Orban’s hot visit to Moscow ahead of national elections

  • Orban warns against EU sanctions on Russia
  • He is facing a six party coalition in upcoming elections
  • Ukraine crisis shows continual Hungary-EU rift
Source: BBC News

Why is Orban hot right now?

Answer: While Orban unpopularly goes against EU plans of sanctioning Russia, his electoral prospects heat up as he secures increased gas supply on a visit to Moscow.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban met with friend and political ally President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in the beginning of February. On the agenda were the security issues related to Ukraine and Hungary’s economic relationship with Russia when it comes to gas supply and nuclear contracts. This meeting comes just weeks before Hungary’s general election where he is facing a six party united front as an opposition for the first time in 12 years.

At their meeting, Orban and Putin discussed and agreed upon increasing the supply of gas to Hungary on a 15 year contract that was signed in September 2021. When it came to Ukraine, he gave his thoughts on the EU’s approach of sanctioning Russia in the case of an invasion. Specifically, he publicly contradicted the need for sanctions calling them “an unsuccessful tool, a tool that is doomed to failure in international politics,” largely testing the EU’s unity on the Ukraine issue.

In fact, Orban introduced his own approach, called the “Hungarian model,” as the answer to EU-Russia tensions over Ukraine. Essentially a tool for negotiations, the Hungarian model leverages Hungary’s position as a member in the EU and NATO and its strong relations with Russia to de-escalate the situation and come to an agreement. Although unlikely that the EU will use this approach, the meeting with Putin can largely be seen as a political move by Orban to improve his domestic popularity by ameliorating rising energy prices prior to the upcoming elections on April 3rd.

What is changing Orban’s temperature?

Answer: Orban is facing a united coalition and faltering domestic support, but by mending the slowing economy and a high chance of electoral manipulation, he may solidify his reelection.

A few weeks from the general election, Orban finds himself in a position of faltering domestic support while facing the strongest opposition since he was re-elected into office in 2010. Yet in a political environment that is tilted towards Orban, the opposition will face an uphill battle in trying to unseat him while also trying to dismantle the institutionalization of non-democratic principles within the judicial, electoral and political systems.

While the six party coalition is committed to expelling the “corrupt and greedy regime” aggregated under Orban, they are themselves facing their own challenges. They come from across the political spectrum which means reaching consensus is a constant struggle. United under leader Peter Marki-Zay, the Democrat, Socialist, and center-right Jobbik parties have already had to put aside many disagreements as they look to stand a chance against Orban’s Fidesz party.

Although opinion polls taken in November show the opposition and Fidesz neck in neck, recent polls suggest that the opposition has lost some of this support as they find themselves trailing two percent behind right-wing, anti-immigrant Fidesz.

These already unpromising electoral prospects will continue to deteriorate with widespread practices of gerrymandering and electoral manipulation that have been present in Hungary since Orban took office and that are worsening each election. One example of which is the need for the opposition coalition to gain three to five percent more than the threshold to gain a majority in parliament due to the influence he has had on the political system. Given this reality and the ability for Fidesz to use the state’s koffers and resources, although Fidesz only stands two percentage points ahead of the opposition, the opposition’s actual prospects are less impressive.

Nonetheless, unsure of his political future and unnerved by his opposition, Orban has turned to remedying the slowing economy to solidify his win. Facing high levels of inflation, rising energy prices and overall discontent over wages, he is reeling out band aid programs; including a $2 billion tax rebate for families, tax breaks for youth, 20% increase in minimum wage, as well as trying to get his hands on more Russian gas.

Moreover, Orban hopes to finally see the realization of the nuclear deal signed in 2014 with Russian company Rosatom to build two nuclear power plants in Hungary. With an agreement in his pocket with President Putin and economic programs on the way, we are likely to see the further improvement of Orban’s popularity ahead of the presidential elections.

What is driving Orban?

Answer: Orban, although driven by opportunism, ultimately hopes to mold Hungary into a Russian-reminiscent state centered around his political ideology: “Orbanism.”

Rising to power on an anti-Soviet campaign, Orban’s first term as prime minister in 1998 was marked by his principles and legacy for demanding fair elections and the expulsion of 80,000 Soviet troops from Hungary in 1989.

Partly driven by opportunism, Orban embraced his Russian counterpart with open arms as he saw the immense opportunities in looking to Russia for natural gas and oil. While he enjoys the economic relationships and stability he gains from the European market, this does not stop him from going beyond the single market to reap what Putin has to offer. This is currently 57% of Hungary’s natural gas and 89% of its oil and may increase as Orban places internal pressure on the EU.

Nonetheless, his political aspirations exceed acting out of opportunism as he is driven by the desire to systematically transform Hungary into an “illiberal democracy,” “a non liberal state” ruled under his autocratic hand, under Orbanism.

Thus, Orban has organized Hungary’s political system into one reminiscent of Russia’s illiberal democracy with state control of media outlets, the aggregation of oligarch relationships and a clamp on civil society; effectively moving the country further and further away from EU principles and values and closer to an autocratic regime.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Orban’s visit to Moscow sends shock waves across the EU while his potential reelection destabilizes the democratic fabric of the union.

Given the current electoral prospects of the strongman Prime Minister, the Hungarian population is likely to experience four more years under Orban. This not only concerns the Hungarian people who are becoming increasingly worried about the level of democracy in their country, but also implicates the country’s relationship with the EU and those living elsewhere in the EU.

Orban’s recent decision to visit Moscow has sent shocks across the European Union and the world. While he may have been acting largely out of concern for re-election, this move can be seen as a political statement to undermine the solidarity of the EU that extends past the current crisis in Ukraine. While Orban’s actions fall short of embracing the EU in their approach to Ukraine, he is unlikely to side with Putin if things turn south.

In short, Orban has become a thorn in the side of the EU, being at odds with EU values like the implementation of the divisive anti-LGBTQ+ law that was passed last year. The re-election of him will perpetuate the current EU-Hungary rift which not only weakens the democratic structure of the union but sets a dangerous precedent for other states experiencing similar levels of democratic backsliding within their countries, e.g. Poland, to follow in his footsteps.

Arielle Combrinck

Research & Analysis Member