Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s Prime Minister, is a very controversial figure in Europe. Many people – both inside and outside Hungary – intensely hate him. Many others – again, both inside and outside Hungary – deeply respect and love him.
The controversies around Orbán had many reason, but recently three of them stood out: Orbán’s stance on Ukraine’s EU membership, his stance on Ukraine’s war with Russia, and his relations to Russia.
Orbán is against an EU membership for Ukraine, at least in the near- to medium term future. He is against the current financial and military support by the EU and the USA for Ukraine in its war with Russia. He is also against the sanctions that the EU uses to punish Russia for its aggression against Ukraine.
Orbán’s reasons: a mystery
What could be the reason for Orbán’s stance on these issues? Why would Orbán, who in 1989, towards the end of Communism in Hungary, gave a speech in the center of Budapest, demanding free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops, now seemingly support Russia in its war against Ukraine?
One type of explanation is money: Orbán receives money from Russia. He has been bribed by Russia in exchange for his lack of support for Ukraine.
If there were any evidence for this, Ukrainians would definitely jump at the opportunity and publish it everywhere. But even the Ukrainian portal The New Voice of Ukraine, which has otherwise nothing positive to write about Orbán, admitted in an article in February 2023, that there was no such evidence:
Hungarian politicians provide a great deal of support to Russia, mostly in political negotiations at the EU level, and there are good reasons to believe that they get something in return, but no one has been able to prove it so far.
In the same article, the Ukrainian portal mentions some other rumors about a possible blackmail by the Russians who maybe have some “classified video” about Orbán – but again, the portal admits that there is no evidence for this.
Another financial type explanation for Orbán’s behavior could be that he threatens to use his veto power whenever he can to extort money from the EU.
Some people think that the recent promise by the EU to release 10 billion euros – money withheld by the EU because it thinks that Hungary hasn’t complied with its demands for changing its legal and other systems – was an example of such a successful extortion maneuver by Orbán. The promise was made just before the important meeting of the EU leaders in Brussels in December 2023 when the decision was made about starting the Ukraine membership negotiations. Orbán, after having stated that starting the negotiations should not happen, at the end did not use his veto and let the decision of the 26 other member states go though.
Though the two events – the promise of 10 billion euros and Orbán allowing the Ukraine decision go through – occurred suspiciously near to each other, there is no evidence of such an extortion. The highest EU authorities would have had to be knowingly involved in this, which sounds improbable. Orbán himself rejects such allegations.
So what other reasons could Orbán have for being so much against the main stream opinion in the EU about Ukraine and Russia? Maybe one should listen to what he himself is saying about these reasons and then decide how valid they are.
Thus, this article has the following structure:
- Orbán’s reasons for opposing Ukraine’s EU membership
- How valid are Orbán’s reasons for opposing Ukraine’s EU membership?
- Orbán’s reasons for opposing financial/military support for Ukraine
- How valid are Orbán’s reasons for opposing financial/military support for Ukraine?
- Orbán’s reasons for his relations with Russia
- How valid are Orbán’s reasons for his relations with Russia?
Orbán’s reasons for opposing Ukraine’s EU membership
The source for these reasons is mainly Orbán’s talk at the Hungarian Parliament on 13 December 2023.
- It is not clear how long the war between Ukraine and Russia will last. Ukraine, as EU member in war with Russia will cause a dangerous, unstable situation.
Ukraine will definitely push for EU membership as soon as possible. Given the current very positive attitude in the EU leadership towards Ukraine (shown also by the fact that the country was accepted as a “member candidate” in only 4 months after applying), it is quite possible that the EU will comply and will put Ukraine’s membership negotiations on a “fast track”, as some EU countries are already demanding. Reuters writes:
Ukraine’s neighbours on the EU’s eastern flank, Poland and the Baltic states, generally support a fast track for Kyiv, while western, older member states including France, Germany and the Netherlands are cooler on the idea.
But, if Ukraine becomes an EU member while it is in a state of war, conflicts – maybe even of a military kind – between the EU and Russia seem to be pre-programmed.
- It is not clear what territory belongs (or will belong in the future) to Ukraine, and where its borders will be. Currently large territories in its East and in Crimea are claimed by Russia.
