When President Zelensky joined last week’s European Union summit by video link, he worked his way one by one through each of its 27 member states, noting which was backing his country’s struggle against the Russian invaders. He left Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, to last.
“Listen, Viktor, do you know what is happening in Mariupol?” Zelensky, 44, demanded in a reference to the port city flattened by the Russians. “Once and for all you have to decide who you are with.”
Hammering home his point with customary skill, the Ukrainian leader recalled visiting Budapest’s Holocaust memorial, a sculpture made up of metal shoes on the banks of the Danube that honours the Jews shot there by Hungarian fascists — and urged Orban to revisit it.
“Look at the shoes,” he continued. “And you will see how mass killings can happen again in today’s world. That is what Russia is doing today. The same shoes, the same people. There are thousands of them. And you hesitate to impose sanctions.”
If Orban, 58 — mocked by critics as “Putin’s poodle” — was taken aback by the verbal assault, he did not show it. Facing elections next Sunday, in which his Fidesz party is seeking another four-year term, he appears determined to continue his tricky tightrope act: going along with attempts by fellow EU members to tighten the screws on Russia while trying to minimise damage to his old friend in the Kremlin.
In an interview with Hungarian media yesterday, Orban said he understood why Zelensky was trying to get Nato further embroiled in the conflict, but would not be part of it. “We’re not Ukrainians, we’re not Russians, we’re Hungarians,” he said. “The answer to the question of where Hungary stands is that Hungary stands on Hungary’s side.”
The prime minister also boasted after the summit of having rejected calls from some EU members to extend sanctions to Russian energy, which accounts for 85 per cent of Hungary’s gas and more than 60 per cent of its oil. Russia’s state nuclear construction company Rosatom is also pressing ahead with building a new reactor at its Paks plant, 60 miles south of Budapest.
Orban has ruled Hungary since 2010, making him the EU’s longest serving leader, but victory this time is not assured after six opposition parties from across the political spectrum united behind a single candidate, Peter Marki-Zay.
“Orban is now trying to portray himself as an angel of peace, but for 12 years he has been waging war against everyone: homosexuals, Brussels, everyone but Putin,” Marki-Zay, a Catholic father of seven, told me before an election meeting last week in Szekkutas, a village near the southern town of Hodmezovasarhely, where he is mayor.
Marki-Zay, 49, who has worked as an economist, in marketing and as an electrical engineer — including a five-year stint in Canada and the US — has attempted since winning last autumn’s opposition primary to put the emphasis on fighting the corruption and nepotism that have become endemic during Orban’s rule. He has vowed, if elected, to set up a national anti-corruption agency and to follow other EU countries in joining a new European Public Prosecutor’s Office.
An idea of the extent of the challenge became clear during a visit to the village of Pusztaottlaka, 25 miles to the east, which though home to only 500 people, has been showered with millions of pounds in EU and Hungarian funds for various projects. Such largesse appears in no small part thanks to the efforts of its former mayor, Gyorgy Simonka, 48, now a Fidesz MP. Nicknamed “Mr 45 per cent”, he is on trial with more than 30 alleged accomplices charged with stealing 1.4 billion forints (£3.1 million) in connection with public contracts on which he allegedly demanded kick-backs of 45 per cent. He denies the charge.
“This a robber economy, a mafia state that draws EU funds so it can steal 45 per cent of them,” said Szabo Ervin, a lawyer trying to win Simonka’s seat for Jobbik, part of the opposition alliance.
Such issues risk being drowned out by the war, which has sent 500,000 refugees pouring across the 83-mile border with Ukraine. It has also hit the Hungarian economy, pushing down the forint and raising inflation: this despite a price cap on six basic foodstuffs announced in February and controls on petrol prices since November.
Orban’s much-repeated vow to keep Hungary out of the conflict nevertheless appears to be helping Fidesz. The latest poll by the Republikon Institute showed it had slightly increased its lead over the opposition to 41-39 per cent. Fidesz benefits from its domination of the media, most of which is either run directly by the government or controlled by the prime minister’s cronies. “It’s pretty hard to work out what’s going on if you only follow “their” media,” said Tunde Toth, 41, a social worker who has previously voted Fidesz but turned out in Szekkutas to hear Marki-Zay. “Many people do not get accurate information because they are living in a kind of parallel universe.”
Toth’s own 80-year-old father only watches M1, the main state television channel, and never hears about corruption cases, she said.
“It’s pretty clear that this election is a referendum about prime minister Orban, about his personal and political style and everything that he represents,” said Daniel Hegedus, a fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “It is only a small amount of the electorate that is rationally considering what is the best tax policy or other such issues.”
Victory for Orban could still leave him in a difficult situation, especially if Russia’s war on Ukraine drags on. In particular it could sour relations with the EU’s fellow eastern members, which are far tougher on Moscow — chief among them Poland, an ally of Orban in his battles against attempts by Brussels to punish both countries for domestic policies seen as contrary to the “rule of law”.
Though Orban is too canny to say so openly, he appears to hope the war will end quickly, even if it means defeat for Ukraine, Hegedus believes. “The strategy of the Orban government is to revert back to a kind of business as usual with Russia after the war as soon as possible,” he said. “A conflict that can last months, if not years, is potentially one of the worst case scenarios for him.”