As recently as eight weeks ago, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, trading quips at a joint news conference and defending Russia’s security demands as “normal.”
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s quickly become dangerous to have a warm relationship with Putin — and a legion of European populist conservatives has been left chastened and weakened as a consequence.
But Orban is an exception.
He has angered his neighbors and triggered harsh blowback from Ukrainian leaders for what they see as a wishy-washy reaction to the war. Yet by portraying himself domestically as a steady hand navigating between larger world powers, he has gained ground on the political opposition in Hungary and increased his odds of winning a fourth consecutive term as prime minister in a parliamentary election Sunday.
That would allow Orban to maintain his position as Europe’s anti-immigration strongman provocateur, while deepening the sense among his critics that he can survive almost anything. It would also complicate the road ahead for the European Union, which is trying to maintain a hard line against Moscow — from all 27 members of the bloc — while also pressing Hungary on rule-of-law issues and democratic backsliding.
Many political analysts say Orban has been able to thrive, despite his ties with Putin, precisely because of the autocratic ways in which he has transformed Hungarian society during his 12 consecutive years in power. In addition to reworking the electoral system to give his party a big advantage, Orban has constrained nongovernmental organizations, deployed spyware against journalists, and dismantled a system of checks and balances. He has built up a pro-government media empire that amounts to an echo chamber for his narrative.
And in the midst of the war in neighboring Ukraine, that narrative has been about safety. In TV spots that play even during soccer games, Orban has cast himself as a sagacious graybeard whose main goal is protecting Hungarian lives and keeping Hungarian troops out of the war.
Pro-government media outlets have incorrectly portrayed Orban’s opponent — Peter Marki-Zay, who represents a wide-ranging six-party union — as wanting to send soldiers into Ukraine. (Marki-Zay has said Hungary should follow the direction of NATO, which has been adamant about not sending in troops.)
“We will not allow the left to drag Hungary into this war,” Orban said in one recent speech. “We shall not allow the left to make Hungary a military target.”
Specifically on Russia, Orban has criticized the invasion as an aggression and backed the E.U. in much of its response. But the country has opposed sanctions on energy supplies, and it hasn’t provided military aid to Ukraine.
All the while, Orban has signaled a warm welcome to 500,000 Ukrainians fleeing war — a reversal from his stance during an earlier migration crisis, when Hungary built a wall in response to people fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Africa.
“He’s a textbook populist,” said Balint Ruff, a political strategist in past campaigns for the opposition. “He always rides with the majority. A day before the war, he was a staunch, anti-migrant warrior defending European Christianity. And in one day he became the gray-haired grandpa who welcomes everybody from a war-torn country.”
Ruff said the messaging is working.
“This is how modern politics works in an unchecked world,” he said.
While Orban’s victory is not assured, pundits say his odds have steadily increased over the last months. As recently as December, the race appeared to be a dead heat. Orban’s Fidesz party now has a single-digit lead, according to most polls — but that could be decisive, because the election map has been gerrymandered in Fidesz’s favor. According to the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the opposition would need to win 3 to 5 percent more votes than Fidesz would need to earn a parliamentary majority.
Orban’s base is divided over whether to blame the Kremlin or NATO encroachment for the war — thus, the need for his own mixed messaging. But his opponents are still hoping he pays a price at the polls for his warm relationship with Moscow, which includes, perhaps most notably, welcoming the relocation to Budapest of a Moscow-based development bank with ties to Russian intelligence.
In Budapest, some local Fidesz campaign posters have been defaced with the letter “Z,” a symbol marked on Russian military vehicles in Ukraine. One opposition billboard shows Orban and Putin together, imploring Orban to “lean in close” and tell his “friend”: “DO NOT KILL!”
Marki-Zay, who previously won a mayoral vote in a town that had appeared to be a Fidesz stronghold, has accused Orban of “copying the Putin model” for 12 years and serving the interests of the Kremlin.
Orban has become a powerful symbol of the global populist movement. Fox News host Tucker Carlson paid homage to him in a visit last year to Budapest. Former president Donald Trump threw his support behind Orban in January, saying that he has “done a powerful and wonderful job in protecting Hungary,” bolstering the economy and “stopping illegal immigration.” And Republicans with the Conservative Political Action Conference hope to have Orban as a keynote speaker at their gathering in Budapest next month.
Orban, should he prevail in Sunday’s election, will find more tricky decisions ahead. Across Europe, the far-right ascendance has waned. Neighboring countries, including traditional ally Poland, recently refused to meet in Budapest over what they perceived as Hungary’s meager response to the war.
Like Hungary, Poland, with a right-wing populist government, had an acrimonious relationship with the European Union before the war. But Poland has used its role as a NATO bulwark — and as the primary entrance point for Ukrainian refugees — to overhaul its relationship with Brussels. Hungary, to a lesser extent, has gained leverage, too.
That’s crucial, because the E.U. faces a major decision on whether to withhold billions in funding from Hungary as well as Poland for rule-of-law violations.
Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute, said there is a “huge danger in trading off the short-term unity of the war against the long-term unity of the E.U. as a community of law with integrity.”
“It’s very tempting,” she said, “for the E.U. to try to brush this issue under the carpet, which is what it did for many years.”
Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky applied some pressure on Hungary as well, name-checking every E.U. member — mostly applauding their support — before stopping to speak directly to Orban.
“Listen, Viktor, do you know what’s going on in Mariupol?” Zelensky said.
He mentioned visiting Budapest and seeing a memorial — depicting shoes left along the Danube riverbank — dedicated to Hungarian Jews who were shot at the water’s edge.
“Please, if you can, go to your waterfront,” Zelensky continued. “Look at those shoes. And you will see how mass killings can happen again in today’s world. … And you hesitate whether to impose sanctions or not?”
Poland, for its part, has been calling on the E.U. to end imports of Russian oil, coal and gas.
Hungary — with fewer domestic fossil fuel resources than Poland — says it can’t afford to follow suit.
Agoston Mraz, the chief executive of pro-government think tank Nezopont, said it is a “Central European necessity to be able to negotiate with Russia in order to secure energy.”
“It would be a very romantic idea to go our own way in this geopolitical situation,” he said, “but at the same time it would be very stupid.”
Harlan reported from Rome and Matyasovszki from Budapest.