Global Pairings

Strange Bedfellows: Hungary Leans Toward Russia

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin as cross-ideological autocratic allies.


  • Ironic that Orbán's center-right Fidesz party has willingly embraced the Russian bear.
  • Hungary's Orbán and Russia's Putin: a pair of strange political bedfellows indeed.
  • Hungary's Orbán and Russia's Putin are both given to arbitrary, paternalistic rule.
  • Can Russia be trusted as a business partner in matters that concern Hungary's vital interests?

During the course of his current term as Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán has made a sport out of provoking and defying the European Union (EU).

It was perhaps inevitable that, despite a history of nationalist anti-Russian rhetoric, Orbán’s current gamesmanship with the EU would lead him to lean toward Russia.

In January, Orbán announced that his administration had signed a deal allowing Russia to renovate and expand Hungary’s lone nuclear power facility, a project to be financed with a Russian line of credit worth 10 billion Euros (almost 14 billion dollars).

Moscow’s offer to Hungary is part of a larger initiative to re-establish Russia’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe with loans, energy and infrastructure.

That a conservative Hungarian Prime Minister would accept such an offer from Moscow is certainly ironic, given that Hungary’s current identity is rooted in the nation’s generations-long struggle to free itself from Moscow’s grip. At times — most notably, in the 1956 revolution — the price of the struggle for independence was paid in blood.

Now a friend of the Russians?

The irony of Orbán’s center-right Fidesz party willingly embracing the Russian bear has not been lost on Hungarian and international observers.

On the face of it, there are reasons why the nuclear deal with Russia makes sense. Hungary’s nuclear facility at Paks was built with Soviet technology in the first place, and Western firms have not expressed much interest in it.

On the other hand, independent reviewers have raised serious questions about the wisdom of the project on economic grounds and in terms of the impact on state finances.

It would appear that such questions have not adequately been considered. The deal struck by Orbán was negotiated secretly and Parliament was required to vote on it only three days after it was announced.

Autocracy by supermajority

Parliamentary approval itself was a mere formality, as Orbán’s tightly disciplined Fidesz party controls a supermajority (slightly over two thirds of the seats) and can pass any legislation it pleases.

The apparently half-thought-out nuclear deal with Russia is merely a symptom of the trend toward paternalistic autocracy that the supermajority has made possible for Orbán’s regime.

Fidesz’s rule has been marked by lack of transparency, arbitrariness and breathtaking political patronage, much to the distress of the EU.

Orbán and Fidesz wrote and adopted a new constitution for the country and then amended it multiple times, at their convenience. They have stacked the judiciary and the election commission with partisans and redrawn election districts.

They have also installed a Fidesz party functionary in the purportedly non-partisan office of the Presidency and increased state control over the media. They arbitrarily enfranchised some religious groups and disenfranchised others, and they nationalized the country’s private pension system to gain ready access to cash.

Strange bedfellows

It has been such reckless perversions of due process and elimination of checks and balances that have driven a wedge between Orbán and the EU leadership, paving the way for the normally virulently anti-Russian Orbán to embrace Putin—making for a pair of strange political bedfellows indeed.

And yet, it may not be so strange perhaps, as both leaders are given to arbitrary, paternalistic rule.

The trouble is that when due process is circumvented, there will eventually be a price to pay. Although Orbán’s constitutional machinations have served Fidesz’s short-term interests, sooner or later the national mood will swing another direction.

What does Orbán imagine will happen when the opposition gets its hand on the supercharged levers of power he has created, and acts on the precedents he has set?

By the same token, the rushed nuclear deal, inadequately vetted and debated, in the end might prove a costly bungle or worse. Not the least significant question is: Can Russia be trusted to act in good faith as a business partner in matters that concern Hungary’s vital interests?

The Crimea question

Just this month, the world has been reminded again of the dark side of Russian-style arbitrary power. The Kremlin’s naked gambit for Crimea is in flagrant disregard for international law and its own commitments.

To Hungarians who endured the Soviet reoccupation of Budapest in 1956, the military invasion of Ukraine cannot help but bring back chilling memories.

The events in Crimea have complicated Orbán’s public relations campaign for the Russian nuclear deal. He insists that they are entirely unrelated issues.

With his Putinesque grip on power, of course, public relations are a mere formality for Orbán. In the end he will get his nuclear deal, much as Putin will — if the international community loses its nerve — get his Black Sea resort paradise.

According to recent polling, Orbán will retain his grip in the upcoming election. But as Hungary drifts away from the EU toward Russia, he might take a look in the mirror and ask: Is this who we really want to be?

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About Brent Ranalli

Brent Ranalli is an associate at The Cadmus Group, Inc. and a member of the IBM Network Science Research Center.

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