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Vladimir Putin’s Little Helper

Hungary's Viktor Orban is abetting Moscow's push to sow chaos in the European Union. But at what cost?

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Russia has a special, unlikely friend in the European Union. Hungary, like Poland and the Baltic countries, underwent immense suffering at the hands of the Soviets during the Cold War. But Hungary is now willing to lend Moscow a hand, even if it means undermining EU solidarity at a time of acute crisis.

A disloyal member state agitating against it from within is the last thing the EU needs as it copes with a daunting slate of historic challenges: terrorism, a stubborn economic crisis, waves of refugees, complex negotiations with Turkey over refugee return, the possibility of a Brexit, a faltering peace accord in Ukraine, and a surging revolt of the anti-EU far right. What Budapest gets in return from Russia—cheap gas, kickbacks, investment—is meager compared to what it gains as an EU member. But the country’s controversial Prime Minister Viktor Orban is acting out of blinkered self-interest. An autocrat and ardent nationalist, Orban and his Fidesz party are determined to weaken the integrated EU in favor of a Europe of loosely connected nations.

Hungary’s amity is an enormous coup for the Kremlin. Moscow’s traditional allies in the EU, Greece and Cyprus, with which it shares the Eastern Orthodox faith, are weak and preoccupied with the fallout from the financial crisis. In other EU countries, Russia tends to back far-right opposition parties, such as the National Front in France, Slovakia’s People’s Party, and Bulgaria’s ultra-nationalist Attack—all of which it can count on to stir aggressive, anti-EU populism at home and raise havoc in the European Parliament.

These forces, together with grassroots populist movements, such as Pegida in Germany, have Europe’s leaders on the ropes as never before, contesting the postwar consensus that an increasingly integrated EU is the way forward for Europe. They are a spanner in the EU’s works, creating obstacles and dysfunction that Putin sees in Russia’s interests as it attempts to become a resurgent international player, jockeying with the EU for power in places like Eastern Europe. What’s bad for the EU is good for Russia, he seems to believe.

In Hungary, however, Moscow is doubly influential. By informally partnering with Orban and, at the same time, bankrolling the extremist Jobbik party, a xenophobic group to the right of Fidesz, Moscow has two allies in the country: one in the opposition, and one in power. “Fidesz and Jobbik are crucial in channeling and implementing Russian interests,” argues Daniel Hegedus, a Hungarian analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank. As a member of the EU and NATO, Hungary “is able to influence the political agenda and decision-making processes of these bodies.”

Budapest is ever more willing to stick its neck out for Russian interests. “It’s subtle,” says Ulrike Guerot, director of the European Democracy Lab, a think tank. “Hungary is a clever, noiseless go-between for Russia in the EU.”

Hungary, though, is notably vocal in warning the EU against renewing the sanctions in place against Russia. In the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and backing of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the EU levied sanctions that have hit Russia’s banking, defense, and energy industries hard. (Russia responded with countermeasures blocking EU food exports, including Hungary’s, from entering its markets.) The EU sanctions will probably be renewed in July against the background of a crumbling Minsk accord, the ceasefire agreement struck between the Ukrainian government and separatists early last year. In Moscow, speaking alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin, Orban said: “This year, by the middle of the year, there will be no easy way to prolong sanctions.” Orban added, “Russia is not an enemy of Hungary. It’s our partner,” even as he proclaimed loyalty to the EU.

But on sanctions, Hungary is the only country besides Italy that appears willing to terminate the embargo. It’s true that if the sanctions are annulled Hungarian farmers would win back markets that they lost two years ago. But there’s something bigger at stake. Orban has explicitly praised Putin’s “illiberal democracy” as a model for European countries, and used Hungary as one of its showcases. Indeed, the two strongmen share much in terms of their authoritarian style of governance, oligarch-led economies, and exploitation of national populism. This enables them to do business together in more ways than one.

In Budapest, one gets an in-the-face dose of the pro-Russia tone by opening just about any mainstream newspaper or tuning into the broadcast media, most of which is linked to the government. They overflow with praise for Russia and Putin. “It’s very deeply and consistently pro-Russian,” says the Hungarian journalist Attila Bátorfy, who also notes the recent proliferation of pro-Russian websites, Facebook pages, and other social media using translated Russian content. “Everyday there’s another angle, like how great the Russian military is or what a great emperor Putin is. The far right and pro-Orban media say Hungary shouldn’t be part of a colony led by the U.S. and the EU. This kind of Western liberalism isn’t for us.”

What exactly Orban expects to gain from this alliance is a matter of much speculation in Hungary, where the majority of the population is neither pro-Russian nor anti-EU. Moreover, Hungary benefits immensely from EU membership. In fact, it is one of the biggest net recipients of EU funding. Also, the lion’s share of its export trade is with EU countries; only 3.1 percent is with Russia.

Energy is one place to look for clues. Hungary is dependent on Russia for 89 percent of its crude oil and 57 percent of its natural gas, the latter which it buys at a cut rate. In the past, Russia has used gas as a weapon in tiffs with the Baltic states, Belarus, and Ukraine. Hungary, though, is on firm ground.

Moreover, Russia’s attempt to invest in Hungary’s sole nuclear reactor, which supplies 45 percent of its electricity, is typical of the kind of deals that are going down between the two countries. Originally Hungary had awarded the state-owned Russian firm Rosatom the contract to upgrade the reactors and supply fuel for several decades. Part of the transaction was an $11 billion Russian loan to Hungary to finance the operation. But the EU struck down the deal because of the opaque auction process; the Russians were the only investors allowed to submit a bid.

Nevertheless, Orban has promised that the project will go forward as planned. Critics in Hungary also objected that putting the Russians in charge of even more of the country’s energy supply makes it more vulnerable to Russian whims and interests. This is why the EU is striving to wean the continent off Russian energy.

Hegedus, the analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations, argues that Orban favors such secretive deals, including one to build a new metro line in Budapest, because they open the door for kickbacks and other sorts of high-level corruption—the kind that has cemented both men’s grip on power. This kind of corruption, says Hegedus, “runs smoothly even in times when big politics cannot deliver.” He adds, “The strong ties connecting the large-scale Hungarian business projects to Russia allow the politically organized Hungarian oligarchy access to significant financial gain while giving Moscow an easy tool of control and influence.”

Yet, while Orban and his Fidesz compatriots have revealed themselves susceptible to exactly this kind of dirty business, there’s more to it than money. Central Europe’s autocrats don’t want the EU to crash and burn the way Putin does. They want a loosely organized, decentralized union in which they and they alone have the say in their own countries on issues such as media freedom, migration, energy, and public tenders. Orban would be happy with an EU that is little more than a big free trade zone, impinging as little as possible on national sovereignty.

But in helping Russia undermine the EU, Hungary plays a very dangerous game. In times of crisis, the EU requires as much solidarity from its members as possible. If the EU begins to implode, there may be no stopping it. This certainly isn’t in the interest of the Central Europeans who, weak and unallied, have more than once been prey to their much larger, ambitious neighbors.