Viktor Orban’s dilemma: Turn toward the West or remain with Putin
Make no mistake about it. Hungary’s prime minister is a man with a vision.
At the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Viktor Orban described himself as the “leader of a country that is under the siege of progressive liberals day by day” and Hungary as “Europe’s bastion of conservative Christian values.” He sees the West as in decline but hopes to save it by substituting its current political system – “liberal democracy” – with “illiberal democracy.” Unsurprisingly, his model of good governance is Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
No less unsurprisingly, Orban’s Hungary is, as Freedom House notes, only “partly free.” Tibor Dessewffy, a fellow Hungarian and a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, stated that in Hungary’s recent parliamentary election “everything is legal but nothing is democratic … democratic institutions formally exist, but their actual functioning follows only [Orban’s] will.”
And, according to Princeton University’s Kim Scheppele, that election is confirmation that “as long as Orban retains complete control over the rules that govern elections, he can remain in power indefinitely.”
Hungary still has some way to go before it becomes Russia, but the direction is clear.
The similarities with Putin’s dictatorship are increasingly, and worrisomely, evident.
The same Hungarians who in October 1956 had the courage to rebel against the Soviet superpower now “live in a relationship of political patronage” and crony capitalism. According to Transparency International, Orban’s illiberal state has grown more corrupt with each year of his tenure, moving from a Corruption Perceptions Index score of 55 in 2012 to 42 in 2022, which makes Hungary the European Union’s most corrupt country. In comparison, Russia’s score has been around 28 since 2012.
Corruption is not all that Orban shares with Putin. They also have a common vision of their respective nations’ imperial past and “exceptionality.” Putin has bemoaned the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest political catastrophe of the 20th century and is unabashedly committed to a restoration of Russia’s imperial claims. Orban also mourns Hungary’s transformation from a great power within the Habsburg realm to a minor state. In fact, Orban has been seen wearing a scarf with a map of “Greater Hungary’s” Romanian and Ukrainian territory.
In 2020 Hungarians commemorated the 100th anniversary of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which ceded two thirds of “Greater Hungary” to a half dozen neighboring countries after Austria-Hungary’s defeat in World War I.
Twenty years later, the Kingdom of Hungary joined Adolf Hitler’s Axis powers, and, in return, recovered some of its lost territories. Orban has been unapologetic about Hungary’s alliance with Nazi Germany and, instead, has painted Hungary as a victim of the war. In similar fashion, Putin regards Russia as the victim of World War II (while conveniently overlooking the USSR’s part in Nazi Germany’s dismemberment of Poland in 1939) and as the “victim,” and not invader, of Ukraine.
Orban and Putin also share a deep-seated hostility to Ukraine. Both accuse Ukraine of seizing their historical territories: Transcarpathia in Orban’s case, and the Donbas and Crimea in Putin’s. Both have also denounced Ukraine’s language law requiring school children to be educated in the nation’s official language.
Both Hungarian and Russian diplomats have issued passports to Ukrainian citizens in blatant violation of Ukrainian law. And just as Putin continually emphasizes the illegitimacy and instability of the Ukrainian state, so, too, Orban questioned Ukraine’s statehood by labeling it a “no man’s land” and an “Afghanistan” and referring to it as “financially non-existent if funding were to stop.”
Some of Orban’s pro-Putin feelings derive from his desire to preserve and enhance Hungary’s business interests. Hungary continues to acquire 85 percent of its gas and 65 percent of its oil from Russia. Orban is also beholden to Putin for having recently extended a $13 billion loan for construction of a nuclear plant at very favorable terms.
And Orban worries about Hungary’s profitable fossil fuel holdings in Russia. Perhaps the single most revealing indication of Orban’s position on Russia and Ukraine was that when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky challenged him to choose a side, Orban responded that his demand was not in Hungary’s interest.
But there is another, more harmful, side to Orban’s pro-Russian stance. He has enabled Russia to bypass some sanctions. He has given Belarus’s self-declared president, Aleksander Lukashenko, legitimacy by having his foreign minister meet with him. He has made it clear that Hungary would not arrest accused war criminal Putin if he were to enter Hungary. He has lent credibility to the Kremlin’s most pervasive lie by insinuating that the United States pushed Russia into a war with Ukraine. And while many European countries have expelled Russian embassy staff, there is concern that Hungary is becoming Russia’s spy hub within Europe.
As many policymakers and analysts have noted, Orban poses a challenge to the integrity of the European Union and NATO. After all, Hungary’s endorsement of illiberal democracy and support of the Kremlin does not sit well with the West’s commitment to liberalism, democracy and Ukraine. Sooner or later, the West will have to make a hard choice and decide whether Hungary is part of it or Russia.
But so, too, will Orban. His support of irredentism, Putin and Russia is sustainable only as long as Putin remains in power; Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine looks like it might end in stalemate or a defeat for Russia; and the West remains undecided about Hungary. But Putin’s fate is uncertain, as more and more Russian elites realize that the war is a catastrophe for them and for their country. Russia’s chances of winning and surviving the war unscathed look increasingly dim. And the West will lose its patience with Hungary one of these days.
Orban will then face a no-win situation. If he remains Putin’s apologist, he is likely to go down with Putin’s ship. If he turns to the West, he will have to admit to having misled Hungary and the West for years. And none of the institutions and states he frustrated and disparaged are likely to forget.
Either way, Orban will lose and find a place on what the Soviets called the “ash heap of history.” The only way to snatch survival from the jaws of humiliation would be for Orban to repudiate his vision now. Ironically, an about-face of this kind might be just the thing for a populist opportunist like Hungary’s illiberal prime minister.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”
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