanuel Macron and was not well liked by the majority, Viktor Orban has changed his appearance and manner of speaking in the cause of a credible “average” Hungarian. According to Andras Tot-Cifra, a fellow at the Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington, he now positions himself as a witty, politically incorrect bully, which impresses many Hungarians. A comparison could be made with the Russian provinces, where such characters are also popular.

According to Tot-Cifra, there are problems in Hungary as in Russia, with the teaching of history and historical education, and Hungarians think of themselves as victims of other countries (Ottoman, Habsburg empires) throughout the history. Viktor Orban is playing on these “strings””.

The portrayal of Brussels not as the EU (according to polls, around 80% of Hungarians support EU membership), but as a bureaucratic power that is hostile to Hungary, allegedly seeking to “bend” Hungarians matches this algorithm very well.

A fragment from Viktor Orban’s 2018 election speech: ‘We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. It is not visible but hidden, not outspoken but cunning, not honourable but without principles, not national but international. He has no homeland, but he seems to rule the whole world.”

In 2007, Viktor Orban strongly criticised the decision of the Social Democrats, who were in power at the time, to support the Russian pipeline South Stream, calling it a betrayal of Hungary. He said that the younger generation supporting Fidesz must not allow Hungary to turn into the most cheerful barrack of the Russian Gazprom concern (a paraphrase of the Soviet saying about Hungary being the most cheerful barrack of the Soviet camp).

Things changed in November 2009, when Viktor Orban attended the congress of the Russian ruling party United Russia in St Petersburg.

There are various explanations for the “transformation” (from the possibility of the Kremlin blackmailing the Hungarian Prime Minister to the desire of Viktor Orban to seek alternative EU markets in the East), but the fact is that the Prime Minister of Hungary gone from being a fierce critic of the Kremlin to being one of the most consistent of Vladimir Putin’s “understanders”.

Not only the master of the Kremlin.

On 13 August 2020, envoys of the EU members laid flowers at the Pushkinskaya metro station in Minsk, where about 1,500 people chanted “Spasibo!” and “Dziakuj!”.

It is an open question whether the Hungarian Ambassador laid flowers with his colleagues. Probably he did. His country did not block the Community’s earlier statement condemning Aliaksandr Lukashenka regime, but the day before the debate of Ministers of Foreign Affairs on sanctions imposed on Belarus, Budapest was already calling for no condemnation of the ostracism of the Belarusian dictator.

On the occasion of Viktor Orban’s first visit to Minsk at the beginning of June 2020, the Belarusian authoritarian did not miss the opportunity to declare that Hungary is the EU’s closest partner and to threaten that Belarus and Hungary would react harshly to foreign pressure over their nuclear programmes.

We are talking about projects implemented by Rostom – Astravets nuclear power plant in Belarus and the installation of two new power units at the Packs nuclear power plant in Hungary. The agreement to modernise the latter was signed in December 2014, when Russia was already under Western sanctions for the annexation of Crimea.

In Minsk, Viktor Orban “in turn” encouraged the Community to lift sanctions imposed on Minsk regarding violations of human rights, which have already turned into a “bloodbath” three months after his visit.

There is, however, mysticism about the seemingly inestimable benefits of cooperation with Russia: according to Julia Kiraly, a share of Russia in Hungary’s foreign trade is only 2-3%. In contrast, the share of Russia in the investment portfolio of Hungary’s state-owned bank EXIM is estimated to be between 60% and 80%.

Maybe the story is more about systematic corruption.

Dependence of Hungary on Russian energy resources is unequivocal, because the Prime Minister, unlike many of his colleagues in Eastern and Central Europe, is simply not looking for an alternative. Hungarian oil refineries can only work with Russian crude and the country is 100% dependent on the natural gas of Russia.

Back to values.

In a video address on 24 February, Viktor Orban said that his country, together with its EU and NATO allies, condemns the attack of Moscow, but also said that the government will take care of its citizens first. Hungary does not have a veto over sanctions imposed on Russia in the EU. Instead, it is standing up against the energy embargo on Moscow.

There are some nuances that are only apparent in the details. The Hungarian official media are more often neutral about actions of Russia in Ukraine, presenting the war as a ‘disaster’ without cause. It happens to repeat Russian propaganda phrases: for example, when political analysts close to Fidesz claim that the Russians are saving the Ukrainians; or when they compare Volodymyr Zelensky to Adolf Hitler.

