Thirty-two years ago, an outspoken young Hungarian activist used a simple slogan to gain fame and launch an unparalleled rise in national politics: “Russians, go home!”
Over the last week, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s political opponents used his own slogan against him, chanting it at demonstrations against Russia’s war on Ukraine to highlight his cosy ties to the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin ahead of general elections just a month away.
“He’s a lapdog of Putin,” opposition leader Peter Marki-Zay told a crowd of hundreds gathered on Tuesday evening in front of a controversial Russian state-owned International Investment Bank (IIB), which Mr Orban invited to headquarter in the Hungarian capital. “Orban has betrayed his country, not only for Russia but for the Chinese Communist Party.”
The crowd, holding up signs showing Mr Putin’s crossed out face, chanted: “Russians, go home!”
With a month before 3 April polls, the usually tertiary issue of European Union (EU) and Nato member Hungary’s foreign policy has taken the forefront in an election that had largely hinged on skyrocketing inflation, utility prices and a flawed healthcare system that failed during the pandemic.
The war “overshadows everything,” said Mr Marki-Zay during a wide-ranging online briefing with The Independent and half-a-dozen European news outlets. “Everyone is concerned about the war.”
Mr Orban, criticised over his authoritarian ways and mishandling of the Covid crisis, was already struggling to gain a decisive edge in the polls, only slightly beating out a unified coalition of his enemies headed by Mr Marki-Zay, a small-town mayor, though he is primed to win because of an electorate favourable to his Fidesz party.
But Moscow’s attack on Ukraine, a nation which borders Hungary and is home to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hungarians, has suddenly changed the dynamics of what had been a relatively subdued race.
“The opposition didn’t really have a flagship issue in their campaign,” says Andrea Virag, director of strategy at the Republikon Institute, a Hungarian think tank. “Now there is this war, and everyone is interested in it. Politicians are talking about it nonstop.”
It appears that Mr Orban’s years-long gamble to bolster his power with Kremlin cash and influence is coming to an end. He has spent the last 12 years telling Hungarians that Russia – the same nation that infamously ordered troops to crush the country’s 1956 democracy uprising – was now Hungary’s friend. Now, in photos, he is almost visibly squirming.
Facing mounting public and international outrage, Mr Orban condemned the Russian attack on Ukraine. After initially resisting, his government announced plans to comply with hard-hitting EU sanctions on Russia which have meant severely downgrading economic connections to Kremlin institutions.
“Now the unity of the EU is paramount,” Mr Orban was quoted as saying by a Hungarian news website in an interview on Thursday. “The start of the war has created a new situation for Hungary. We need to adjust Hungary’s objectives and the Hungarian interests in this new situation."
But Mr Orban, 58, a master political chameleon who has reinvented himself several times during his career, may find it difficult to untangle his and his country’s ties to Russia. And many observers are still suspicious.
“Hungary is always among the last if not the last country to give up resistance to sanctions against Russia,” said Andras Biro-Nagy, a political scientist and director of Policy Solutions, a think tank.
“Orban and the Hungarian government always try to play a game where they try to do nothing on Russia until they have no choice. They are always the last ones to fall in line.”
Mr Orban began his political career as a young Communist Party activist who had a change of heart against Russia’s domination of his country just as Hungary’s Soviet-backed regime fell in the late 1980s, reinventing himself as a pro-western and pro-European liberal.
He made his next abrupt U-turn on Russia 12 years ago after a meeting with Mr Putin in Saint Petersburg. Analysts speculate that something happened during the tete-a-tete. After two decades of consistent anti-Russian rhetoric and positions a different man emerged, and there was no more criticism of the Kremlin.
Mr Orban began announcing a raft of new projects with Russia. They included major and ongoing purchases of natural gas from Russia and a multi-billion dollar 2014 loan – equivalent to 10 per cent of Hungary’s GDP – to expand a nuclear power plant in collaboration with Rosatom.
