- On April 3, 2022, the Fidesz-KDNP coalition won Hungary’s elections for the fifth term in a row.
- Despite Russia’s large-scale military aggression against Ukraine, the leader of the winning coalition has not changed his anti-Ukrainian and pro-Kremlin rhetoric.
- Hungary is trying to undermine the EU’s sanctions policy against Russia, but still votes for them, provided they have the support of large EU states, i.e., Germany and France.
- In the UN, Hungary voted together with Western countries to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council and did not oppose Russia’s exclusion from the Council of Europe.
- Budapest has announced that it will not supply weapons or allow arms shipments from third countries into Ukraine. At the same time, this country is accepting war refugees from Ukraine.
- Since the first victory of the Fidesz-KDNP coalition, the EU has been willing to punish Hungary for the alleged departure from European values regarding the rights of sexual minorities, the right to abortion, restrictions on media freedom, and violations of the so-called democratic state standards.
- Budapest is looking for sources of capital outside the EU, for instance, in Russia and China, while becoming politically dependent on these countries.
- Hungary’s energy policy, which makes the country dependent on energy resources and technology (in the case of nuclear power)from Russia, has not changed after February 24, 2022.
- Hungary buys gas from Russia while bypassing Ukraine.
- Alongside Orlen, OMV, and the German refineries Schwedt and Leuna (Schwedt controlled by Russia’s Rosneft and France’s Total-Leuna), MOL is among the leading consumers of Russian oil in Central Europe. Unlike Orlen, it does not intend to limit the role of Russian oil and maintains the exploitation of its extraction licenses in Russia.
- After Viktor Orban’s statements relativizing the blame of the Kremlin for starting the war against Ukraine, Polish-Hungarian relations cooled down.
- There is a danger that Russia could use strategic Hungarian companies to infiltrate and influence the Polish energy and petrochemical markets.
- There may be cooperation in selected areas, especially in the context of philosophical disputes in the European Parliament, weakening federalist aspirations of EU politicians, or counteracting the imposition of fines on Poland.
- Hungary’s attitude weakens Polish initiatives aimed at deepening cooperation between the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
Hungary’s April 2018 and 2022 election results: astonishing stability
The ruling Fidesz-KDNP coalition won the parliamentary elections in Hungary held on April 8, 2018. Its 49% result gave it a constitutional majority. Of the opposition parties, the national radical Jobbik was the most successful, with 19.44% of the votes. The parties running a common list, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), 12.32% of the vote, Politics Can Be Different (LMP), 6.91%, and the Democratic Coalition (DK), 5.57%, were also elected.
It seemed that amidst the economic crisis caused by the pandemic and the shock of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, Viktor Orban would not repeat the success of four years ago. On Sunday, April 3, 2022, the Fidesz–KDNP Party Alliance formed by two political parties, the Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Alliance) and the KDNP (Christian Democratic People’s Party), led by Viktor Orban, received 53% of the votes, which gave it 135 seats in the 199-seat unicameral parliament. This allowed for a constitutional majority of 68% against the constitutional threshold of two-thirds. The movement of opposition parties, Together, won 35% of the vote, giving it 56 seats (28%). The Our Homeland Movement, which is more to the right than Fidesz, and was formed by Jobbik’s dissidents, also entered parliament with 6% of the vote, which gave it 7 seats (4%).
A turnout of 70% indicated the high political engagement of Hungarians and gave a strong mandate to the winning coalition. Pre-election polls did not predict such a big victory for Orban. Apart from the governing coalition, the election threshold was to be crossed by the united opposition alliance, comprising the left-wing Democratic Coalition, the nationalist-socialist Jobbik (which is even more pro-Russian than Fidesz), the liberal Momentum Movement, the left-liberal Dialogue for Hungary, the left and green Politics May Be Different, and the post-communist, post-Kádár Hungarian Socialist Party.
Reasons for Viktor Orban’s victories
1. The Hungarian electoral system
According to the electoral law amended in 2011, Hungarians have a mixed electoral system for their 199-seat parliament. 106 MPs are elected in single-member constituencies, while the remaining seats are given to parties from national lists, which obtain more than 5% of the votes according to the d’Hondt method, as in Poland. This privileges large parties and strong, recognizable personalities. The opposition raised objections to the territorial division of constituencies, which favors the ruling coalition. Before 2011, the constituency boundaries were established to the benefit of the then-ruling socialist party. This did not prevent Viktor Orban from winning the 2010 elections. The electoral system favors the Fidesz-KDNP governing coalition, but it is not the only determinant that keeps it in power.
