Orbán mixes | CEPA

The Hungarian populist leader questions the fundamentals of the European order in times of war.

Viktor, Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán traveled to neighboring Romania last month to lay out his big picture. His words caused a uproar, sparking allegations of racism in Hungary and far beyond. But while the racial elements of the speech were unmistakably misjudged and worded, some of the more serious elements were barely touched on.

Speaking picturesquely the little City of Transylvania BaTușnad Island, as it has done for more than a decade, Orbán this time chose to comment on what he called “racial mixing” as an undesirable perspective that Hungarians must resist. His words were widely seen as echoing the language of the 20e fascist leaders and thinkers of the century, and to make it even clearer, Orbán suggested his audience read Camp of the Saintsa 1973 far-right novel by French author Jean Raspail about the coming destruction of Western civilization by migration from the developing world.

A few days later, Orbán said he had been misunderstood and had meant “culture” when he said “race”. But this is not the first time he and his supporters have used ambiguity on culture, ethnicity and race to feed the nativist agenda. The Baile Tusnad the speech was notable for its extreme terminology, but otherwise it was simply a culmination of arguments that for years Orbán insisted on the importance of “ethnic purity” and an alleged conspiracy modeled after the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory. (see Camp of the Saints, above.)

The modern European mainstream does not respond well to such language and Orbán’s speech was quickly denounced by the leaders of the continent’s political parties in the European Parliament, who called him “openly racist”. One of the PM’s own advisers called it ‘pure Nazi text’ and resigned (Although she later claimed to be reassured by Orbán’s explanation.) Even the British right Spectator magazine described Orbán as a “nativist demagogue.”

The Hungarian leader’s use of fascist terminology had obscured elements of his speech that delighted the pro-Putin Russian media propagandists — for Orbán also spoke at length about Ukraine, claiming that the real cause of the war was the West, and in particular its rejection of Russia’s “security demands”. He lamented that Donald Trump and Angela Merkel were not in power to take these demands seriously; advised the EU to abandon the Ukraine war and push for peace negotiations instead.

Like Orbán’s words about “race mixing,” this argument has a history. The Hungarian leader was caught off guard by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, but he quickly rebounded, using media controlled by its allies to paint an apocalyptic vision of Hungarians sent to die for Ukraine if it sided with its neighbour. In April, Orbán publicly mocked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in front of his supporters, essentially accusing the Ukrainian president of interfering in the affairs of Hungary. Later, he made the war a explanation for Hungary economic woes.

After describing Ukraine and the EU as supposed external enemies, Orbán argue that the EU must prioritize its relationship with Russia over its relationship with Ukraine, because it needs Russia more than the other way around. Along the same lines, Orbán has long argued that his friendly relationship with Vladimir Putin is necessary to ensure Hungarians continue to enjoy the benefits of cheap gas.

But if the relationship between Orbán and Putin is transactional, it is hard to see how Hungary benefits from it.

It is true that the Hungarian economy is heavily dependent on Russian gas imports – something Orbán’s governments (and his predecessors) did almost nothing to change. However, in recent months it has also come to light that the gas trade between Hungary and Russia is more complicated than described. Contrary to earlier claims, Hungary has paid market price of Russian gas for months, and despite months of insisting that Russian supplies are reliable and guarantee cheap energy, Orbán’s government allowed huge price hikes for many gas consumers previously protected by price caps. Yet the Russian relationship remains so important to Orbán that he was willing to sacrifice the alliance with Poland, one of his most important allies.

The advantages for Russia are much more clearly visible. Perhaps more importantly, Russia gained access. A lot. A golden visa program set up by Orbán’s government benefited, among others, the family of Sergey Naryshkin, the head of the Russian foreign intelligence service, the SVR, as well as other people with close ties to the Kremlin. Hungary has No project withdraw from the International Investment Banka Russian bank with historical ties to the security services, headquartered in Budapest.

The Hungarian government would have outright refused The United States is calling to expel Russian diplomats from the country, even as other EU member states have kicked out dozens of countries over evidence of espionage. Hungary would also have stop sanctions against the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill – another person closely linked to the Russian security elite.

When in March he emerged that Russian state-sponsored hackers had gained access to the network of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, the authorities’ reaction was a shrug. It is not surprising that for years Russian agencies have would have considered Hungary is safe ground.

Add to that the will and the eagerness to media loyal to the Hungarian government to recycle and distribute Russian propaganda accounts and Orbán’s active aid to Russian allies in the Western Balkans, including Milorad Dodik, the US-sanctioned Bosnian Serb nationalist leader: Hungary assigned $100 million ($102 million) in aid to the government of Republika Srpska, controlled by Dodik’s party, earlier this year.

In short, while the relationship may be transactional, cheap gas may be only part of it – if at all.

All that can be said with certainty is that Putin and Orbán are united by one goal; the same goal that also connects the two parts of Orbán’s speech. It is the desire to build an “illiberal international”: a world shaped by the kind of politics that eschews the rules-based international order, liberal democratic norms and transparency; institutions and norms that currently allow the European Commission to sanction Orbán’s government and the West to sanction Putin’s Russia. In some countries, such as Austria or France, its allies have been defeated at the ballot box. But it is a theme of European political life that is likely to survive this political generation – and Orbán directly challenged his ideological allies in the face of the upcoming elections in Italy and the United States, mentioning them and their subjects of predilection.

A US administration that wants to avoid this outcome should follow a cautious but firm policy. He is expected to demand action against the substantial Russian intelligence presence in Hungary and threaten to downgrade relations if Orbán’s government refuses. It should support genuinely independent local media that have played a crucial role in exposing corrupt deals; a project State Department Projectclosed before it can start in 2018, could be a model.

It should also seek to strengthen relations with Hungarian politicians who believe in strong, values-based transatlantic ties. Last but not least, it should be upfront – just like the US Embassy in Budapest was after Orbán’s speech — and consistent on what he considers acceptable rhetoric from an ally.

Neither Orbán’s far-right rhetoric nor his troubling closeness to Putin started yesterday. It is high time it was taken seriously.

András Tóth-Czifra is a non-resident researcher at the Center for European Policy Analysis. He is a Hungarian political analyst, based in New York.

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