Will Hungary’s Orban be the wedge Putin drives between Western allies?
There were pink ankle booties and scuffed sneakers, sensible pumps and leather loafers, a pair of child-sized yellow-rubber rain boots — all laid out on the east bank of the Danube River, in the heart of the Hungarian capital.
The hastily assembled display last month was a tribute to the war dead of Ukraine. It was also a deliberate echo of a permanent memorial nearby, where a row of cast-iron shoes embedded in the riverbank’s paving stones commemorates thousands of people, many of them Jews, who were forced to take off their footwear before being shot by a fascist Hungarian militia in the 1940s.
The modern-day shoe assortment carried another potent meaning too. It represented a rebuke of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, longtime friend to Russian President Vladimir Putin, now newly emboldened by a crushing election victory.
A little more than a week before Sunday’s vote, Orban was name-checked by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who, in a video-link address to European leaders, called on the Hungarian prime minister to visit the riverside memorial to World War II-era victims and reconsider his stance on Ukraine.
Hungary is the only European state bordering Ukraine that has refused to provide it with weaponry — armaments are not even allowed to transit Hungarian territory — and the authoritarian-minded Orban is widely viewed by European diplomats as a potential spoiler of European Union sanctions that require unanimous consensus by the bloc.
“Listen, Viktor,” Zelensky said in his March 25 address, citing the Russian siege of the Ukrainian port of Mariupol as one atrocity among many. “Please, if you can, go to your riverbank in Budapest. Look at the shoes. You will see how mass murders can be repeated in today’s world.”
Orban, a pugnacious politician who famously does not appreciate being told what to do, was urged by Zelensky: “Decide who you are with.” Whether or not the Hungarian leader has done so, the effect has hardly been salutary.
In the days after his lopsided win, Orban has descended into a full-on if largely one-sided feud with the Ukrainian leader, broken with the EU by declaring willingness to pay Hungary’s energy bills to Moscow in rubles as Putin has demanded, and signaled the likelihood of harsh new curbs on Hungarian civil society.
Such bellicosity, with all the cultural baggage it carries, made Orban a darling of Donald Trump’s White House, and it elevated his standing in the right-wing U.S. media ecosystem, as exemplified by the devotion of commentators such as Fox News’ Tucker Carlson.
Hungary’s opposition, normally fractious but unusually united for this contest, had hopes going into this election — not of actually winning, but perhaps managing to deprive Orban of the parliamentary supermajority that has enabled him, during his dozen years in power, to push through constitutional changes and intimidate opponents with increasingly anti-democratic measures.
But the 58-year-old prime minister’s right-wing Fidesz party dominated the vote, which was described by international observers as seemingly free of outright rigging, but as not having taken place on a level playing field.
For a time — a brief one, as it turned out — it appeared that Orban’s cozy relationship with Putin, in the context of a Russian onslaught in Ukraine that was increasingly targeting civilians, might drag him down at the polls.
Instead, said Hungarian political analyst Andras Toth-Czifra, the prime minister managed to cast himself as a wise statesman capable of building bridges with Moscow, and to tar his opponents as irresponsible warmongers all too eager to leap into the fray for Ukraine’s sake.
“He actually turned it into an asset,” Toth-Czifra, a nonresident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said of Orban’s potentially toxic association with the Russian leader, who is widely reviled internationally as a war criminal.
It’s not even a case of Orban and Putin particularly liking each other, he and others said — it’s simply a transactional relationship that has worked out well for both leaders. Ever the political shape-shifter, Orban cut his teeth in the late 1980s with a young radical’s vehement opposition to the presence of then-Soviet troops in Hungary. But these are different days.
Orban’s ability to hammer his election message home, analysts say, is in large measure due to his government’s tight grip on what most Hungarians, especially those outside Budapest and other major cities, hear on the radio and watch on television.
State-run media marches in lockstep with the government, and many previously independent outlets have been bought up by Orban allies, said Eva Bognar, an academic researcher who specializes in Hungarian media.
“There are concrete disinformation campaigns that are familiar to those who study Russian propaganda,” said Bognar, a program officer with Central European University’s Democracy Institute. In recent weeks, she said, “there were two main topics: the war in Ukraine, and the election campaign, which was not unrelated to the war.”
In both cases, Bognar said, pro-Orban outlets employed “smear campaigns and disinformation — narratives that are in favor of and produced by the government.”
Orban’s brand of strident nationalism, promises of security and culture-war fodder such as the demonization of LGBTQ people and Muslim migrants plays better to a conservative rural base than it does in Hungary’s cosmopolitan capital, but even in urban area, he has his devotees.
“He’s a strong guy, and that’s good for all of us!” said butcher Karoly Ludanyi, hefting a string of glistening sausage links a stall in Budapest’s landmark central market hall. “In the EU, they’re too liberal.” The war in Ukraine was unfortunate, he said, but “not our fight.”
Hungary, which has long signaled allegiance with ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine, has taken in tens of thousands of refugees from the war — but Orban’s government has portrayed their presence as posing no threat, a sharp contrast to its vehement objections to those fleeing wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Maria R., a secondary-school chemistry teacher in a town outside Budapest, said she suspected that a few of her students, perhaps prodded by pro-Orban parents, seemingly tried to prod her into making statements critical of government policies. She was sure they would report anything controversial she said.
Fearing for her job, she said she resolutely kept her political views to herself and asked that her full name not be disclosed, but felt saddened and demoralized at the idea that students, some of whom she has known since they were small, would seek to entrap her.
“I feel like there is a bond that has been broken,” she said.
But even if the prime minister believes that his electoral clout gives him greater scope to defy the EU, the bloc could take steps that would deprive him of a key lever of power — large subsidies that Orban is suspected of diverting to associates to keep them loyal. European officials this week initiated a mechanism to hold Hungary accountable for rule-of-law violations, but any funding cutoff could take months to occur.
Orban’s Putin-friendly stance has also alienated Poland, which previously stood with him in rebuffing EU criticism of undemocratic practices. The Warsaw government sees Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as an almost existential threat, fearing that if Russia is allowed to subjugate its western neighbor, it could be next.
Despite Hungary’s grim history of its own with Moscow — the crushing of its 1956 revolution with Soviet tanks in the streets — such fears seem fanciful to many supporters of the prime minister.
In the meantime, Orban seizes opportunities to gleefully mock both Zelensky and the EU. In a victory speech to supporters on Sunday, he cited both the Ukrainian leader and the bloc as having tried unsuccessfully to deprive him of his win.
“To a rational observer, an outside observer, it doesn’t really make sense,” said Daniel Hegedus, a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States who studies populist leaders.
But an important part of Orban’s brand, he said, is staging performative confrontations with influential players — in Zelensky’s case, a leader lionized for his wartime leadership, and the EU as the custodian of billions of euros that have transformed the face of Hungary.
“It’s as if he is saying, ‘See how I stand up to them,’” Hegedus said. “He believes that makes him look powerful too.”
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