Thousands of people came out on Monday to protest Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Hungarian capital. The protests preceded just his second appearance in the European Union since his illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
According to estimates, over 2000 protesters converged on Budapest’s Keleti railway station to make the symbolic east-west march toward the Nyugati railway station. Attracting both those that advocate for increased ties with the European Union, as well as those opposed to the rule of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the loud crowd marched down Budapest’s lamp-lit streets to the chants of “Putin No, Europe Yes!” and “Russia Get Out!”.
The protest opposed a meeting on Tuesday between the ostracised Putin and the oscillating Orbán, who has been labelled by some critics as “Little Putin” for his progressively autocratic style of governing and his open admiration of the Russian leader. Billed by the two leaders as an economic meeting in which the primary focus would be the renewal of the Hungary-Russia gas deal, the hours-long visit was widely seen as an effort by the Russian leader to prove that he still has a friend in the EU. The question is: just how much of a friend does he have in Hungary’s Orbán?
Orban: increasingly illiberal or obdurate opportunist
By now it is no secret that Orbán has made Putin his role model in both his domestic and foreign policy agenda. By the time he made his oft-cited “illiberal democracy” speech, where he clearly explained that he is attempting to remodel Hungarian politics after such “illiberal democracies” as China, Turkey and, yes, Russia, he had already made several moves along this path.
From centralising power to limiting press freedom; from gerrymandering political districts to awarding massive non-tendered state contracts to friends and allies – it’s clear that the speech was designed more to explain his moves rather than chart a new course.
It might come as a surprise to some that the man, who once was at the forefront of the worldwide liberal movement (Orbán was vice-president of Liberal International from 1992-2000), had strayed so far from ideological underpinnings to cosy up so closely with Russia.
After all, it was Orbán’s passionate anti-Soviet / pro-democracy speech made in the twilight months of communist Hungary that launched his political career. Yet what is Orbán, if not a political opportunist? In high school, he was the secretary of his school’s communist youth group and it was only in 1988 – one year before the fall of the Soviet Union – that he helped found the then-liberal Fidesz.
Changes of ideology are nothing new for Orbán; so what, then, is his interest in turning Hungary into an “illiberal democracy”?
It is safe to call the Hungarian Prime Minister a populist leader; in fact, it seems that he would take kindly to the term. His rhetoric around anti-immigration (“We do not want a significant minority with different cultural characteristics and backgrounds living among us; we would like Hungary to stay as Hungary is.”) and irredentism (He has called for self-governance for Hungarian minorities abroad) are not only very popular in Hungary, they are explicitly designed to be that way.
And while it’s easy to think that his Fidesz party is resonating with a wide portion of the Hungarian population based on the two-thirds supermajority it won in last year’s federal election, it’s important to remember that the party took only 45% of the vote and relied on some creative gerrymandering to achieve its landslide electoral result.
One especially popular policy was to enact a set of laws allowing Hungarians living abroad to apply for Hungarian citizenship. This policy achieved several goals for Orbán: 1) it was a popular populist policy within Hungary; 2) it grew his political base (95% of dual citizens voted for Fidesz); and 3) it allowed him to tacitly support Russian policy by undermining Ukraine at a time when the European Union was striving for a unified political front in the face of Russian aggression.
This last point is important as, of the three “illiberal democracies” cited by Orbán, it is interestingly Russia – the same Russia that a young Orbán used to rally against – that he has now decided to nurture relations with.
Orbán to Putin: you’ve found a friend in me
“It’s surprising how open the Russian influence is,” relates Péter Krekó, a Hungarian analyst at the Political Capital consulting firm. Certainly, there have been increased ties between the two countries of late.
In addition to Russia’s EUR 10 billion financing of the expansion of Hungary’s Paks nuclear reactor, Orbán has repeatedly and publicly criticised European sanctions on Russia and was among the last to condemn Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea last year and instead, in statements that echoed Russian justification for their involvement outside of their own borders, spoke of the need to protect Hungarians living abroad – including in Ukraine’s Transcarpathian region.
Yes, Orban addressed his relationship with Russia head on in a joint news conference with the Russian President on Tuesday: “There is lots of speculation in the media that Europe should be afraid [that] Hungary is drifting towards Russia”, he noted, before advancing his unique “third way” agenda, “European unity can be created in parallel with cooperation with Russia.”
He then announced that he had convinced his Russian friend to grant Hungary more favourable terms for the supply of Russian natural gas (Hungary will only pay for the gas it consumes, as opposed to the volume it contracts, as the previous contract stated). As providing affordable energy is primary to his populist agenda, and seeing that 85% of Hungary’s gas supplies come from the illiberal giant to the East, no doubt Orbán was grinning during the announcement.
Indeed, it is fair to question whether the Hungarian leader understood just how much leverage he already held in the negotiations. Putin has been ostracised in Europe and, as has been noted by numerous media outlets, was desperate to be seen as having friends in the EU (even if for only domestic propaganda purposes).
Moreover, with the combined double-whammy of the decline in the price of oil and Western sanctions, Moscow has been desperate to find additional trading partners. Just last October, Russia was cornered into signing an unfavourable trade agreement with the Chinese. So coming into the meetings with Orbán, Putin needed additional markets to help soften the economic blow his country is facing, and sought the diplomatic coup of meeting a friendly EU leader on EU soil.
Did Orbán wrest enough from his scrambling role model? Not everyone was so happy about the announcement – opposition Democratic Coalition leader Ferenc Gyurcsány noted that Hungary should be supporting the Polish model that would replace individual country-to-country arrangements with Russia with a single agreement on gas and energy, negotiated on behalf of all 28 EU member states.
This, it is argued, would give Europe and its constituent nations far more leverage in negotiations allowing for even more lucrative gas deals to be signed with Russia. In fact, EU diplomatic sources have cited that it is Russian policy to target Hungary, as well as Cyprus and Italy, to foster friendly relations in order to influence one or more to wield their veto power when it comes to renewing the Russian sanctions. So the question remains, was the deal more valuable to Orbán or to Putin?
Gas deal: good for Hungary? Or good for Putin?
While Orbán will certainly throw his new Russian gas deal around as a sign of how hard he is working for the Hungarian people, it remains to be seen whether he is the one being played. By bucking European sentiment and developing closer ties with Russia, Orbán claims to be finding a third way between the either/or of EU and Russia.
He proudly states that “European unity can be created in parallel with cooperation with Russia” but offers no solution of how this can happen as Russia continues to invade our neighbour to the northeast. Instead, he disregarded the nearly-official ban on Putin visits to the EU, ignored Polish hopes of negotiating a gas deal with Russia as a bloc, and increased Hungarian reliance on Russian gas.
“I want to make it clear that Hungary needs Russia,” he said at the press conference, as a similarly happy Putin sat next to him. While Orbán has so far towed the line on EU sanctions, it will be interesting to watch his next move. Russia is known for looking out for Russia’s interests, not for those of its friends – unless of course it is in Russia’s interest.
Hungarians don’t have to look too far to remember that, as 67-year-old protester Maria Toth reminds us, “I lived most of my life under communist rule. I don’t want this country to fall under Russian influence again!”