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BARCELONA, Spain — Last week, representatives of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán vetoed more than $19 billion in new European Union funding for Ukraine, but he backed off from the position this week, clearing the way for the money to reach embattled Kyiv.
The reversal wasn’t due to a fundamental switch of opinion by Orbán, the most pro-Russian leader in the 27-member EU and an ally of prominent American conservatives like former President Donald Trump. Instead, the Hungarian strongman’s stance changed after he was threatened with the loss of nearly $14 billion in much-needed EU funding. The EU had promised the money on the condition that he follow through with promises to make his government more democratic and beholden to the rule of law.
With Hungary’s economy teetering, the country abandoned its brinkmanship — at least for the time being.
“The Hungarian economy is in a very, very dark situation right now,” Péter Krekó, executive director of Political Capital, a Hungarian policy research institute, told Yahoo News. “And its currency is plummeting.” He suspects that Orbán, serving a fourth consecutive term as prime minister, is feeling desperate.
In a round of carrot-and-stick negotiations, Brussels announced Tuesday that it would release only part of the EU money for Hungary — about $6 billion — but demanded that Orbán’s government carry on with various reforms, including reducing corruption and making Budapest’s judicial branch more independent.
Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a former member of Hungary’s Parliament and the author of a new book about Orbán, “Tainted Democracy,” told Yahoo News that she no longer considers Hungary a democracy due to its lack of transparency and checks against the prime minister’s power.
“This country is a mess,” said Szelényi.
And Hungary, which is poorer than many of its EU counterparts, is especially dependent on EU funds. By one measure from 2020, the country of 9.7 million people netted more funding per capita from Brussels than any other member state.
“Since Viktor Orbán came to power, Hungary has received 49 billion euros [just over $52 billion] in financial support,” said Daniel Freund, a member of the European Parliament representing Germany’s Green Party. “It’s supposed to go to ordinary Hungarians, to renovate schools, to bring fast internet to the countryside. Instead, it’s enriching the family and friends of Viktor Orbán, who have basically turned Hungary into a mafia state.” Orbán associates, he said, now control entire industries, including the bulk of Hungary’s construction, recycling and waste management.
What’s more, said Freund, “Orbán controls the prosecutors, he has personally named judges, and the whole justice system has been taken over by Orbán. Corruption, as long as it’s organized by him, is not being investigated, it’s not being prosecuted.”
Wojciech Przybylski, a political analyst at the Polish think tank Visegrad Insight, expressed similar concerns. “The EU’s anti-corruption agency, OLAF, is reporting that the misappropriation of money in Hungary is four to five times higher than any other country in the EU,” he told Yahoo News.
Nevertheless, Orbán appears popular with his countrymen: Shortly after his fourth consecutive victory this April, Pew Research survey results showed an approval rating of 57% among Hungarians.
Even his detractors describe Orbán as clever, persuasive and systematic in achieving his objectives. “He’s not an old-fashioned corrupt crook,” Przybylski said, adding that Orbán for years worked with American GOP strategist Arthur Finkelstein to help polish his messages and further his agenda. “I would have to praise Orbán as one of the most skilled politicians of our times,” he added.
Szelényi, who knew Orbán personally, described him as “a charmer, a charismatic politician” who has picked up pointers from conservative American politicians. His anti-immigration stance and motto — “Make Hungary Great Again” — directly echo Trump. He was also the first world leader to endorse Trump’s candidacy in 2016, and the two met up in August of this year before Orbán flew to Texas to speak at CPAC, a confab for conservative activists in the U.S. Fox News host Tucker Carlson is likewise a fan, last year flying to Budapest to tape his show there for a week.
Part of Orbán’s appeal to Hungarians, Przybylski said, is nurturing nostalgic grudges, including territorial losses resulting from the Treaty of Trianon after World War I, when the Allies sawed off two-thirds of the Kingdom of Hungary’s land. That nationalist sentiment was underscored when Orbán recently appeared at a soccer game wearing a scarf with a map of “Greater Hungary,” which included major parts of today’s Serbia, Croatia, Romania and Slovakia.
“Orbán disregards the values of the European Union and talks about the EU as a hostile body,” said Krekó. “The language against the EU is much harsher in Hungary these days than we ever saw in the Brexit campaign.”
Orbán even threatened to pull out of the EU in “Huxit,” but most wave this off as an idle threat. The majority of Hungarians want to stay in the EU, said Szelényi. And with Orbán’s dependence on EU funds, added Freund, “for Hungary, it's basically suicide to leave the European Union.”
Like Trump and Carlson, Orbán has expressed support for Russian President Vladimir Putin. But his stance took on new urgency after Putin launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February. The Hungarian leader has frequently blocked or softened efforts to punish Russia, aggravating his peers in both the EU and NATO, of which his country is also a member.
“We can see Hungary had an impact by taking exception to [the EU’s proposed] embargo of Russian oil and the price cap on Russian gas,” said Krekó. “The head of the Russian Orthodox Church has not been put on the EU sanctions list because Hungary objected.” Orbán has also blocked European weapons transfers to Ukraine from traversing Hungarian territory, he added. That weapons ban is significant because Hungary has a shared border with Ukraine.
But as the war in Ukraine has unified much of Europe against Russia, it also appears to be emboldening the EU to freeze money in order to force reforms. Plenty are needed, say analysts.
According to Szelényi, Orbán’s party changed the constitution in 2011 and 11 times since then. “They can basically change the constitution whenever they want,” she said.
What’s more, much of Orbán’s administration operates in secret, Szelényi added. “There are many decisions of the government which are not public, which should be public in a democracy. They are hiding huge transactions. We basically don’t know what this government is doing because it’s so incredibly untransparent.” Przybylski underscored that concern, adding that “since 2014, Orbán’s government has made all their deals with Russia secret.”
Marius Dragomir, formerly the director of the Budapest-based Center for Media, Data and Society, was shocked by what he saw happening to the local media — something he called “media capture.” Dragomir noted that after Orbán’s party lost elections in 2002 and 2006, he blamed the defeats on liberal media bias.
When Orbán’s Fidesz party won in 2010, its leaders moved to appoint loyalists to serve on media regulator boards and take over state media. Then the government began investing its ample advertising budgets solely on pro-Orbán media outlets. Businessmen favorable to the prime minister also bought private media outlets.
That level of control is problematic because it can become a source of unchecked disinformation. “After the end of February,” said Dragomir, “all the mainstream media in Hungary began promoting Russian propaganda. I guess people can see why that is dangerous.”
Dragomir sees other countries, such as the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, launching their own imitations of Orbán’s media capture maneuvers. But Freund doesn’t think the imitations will stop there. “The big fear I have is that this kind of behavior spreads and that other governments will say, ‘Oh, there are certain laws or rulings we don't like in the EU, so if Orbán can ignore them, why don't we do that as well?’”
“If we do not manage to deal with the most corrupt and the most outrageous attacks on the rule of law we have in the European Union, it really might encourage others to take the same path. And that is why I find this so incredibly dangerous.”