The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pro-Putin European leaders reassert their power

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pariah status is only deepening in Europe amid reports of his forces carrying out suspected war crimes in Ukraine. Dozens of Russian diplomats were expelled from European capitals on Monday as more grim scenes — including images of mass graves and dead bodies scattered in the streets — emerged from the Ukrainian town of Bucha. The United States is also pushing for a vote at the United Nations General Assembly to suspend Russia from the organization’s Human Rights Council.

But over the weekend, Putin received other welcome news from the Western front. In Hungary and Serbia, illiberal nationalist leaders both cruised to reelection on Sunday. The Fidesz party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Europe’s illiberal demagogue de jour, won a comfortable two-thirds majority in parliament, giving Orban a fourth consecutive term in power. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic avoided the possibility of a runoff election by winning close to 60 percent of the vote, securing another five-year term after a decade already in power.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitored both elections, said that, though competitive, the votes were shaped by “an uneven playing field” that gave “undue” advantages to the ruling parties. But Putin was quick to congratulate both Orban and Vucic. In a message to the former, the Russian president expressed “confidence” that ties between Budapest and Moscow would only grow greater. And he said he hoped to build on the Kremlin’s “strategic partnership” with the latter.

Belgrade has a long cultural and political affinity with Russia, as well as a shared antipathy to NATO, which bombed Serbian targets as part of its intervention in Kosovo 23 years ago. Hungary, meanwhile, has a more tangled history of distrust of Russian ambitions and overreach. But as both Orban and Vucic consolidated their illiberal — many critics would say autocratic — rules over the past decade, their relations with Moscow as well as Beijing grew closer. Even as much of Europe has rallied around Ukraine and against Russia, the two reelected leaders have taken conspicuously defiant lines.

Putin’s praisers in the West have suffered less than you might think

Vucic’s government has resisted European pressure to impose sanctions on Russia. Many in Serbia harbor resentment of what they see as NATO bullying and hold sympathy for Russia, a perceived fellow victim of hegemonic Western agendas. Vucic’s government took the symbolic measure of voting in favor of a U.N. resolution in early March that condemned the Russian invasion, but has mostly adopted a neutral line, wary of burning bridges with a European Union it may still hope to one day join.

Culturally, though, Vucic’s nationalist base finds kindred spirits backing the Kremlin and has its own revanchist project in the Balkans. “Putin’s ‘Russian world’ is an exact copy of what our nationalists call Greater Serbia,” said Bosko Jaksic, a pro-Western newspaper columnist, told the New York Times.

But it’s Orban who now looms as the most controversial — and problematic — elected leader in the European Union. In February, as Russia built up its forces on Ukraine’s borders, Putin hosted Orban and voiced hope for the “many years we can work together” going forward. After the war began, Orban went along with an initial tranche of E.U.-mandated sanctions but has since balked at further measures like a ban on Russian energy imports. Hungary is not allowing its territory to be used for the transit of lethal weapons to Ukraine. Its quasi-neutrality over the war next door has led to a split of sorts with erstwhile illiberal ally Poland, which has rushed aid to Ukraine and is seeking far more punitive action on Russia.

While long-standing ties with Putin have posed problems for other far-right European politicians like Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen, the reluctance to come to Kyiv’s aid hardly hurt Orban and his allies in the polls. The opposition cast the voters’ choice as one between Putin and the West, but far more prevalent pro-government messaging painted a different picture — of Orban maintaining peace for Hungary while avoiding a deadly conflagration.

In his victory speech Sunday night, Orban lashed out at Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who had urged Budapest to do more for its neighbors, placing the Ukrainian leader in a constellation of perceived leftist and liberal enemies of his Christian nationalist project. Orban said his triumph came despite the efforts of the “left at home, the international left all around, the Brussels bureaucrats, the [George] Soros empire with all its money, the international mainstream media, and in the end, even the Ukrainian president.”

Outside the West, Putin is less isolated than you might think

All the while, Orban presides over a Hungarian polity in the heart of Europe that would be familiar to a strongman like Putin. “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,” explained my colleague Chico Harlan. “He has built up a pro-government media empire that amounts to an echo chamber for his narrative.”

Orban also can count on major admirers in the United States, where a wing of the conservative movement has embraced his government — which censors LGBT content, demonizes immigrants and ethnic minorities, extols the virtues of the traditional family, and feuds constantly with the supposed globalists of the European Union — as a kind of political ideal. Never mind that Hungary has a middling economy hollowed out by years of its best and brightest emigrating away from an Orban-dominated nation and a graying population smaller than many second-tier cities in countries like India or China.

Hungary’s democratic backsliding under Orban has triggered procedural action within the European Union, which has withheld some E.U. funds earmarked for Hungary but otherwise struggled to compel Budapest to change course. As the war in Ukraine rages on, onlookers in Kyiv don’t count on much from the next Orban term either.

“We have no new expectations toward the Hungarian side,” Olha Stefanyshyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, said in a Monday news briefing, adding that she believed Budapest’s policy of friendship with Russia would continue.

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