- The size of its population is also not clear: about 6 million Ukrainians are now living outside of Ukraine and it is not clear when (and if) they return to the country. The size of the population is important, for example because of financial reasons relevant for EU membership.
- The progress of Ukraine from its application for membership, to membership candidate, towards membership negotiations is unconventional and against EU rules.
Ukraine applied for EU membership on 28 February 2022. The EU has accepted Ukraine as “member candidate” four months later, on 23 June 2022.
This candidate status was not quite unconditional. On 17 June 2022 the European Commission listed seven criteria for Ukraine to be implemented. The idea apparently was that Ukraine’s new candidate status will be revoked if the country does not fulfill the seven criteria in the future:
[The] requirements prescribed now must be fulfilled in order for Ukraine to retain its candidate status . The document clearly states that the current granting of status is not final, and the EU can revoke it if official Kyiv ignores the reform agenda.
Orbán points out that the usual procedure – used for all countries previously – is that countries receive such a list of criteria before they can become member candidates, as conditions for becoming a candidate. Correspondingly, years can pass before they can become “member candidates”. In contrast, Ukraine was accepted by the EU as member candidate without any formal assessment of the criteria set by the European Commission, only four months after the country handed in its membership application.
Assessments of the fulfillment of the seven criteria were made later. As of June 2023, only two of these were fulfilled. The latest assessment, in November 2023, shows that Ukraine fulfilled four of the seven criteria (though showed “good progress” on the remaining three). There was no word about revoking the candidate status because of this failure of the fulfillment of all criteria, and the decision to start membership negotiations was going to go ahead in December 2023.
On a side note: the time between the quite mediocre report in June 2023 and the quite positive second one in November 2023 seems amazingly short. One wonders how the Ukrainians were able to produce such fast progress and how the commission making the assessment was able to test the progress in such a short time – given also that this happened during war time. This speed seems unusual and indicates that both Ukraine and the EU are in a hurry to bring Ukraine into the EU.
Reasons concerning the Hungarian minority in Ukraine
- Ukraine does not provide full minority rights for Hungarian and other national minorities (e.g. Russians)
The laws on minority rights (in particular about using minority languages) were quite liberal in Ukraine during the 1990’s. In 2012 a new law has been adopted which
allowed the use of minority languages in courts, schools and other government institutions in areas of Ukraine where the national minorities exceed 10% of the population.
This law was seen by many as undermining the primacy of the Ukrainian language and lots of protests against it followed. In 2017 a new law was adopted which made Ukrainian the required language of primary education in state schools from grade five. After the Russian invasion new, even harsher laws followed, forbidding, for example, the import of books from Russia.
For Hungary all this is relevant because there is a Hungarian minority in the Trans-Carpathian region, numbering 150,000 – in the 2001 Ukrainian census – and about half of that nowadays. Revoking many previous rights of the Hungarian minority led to protests by the Hungarian government and to a deterioration of Hungarian-Ukrainian relationships.
The situation of the minorities is the seventh issue in EU criteria for Ukraine, and it is one of the three that the EU didn’t see as fulfilled in November 2023.
In his talk Orbán mentions that Ukraine had recently adopted a new law about minorities which supposedly fixes this issue. He says that the Hungarian Government is assessing it, but he emphasized that there was no need for a new law: it would have been the best to simply go back to the situation as it has been in 2015 (when the law from 2012 was still in effect).
- Ukraine’s EU membership will lead to 190 billion euros additional cost for the 7-yearly EU budget.
This is 17% of the current EU budget.
- Ukraine’s agriculture would have to be supported by 93 billion euros in the EU budget.
In comparison, France’s agriculture – the biggest beneficiary of agricultural support – currently receives 65 billion euros.
As a result, all EU countries – except Ukraine – would become net payers when Ukraine becomes an EU member.
Much of the EU agricultural support would be received, actually, by US companies which have bought up much of Ukraine’s agriculture.
How valid are Orbán’s reasons for opposing Ukraine’s EU membership?
Orbán finished his talk at the Hungarian Parliament on 13 December 2023 with these words:
Ukraine might become an EU member in the future if its time comes … everything has its time, the time of Ukraine’s EU membership is not here yet.
Thus, he is not against EU membership for Ukraine in principle, though he is against it now.
I think that his reasons for this should be seriously considered.
