Pro-Putin European leaders – Hungarian Victor Orban and Serbian Aleksandar Vucic – return to power
But over the weekend, Putin received other welcome news from the Western Front. In Hungary and Serbia, illiberal nationalist leaders both walked for re-election on Sunday. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party, Europe’s illiberal demagogue by day, 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 by winning nearly 60% of the vote, securing a new five-year term after a decade already in power.
Belgrade has a long cultural and political affinity with Russia, as well as a shared antipathy towards 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 excesses. But as Orban and Vucic have consolidated their illiberal — many critics would say autocratic — rules over the past decade, their relationship with Moscow and Beijing has grown closer. Even as much of Europe rallied behind Ukraine and against Russia, the two re-elected leaders took overt lines of defiance.
Vucic’s government resisted European pressure to impose sanctions on Russia. Many in Serbia harbor resentment of what they see as NATO bullying and have sympathy for Russia, another perceived victim of hegemonic Western agendas. Vucic’s government took the symbolic step of voting in favor of a UN resolution in early March condemning the Russian invasion, but mostly took a neutral line, fearful of cutting ties with a European Union it may still hope to join one day.
Culturally, however, Vucic’s nationalist base finds kindred spirits supporting the Kremlin and has its own revenge project in the Balkans. “Putin’s ‘Russian world’ is an exact copy of what our nationalists call Greater Serbia,” said pro-Western columnist Bosko Jaksic. told the New York Times.
But it is Orban who now stands out as the most controversial – and problematic – elected leader of the European Union. In February, as Russia strengthened its forces on Ukraine’s borders, Putin welcomed Orban and expressed hope for the “many years that we can work together” in the future. After the war began, Orban agreed to a first tranche of EU-imposed sanctions, but has since been reluctant to take other steps like a ban on Russian energy imports. Hungary does not allow its territory to be used for transit of lethal weapons to Ukraine. Its quasi-neutrality on the war next door led to a sort of split with Poland’s former illiberal allywho rushed aid to Ukraine and is seeking far more punitive action against Russia.
While long-standing ties to 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 has done little to hurt. Orban and his allies in the polls. The opposition framed the voters’ choice as a choice between Putin and the West, but the much more widespread pro-government messages painted a different picture – of Orban maintaining peace for Hungary while averting a conflagration deadly.
In his victory speech on Sunday evening, 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 inside, the international left all around, the Brussels bureaucrats, the [George] The Soros empire with all its money, the big international media and, in the end, even the Ukrainian president.
All the while, Orban presides over a Hungarian regime 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 coerced non-governmental organizations, deployed spyware against journalists and dismantled a system of checks and balances,” explained my colleague Chico Harlan. “He has built a pro-government media empire that amounts to an echo chamber for his narrative.”
Orban can also count on great 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 constantly feuds with the supposed globalists of the European Union – as a sort of political ideal. Never mind that Hungary has a mediocre economy hollowed out by years of its best and brightest emigrate away from a nation dominated by the Orbans and an aging population smaller than many second-tier cities in countries like India or China.
Hungary’s democratic backsliding under Orban has procedural action triggered within the European Union, which withheld some European funds intended for Hungary, but otherwise struggled to force Budapest to change course. As the war in Ukraine rages on, onlookers in Kyiv are not counting on Orban’s next term either.
“We have no new expectations of the Hungarian side,” Olha Stefanyshyna, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, said at a press briefing on Monday, adding that she believed that Budapest’s policy of friendship with Russia would continue.