After thirteen years and counting under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s leadership, Hungary has become the black sheep of the European community. Now, as its pool of sympathizers wanes, Hungary must delicately balance its geopolitical position to retain whatever leverage it once held among old allies.
Over the past year, fault lines between Budapest and the European Union have been exacerbated to new heights by the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Breaking ranks with the rest of the EU, Hungary has hesitated to supply Kiev with material aid and refused to expel Russian diplomats like its neighbors. This has drawn a great amount of scrutiny from the European Parliament, who have already accused Budapest of governmental corruption and unfair election practices in the last year. Responding in suit, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán leveled his own set of scathing criticisms against Brussels in his annual State of the Nation speech last February. Speaking to the crowd, the fourth-term premier accused the EU of needlessly escalating the conflict in Ukraine, condemned the sanctions placed against Russia, and called for an immediate ceasefire.
Orbán’s address typifies the series of back-and-forth spats that have taken shape between Budapest and its European allies in recent months. Beyond the confines of the European Parliament, Orbán and his governing Fidesz party have caused a great deal of trouble within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a defensive pact intended to curtail Russian influence on the continent. Most recently, Budapest forestalled Finland and Sweden’s applications to enter NATO for nearly ten months, claiming that there was simply no time within the Hungarian legislature to consider them. Although Budapest finally acquiesced to Helsinki’s bid last March, it has continued to leave Stockholm on hold. Orbán cast similar doubts on Ukraine’s future NATO membership last week, retweeting a headline featuring the alliance chief’s pledge to admit Kiev with a vague and apparently frustrated comment, simply reading “What?!”
While Orbán maintains that any instances of defiance within the EU and NATO are necessary expressions of Hungary’s national sovereignty, such measures have begun to alienate Budapest from its closest European allies. In the Czech Republic, newly elected president Petr Pavel has been vocally skeptical of Hungary and its role in the regional Visegrad Four group, a cooperative bloc that comprises Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. Prague is slated to assume the V4 chairmanship in July, and although its current policy toward Budapest is unlikely to change, the head of state’s ambivalent attitude toward Orbán poses potential difficulties for Hungary in the future. Poland, another V4 country, and one of Hungary’s longest and closest historical allies, has also split with Budapest on its differing degree of support for Ukraine, causing a dramatic rift between the two former friends. In a trip to Bucharest last week, the Polish Foreign Minister hailed Romania as Warsaw’s current closest ally, directly referencing the two nations’ similar perceptions of international security risks and the role played by NATO.
Meanwhile, as Hungary’s Old World neighbors continuously ramp up pressure on the Prime Minister, Orbán has attempted to shore up support overseas in the United States. Relations between Washington and Budapest have soured under the current Biden administration, and the US recently imposed harsh sanctions against a Budapest-based Russian bank. Despite this, Orbán has remained conciliatory, complying with the sanctions, and reaffirming that the US is a close friend and ally of Hungary. Such a move perfectly encapsulates the grand Budapest balancing act that defines Orbán’s foreign policy – although the Prime Minister has vocally denounced the Biden administration and accused the US, like Brussels, of provocation in Ukraine, he is willing to relent in order to maintain a favorable position with his current allies rather than alienating them completely. Ultimately, this game of give-and-take has put Hungary in a rather delicate position.
As Orbán’s Western relations remain tenuous, some suspect that the Prime Minister will lean more heavily on Turkey and Central Asia, following a state visit to the Organization of Turkic States last week. In the meantime, Orbán continues to engage in the same balancing act in Europe as he has with Washington. By admitting Finland to NATO, for instance, Orbán has signaled that Hungary is still willing to play ball; by blocking Sweden, he has simultaneously indicated that Budapest will still need to be bargained with. In fact, Hungary’s current position within the EU and NATO is possibly the greatest asset to the country’s foreign policy. By creating a persistent roadblock for its allies, Budapest can demand disproportionate attention on the international stage. At the same time, Orbán must straddle the line between agitation and aggression carefully. If the fault lines between Budapest and its allies finally rupture, Hungary’s position of leverage may soon become a position of complete isolation, and Europe’s odd man will finally be out.