He is right: Ukraine should not be accepted as member while the war between the country and Russia is ongoing: the headless rush towards Ukraine’s membership, the “fast track”, as demanded by some EU countries and by Ukraine, should not be followed.
There do seem to be problems in the procedures followed until now regarding Ukraine’s EU membership. Again, the impression is a “headless rush” and also EU countries dragging each other along this path. Exceptions are made for Ukraine that are not made for others, maybe violating EU rules.
Ukraine’s attempts to protect its national identity by suppressing minority rights are understandable. But they also show insecurity about their national identity. In any case, drastic laws have been adopted since 2017, curtailing minority rights. These have to be removed, as also demanded by the EU. But as Orbán also mentioned, according to the latest assessment minority rights are still not properly protected.
Ukraine’s EU membership will bring huge new financial burdens for the EU, at a time when cheap fuel deliveries from Russia have stopped and the EU also tries to fulfill its climate protection commitments.
So, was it a wise thing to decide for EU membership negotiations with Ukraine on 14 December 2023? Or is Orbán correct when he says that it was “absurd, ridiculous and unserious”. In my view Orbán was mostly correct.
But then, why didn’t he veto this decision, in particular after he emphasized, many times, that such negotiations should not start with Ukraine at this point? It was in his power to stop this going forward, but instead of voting against it, he left the meeting room and allowed the decision to go ahead.
Nobody really knows what exactly happened. It is clear that it was a long meeting – according to Orbán eight hours long – in which Orbán stood alone with his opinions against 26 other EU leaders. He says that he wasn’t able to convince the others. At one point German Chancellor Scholz asked him to “have a coffee outside”. He complied and during his coffee time the 26 leaders made the decision to start negotiations with Ukraine for EU membership.
Did he receive something from the EU in exchange for not using his veto? I discussed it above and I find it improbable. To me it simply seems that at the end he could not bear the intense pressure. He cracked psychologically and went along with the decision. If this is true, then this is another example of how even people with strong personalities like Orbán can crack under great pressure. Still, this is surprising because he has a long record of being in opposition to many demands from the EU and often stands alone in his fights.
One of his justifications for not using his veto was that Ukraine’s membership was still far away: there will be “75 places” when it could be stopped, for example in the national Parliaments. Basically, he means that the decision to stop Ukraine’s EU membership can be postponed into the future, kind of putting the responsibility to stop it onto the Hungarian Parliament. But why postpone it if it could have been stopped by him on 14 December 2023? This sounds like trying to avoid responsibility himself and putting this burden on someone else – the Parliament. Furthermore, why should stopping the process work in the Parliament if it didn’t work during the meeting of the 27 heads of EU states?
Another one of his justifications was that 26 leaders were against him and he could not convince them. Thus, because he did not want to be responsible for a wrong decision, he left the meeting. But this is a very weak excuse: of course he participated in the decision by not stopping it when he had the possibility to do it. The EU – and Hungary, as an EU member – will have to live with this decision, for which Orbán bears responsibility.
In some interviews Orbán goes even so far as to call his not using the veto as a kind of clever maneuver suggested by German Chancellor Scholz. But then, in an interview with Zsolt Bayer on Hír TV on 21 December 2023, he almost comes out with what I think the truth is. After repeating that starting EU membership negotiations with Ukraine is an “irresponsible adventure”, he says this:
I could not convince the twenty six minister presidents [about not starting EU-membership negotiations with Ukraine at this point]. In fact, there was the danger that they convince me – or if not convince me, crush me. And in that situation the only way out for Hungary was that, if we honestly and seriously think that it was a bad decision, we keep ourselves out of it. They should reach that decision themselves and bear the responsibility for it, without Hungary – and create for ourselves the legal basis that, if this bad decision will cause troubles, which is certain, then Hungary will always be able to defend its interests, saying that “we have told you so”, and we shall defend our interests, even against Ukraine, if necessary.
Orbán’s reasons for opposing financial/military support for Ukraine
Orbán maintains that the war should finish as soon as possible because it threatens Hungary’s interests.
- Negative effect of the war on the Hungarian minority in Ukraine.
They are obliged to serve in the Ukrainian military.
- A large number of refugees from Ukraine.
