BUDAPEST – Enjoying the electoral victory of a rare European leader who has not convicted him as a war criminal, Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin on Monday congratulated Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary on winning a fourth term and said he was looking forward to an extension of ‘partnership ties’.
At a time when Russia’s relations with the European Union and the United States are unraveling over the war in Ukraine, Hungary, a member of the European bloc, has been largely on the fence in response to the Russian invasion, in part because to prevent a natural gas deal signed by Mr Orban during talks with Mr Putin in Moscow, shortly before Russia invaded.
A resounding victory in Sunday’s election for Mr Orban’s party, Fidesz, suggested the Hungarian leader would stick to a policy strongly endorsed by voters.
But after a vote that independent election observers say was unfairly tilted in favor of the ruling party, Orban is also increasingly being pressured to change course or risk not only alienating Hungary’s allies but also billions of dollars in much-needed money. to lose funding from the European Union. for failing to uphold the rule of law.
Guy Verhofstadt, a leading Liberal in the European Parliament, described the elections as “a dark day for liberal democracy, for Hungary and the EU, at a perilous time”.
Mr Putin received more mixed news from Sunday’s elections in Serbia, where Aleksandar Vucic, the country’s populist pro-Russian president, won re-election, according to preliminary official results released on Monday. But it looked like President Vucic could lose his increasingly authoritarian grip on power after his ruling party failed to secure a clear majority in parliament.
The Kremlin nevertheless congratulated Mr Vucic and called for strengthening what it described as a “strategic partnership” in the interest of “brotherly Russian and Serbian people”.
Orban’s Fidesz party is divided on how to respond to Russia’s aggression, with its more traditional nationalist wing, steeped in the history of Hungary’s own past suffering at Russian hands, and uncomfortable cuddling with Putin.
But hopes that Orban, who turned from a liberal anti-Kremlin firing stick to Putin’s closest partner in Europe in 1989, could change direction again after the election seem to have waned by the magnitude of his party’s victory. . It won more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament, while an openly pro-Putin, far-right party, Our Homeland Movement, got enough votes to get into parliament for the first time.
“Putin is right. Ukraine will get what it deserves,” Janos Horvath, a supporter of the far-right party, said after casting his vote. Ukraine, he said, echoing a favorite Kremlin talking point, is mistreating its ethnic minorities, including Russians and Hungarians, and “must be stopped”.
The crushing defeat of Mr Orban’s opponents, who campaigned on promises to show greater solidarity with Ukraine and Hungary’s allies, makes it unlikely that Hungary will now join NATO and the European Union to meet Mr. Convicting Putin for his military attack or supplying weapons to Ukraine to help defend itself. Hungary, unlike Poland, has steadfastly refused to allow weapons to pass through its territory to Ukraine.
Though increasingly isolated from his foreign allies, Mr. Orban gained strong domestic support for his neutral stance on the war, turning what initially appeared to be an electoral obligation into a vote-catcher. He did this by ruthlessly misrepresenting the position of his opponents, by deploying a massive apparatus of loyal media to convince voters that his rivals wanted to send Hungarian troops to Ukraine to fight against Russia, something no one has. suggested to do.
At the last opposition rally in Budapest on the eve of the elections, Fidesz activists disguised as journalists presented the opposition’s leading candidate, Peter Maki Zay, with a white T-shirt with a red target on it, while shouting that Hungary would be this if he won. A video of the meeting was later posted online by Fidesz-friendly media outlets, which repeatedly portrayed the election as a choice between “war and peace.”
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
Evidence of war violence. Videos and photos coming from Bucha, a town near Kiev, appeared to show civilian bodies scattered on the streets after Russia withdrew its troops from the area. The images have sparked outrage.
Shortly after Mr Putin offered his congratulations, election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe complained that, while well-organized, the elections had tilted in favor of Mr Orban’s ruling party by “blurring the line between state and party. ” The vote, the organization said in a statement released Monday, was “marred by the lack of a level playing field”.
With his rivals in shock at their defeat, despite having forged a united front for the first time in an attempt to overthrow Orban, the victorious prime minister showed no sign of stepping back from his battles with the European Union. Union. “This is not the past, this is the Europe of the future,” he told cheering supporters on Monday.
Cheering early on a Fidesz victory that he said was so big it “maybe seen from the moon” and “certainly from Brussels,” Orban, who refused to criticize Putin over his invasion, targeted Ukraine. . President Volodymyr Zelensky, who places him alongside Brussels bureaucrats and the mainstream media as one of his “many adversaries”.
Mr Zelensky has repeatedly criticized Hungary for resisting sanctions on Russian energy exports and for refusing to allow weapons through to Ukraine.
Hungary has long had tense relations with Ukraine, which Mr Orban accused of persecuting the Hungarian ethnic minority by restricting the use of Hungarian-language education in state schools. His complaints match those of Mr Putin regarding ethnic Russians living in Ukraine and have made Mr Orban more sympathetic than other European leaders to the Russian war story.
The number of Hungarians living in Ukraine is only about 150,000, but they are part of a much larger diaspora that, with the right to vote in Hungarian elections and generously subsidized by Budapest, has become a major source of support for Fidesz, and a constant source of friction. between Hungary and its neighboring countries.
In a sign that Fidesz, encouraged by his election victory, would continue to support ethnic Hungarians in countries such as Ukraine, Mr Orban’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, thanked the 315,000 voters outside Hungary who he said had voted on Monday. . “We stand up for our Hungarian compatriots beyond the borders,” he said. “They can count on us, just as we can count on them for important decisions like this,” a reference to Sunday’s election.