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Hungary and Russia in the (post) Putin Era

Modern Hungarian-Russian relations can be neatly summed up by the phrase “in the right place, at the right time”

Over the past few years, the phrase “Hungarian-Russian” appears mainly in discussions around the de-democratisation of Hungary. Recent developments in the country give cause for concern, from the closure of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest to granting asylum to a former Prime Minister of Macedonia accused of corruption. Broader trends include the purchase and subsequent closure of independent media outlets, a non-representative electoral system which affords the ruling Fidesz party a constitutional majority (despite winning 49% of vote), pressure on independent businesses, and constant anti-western propaganda. All these suggest that the “Putinisation” of Hungary continues apace.

This “Putinisation” falls under the concept of “authoritarian learning,” according to which authoritarian governments deepen bilateral ties, enthusiastically adopting each other’s most effective practices of authoritarian rule. Often this “lesson” is combined with nice “bonuses” for both parties, in the form of corrupt contracts and deals which benefit ruling elites. One example of such a “bonus” is a contract Hungary signed with the Moscow Region’s Metrovagonmash factory to repair 222 socialist-era metro carriages for one of the Budapest metro lines. The contract with the Russians was signed despite the fact that Estonia’s Skinest Rail company offered Budapest more favourable terms.

The perspectives for the development of Hungarian-Russian relations have to be considered in this political context. Namely, an authoritarian political context where President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán set the tone of relations between the two countries.

The Yeltsin Legacy

Boris Yeltsin laid the groundwork for future Russian-Hungarian relations during his visit to Hungary in December 1991. Russia’s first president publicly denounced totalitarianism as unacceptable, condemning the “communist dictatorship” and the suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956. However, the recalcitrant Supreme Soviet of Russia refused to ratify a treaty acknowledging Russia’s responsibility for suppressing the revolution in 1956. Nevertheless, the Hungarian side, then led by the Socialist Party of Hungary, signed an agreement on the status of military graves in Hungary, thereby preserving 1,257 Soviet military graves and monuments. This decision formally secured Russian-Hungarian relations from future disputes over historical memory, such as those which erupted between Russia and the Baltic States.

However, the Hungarian decision led to unforeseen consequences. In 2009, the anti-nationalist and pro-European Socialist Party of Hungary lost the support of the increasingly nationalist Hungarian electorate. The continuation of neoliberal economic policies and damage to its public image soon left this flagship party of the Hungarian left floundering, having exhausted its last chances.

Mass protests in the mid-2000s coincided with the 50 year anniversary of the Hungarian revolution, which only inflamed anti-Russian sentiments. For example, as one opposition politician declared at the time, Hungary had opened the door to Europe, but closed it on “Russians, the Soviet Union, and communism.” That politician was Viktor Orbán.

Right Place, Right Time

Upon returning to power in 2010, Orbán drastically changed his anti-Russian rhetoric. In Transylvania in the summer of 2014, he stated that China, Russia, Turkey, and Singapore should serve as examples to follow in the establishment of an “illiberal democracy.”

Such statements are not made at random. In 2010, Orbán immediately began to pursue authoritarian policies which the European Union and western European countries were bound to criticise. The only escape from the political blockade which follows was for Budapest to diversify its foreign relations, improving cooperation — at least on a superficial level — with China, Russia, and Turkey.

The events of 2014 proved fortuitous for the Orbán regime in several respects. Due to its revanchist foreign policy, based on a strong conservative turn within Russian society, the Kremlin became a convenient ally of Orbán, on both pragmatic and ideological grounds. By projecting the image of an international “anti-liberal” movement, the Orbán government was able to manoeuvre past European sanctions by playing on fears of Russian designs to collapse the EU from within with Hungary’s assistance.

For its part, the Kremlin was presented with an opportunity to undermine European and NATO unity by playing to Orbán’s authoritarian tendencies and Hungary’s dependence on Russian resources. In addition to control over natural gas, Russia concluded a 12 billion Euro contract with Hungary to construct the new VVER-1200 reactors at the Paks nuclear power plant. Under this contract, Russia provided a loan of 10 billon Euros, while the country’s state-owned Rosatom agency became the exclusive contractor in exchange for technology, nuclear fuel, and the construction of a temporary storage facility for nuclear waste. Apart from its ecological impact, the project has garnered strong criticism across the EU due to Rosatom’s exclusive rights to construction and development deals.

Importantly, the financial crisis of 2008 strongly affected Hungary’s economic situation, among that of other European states. Upon returning to power, the Orbán government announced a new “global openness” policy based around multilateral foreign trade. Reorienting its trade towards eastern markets (especially China’s) thus allows Hungary to seriously consider reducing its economic dependence on western European countries. Russia’s role in this scenario remains that of a key energy supplier.