According to Government statistics, over 4 million refugees from Ukraine have crossed the Hungarian border, though far less than that – about 50,000 – remained in Hungary.
- Ukraine can not win the war, and because of this, it makes no sense continuing it.
He says that instead of sending weapons to Ukraine, the EU should focus on reaching a cease-fire between Ukraine and Russia and help achieve piece. This only results in an increased number of dead and maimed people, increased damage to the Ukraine economy and increased cost for the countries supporting Ukraine in its war effort.
- Hungarian companies on Ukrainian blacklist.
In an interview in May 2023 Orbán brought up a further reason for withholding financial support – in this case 500 million euros – from Ukraine: Ukraine has put some Hungarian and other EU companies – among them the major Hungarian bank OTP – on a black list. Politico wrote in September 2023:
The Hungarian bank was added to the blacklist in May because of the “position of the bank’s management to continue operations in Russia.” The “war sponsors” list was created in the aftermath of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 in an attempt to deter companies from maintaining their operations in Russia.
This issue was resolved when Ukraine first “temporarily” and later apparently permanently removed OTP from the black list.
- Loan-based financial support for Ukraine in EU budget.
Orbán didn’t veto the decision about the EU membership negotiations, but he did veto the 50 billion euros aid package for Ukraine. In his press-conference on 21 December 2023 Orbán justifies this veto decision by saying that the EU intends to add this financial support for Ukraine into its budget and finance it through additional loans. Thus, all EU countries – including Hungary – will be responsible in the future to pay back this loan. He also feels that it is unfair that Hungary will pay for Ukraine, a non-EU country, while at the same time it doesn’t receive the rest of the 32 billion euros which are withheld by the EU.
His suggestion: the EU should not pay money to Ukraine. Instead, individual EU countries who want to support Ukraine financially should do that, in the framework of bi-lateral agreements with Ukraine.
How valid are Orbán’s reasons for opposing financial/military support for Ukraine?
The fear of the war negatively affecting Hungarian interests is understandable, just as Orbán’s wish to see it finished as soon as possible.
Is Orbán correct when he says that Ukraine can’t win this war?
Obviously the EU and the USA think differently. Their idea seems to be that Ukraine can win the war if it receives enough money and Western military equipment and if Russia is so weakened by its military and economic losses (or if Putin is removed from power) that it gives up and makes peace.
Events currently don’t seem to support the hopes of the EU and the USA. Ukraine has received many billions of dollars in aid and a number of advanced weapons systems, like Leopard I and II tanks, HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) batteries, and Javelin anti-tank missiles. It also received training in the West for many of its troops. In spite of all this, its long expected offensive in 2023 failed, as stated by an analyst of the Austrian Army: it managed to advance only a few kilometers into the Russian lines in a few places. Even General Valerii Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s commander-in-chief speaks about a stalemate. On the other hand, Russia has managed to overcome many problems caused by the sanctions, increased its production of military hardware and has redirected its trade relationships towards China, India and other countries. Also, there does not seem to be any evidence that Putin’s position inside Russia is currently threatened.
Of course, one could always say that Ukraine does not receive enough support and more support would enable it to win. However, Orbán’s prediction that Ukraine can’t win this war currently seems more probable. Thus, it is plausible to state that the best option would be to stop it, have a cease-fire and start efforts to achieve peace, instead of sending more money and weapons to Ukraine – just as what Orbán suggests one should do.
It would not be the first time in history that a country in war realizes that it can not win and makes peace with its enemy. Finland in the Winter War in 1940 and Germany in the First World War in 1918 are examples.
On the other hand, there is a potential weakness in Orbán’s arguments for immediate cease-fire followed by peace: it’s very difficult to see how such a peace could be just and acceptable for both parties. If the war ends in an unjust peace – as was arguably the case both for Finland and Germany in the above examples – then the peace contains the seeds of future conflicts, or even wars. In the case of Finland this was the Continuation War and in the case of Germany the Second World War.
So, what are the chances for finishing the Ukraine war in a just peace which would be more or less satisfactory for both Ukraine and Russia? Russia currently seems to be insisting on keeping both the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. In addition, as Putin recently said, the goals of his “special military operation” – denazification, demilitarization and neutral status – have not changed. It’s hard to imagine that Ukraine would ever agree to such conditions – and if yes, then only after duress, convinced about the unjustness of the peace.