Now starting his fifth term as prime minister, Viktor Orbán was able to convince voters that he is the guarantor of the country’s security in unstable times and that he is the one to be trusted. The opposition did not gain much with its new catchy name, Together for Hungary, and received a result below the polls. The alliance of opponents won only in Budapest but failed to triumph even in these cities, where it has control over local governments. The breakaway members of Jobbik, who were part of the alliance, successfully fought against their former party by forming the right-wing Our Homeland Movement. A populist agenda aimed at groups contesting the mandatory system of vaccinations allowed them to enter parliament. Along with the elections, a referendum was held on the Child Protection Act, according to which, during school classes about sexuality, children may not be subject to propaganda, persuaded to change their sex or to engage in ‘homosexual behavior’, and the state is to protect the right to maintain an identity corresponding to the sex assigned at birth. Left-wing organizations have called for a boycott of the referendum, and the bill itself has been called discriminatory. After an extensive social media campaign that disavowed the bill, the Hungarians supported the plea, but because the turnout was less than 50% of those eligible, the referendum was invalid. Although certain Hungarian lawyers have affirmed that the proposed law is not discriminatory toward sexual orientation or gender, but protects children from manipulation and demoralization, the emotional declarations of representatives of culture and media, as well as social activists, had a greater impact on voters. Fidesz consistently advocates that parents should raise their children according to their beliefs and that this right should stand above the desire to impose the state’s worldview.
Hungary does not have an unambiguously conservative political agenda in terms of its worldview, although it should be noted that a large part of Hungarian society likes the government’s pro-family policy. Under the socialist government, Hungary suffered a demographic collapse that threatened the existence of its society. The increase in female fertility over the past 15 years shows the effectiveness of Orban’s policy. But Hungary can hardly be considered conservative. The law on civil partnerships was introduced under the socialist government, and it has not been challenged, although it might have been, during Orban’s terms in office. According to the law, same-sex couples have the right to property inheritance, joint taxation, and access to information on their partner’s health. The law does not provide for the right to adopt children by people in civil partnerships.
The law in Hungary also excludes the adoption of children by single people or unmarried couples. According to Fidesz voters, the adoption process should first respect the well-being of children rather than fulfilling the needs and expectations of adults. According to them, children find happiness and develop best in loving, respectful marriages, which are the basic component of family relationships. Orban, who is a Protestant, pushed through a provision in the constitution stating that “the foundation of the family is marriage and/or the parent-child relationship. The mother is a woman, and the father is a man.” The referendum was to give legitimacy to further actions securing the institution of the family as it is, according to Hungarian conservatives, threatened by the attempts of progressive social experiments prepared by the left and hidden in human rights or women’s rights introduced with appropriate modifications for the needs of social transformation. Due to so-called worldview laws, the European Commission initiated a procedure against Hungary for the violation of EU law in connection with possible infringement of the fundamental rights of LGBTIQ people. However, such ideological disputes do not dominate the Hungarian political scene.
Pragmatic Hungarians appreciate economic stability and state support for families and believe Viktor Orban’s assurances that good relations with the Kremlin will allow Hungary to halt the geopolitical storms that appear closer and closer to Hungarian borders.
The confidence in Orban did not come from anywhere. The opposition was unable to erase the memory of the mistakes made long after the systemic transformation by the post-communists, who exerted influence on all areas of public and economic life in Hungary. From the systemic transformation of 1990 to 2012, Hungary was governed for the most part by the heirs of Janos Kádár’s party. Between 1994–1998 and 2002–2008, the Hungarian Socialists were the co-ruling party, and between 2008–2010, it was the party in power. The postcommunists understood as circles linked to the former communist system pursued a peculiar agenda of enriching themselves with public assets and strengthening their position in sectors of key importance for the state: the media, finance, and energy. By skillfully using the privatization processes they controlled, they secured their influence, making themselves independent from the whims of the voters.
