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With a Neutral Stance on Ukraine, Viktor Orban Pulled in Voters

todayApril 4, 2022 2

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BUDAPEST — Savoring the election victory of a rare European leader who has not condemned him as a war criminal, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Monday congratulated Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary for winning a fourth term and said he looked forward to an expansion of “partnership ties.”

At a time when Russia’s relations with the European Union and the United States are unraveling over the war in Ukraine, Hungary, a member of the European bloc, has mostly sat on the fence in response to the Russian invasion, in part to avoid upsetting a natural gas deal cemented by Mr. Orban during talks with Mr. Putin in Moscow shortly before Russia invaded.

A thumping victory in Sunday’s election for Mr. Orban’s party, Fidesz, suggested that the Hungarian leader would stick with a policy strongly endorsed by voters.

But following a vote that independent election observers said was unfairly tilted in the governing party’s favor, there is also growing pressure on Mr. Orban to change course or risk not only alienating Hungary’s allies but losing billions of dollars in badly needed funding from the European Union for failing to uphold the rule of law.

Guy Verhofstadt, a prominent liberal in the European Parliament, described the election as “a dark day for liberal democracy, for Hungary and the E.U., at a perilous time.”

Mr. Putin got more mixed news from elections Sunday in Serbia, where Aleksandar Vucic, the country’s populist pro-Russia president, won re-election, according to preliminary official results issued on Monday. But it looked as if President Vucic could lose his increasingly authoritarian grip on power after his governing party failed to win a clear majority in Parliament.

The Kremlin congratulated Mr. Vucic nonetheless, calling for a strengthening of what it described as a “strategic partnership” in the interests of “brotherly Russian and Serb people.”

Mr. Orban’s Fidesz party has been divided over how to respond to Russia’s aggression, with its more traditional nationalist wing, steeped in the history of Hungary’s own past suffering at Russia’s hands, uncomfortable with cozying up to Mr. Putin.

But its hopes that Mr. Orban, who went from being an anti-Kremlin liberal firebrand in 1989 to Mr. Putin’s closest partner in Europe, might again change direction after the election seems to have been diminished by the scale of his party’s victory. It won more than two-thirds of the seats in Parliament while an openly pro-Putin, far-right party, Our Homeland Movement, secured enough votes to enter Parliament for the first time.

“Putin is right. Ukraine is getting what it deserves,” Janos Horvath, a supporter of the far-right party, said after casting his vote. Ukraine, he said, echoing a favorite Kremlin talking point, mistreats its ethnic minorities, including Russians and Hungarians, and “must be stopped.”

The crushing defeat of Mr. Orban’s opponents, who campaigned on pledges to show more solidarity with Ukraine and Hungary’s allies, makes it unlikely that Hungary will now join NATO and the European Union in condemning Mr. Putin over his military onslaught or in supplying weapons to help Ukraine defend itself. Hungary, unlike Poland, has steadfastly refused to let weapons pass through its territory to Ukraine.

While increasingly isolated from his foreign allies, Mr. Orban won strong domestic support for his neutral stance on the war, turning what had initially threatened to become an electoral liability into a vote-getter. He did this through relentless misrepresentation of his opponents’ position, deploying a vast apparatus of loyal media outlets to convince voters that his rivals wanted to send Hungarian troops to Ukraine to fight against Russia, something that nobody has suggested doing.

At the opposition’s final rally in Budapest on election eve, Fidesz activists masquerading as journalists presented the opposition’s main candidate, Peter Maki Zay, with a white T-shirt emblazoned with a red target, shouting that this was what Hungary would become if he won. A video of the encounter was later posted online by Fidesz-friendly media outlets, which repeatedly cast the election as a choice between “war and peace.”

Soon after Mr. Putin offered his congratulations, election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe complained that, while well organized, the election had been tilted in favor of the Mr. Orban’s governing party by “blurring the line between state and party.” The vote, the organization said in a statement issued Monday, had been “marred by the absence of a level playing field.”

With his rivals in shock over their defeat, despite having forged a united front for the first time in an effort to unseat Mr. Orban, the victorious prime minister showed no sign of stepping back from his battles with the European Union. “This is not the past, this is the Europe of the future,” he told jubilant supporters early Monday.

Gloating early over a Fidesz win that he said was so big it “could perhaps be seen from the moon,” and “certainly from Brussels,” Mr. Orban, who has declined to criticize Mr. Putin over his invasion, took aim at Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, placing him alongside Brussels bureaucrats and the mainstream media as among his “many opponents.”

Mr. Zelensky has repeatedly criticized Hungary for resisting sanctions on Russian energy exports and for refusing to let weapons pass through to Ukraine.

Hungary has long had strained relations with Ukraine, which Mr. Orban has accused of persecuting its ethnic Hungarian minority by restricting the use of Hungarian-language teaching in state schools. His complaints echo those of Mr. Putin with regard to ethnic Russians living in Ukraine and have made Mr. Orban more sympathetic than other European leaders to Russia’s narrative of the war.

Hungarians living in Ukraine number only around 150,000 but they form part of a much larger diaspora that, granted the right to vote in Hungarian elections and lavished with funding by Budapest, has become an important source of support for Fidesz, and a constant source of friction between Hungary and its neighbors.

In a sign that Fidesz, emboldened by its election victory, would press on with supporting ethnic Hungarians in countries like Ukraine, Mr. Orban’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, on Monday thanked the 315,000 voters outside Hungary who he said had cast a vote. “We stand up for our Hungarian compatriots beyond the borders,” he said. “They can count on us just like we can count on them in important decisions like this one,” a reference to Sunday’s election.

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