Orbán would answer these objections by saying that we should not make such assumptions about chances of a peace deal before actual peace negotiations. And maybe he would be right: many conflicts were ended with a peace or cease-fire settlement unsatisfactory for one of the parties.
Hungary itself is one example: after the First World War, in the peace treaty of Trianon, Hungary lost two thirds of its territory which many nationalistic Hungarians still view as a great injustice and tragedy. But there has been no official effort by Hungary since the Second World War to get back those territories and Hungary has good relations with at least four of the countries that received territories from it in the Trianon peace treaty. Similarly, maybe Ukraine could also live with losing around 25% of its territory after a peace treaty with Russia – if it realizes that the alternative is continuing a hopeless war.
Serbia is in a similar situation: it lost Kosovo which, with the support of Western powers,. has separated itself from Serbia. Serbia doesn’t like this situation and there are simmering tensions but it has apparently accepted the situation because the alternative would be a hopeless war (and the end of its aspirations to join the EU).
On a side note, Western powers supporting Kosovo’s separation from Serbia but opposing the separation of East-Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population from Ukraine reeks of hypocrisy.
Orbán’s reasons for his relations with Russia
The internet is full of comments accusing Orbán to be a “puppet” of Putin, meaning that he does what Putin wishes him to do. These ideas receive support from Orbán having a negative attitude towards Ukraine and towards Ukraine’s EU membership and his refusal to support Ukraine in its war militarily and financially. These can be construed as Orbán taking Russia’s side in the conflict.
Additional support for the “Putin’s puppet” thesis comes from Orbán’s lukewarm support of the EU sanctions towards Russia, his attempts to remove parts of the sanctions in the energy sector and meetings of Orbán and his foreign minister Péter Szíjjártó with Putin and Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister.
Last but not least, the long delays by Hungary to approve of Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership can be seen as producing tensions inside NATO, and thus serving Russia’s interests. These delays have also been seen as proof of a pro-Russian attitude on the side of Orbán.
What are Orbán’s reasons with regard to these actions? How seriously can one take the “Putin’s puppet” thesis?
I have already discussed Orbán’s motives and his actions regarding Ukraine.
Opposing sanctions against Russia
Orbán thinks that the Western sanctions against Russia have not produced the result hoped for: the retreat of Russia and the end of the war. Russia has managed to overcome many of the problems caused by the sanctions. Because of the high energy prices its revenues have increased. It has redirected its trade relationships towards China, India and other countries. In many cases the market niches previously occupied by Western companies, e.g. fast food restaurants, café chains, or supermarkets, have been taken over by Russian companies. Also, there does not seem to be any evidence that Putin’s position inside Russia is currently threatened.
On the other hand, Orbán says that the sanctions are damaging the economy in Europe. For example, they increase the inflation in the EU. Hungary, in particular, has been very dependent on Russian natural gas, oil and nuclear fuel. Although it has been trying to diversify the sources for these since the start of the Ukraine war – e.g. using LNG, delivered through Croatia and nuclear fuel from the USA and France – it is still dependent on Russian deliveries. Thus, it successfully exempted itself from sanctions in some of these areas. In addition, Orbán says, sanctions against one party in a war means taking a stand against that party, and thus one step towards participating in the war.
Thus, Orbán is against sanctions because
- They are ineffective
- They do more damage to Europe than to Russia
- They bring the EU nearer to participating in the war. Orbán, in contrast, would like to keep the EU – and with it Hungary – out of the war.
- For Hungary, sanctioning Russian gas deliveries would be currently catastrophic. Thus, exemption from these sanctions for Hungary us vital.
Meetings with Putin and Lavrov
Orbán sees Hungary as a kind of meeting place between West and East. He is trying to maintain good relations with both. Lots of Western and Eastern companies invest in Hungary and build factories there. Sometimes these even cooperate with each other inside Hungary.
Russia – when it was still Soviet Union – has built Paks I, Hungary’s first nuclear power station. Currently it covers around 45% of Hungary’s electricity needs. Now Paks II is being built, also by a Russian company, based on a contract signed in 2014. As mentioned before, Hungary’s needs of gas, oil, and nuclear fuel are also covered by Russia to a large extent. All in all, Hungary has had and is still having strong economical ties to Russia. It seems also obvious that, in spite of recent efforts by Hungary to diversify its suppliers for these energy sources, the country doesn’t intend to break its economic relations with Russia radically.
