Mixmaster Orban: Why Hungary’s prime minister keeps changing his tune

The EU should not fall for Orban’s attempts to distance himself from Putin. The Hungarian leader may now present himself as a pillar of European unity but, fundamentally, he has not changed.

Viktor Orban for the European People’s Party in Dublin, 2014

Politicians are always in a double bind: they must be consistent in representing the values of their base and themselves, and at the same time be flexible enough to meet the challenges of a changing world. One of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s remarkable – and, for many, enviable – abilities is his capacity to switch narratives at will. He is much like a DJ who keeps his set moving by mixing different samples and basslines, always operating by instinct.

Of course, Orban has the enormous advantage of a state-controlled media realm, which allows him to easily filter out dissonant sounds. He also benefits from having dismantled Hungary’s democratic institutions – directly controlling the prosecutor’s office, and ensuring that the bureaucracy and other institutions are loyal only to him.

Orban’s tendency to abruptly change his tune can be astonishing and inexplicable to outside observers. Russia’s war on Ukraine has forced the Hungarian prime minister into his most dramatic rhetorical shift yet – but, for him, even this seems surmountable.

Orban has a well-documented record of using freedom-fighting rhetoric to condemn Brussels and a supposedly declining West in the past 12 years. In parallel, he has become Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the European Union. As early as 2009, while still in opposition, he visited Putin and moved on from the anti-communist rhetoric that had characterised his earlier career. In 2014 Orban awarded a contract for the construction of new units of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant to Russia – without a public tender and on Russian credit. In 2019 he invited the International Investment Bank – known in the Hungarian press only as the ‘spy bank’ – into Hungary and granted it diplomatic immunity. In various speeches, Orban has consistently described Putin as a wise statesman and friend of Hungary, contrasting Russia’s behaviour with that of the West.

Today, Orban still considers his relationship with Putin to be justified and correct. Earlier this month, he claimed: “as for the Russian president, what I have agreed with him so far he has always kept to, and so have we. Hungarian-Russian relations were balanced and fair until recently.”

In just a few years, the traditionally anti-Russian Hungarian right has become pro-Russian and anti-Western. The shift resembles that in the United States among supporters of former president Donald Trump.

In this context, Russia’s war on Ukraine – which Orban, like many, thought would not happen or would be far more limited – has brought about a rapid change in rhetoric.

The narrative of a ‘friendly Russia’ and ‘peacekeeper Putin’ became untenable. So, Orban changed his tune, emphasising that national unity came first and would require careful decisions by an experienced leader. This is what Orban represents in the new narrative, which has been amplified by his propaganda machine, in the face of an opposition movement that is purportedly disorganised, unpredictable, and disruptive. Despite his special relationship with Putin, Orban seems to be gaining ground in public opinion polls.

All this is water under the bridge, one might think. Why does it matter that Orban once cosied up to Putin if he is now in agreement with the EU on the main strategic issues – if he has recognised the need to impose sanctions on Russia, strengthen European militaries, assist Ukrainian refugees, and provide humanitarian aid to civilians in Ukraine?

Russia’s war on Ukraine has forced the Hungarian prime minister into his most dramatic rhetorical shift yet – but, for him, even this seems surmountable

The short answer is: Orban has not changed. The EU should not fall for what he proudly calls the “peacock dance”. He may now present himself as a pillar of European unity in a time of war, but he will change his tune again in a heartbeat.

Despite these shifts, there is a coherent element to Orban’s strategic thinking: his assessment of the geopolitical situation, which is based on what he sees as the cultural disintegration of the West. Orban is convinced that the United States is fading as a global power and is being replaced by China, at least in the short term. He sees this as a great opportunity for him personally.

“We already know what the world is like when there is Anglo-Saxon dominance,” he recently argued. “But we don’t yet know what the world will be like when there is Chinese dominance. One thing is certain: the Anglo-Saxons are demanding that the world recognise their position as morally correct. For them, it is not enough to accept the reality of power; they also need you to accept what they think is right. The Chinese have no such need. This will definitely be a big change in the coming decades.”

In recent weeks, the West finally seems to have found its mojo again (in sharp contrast to, for instance, its non-response to Hungary’s 1956 revolution). Western countries have imposed a multitude of economic, political, symbolic, and cultural sanctions on Russia to protect their values and their security. Yet, at this pivotal moment, Orban still wants to create a world in which there is no pressure to uphold such values – one that would facilitate his illiberal concentration of power and personal enrichment.

The other important element of his philosophy is the idea that Western liberals are closet Marxists. “Since the collapse of communism”, he says, Marxists have been “devouring the liberals. We see this in America, but the same process is happening in Europe.” His main complaints focus on equal marriage and other so-called ‘woke’ issues. For Orban, “the conservative side is at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the Marxist, liberal camp, and we have to take up the gauntlet in this fight.”

In other words, in a world order dominated by China, there will be no need for core elements of liberal democracy such as the rule of law and governance systems based on checks and balances. Orban will be free to sustain the illiberal alternative. This is the track he will always return to eventually. He sees European values and even EU membership as there to be discarded if his interests and power relations require it.

At the end of the day, Orban is a DJ who plays whatever music the listener wants. But his true motivation is always the same: to keep his position and to make his money. And, sometimes, he tries to hit the jackpot – that is what he cares about, and nothing else.

Tibor Dessewffy is the president of DEMOS Hungary and an ECFR council member.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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