Fidesz has fared differently in elections. In 1990, it won 22 seats out of 386, which amounted to 8.95%; in 1994, 20 seats out of 386 (7.02%), and in 1998, 148 seats out of 386 (28.18%). In 2002, as Fidesz-MPS, it got 188 seats (with Fidesz gaining 164) out of 386 (42,48%), in 2006, also as Fidesz-MPS, 164 seats (including 141 by Fidesz) out of 386 (42,48%). In 2010, already as Fidesz-KDNP, 263 seats (with 227 by Fidesz) out of 38 (68,13%). In 2014, the coalition of Fidesz-KDNP won 133 seats (of which Fidesz 117) out of 199 (66.83%), in 2018 133 seats (of which Fidesz 117) out of 199, which amounted to 49.27% of votes and 66.83% of the seats.
Fidesz ruled from 1998 to 2002, after which it lost the election and yielded power to the postcommunists. The party reached for power again in 2010, following the incompetent socialist government that had plunged Hungary into public finance and economic crisis. The result was also affected by alarming information about corruption which leaked to the public. Socialist ratings have fallen significantly since the brutally repressed demonstrations in 2006. This happened after the leak of a recording from a secret meeting of the Hungarian Socialist Party, in which Prime Minister Gyurcsány bluntly stated that the economic situation was terrible, that the Socialists had done nothing for two years, and that they had lied about how good things were. The nail in the coffin was the major scandal in the fuel sector. The media associated with Orban obtained tapes of a meeting that took place in June 2008 between Sándor Laborc, the head of the National Security Office, and Tamás Portik, the leader of the Hungarian underworld, who offered to cooperate against the opposition in an exchange for impunity.
Portik had been prosecuted in the past for tax fraud in connection with the illegal fuel trade. His company allegedly sold gasoline and oil (officially heating oil) without paying taxes, because of which the Hungarian state lost hundreds of millions of euros. Portik was afraid of problems after Fidesz came to power. In fact, in 2012 he was arrested for ordering the murder. Hungarians already hated the socialists so much that in the spring of 2009, Prime Minister Gyurcsány resigned, and the country was led by technocrat Gordon Bajnai until the elections and Fidesz’s victory.
It turns out that the voter’s memory is long. Despite attempts at a makeover, the opposition has so far been unable to get rid of the memory of the Kádár’s elites. Besides, such an exotic coalition combining the national socialist Jobbik, with its even more pro-Russian orientation, with the post-Kádár socialists, who wanted to be seen as pro-European, progressive, and skeptical of Orban’s pro-Putin policy, could have caused voter distrust. Hungarians were heard to doubt the good intentions of the opposition. Concern was expressed about whether the opposition simply wanted to gain the power to get benefits, as it had done in the past. Perhaps people chose Fidesz because they thought it was better in the sense of guaranteeing stability and certain security.
Voters are looking indulgently at the fact that Fidesz has begun to adopt the style of government of its predecessors because, in the past, it has kept its promises. Many Hungarian interviewees who voted for Fidesz justified their government: “There was a time when the postcommunists controlled the country, now we are paying them back,” “Well, that is the way it is, those in power steal a little bit, what is important is that something is left for society,” Orban gave the thieves a real hard time, so he can afford to steal a little more.”
Whether Orban made the postcommunists accountable for their actions, as he had declared, is open to debate. However, on December 30, 2011, with the votes of the ruling Fidesz party, the National Assembly passed an amendment to the constitution, recognizing the Hungarian Socialist Party as a criminal organization bearing full responsibility for the crimes of the communist regime in this country. The constitution states that socialists should bear responsibility for the elimination of the democratic opposition and the extermination of the Hungarian people. The amendment set in motion a whole series of laws, among them a regulation equating the pensions of former officials of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party involved in the pacification of the 1956 uprising with those of the victims, and an amendment to the criminal law allowing politicians responsible for the country’s debt to be prosecuted.
A Hungarian parliamentary committee concluded that the leftist governments in power between 2002 and 2010 were responsible for the increase in debt from 53% to 82% of the GDP. The opposition MPs withdrew from the committee’s work, accusing the ruling coalition of an act of political revenge and populism. The amendment came into force on January 1, 2012. These measures were welcomed by many Hungarians and were visible proof that the government kept its word to voters. However, the time has shown that the politicians of the socialist party were not excluded from Hungary’s political life. Orban also reformed the security services, dissolving their old structures, and establishing a new institution, the Constitution Protection Office.
