Time to confront Europe’s rogue state – Hungary

Russia’s unprovoked and brutal war of aggression against its western neighbour has prompted almost every European government to demonstrate its solidarity with Ukraine and its continuing commitment to the international rule of law, writes Stephen Pogany.

Since February, when Russian forces launched a full-scale invasion, numerous European leaders—including the presidents of Germany, France, Poland, Romania and the Baltic republics—have journeyed to Kyiv to hold talks with the beleaguered president, Volodymyr Zelenskii. So too have the premiers of Germany, Poland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Boris Johnson visited the Ukrainian capital no fewer than three times as UK prime minister.

In marked contrast, Hungary’s premier, Viktor Orbán, has declined to make the symbolic journey. Instead, in July, Orbán paid an official visit to Serbia, the European country that—apart from Belarus—is most closely aligned with Russia. And in September his combative and serially undiplomatic foreign minister, Péter Szíjjártó, held amicable talks with his counterpart in Moscow, Sergey Lavrov. Very belatedly, on Saturday Hungary’s president, Katalin Novák, appeared in Kyiv, accompanied by the prime ministers of Belgium, Poland and Lithuania.

Putin welcomes Orban to Kremlin

Political trajectory

For anyone who has followed Orbán’s political trajectory, his reluctance to visit Kyiv or to engage in talks with Zelenskii is unsurprising. So too have been his refusal to permit ‘lethal weapons’ to be sent to Ukraine through Hungarian territory, his attempts to impede efforts by the European Union to widen the scope of sanctions targeting Russia and his criticism of EU sanctions as ineffective and self-harming. Since returning to power in 2010, Orbán has fostered close economic and political ties with Moscow, prompting one commentator to label him a ‘Trojan horse’ for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, inside the EU.

Orbán has sought to justify his opposition to wider sanctions and his refusal to support military aid to Ukraine—leaving him almost totally isolated in Europe—as principled and rational. ‘Hungary stands on the side of peace,’ he told the country’s parliament in late September. ‘Instead of continuing and deepening the war, we demand an immediate ceasefire and peace talks.’ Speaking in Băile Tuşnad in western Romania, in July, Orbán emphasised: ‘We Hungarians see this war as a war between two Slavic peoples, and as one which we want to stay out of.’

Most observers however regard Orbán’s arguments as disingenuous. An ‘immediate ceasefire’ and peace talks between the belligerents would allow Russia to hold on to sizeable tracts of Ukrainian territory which it has occupied illegally. An ‘immediate ceasefire’ would also oblige Ukraine to halt the counter-offensive, in the south and east, which has forced Russia to relinquish many of its gains, including the strategically important port city of Kherson.

Orbán’s curious depiction of the conflict as ‘a war between two Slavic peoples’ wilfully ignores the context: Russia launched a war of aggression against Ukraine in clear breach of international law. By contrast, the overwhelming majority of politicians in Europe and north America—as well as many leading historians and political scientists—have emphasised the broader implications of the conflict.

Writing in Foreign Affairs in October, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder argued that the outcome of the war is of vital concern to all nations, not only the belligerents: ‘Russian victory would strengthen fascists and other tyrants … This war, in other words, is about establishing principles for the twenty-first century … It is about the possibility of a democratic future.’ A Russian victory would also ‘subordinate Europeans, and render any vision of a geopolitical European Union obsolete’, Snyder noted.

If Orbán’s efforts since February have been largely focused on limiting the scope and severity of the sanctions targeting Russia, Hungary has used its EU membership to give succour to other authoritarian regimes as well. In April last year, it drew heavy criticism for blocking a statement by EU foreign ministers which would have censured China over its draconian new national security law in Hong Kong, reducing the territory’s autonomy and massively increasing penalties for taking part in protests. As Germany’s then foreign minister, Heiko Maas, remarked, ‘I think everybody can work out for themselves where the reasons are, because there are good relations between China and Hungary.’

Real enemy

In his various comments on the war in Ukraine, Orbán has been far more critical of the EU than of Russia. This despite the compelling evidence that Russian forces have been responsible for deliberate attacks on non-military targets, the torture and execution of Ukrainian civilians and the mass abduction of ordinary Ukrainians, including children.

Orbán has even suggested—contrary to the weight of informed opinion—that the west and Ukraine provoked Russia’s military action, by refusing to give an undertaking that Ukraine would not be admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and by declining to give other security guarantees sought by Moscow.

For Orbán, the real enemy is the EU, not Putin’s Russia. After all, the European Parliament has routinely criticised his government for breaching core EU values while, in September, it resolved by a large majority that Hungary was ‘no longer a democracy’. Last Thursday, it insisted that the EU must freeze funding to the country. Meanwhile, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, will propose to the commission, on Wednesday, that up to €13.3 billion in EU funds should be withheld from Hungary until it is able to allay concerns about endemic corruption and rule-of-law deficiencies.

The Court of Justice of the EU has condemned Hungary on several occasions, including for violating academic freedom and the right to education. That ruling followed the passage of legislation by Hungary’s parliament—dominated by Orbán’s Fidesz party—forcing the Central European University to relocate its core activities from Budapest to Vienna. Putin, by contrast, has no interest in challenging Orbán’s authoritarian ambitions, his determination to turn Hungary into an ‘illiberal democracy’ or pervasive corruption in the country.

A leading Hungarian constitutional expert has noted that Hungary ‘represents the first, and probably model case, of constitutional backsliding from a full-fledged liberal democratic system to an illiberal one with strong authoritarian elements’. While Fidesz has been careful to preserve the outward forms of democracy, as far as possible its substancehas been systematically hollowed out.

All of this has happened while Hungary has been a full member of the EU, enjoying all the associated rights and privileges. For the sake of ordinary Hungarians, as well as the union as a whole, it is to be hoped that the tough and uncompromising stance now adopted by von der Leyen will be maintained—and that Europe’s rogue state will be compelled to abide by the European Union’s values and standards.

Stephen Pogány is emeritus professor in the School of Law, University of Warwick. His latest book is Modern Times: The Biography of a Hungarian-Jewish Family (2021).

First published by Social Europe

Image via official Kremlin photo gallery