Discover more from Gideon's Substack
Ukraine and the Hungarian Election
The peculiar popularity of Orbán's neutral stance
Hungary’s governing party, Fidesz, has been leading in the polls for months, so it was no surprise that Viktor Orbán will be returning for a fifth turn as Prime Minister. Fidesz’s margin of victory was much larger than expected, which suggests that pollsters had trouble reading the true mood of the Hungarian electorate (a recurring problem across geographies in elections that turn on the urban/rural divide). But it is long past time for liberal observers to recognize that, for all that they provide many reasons to dislike them, and for all that they genuinely threaten not only liberalism but democracy itself, populist-nationalist leaders do tend to have a sense of how to be popular. Benjamin Netanyahu was hard to dislodge, Donald Trump was hard to dislodge; it’s not too surprising that Viktor Orbán has proven harder. Narendra Modi will likely prove harder still.
What’s most notable to me about Fidesz’s decisive victory, though, is that it rewarded a foreign policy stance that is an outlier among its fellows in Central Europe. While he has clearly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and has complied with the European Union’s sanctions, Orbán has been equally clear that he opposes those sanctions, and has been extremely clear about wanting to keep Hungary out of the war, to the point of preventing non-lethal aid to Ukraine from transiting Hungarian territory. Moreover, Fidesz ran on this as a core part of their closing election strategy, accusing the opposition of planning to get Hungary involved in the Ukrainian conflict and thereby threatening Hungarians’ own safety and well-being.
Most Central European countries have taken precisely the opposite view. Poland in particular has been in the forefront of Western opposition to Russia’s war, which it has used to rehabilitate itself within an EU that has been extremely critical of its populist-nationalist government. But it’s not just Poland. Czechia has also been vocal in its criticism of Hungary’s stance, pulling out of a recent Visegrad Group defense meeting in protest, which prompted Hungary to cancel the gathering altogether. Romania has been sounding the alarm about Russian intentions in the Black Sea for some time, and is most anxious now at the possible implications for their own security of any cease-fire that would leave Russia in control of much of its northern shore. All of these countries experienced Soviet domination first hand, and whatever their unhappiness about the European Union’s own high-handed tendencies or the way it serves German financial interests, they have no interest in swapping Brussels for Moscow.
Why is Hungary different? It’s not a lack of history with Russian domination; Hungary suffered a brutal invasion by the Soviet Union in 1956. But it’s also not as simple as saying that Hungary’s government is corruptly beholden to Putin. After all, if that were the case then Fidesz would have soft-pedaled its relatively neutral stance rather than running on it. Part of the answer might be continued irritation at Ukraine’s language law, which Hungarians saw as prejudicial against the Hungarian minority in Ukraine. I do think this points toward the explanation, but it’s worth noting that this law was similarly opposed by Poland and Romania for very similar reasons.
I can’t prove this, but I suspect that part of the reason is that Hungarian nationalism, like contemporary Russian nationalism, is characterized by resentment at national truncation rather than exuberance at national independence. Hungary was formally an equal partner in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, not a subject people, and after World War I large numbers of Hungarian-speaking people found themselves outside the borders of the new Hungarian nation-state. That’s very comparable to what happened to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I don’t think we are on the verge of a new movement to reclaim Transcarpathia, but I do suspect that Hungarians can identify with the Russian perspective on Ukraine better than many other Central European states. Poland, by contrast, vividly remembers its very nationhood being snuffed out in 1796 and again in 1939; it should be no surprise if Polish people identify strongly with Ukraine’s experience, and that their nationalist government, for all that it has been allied with Hungary’s on a host of conflicts with the EU, has taken a diametrically opposed position when it comes to the war in Ukraine.
There’s a larger lesson there about the enduring importance of national interest as opposed to ideological alignment, with potential implications for Western European countries as well. Compare, for example, the UK’s stance on Ukraine to France’s. Russia provided the same kind of sub-rosa support for the Brexit campaign that they have for any number of other politically disruptive movements in Europe and elsewhere (support that, in my opinion, was of negligible importance in determining the outcome), and Boris Johnson’s Tories have been accused (somewhat unfairly, I think) of being narrowly nationalist little Englanders. But Johnson’s government has been the most supportive of Ukraine’s fight in all of Western Europe, and it is that stance which has halted the catastrophic slide in its popularity. Were Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer not foursquare in support of the government’s positions on Ukraine, the Tories would probably be doing even better.
By contrast, France has been one of Western Europe’s more conciliatory countries, keeping personal lines of communication open with Putin and consistently advocating some kind of negotiated solution to the conflict. France is in no way neutral; President Emmanuel Macron has joined with his allies in Europe and America in imposing draconian sanctions on Russia. But presenting a united front may be an electoral liability rather than an asset: his most formidable opponent in the next election, Marine Le Pen, who is forthrightly opposed to France’s membership in NATO and who takes a significantly more pro-Russian stance, has surged in recent polls. Nor is Le Pen alone; the French tribunes of the far left are equally firm in their opposition to membership in NATO or to direct engagement on Ukraine’s side in the war. The reason for the difference, again, is national interest. While France is less vulnerable than many European states to the impact of sanctions (France imports considerably less Russian gas than Germany or Italy, for example), France has always had an ambivalent relationship at best with Atlanticism, and the Atlanticist dispensation has been front and center in the campaign to support Ukraine. The fact that Macron is a centrist technocrat par excellence can’t completely override that difference in national perspective.
Americans in particular have a tendency to ideologize every conflict, to try to establish who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are and to elide the degree to which we define them largely with reference to our own national interests, which we are rarely willing to acknowledge fully. I don’t have any problem identifying Vladimir Putin as one of the “bad guys” because that’s what he is. But we’d understand the world better if we recognized that everyone—ourselves included—has more sympathy for bad guys who are the enemies of our enemies, or whose position we find analogous to our own, or who we fear opposing not because we fear them but because we fear the constriction of our friends’ embrace that will inevitably follow linking arms in opposition, rather than assuming that anyone who doesn’t hate the bad guy must just be a bad guy themselves.