3. Media and business at Orban’s service
When Fidesz took power, 90% of the media market was against it. Although these were owned by Western corporations, the socialists constructed privatization agreements in such a way as to guarantee jobs for journalists and control their management. Ownership supervision was reduced to financial matters and advertising revenues were generated by state institutions and large companies, also managed by former Kádár supporters. It turned out that the decisive factor in Orban’s defeat in 2002 was the disproportion in influence in the media and having a significantly smaller budget for building party structures and running an election campaign than the post-communists had. Orban devoted his time in opposition to building media that were friendly to him and waited for the ruling party’s mistakes, which were becoming more and more frequent. The media turned out to be friendly to Orban, who gained popularity after each publicized corruption scandal of the socialist government. Later, he announced the ‘Hungarization’ of media, using the same mechanisms as his predecessors, and he began to subjugate larger and larger areas of the media market. Orban struggled not only with an unfriendly media message but also with the supporters of previous governments located in areas crucial for the functioning of the state.
After winning the 2010 elections, Attila Chikán, the socialist-appointed president of the Hungarian National Bank, pursued a monetary policy that undermined the government’s pro-demand measures aimed at increasing investment levels and reducing unemployment. Orban used this attitude of members of the former establishment to undermine the legitimacy of opposition representatives to hold important positions in the state. He argued that, in the name of their group interests, they can act to the detriment of the public interest, Hungarian society, and the state.
4. The role of the European Commission in shaping Orban’s attitudes. “Europeanization” or pushing into the Kremlin’s sphere of influence?
In addition to disavowing the efforts of the Fidesz government in the country, the opposition also took active measures to undermine Viktor Orban’s position among the mainstream political circles of the European Union. It put worldview issues on the agenda of European institutions, which eventually prevailed, leading to the decision to take action against Hungary governed by Fidesz. A real risk has emerged for the success of Orban’s reforms, but this has not brought the expected popularity to the opposition. The opponents of Fidesz have been accused of using external elements against the Hungarian state to strike at the country’s economic foundations in the name of achieving selfish political goals and maintaining influence in the country. This was juxtaposed with the memories of the times of Kádár, who came to power supported by Soviet tanks and maintained his position thanks to an external force, the USSR. The actions of the EU were publicly compared with the influence of the Kremlin during communist rule.
5. Influence of Russia in Hungary. Real support or political cost?
The Russians withdrew from the former Comecon countries only seemingly. If the German media are to be believed, Moscow implemented the so-called Falin-Kwiciński doctrine through its network of people placed in the economic and political structures of the former communist party elites. This was based on the oil and gas transmission arrangement left in Russia and all industries dependent on Russian raw materials. Unable to prevent Central European people from aspiring to NATO and EU membership, it sought to exploit this fact to secure the sources of foreign currency from these countries needed to rebuild the strength of the Russian state.
The collapse of the USSR and the western orientation of the former Central European countries were treated as temporary state of affairs. ” It is necessary sometimes to take one step backward to take two steps forward,” as Lenin used to say.
Already in the 1990s, they stopped relying only on the personal resources of the former communist parties but were probably looking for access to newly established political circles, also anti-communist.
In Hungary, the actions of the Russian lobby may be indirectly demonstrated by the attitude of socialists who, when in power, sabotaged EU gas projects aimed at diversifying gas supplies to Europe. In 2005, the Hungarian energy company MOL sold its gas operations to the Austrian company E.ON, which is linked to Russia. In 2010, just before the election, because of pressure from the opposition (Fidesz), the then socialist government secured the purchase option for Hungarian gas operations from E.ON. In 2006, MOL (socialist government in 2002–2008) bought mining concessions in Russia for huge sums.
In February 2008, in the presence of the Hungarian Prime Minister and Vladimir Putin, a controversial agreement was signed in Moscow between Gazprom and MOL on the South Stream gas pipeline through Hungary. Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány supported the Russian project which was in competition with the Nabucco gas pipeline, a priority undertaking for the European Union at the time. The decision was criticized by the opposition leader Viktor Orban.
