BUDAPEST — Facing a tough election two months away, far-right populist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban last week opened the centerpiece of a new state-funded museum district celebrating his country’s role as an anchor of European culture and identity.
A shrine in the newly opened “House of Music” pays homage to Hungarian champions of democracy routed by Austrian and Russian troops in 1848, anti-Communist rebels crushed by Soviet soldiers in 1956 and, on a happier note, to Hungary’s successful challenge to Moscow in 1989, when Mr. Orban made a name for himself by demanding that 80,000 Soviet troops return home.
On Tuesday, just days after the opening of the museum, a celebration of national pride that Mr Orban has long used to reinvigorate his constituents, the Hungarian prime minister swerved in the opposite direction to cement another vital if contradictory pillar. of his support – Russia.
Meeting President Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow, he expressed sympathy for Russia in its standoff with the West over Ukraine, and pleaded for more supplies of the natural gas it needs to maintain low energy prices and voter satisfaction.
Mr Orban has long been seen as a political chameleon – and reviled by his enemies as a cheeky opportunist – but he is now pushing his shape-shifting skills to a new level. He has broken ranks not only with Hungary’s allies over Ukraine, but also with his country’s long history of distrust of Russia as it seeks to reconcile economic populism with undercurrent nationalism. stretches its political mark.
Hungary, according to the European Union’s statistical agency, has the lowest electricity prices and the third lowest gas prices for consumers in the 27-member European bloc. While prices elsewhere have doubled or tripled over the past year, Hungary has held them steady, a feat which Mr Orban’s ruling Fidesz party says will help him defeat unusually united opposition in the April 3 elections.
Analysts wonder if Hungary can keep prices low for consumers indefinitely without crippling the finances of a huge state-owned electricity supplier. But Mr. Orban has looked to Moscow to help convince voters that he has their economic interests in hand.
Hungary has sided unequivocally with Mr Putin as other members of the European Union and NATO have expressed growing concern over what they see as Russian bullying of Ukraine , on the borders of which Moscow has massed more than 100,000 soldiers.
Speaking on Hungarian radio on Friday, Mr Orban brushed off criticism of his rapprochement with the Kremlin, saying Hungary wanted to act as an “icebreaker” by pursuing a policy which, he acknowledged, ” departs entirely from most EU and NATO allies”.
Understanding Russia’s relationship with the West
Tension between the regions is rising and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks and press his demands.
During a press conference Tuesday in the Kremlin with Mr. Putin, Mr. Orban left no doubt about the main reason for this deviation.
“If we have Russian gas, we can provide a cheap supply to Hungarian households. If there is no Russian gas, we cannot do this,” he explained.
Peter Kreko, the director of Political Capital in Budapest, said cheap energy was one of Fidesz’s main selling points to voters. “The party says that if people in the rest of Europe freeze or get poorer because of energy prices, Hungary has no problem.”
Mr Orban’s trip to Moscow, he said, could therefore be a “great victory – as long as the war does not escalate in Ukraine”. But if Russia invades, he added, Mr Orban, who described his trip to Mr Putin as a “peace mission”, will be “in big trouble internationally and also domestically.” His whole story falls apart.
Mr. Orban is not the first Hungarian leader to head to Moscow in search of energy. But when a predecessor did so in 2007 and struck a gas deal with state-controlled Russian energy giant Gazprom, Mr Orban blasted the arrangement as proof his country was slipping back into the fold. orbit of Moscow.
Since then, however, Mr Orban has abandoned the anti-Moscow sentiments that catapulted him to prominence in 1989, and instead developed a form of far-right populism more focused on feeding contemporary culture wars by targeting the European Union as a menacing threat to Hungarian sovereignty and values.
Nationalist leaders in other European countries like Poland share Mr. Orban’s hostility to Brussels, but reject his openness to Mr. Putin, a rift that has hampered a years-long effort by Europe’s far-right to form a united front.
“We had bad relations with the Soviet Union for many reasons that I don’t need to list here,” Orban told radio listeners on Friday. “But those days are over, and now we are trying to have a system of relations with this new Russia that is different from what we had with the Soviet Union.”
Mr. Putin returned the favor.
After slamming NATO for “ignoring” Russia’s security concerns while Mr Orban stood by his side in the Kremlin, the Russian president effectively backed the Hungarian leader.
“As we usually say when our partners hold elections, we will work with any elected leader,” Mr. Putin said, adding: “But I must note that you have done so much in your work on the Russian track to both in the interests of Hungary and Russia. I hope that our cooperation will continue.
More importantly, he offered Mr. Orban a helping hand with energy, noting that underground gas storage facilities in Europe are only 40% full and that “our European partners in Europe will likely be face problems next year”. But Hungary, Mr Putin promised, “will have no problem because we will coordinate additional volumes”.
Around 80% of the gas used in Hungary is imported from Gazprom, more than double the average level of Russian imports from the European Union. Then there is nuclear energy. Hungary’s largest electricity producer is the Paks nuclear power plant, a Soviet-designed facility whose expansion Mr Orban also discussed with Mr Putin. It produces about half of Hungary’s electricity. Russia has provided $10 billion in loans to finance the expansion of the plant, a project led by Russian nuclear energy company Rosatom.
“It should be clear to everyone that as long as this government is in power, energy prices will be reduced,” Mr Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, said last year.
Hungary’s reliance on Russia for energy helps explain why, when the Biden administration announced this week that it would send more US troops to the region, Hungary said it would didn’t need it. Poland and Romania welcomed the American offer.
Hungary has a long history of animosity towards Russia, but this faded as the media controlled by Mr Orban and his supporters praised Mr Putin and steadily eroded trust in the country. western alliance.
“The era of cheap Russian gas is over,” said Attila Weinhardt, energy analyst at Portfolio, an online financial newspaper. The government’s hope of being able to maintain fixed energy prices for households, he said, is probably unsustainable.
Orban’s visit to Moscow failed to secure any written commitments for additional supplies and merely reaffirmed a 15-year agreement signed last September. The deal, which advanced Russian efforts to reduce gas deliveries to Europe via Ukraine using alternative pipelines, was condemned by Ukraine as a “purely political and economically unreasonable decision”.
Mr Orban’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, replied that Hungary was not playing politics but simply protecting its own economic and security interests. “You can’t heat houses with political statements,” he said.
Valerie Hopkins contributed reporting from Moscow.