Speaking at a rally of his supporters after his victory in this year elections, Viktor Orban said that the Hungarians in the “minority” had to overcome an extremely large consolidated force: the Hungarian and international left-wing, the Brussels bureaucrats, the money of the George Soros Empire, the international media, the President of Ukraine, who appeared to be Viktor Orban’s opponent.

Above all, however, the subject of George Soros, on whose money the young ‘liberal’ Viktor Orban was once given the opportunity of an internship at Oxford.

“The Open Society“Budapest office closed in May 2018. According to Mikhail Ignatieff, the rector of the Central European University, who finally failed to withstand the pressure and moved to Vienna from Budapest in 2019 (the philanthropist has spent EUR 420 million on it), Viktor Orban government has decided to turn George Soros into an enemy number one.

The BBC offers an excursion back to 2013, when the Fidesz leader needed advice on how to get re-elected. The advice came from Arthur Finkelstein, a political consultant in New York State who has worked for US Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush Sr. and Donald Trump. It is his opinion that the word ‘liberal’ has become a dirty word in politics.

Arthur Finkelstein repeated that there is no need to go to war with Al Qaeda, only with Osama bin Laden personally. In other words, he recommended the personalisation of politics, which is why he proposed George Soros as an ideal case for Viktor Orban, who is hated as a Jew by the far right and as a capitalist by the far left wing.

Ironically, Arthur Finkelstein himself was a Jew.

Viktor Orban spoke of Volodymyr Zelensky as an opponent on the same day that the world was in shock following the publication from Buche, which was liberated by the Ukrainian army. The press service of the Prime Minister of Hungary rushed to assure him “after the fact” that their patron also condemned the killings in Buche.

On the other hand.

The Prime Minister of Hungary set off for Moscow (on 1 February) on the same day as the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom (UK), the Netherlands and Poland paid a solidarity visit to Kiev. The Russian President referred to the Hungarian Prime Minister’s significant contribution to the interests of Russia and Hungary and expressed his hope that things would continue in the same direction.

Understanding can and should be monetised, with the Kremlin talks promising Hungary a USD 2 billion credit for the construction of a railway that will passing the capital, Budapest.

According to Alexei Kozharsky, a research fellow at Charles University in Prague and Comenius University in Bratislava, Viktor Orban has a reputation as a rational, highly cynical politician, so we can hardly believe in his bouts of Russophilia.

This cynical pragmatism was signalled, for example, by the plans of the Prime Minister of Hungary, made public on 28 January, to consult the EU and NATO on international security issues before his meeting with Vladimir Putin.

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Hungary Peter Szijjártó, who announced his leader’s visit to Moscow at the end of December, called year 2021 the most fruitful year of cooperation between Hungary and Russia. He was many expectations for 2022, mentioning the construction of the Packs power plant, the possibility for Hungarians to produce the Russian COVID vaccine Sputnik V and the supply of Hungarian agricultural products to Russia.

According to the political analyst, the author of the book “The Anatomy of a Post-Communist Mafia State. The Case of Hungary”, Bálint Magyar, it is crazy to think that Viktor Orban wants to pull ties with the EU when he can even blackmail the Community with ties to openly authoritarian regimes – not only the Russian leader, but also the Presidents of Turkey and Azerbaijan Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ilham Aliyev.

In the context of the current tragic events, it is nevertheless strange to read the US State Department’s statement on 24 October on the 65th anniversary of the Hungarian anti-communist uprising of 1956, when, according to official statistics, 2,652 rebels died, 348 civilians were killed, and around 200,000 Hungarians emigrated to the West: “We remember the brave men and women who fought for freedom on the streets of Budapest. The quest for freedom became a reality in 1989 when Hungary became a democratic country.”

In 2006, Vladimir Putin made something similar to an apology to the Hungarians: “We understand and feel the moral-ethical aspects of 1956.” And he laid a wreath at the memorial to the victims of the 1956 revolution. In 2015, he was already laying flowers at the memorial to the Soviet soldiers who fought the uprising.

Klára Dobrev, a Hungarian opposition politician of Bulgarian origin and Vice-President of the European Parliament, points out that Viktor Orban is following the same path as Vladimir Putin, not because the Hungarians or the Russians are special, but because, unfortunately, democratic forces are not enough to stop the unscrupulous and indiscriminate politicians.

Arūnas Spraunius

 

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