In 2009, Russia’s Surgutneftegaz bought a 21.1% stake in the Hungarian oil company MOL from Austria’s OMV, to which the Hungarian government had earlier sold its MOL shares. OMV has been regarded for years as an exponent of Russian influence in the energy sector in Austria. The Hungarian public has interpreted this as an unfriendly move toward Hungary. Although Ferenc Gyurcsány’s government signed agreements to build the South Stream pipeline with Russia, and MOL negotiated with Gazprom to jointly build storage facilities, public pressure forced it to publicly criticize the acquisition of more than a fifth of the national company’s shares. The right, of course, took the opportunity to attack the government’s energy policy. According to an April 2009 publication in Forsal, a representative of Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party (then opposition), Zsolt Németh, said that “the aim of Surgutneftegaz’s purchase of MOL shares was to gain access to information on the Nabucco pipeline project and demonstrate the superiority of Gazprom’s competing project, the South Stream pipeline.”
At that time, the Fidesz government was decidedly negative toward Russian actions concerning MOL and the acquisition of Hungarian energy assets. This was reflected in subsequent statements by its representatives and activities, both before and immediately after taking power. After Viktor Orban’s party won the election, it took intensive action to buy back the shares of Surgutneftegaz in MOL. At the same time, the Russian shareholder complained, including to the European Commission, about being blocked in MOL’s shareholding. Vitaly Kryukov, an analyst at IFD Kapital in Moscow, commented on the events in Hungary on the Parkiet website in March 2011: “This is a unique business situation. I do not know of any other case in which a company owning more than 21% of shares in another company has no representatives on its board and is not allowed to participate in its general meeting. Surgutneftegaz bought shares in MOL two years ago and to this day the transaction has not been registered by the Hungarian authorities.” It can be said then that Orban acted very assertively.
In the end, the Orban government led to a buyout of the Russian company’s shares in MOL for €1.88 billion, which was assessed by experts at the Center for Eastern Studies (OSW) as a financially satisfactory compromise for the Russian company. The independence of MOL from the Russian capital was saved. However, the Kremlin has been looking at the situation in Hungary in the context of its dispute with the European Commission. Despite its initial negative experience with Fidesz, Russia has offered an aid package and long-term economic cooperation without clearly formulated political conditions.
Problems with obtaining budget-stabilizing funds from European Union institutions prompted Orban to accept the Russian offer. This is how Moscow’s game around Fidesz-ruled Hungary began. The Russians have had experience in making politicians who previously held anti-Russian views dependent on them and using them for their own purposes. Bolesław Piasecki was an example of this in Poland. Orban, in order to stay in power, had to demonstrate his effectiveness and economic success to the public, and these would not have come without loans and lower prices for gas and oil, giving competitiveness to the Hungarian economy. Maintaining and increasing the number of mining concessions in Russia allowed MOL, one of the largest taxpayers in the Hungary budget, to maintain high profitability.
As long as Russia did not annex the territories of neighboring countries, this strategy could be rationally explained to the public and to the countries that support Hungary, such as Poland. A similar policy was pursued from 2008 to 2014, that is, practically until the outbreak of the Euromaidan protests, by the Polish government of the Civic Platform (PO) and the Polish People’s Party (PSL). In 2013, 98% of Poland’s oil imports came from Russia, and the value of Russian oil purchased by Orlen and Lotos refineries was USD 25 billion, which generated 2.5% of Russia’s total budget revenues. Orban, with the help of the Russians, managed to stabilize the state’s finances and return Hungary to the path of economic growth. However, Fidesz voters are not unequivocally pro-Russian, and the friendship with Putin seems to be a friendship of reason.
Let us remember that Fidesz was a categorical anti-communist organization, established as early as 1988. Its members did not let themselves be bribed with offers to participate in governments together with Kádár; they cultivated the memory of the Hungarian Spring uprising and General Józef Bem. The anticommunist Hungarians recall the crimes of the Bolsheviks, who, under the command of Bela Kun, almost gained power after World War I. Hungary was saved from Bolshevism by Poland’s victory in the fight against Leninist Russia. The memory of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 is still alive, unlike the memory of socialists whose retired mentors often participated in legitimizing general Konev’s Soviet intervention and helped the Soviets pacify Hungarian society.