Yet all is not rosy; despite the rhetoric heard from the Kremlin and Budapest, not to mention the contracts signed between the two governments, Hungarian-Russian relations still cannot be termed “ideological.” In 2014, Russia accused Hungary of supplying Soviet-era T-72 tanks to Ukraine; a claim which has yet to be proven. In 2016, Moscow provoked a fiercely negative reaction in Hungary by allowing Russia’s pliant mass media to describe the 1956 Hungarian revolution as a “massacre” and nothing more than a CIA-organised plot not dissimilar to today’s “colour revolutions.” Last but not least, despite Hungary’s symbolic criticism of sanctions against Russia and Putin’s visit to Budapest in 2015, the country remains firmly committed to NATO and EU policy towards the conflict in Ukraine.

Thus modern Hungarian-Russian relations can be neatly summed up by the phrase “in the right place, at the right time.” Viktor Orbán’s return to power in 2010 coincided with the Kremlin’s turn towards an explicitly anti-western foreign policy and its use of heavy-handed and authoritarian measures after Russia’s protests of 2011-12. Faced with opposition from the EU, western European states, and the US administration of Barack Obama, Orbán and Putin became natural allies. This pragmatism enabled them to develop bilateral relations to further their personal political goals. The penetration of Russian business into Hungary and the generous distribution of residency permits to members of the Russian elite (including relatives of the head of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service), are just a nice side effect of the cooperation between Orbán and Putin.

What’s Next?

How exactly Hungarian-Russian relations will develop in the future can be predicted solely in light of radical changes in either country, prompted by internal or external shocks. These changes could take the form of drastic policy changes of the current regimes, or a change in the regimes themselves.

Any such change would raise parallels with 1953-1956, when the unexpected death of Stalin became a turning point in the fate of the entire socialist bloc. The debunking of Stalin’s cult of personality spelt the writing on the wall for Mátyás Rákosi, Hungary’s communist leader and avowed “Stalin disciple.” When they sensed that political change was indeed on the horizon, Hungarian activists refused to accept the leadership of Ernő Gerő, Rákosi’s anointed (but no less authoritarian) heir. These events turned out to be the preamble to the Hungarian revolution.

After the uprising broke out, Nikita Khrushchev and members of the Presidium of the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee were reluctant to subdue the insurgence by armed force and even ordered the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Budapest. However, Moscow’s subsequent (and infamous) decisions proved very different.

Of course, Russia today has no such opportunities to exert military influence on Hungary. But should a democratic regime change take place in Russia, we could expect Hungary’s position in the EU to be weakened, with a concurrent change in Orbán’s policy. Anti-Russian rhetoric could thus become a new source of legitimacy for the Hungarian government. Nevertheless, much would depend on the actions taken by the new Russian authorities. For example, a pragmatic approach to the Orbán regime and tolerance towards public criticism of Soviet actions in Hungary could stem the growth of anti-Russian sentiment in the country. Measures like this could also help maintain current cultural and economic ties between the two states.

If Putin’s regime continues to rule Russia, but there is a democratic regime change in Hungary, the most likely outcome would be a deterioration in relations between the two countries. Hungary’s dependence on the Russian energy sector would limit the new authorities’ scope for action in much the same way that it limits Germany, Poland, Slovakia, and other highly energy-dependent countries. However, such speculations may seem outdated; the surge in right-wing and populist movements across Europe today leaves little room for liberal politicians to come to power. Today, the main opposition force in Hungary is the ultra-right anti-Semitic party Jobbik, which won 17.6% of the vote in the country’s 2018 parliamentary elections. While Jobbik also holds positive views towards Russia, the party’s behaviour in the event of its coming to power is extremely difficult to predict.

In essence, if a regime change does ever take place in Russia, then the country’s new politicians would do well to maintain their predecessors’ pragmatism. This means understanding the fragile nature of positive gains made in Russian-Hungarian relations. In order to prevent Budapest from taking an avowedly anti-Russian policy (with all the risks that entails for current cultural and economic ties) or a deterioration in relations with the EU due to supporting disobedient member states, any new Russian government will probably have to make symbolic concessions while striving to maintain bilateral ties.

The author would like to express his thanks to professor Alexander Astrov, head of the Department of International Relations at the Central European University (CEU), as well as Lajos Bokros, a Hungarian politician and professor at the CEU’s School of Public Policy, for their insights and support in researching this article. The author’s position may not reflect that of these experts.

Photo: Kremlin.ru

What does the future hold for relations among Russia, Europe and the United States? This article is part of a series on future scenarios, sponsored by Riddle in cooperation with Johns Hopkins University SAIS and DGAP, supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung.