On a warm day in June 1989, Jozsef Gulyas stood in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square and heard a speech that gave him hope. Then in his forties, the miner wanted freedom and for his country to throw off the shackles of communism. He wanted out of Russia’s sphere of influence and to join the West.
Giving the speech that day was a 26-year-old Viktor Orban, wearing a scruffy suit and a head of thick dark curls. He too wanted out from under the core state of the imploding Soviet Union. “Nobody should believe that a party-state will spontaneously change,” Orban told the crowd that day. “We cannot accept the empty promises of Communist politicians.”
Thirty-two years on, Gulyas is still with Orban, standing among hundreds of thousands of others to support Hungary’s longest-serving Prime Minister on the cusp of elections in April. But their orientation has changed. “I almost hold the Russian people and the Chinese people in higher regard than the Westerners,” Gulyas, now 76, tells TIME at a rally in Budapest on March 15. “Thirty years ago we thought that the West was God. Now the West is lying to its own people and to us too.”
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In a European Union that answered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with an economic war against Moscow, Hungary stands apart. While Orban stopped short of vetoing E.U. sanctions on Russia, he has said Budapest will block any E.U. sanctions on Russian oil and gas, and refuted calls to stop the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Plant, which is being funded by Russia’s nuclear power company, Rosatom. Arguing that Hungarians should not be faced with higher bills because of energy sanctions, Orban believes he is skilled enough to navigate a relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
That irks the European Union—which in many ways is nothing new. Over the course of Orban’s 12 year tenure, Brussels has been at odds with Hungary for its increasingly undemocratic tendencies, including weakening the country’s free press and undermining its independent judiciary. So fraught was Budapest’s relationship with the E.U. that in December 2020 the European Parliament approved a new “rule of law conditionality” mechanism that linked E.U. funds to member states’ respect for democracy.
But the Ukraine invasion brought a new measure of Orban’s defiance: Hungary now finds itself isolated even from Poland, the country that joined it in wreaking havoc on the E.U.’s fundamental values, including by jointly launching a legal challenge against the rule of law mechanism (their case was rejected by the European Court of Justice, the bloc’s top court, in early February).
Russia has long tested the limits of Poland and Hungary’s “illiberal alliance.” While Orban has courted Putin since before his return to power in 2010, the man often called Poland’s most powerful politician, Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczynski, has never ceased to wax lyrical about the threat the Kremlin poses to the West. When Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, Orban offered no strong opinions on the conflict and only reluctantly supported the E.U.’s sanctions on Moscow, arguing that “Russia’s exclusion from Europe is not reasonable; security in the region can only be achieved with Russia.” Meanwhile, Poland stood firm in its support for Ukraine and called on Europe to take the Russian security threat seriously.
In the infamous Transylvania speech announcing Hungary in 2014 as an “illiberal state,” Orban also called Russia—along with China, Singapore, India, and Turkey—a model for Hungarian society. None of this sat well with Warsaw but it wasn’t until Putin himself visited Budapest in 2015 and was allowed to state his position on Ukraine that tensions between the two came to boiling point. When Orbán later visited Poland, Kaczynski, whose Law and Justice Party (known by the Polish initials PiS) was still in opposition, refused to meet him. Over time these frustrations faded as the focus between the two moved to undermining the E.U. But they were never forgotten—and now demonstrate how much of an outlier Orban has made Budapest in the largest European conflict since World War II.
Though Hungary has thrown open its eastern frontier to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion, unlike Poland it has refused Kyiv lethal aid and prevented weapons to Ukraine from being transported via its territory. Once again Orban has framed Russian aggression in Ukraine as an issue beyond his jurisdiction and promoted so-called “strategic calmness.” With elections on April 3 and the Prime Minister likely to win his fourth consecutive term in office, his Fidesz party is campaigning on keeping Hungary “out of the war.” Hungary’s six-party united opposition has highlighted Fidesz’s close affiliations to the Kremlin, but that may not matter in Hungary’s rural heartlands where both support for Orban and fears of regional instability run strong.
“Every step Orbán takes ahead of the elections is focused on winning,” Pál Dániel Rényi, a Hungarian journalist and author tells TIME. “Hungary is heading into a massive recession, the Prime Minister is power obsessed, and he isn’t going to do anything that won’t work in his favour.” If the price is isolation even from Poland that appears to be fine with Orban. On March 23 Hungarian President János Áder was due to unveil a statue in the southern Polish town of Bochnia to mark Polish-Hungarian friendship day. His trip was reportedly postponed because Poland’s President Andrzej Duda didn’t want to appear alongside him, given Hungary’s ambiguous stance on the Russian invasion.
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Zsuzsanna Szelenyi, a former Hungarian opposition lawmaker and early member of Fidesz (she left the party in 1994), says that in recent years the Russia issue was swept under the carpet as attention focused on Poland and Hungary’s crusade against Brussels’ commitment to liberalism and harmony. “The way Orban made his relationship with Russia accepted by PiS was he told them it was just about business,” says Szelenyi, at a cafe on the Buda side of the Danube. “He said it was a pragmatic relationship and nothing political or ideological. The Poles were never really happy with that, but it was secondary to the struggle with the EU.”
Now, however, the invasion has become a big issue between Hungary and Poland, highlighting their different policies, she says. “Poland is aligned with the Baltics; they have the same threat perception, while Orban is looking for more allies to support his position on Russia such as Bulgaria and Serbia.”
Although, like Hungary, Poland is also heavily dependent on Russian energy, Warsaw long has opposed Germany’s now-halted Nord Stream 2 pipeline, arguing it could be used as a tool for Russia to “blackmail” Europe. In the days following the invasion, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki pledged that his country will be independent of Russian energy within six months. On March 19 Warsaw proposed that the E.U. implement a total ban on trade with Russia. And In an extraordinary move earlier this month Polish, Czech and Slovenian leaders boarded a train and journeyed into war-torn Ukraine to show their support for President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Orbán meanwhile busied himself rallying supporters, dozens of whom told TIME at the campaign event on March 15 that the war in Ukraine was unfortunate, but not something Hungary should get involved with. “It’s really sad, of course it is, but I think other E.U. states are antagonizing Russia with sanctions,” said Katalin, 54, a Fidesz supporter who asked that only her first name be published. “This government does the right thing for us.”
—With reporting by Éva Papp/Budapest
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