All the meetings between Orbán and Hungary’s foreign minister on the one side and Putin and Lavrov on the other seem to have one purpose: to discuss these economical ties. However, other issues affecting these ties also come up during these meetings. Thus, during the meeting in Beijing in October 2023 between Orbán and Putin the Ukraine war was mentioned, and Orbán apparently used the Russian term – “military operation” – for it.
This, and the handshake between Orbán and Putin, caused an uproar in the main-stream media: some newspapers saw it as a sign of Orbán distancing Hungary more and more from the West. During the latest press conference on 21 December 2023 a journalist from the Hungarian internet portal telex.hu asked Orbán the question: “Have you seriously meant it that it is not a war?”. This was Orbán’s answer:
I meant it seriously that Russia has not labeled what it is doing [in Ukraine] as a war. According to Russian laws, in a war there is obligatory enlistment. This has not happened, and I said that we should be glad because of this.
Delaying NATO membership of Finland and Sweden
Finland and Sweden applied for NATO membership in the wake of Russia’s attack of Ukraine in February 2022. NATO membership for Finland and Sweden was ratified very fast by parliaments of all NATO member countries – except by the parliaments of Hungary and Turkey.
Turkey opposed the membership of these two countries because they gave harbor to Kurdish organizations – in particular the PKK. Hungary’s reason for opposing their membership was that both countries had been criticizing Hungary for different reasons in the past.
Orbán always maintained that the Hungarian government did support Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership and that the objections came from the Hungarian parliament. In an interview in February 2023 he said this:
… I’ve asked our parliamentary group to support Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership, and … the Government has submitted this proposal to Parliament, asking MPs to vote for it.
But then, he continued:
MPs aren’t very enthusiastic. Some of them say that this means there will be a direct border between Russia and [NATO] … of more than one thousand kilometres; and, given the situation in Ukraine, the potential for war which that presents is great.
The other side says that we should have a word with these fine Finns and Swedes, because it’s not right for them to ask us to take them on board while they’re spreading blatant lies about Hungary, about the rule of law in Hungary, about democracy, about life here; how, this argument runs, can anyone want to be our ally in a military system while they’re shamelessly spreading lies about Hungary? So let’s stop for a friendly word and ask them how this can be.
In the same interview he said this, too:
Türkiye is also our ally, and therefore we need to listen to it – and because we’re closer to it than other NATO members we perhaps listen to it more attentively. It has serious objections. It has fewer objections to Finland, but more to Sweden, for the simple reason that in Sweden there are organisations – which call themselves NGOs – that work against Türkiye and that the Turkish legal system classifies as terrorist organisations.
Thus, he mentions three reasons for objecting to Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership:
- A geopolitical reason: with Finland NATO membership suddenly a 1000+ km border appears between NATO and Russland, increasing the possibilities of tension and thus, of war.
- The “lies about Hungary” by Finnish and Swedish politicians
- Considerations related to Turkey’s sensibilities
How valid are Orbán’s reasons for his relations with Russia?
His reasons for opposing sanctions are mostly valid: the sanctions seem ineffective, Russia is able to survive them and even thrive, the EU and Hungary in particular suffers many disadvantages as a result of them and they are a source of tensions between the EU and Russia. Of course, for the Green Parties of Europe the sanctions provide a chance to realize some of their ideas about a hydrocarbon-free future, but one can doubt whether this is not a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, one could also ask what else the EU could do to punish Russia, the aggressor. Orbán would probably say that one should not focus so much on punishment but instead one should concentrate on achieving a cease-fire and peace.
Orbán’s meetings with Putin and his handshake with him . His usage of the word “military operation” during the meeting with Putin can be seen as un-principled or overly pragmatic but hardly as a sign of allying himself with Putin with regard to the war. This becomes clear when one listens to some of his many other interviews and announcements: he always uses the term “war”, never the term “military operation”. Also, it might very well be of advantage to keep open channels of communications, even at times of crisis. Orbán is the only one in the EU who provides such a channel.