“This is how he would link Hungary to the Russian sphere of influence for a long time,” said Mr Biro-Nagy.
The chummy relations involved robust financial ties, including the 2019 arrival of the formerly Moscow-based IIB, which has been accused of being a flagship of Russian influence and intelligence, and the 2013 expansion to Hungary of Sberbank, a major Russian bank that was forced file for bankruptcy in the country this week after it came under sanctions.
Meanwhile, wealthy oligarchs began buying up Hungarian residency permits through a golden visa scheme.
Last year, Mr Putin awarded Mr Orban’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, the prestigious Russian Order of Friendship for his “great contribution to developing bilateral relations and industrial and investment cooperation”.
Over the last decade, Mr Orban has held more bilateral meetings with Mr Putin than few if any other European leaders; the last meeting was held just days before the war started, with Hungary’s leader declaring that his “friend” had said he had no intention of attacking Ukraine.
What’s more, Mr Orban, the government and pro-government media increasingly started aping Kremlin talking points on hot-button issues, including the EU, Nato, and migration.
He and his Fidesz party allies began winning control of major news outlets and targeting civil society groups – often describing them as instruments of “globalists” such as Hungarian-born American philanthropist George Soros.
Mr Orban rebranded himself as a populist conservative and began associating with similar figures. He is friendly with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president, and ahead of the elections he received the endorsement of former US president Donald Trump.
“Orban says he is a populist, he started his career as a Communist, then a liberal, and in my opinion he’s a fascist,” said Mr Marki-Zay. “He’s the ultimate pragmatic. He has no ideology.”
At the EU and Nato, Hungary was frequently a holdout to moves that would have countered Mr Putin, often voting against measures such as hastening Ukraine’s ascension into the western economic and military alliances.
There have been numerous reports that European intelligence services have stopped sharing information with Hungary’s security services, the TEK, worried that the Kremlin had infiltrated the country’s security architecture.
“A lot of people are talking about Hungary’s cooperation and dependence with the secret services of Russia,” said Ms Virag. “Western secret services are wary of sharing with TEK because they are afraid it will leak to Russia.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Ukraine war, Mr Orban’s opponents have seized on the Russia connection, and worries that it may now endanger Hungary.
“We can’t be trusted in the EU or Nato,” Benci Tondai, a member of parliament, told opposition supporters at the Tuesday rally. “They don’t trust us as partners. That’s because Orban sides with Putin and not with Europe.”
Mr Orban has also sought to turn the war to his advantage, feeding on lingering worries about the betrayal of Hungarians by the west during their 1956 uprising against the Soviet Union. He has accused the opposition of being “warmongers” who wanted to drag Hungary into the war by sending Hungarian military personnel and dispatching weapons.
Not even Ukrainians have called for foreign troops. And Mr Orban himself belatedly allowed Nato weapons and war materials into Ukraine. But among both Fidesz supporters and other Hungarians there remains persistent hostility to the west’s intentions.
“What Orban has been doing for the last 12 years is arguing that the west cannot be trusted, that we need to rely not only on allies,” said Ms Virag.
Using the same argument, Mr Orban has also signed deals with China that have come under criticism, especially a multibillion-dollar high-speed rail project between Budapest and the capital of Serbia, another client of Russia.
“Orban is convinced that the west is in decline and the east is rising and we have to have as good relations with China and Russia as possible,” said Mr Biro-Nagy.
But if the vision of a sovereign Hungary able to find a place between east and west bolstered Mr Orban’s narrative, the image of him coddling a dictator and alleged war criminal instead of its long-time western allies and partners underscores the opposition’s message - that he has so enmeshed Hungary in Mr Putin’s designs that only outsiders can extricate it.
“We have to keep Hungary belonging to the west,” said Mr Marki-Zay, speaking to reporters. “And a traitor is not acceptable as prime minister of Hungary.”
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