The Kremlin’s orders are well-remembered in Hungary. A total of 230 people were sentenced to death and executed. By 1963, Janos Kádár had pardoned most of the political prisoners, former participants in the revolution, in a series of amnesties, but at the cost of giving up their aspirations for freedom. Almost 200,000 refugees left the country after the suppression of the uprising. Some pro-independence Hungarians resented the failure of Western countries to help the rebels. During the 1956 Hungarian uprising, Allen Dulles, then head of the CIA, convinced the U.S. President that Hungary’s sacrifice would benefit the United States. On October 29, 1956, an order was issued to communicate to the USSR authorities the lack of interest of Washington in the situation of Hungary. Information was passed by the American ambassador in Moscow, Charles E. Bohlen, to the Soviets that Hungary was not a military ally of the USA. This fact was later used by Hungarian communists in their anti-American propaganda. The Russians gained influence in Hungarian politics by making MOL dependent on its energy resources market, as well as by providing loans and technology in the nuclear field. Fidesz lost its vigilance and, guided by short-term profit, allowed the country’s dependence on Russia to deepen. For example, he allowed long-term gas contracts (for 15 years) to be signed in 2021 bypassing Ukraine. Orban has fallen into Russia’s trap. Depending on raw materials and Russian loans, Hungary must support, whether it wants to or not, the Kremlin’s political projects regardless of the circumstances.
However, cooperation with Russia carries security risks for Hungary. Due to sanctions, it is not clear what will happen with the project to expand the Paks, the only nuclear power plant in Hungary. Located 100 kilometers from Budapest, it supplies 40% of the country’s electricity needs. For now, the fuel is delivered by air.
The Kremlin is too experienced to allow itself to be used by a small country. It seems that Orban is aware that the border with Russia is not a safe scenario for Hungary, he knows history too well. Orban probably takes the position that his small country is not able to help Ukraine much anyway and lets the bigger ones, the USA, UK, Germany, and Poland, take care of it. However, this is an example of a moral hazard.
In an attempt to play its game to profit from being one of the countries uniting the West in the face of the Kremlin, Hungary wants to have its cake (maintain the border with Ukraine, do not border Russia) and eat it (make money on good relations with Russia). In his statements, Orban avoids attacking Putin but is careful not to go too far in supporting Russia in the international arena. The reason is that is well-aware that the Hungarian economy derives most of its profits from trade with the West.
In an interview with a website mandiner.hu, Orban admitted that Hungary would not use its veto power to block the EU’s sanctions on Russia. At the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Budapest voted to exclude Russia from the group; it also supported a UN resolution condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The resolution calls on Russia to “immediately, completely, and unconditionally withdraw all of its armed forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.” In addition, Hungary supported Russia’s suspension from the Human Rights Council.
Russia will allow Orban to indulge in this “disloyalty” as it needs him in its game aimed at isolating Ukraine and limiting its role as a transit country. Budapest is trying to prevent the imposition of EU energy sanctions on Russia as they could mean recession for Hungary. This country is dependent on imports of energy resources from Russia, which is a consequence of the policies pursued for many years by the Hungarian governments. Budapest, acting in favor of Russia, has refused military aid to Ukraine and has even declined to allow such aid to reach Ukraine from third countries via Hungary. However, it provides humanitarian aid to refugees.
Consequences for Poland
Poland needs to watch out for Hungary, as the latter’s agenda is based on self-serving and selfish reasons. Orban is taking a moral gamble counting on other countries to pay for stopping Russia and keeping it out of Hungary’s borders and will continue to make money on trade with Moscow. Poland will not receive support from Hungary in a situation where this assistance will not benefit Budapest. In areas of common interest, Hungary will naturally want to cooperate with Poland.
There is a danger for Poland of the potential use of strategic Hungarian companies to infiltrate and influence important security markets, for example, energy, gas, oil, and refinery products. This is particularly relevant in the context of the activities of MOL in Poland. The lack of empathy for Ukraine’s heroic struggle for its independence and freedom may be an obstacle to closer Polish-Hungarian political contacts.