The reasons for delaying Finnish and Swedish NATO membership are a mixed bag.
The geopolitical reason – the new 1300 km NATO-Russia border – is not without merit, as we have just discovered when Russia started a kind of proxy invasion by “refugees” on the Eastern border of Finland in November 2023. It is easy to see how something like this can get out of hand and result in a major crisis.
The reason “lies about Hungary” is weak and in fact laughable. Also, the whole thing looks very much like Orbán, instead of expressing his objections openly, is hiding behind announcements of some MP’s in the Hungarian Parliament. It is also very probable that, given Orbán’s strong position in his Fidesz party, if he had really supported Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO accession, he would have no trouble convincing the Parliament to ratify it. Furthermore, an internationally important decision like the enlargement of NATO should not be influenced by criticisms that some un-named Finnish or Swedish politicians voiced about Hungary – whether those criticisms are true or not.
The “Turkey” reason is valid but, in my view, not in the way that Orbán describes it.
Russia supplies gas to Europe via the Friendship (Druzhba) pipeline, across Ukrainian territory. Given the war, this supply is always in danger to be stopped. In addition, Ukraine warned the EU that it wants to stop the gas transit in the near future. Also, there have been Ukrainian threats that the pipeline might be stopped by violent means.
Thus, from the Hungarian perspective it makes a lot of sense to find a more secure transit for gas. Turkey provides this possibility. The TurkStream pipeline from Russia, below the Black Sea to Turkey and then to Europe is one such transit possibility. The Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) transfers gas from Azerbaijan via Turkey to Europe is another one. Having good, stable relations with the somewhat unpredictable Turkish leadership would be important for Hungary, and I think this is behind Orbán’s going together with Turkey on the issue of NATO enlargement.
Is there any evidence for an agreement between Hungary and Turkey to coordinate their approach on this issue? Orbán was asked this question during his press conference on 21 December 2023 and he strongly denied this. However, there is at least one piece of evidence which speaks for a coordination between the two countries: both countries approved of the Finnish NATO membership on 17 March 2023 almost at the same time (Hungary one hour after Turkey). It will be interesting to see if there will be a similar co-temporality when Sweden will be accepted into the NATO. If that happens, then it will be really difficult to deny co-ordination of the actions of Hungary and Turkey.
Orbán is a complex figure. He is very clever and well informed. He is not afraid to represent his views against overwhelming opposition (though even he can crack under the enormous pressure that he is sometimes put under).
He can be pragmatic and can go along with decisions in the EU which he opposes, for example regarding most of the sanctions against Russia or changing Hungary’s laws when it is demanded by the EU.
He can also be quite pragmatic regarding the truth – in other words, he can lie. He did that, I believe, when he tried to find excuses for his not vetoing the start of EU membership negotiations with Ukraine. He can also find it quite convenient to hide behind other people in a battle if he doesn’t think that he himself can win, e.g. when he postponed obstructing Ukraine’s EU membership into the future, leaving it to the Hungarian Parliament to deal with it.
In sharp contrast to many EU leaders and to the EU itself, ideological considerations don’t matter for him when it comes to relations with other countries. He is a conservative but he is happy to have friendly relations with anyone if he thinks that it serves Hungary’s interests, no matter the ideological orientation of those countries. For example he attended – as the only EU leader – a meeting of the Belt and Road initiative in Beijing, in October 2023. During this meeting he also had a talk with Russian president Putin. There are large investments in Hungary both from Western countries – e.g. a new factory by BMW – and from China – e.g. a large factory to produce Electric Vehicle batteries.
As another example for his pragmatic stance regarding political friendships, he is firmly against mass immigration to Hungary from Muslim countries because he sees the result in the cities of Western Europe. At the same time he has very friendly relations with the Islamist president of Turkey, Recep Erdogan, because he thinks that this serves Hungary’s interests.
Orbán can even have friendly relations with leaders who are enemies of each other. For example, he is a friend of both Erdogan and of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – irrespective of the fact that Erdogan recently compared Netanyahu to Hitler.
In summary, Orbán is first and foremost a nationalist. He represents Hungary’s interests as he sees them and not some other country’s interests. He can justify the reasons for doing so with arguments that are often (though not always) quite convincing. He is definitely not anybody’s puppet.