Strange Allies Hungary, Russia & the UK
Szabolcs Panyi looks at the affinities between British Conservatives and Viktor Orbán in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
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On the eve of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was scheduled to be in Budapest. The trip was called off at the last minute – journalists were told on 23 February that a reception for Truss at the British Embassy had been cancelled.
In recent years, senior members of most Western governments have tended to avoid Hungary’s capital, keen to side-step meetings with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. His tarnished reputation both as a pro-Kremlin strongman and an anti-migration populist had turned him into a black sheep of the European Union.
The relationship was slightly different for the UK, however. Regardless of Orbán’s cosying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, his theoretical ability to soften the EU’s position towards Brexit had made him an ally of Boris Johnson’s Government.
When I ask British career civil servants about British-Hungarian relations, some usually signal their personal dismay – labelling it a ”pragmatic relationship”. In May 2021, when Johnson was criticised for hosting an increasingly isolated Orbán – criticism which, to some extent, even Downing Street shared – Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng defended the meeting as “completely reasonable”. He said UK leaders “have to speak to all sorts of people, all sorts of leaders across the world whose values we don’t necessarily share.”
At the heart of this pragmatic relationship lies a deep contradiction.
Orbán’s attacks on the EU and its institutions have been fully in line with the usual Brexiteer scapegoating of Brussels. But the Hungarian Prime Minister’s pro-Russian and pro-Beijing policies are clearly working against the UK’s security and foreign policy interests.
This hasn’t prevented a string of consecutive Conservative Governments from trying to court Orbán. What remains unclear, however, is what that courting has actually achieved.
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Torn Between London and Moscow
On 12 October Hungary’s foreign minister travelled to Moscow for the Russian Energy Week 2022 conference. It was as if the Russian invasion of Ukraine had never happened. He participated at a panel discussion with Russian oligarchs – including the Chairs of Vnyesekonombank, Gazprom Neft and Novatek – all of whom are under UK sanctions. When I raised this issue with the UK Embassy in Budapest, I was told “we are not in a position to comment” reply, and that this visit is “a matter for Hungary”.
This is not the first time that Hungary showed little enthusiasm and support towards NATO allies’ efforts of countering Russian aggression.
Back in 2018, after the Skirpal poisoning, Hungary found itself in an uneasy position when the UK was asking its allies to expel Russian diplomats. Orbán’s government has never ever banned a single Russian diplomat in such a public way. To avoid embarrassing both friendly UK and slightly more friendly Russia, Hungary pulled a trick. Torn between London and Moscow, the Orbán Government expelled a Russian diplomat, but only formally. Secretly coordinating with Russia, Hungary picked a GRU-linked Russian who was finishing his posting in Budapest and about to return to Moscow anyway.
A year later, and Hungarian diplomacy yet again left British counterparts puzzled. Against all diplomatic norms, Hungarian Ambassador to the UK Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky entered into a joint venture with a state-owned Russian company.
This Russian firm, Transmashholding, is primarily known as a manufacturer of rail cars, but one of their subsidiaries is also involved in military production. It manufactured, for example, the chassis for the BUK anti-aircraft system: the same military equipment that was used to take down the MH17 in 2014, killing all 298 people on board. Ten of them were British citizens.
Szalay-Bobrovniczy has since been promoted to Minister of Defense, and had to sell his stake at that company.
However, Hungary’s NATO loyalty is under much greater scrutiny since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
At the start of the war, Orbán’s Government loudly opposed any kind of military support for Ukraine. Budapest not only does not provide Kyiv with any kind of arms or military equipment, the country has even banned weapons transfers through its territory to Ukraine. And while almost every European leader has visited Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv at least once, Orbán not only stayed away, he even listed the Ukrainian President as one of his ”opponents” following the Hungary’s April elections.
Hungary initially offered support on Russian sanctions. But such support soon petered out. Threatening to veto the European Union’s sixth sanctions package, Orbán managed to negotiate a full exemption for Hungary from the bloc’s oil embargo against Russia. Official explanation was that the Hungarian economy just cannot do without Russian oil.
Orbán then threatened to sink the whole sanctions package again. This time, he wanted to save Patriarch Kirill – the KGB-linked, warmongering head of Russia’s Orthodox Church – from being sanctioned with an asset freeze and travel ban. He succeeded. Early last month, his successes emboldened Hungary to attempt to lift sanctions on three Russian oligarchs, including Alisher Usmanov, Arsenal FC’s former shareholder.
Hungary is now openly questioning the rationale of any kind of sanctions against Moscow, claiming the moves have backfired and are hurting the European economy. While other NATO countries have cut official ties with senior Kremlin officials, Orbán’s cabinet members are still meeting with Russian counterparts on a regular basis, whether it is about discussing gas deals with Gazprom or negotiating a nuclear power plant extension with Rosatom.
British Right-Wing Pundit Support
One would think that such moves from Hungary’s government would instantly trigger a wave of criticism from British right-wing pundits. These are, after all, the same people who praise the Conservatives for standing up to Putin.
However, the Orbán Government has invested in winning over key figures in right-wing and alt-right circles in the UK in order to prevent hostile op-eds, TV and radio commentaries.
The methods include lavish study trips, personal meetings with Hungarian Government figures, and offers of speaking fees and fellowships by government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs). For many years now, self-proclaimed Thatcherites have come to Hungary to wine, dine and live on Hungarian taxpayer money without any remorse whatsoever.
To name a few examples: former Thatcher policy writer and speechwriter John O’Sullivan is heading a taxpayer-backed Hungarian think-tank called the Danube Institute. Roger Scruton, the late Conservative philosopher has a small coffee shop chain named after him in Budapest.
Scruton’s close friend, Douglas Murray – who once met Orbán alongside former Trump advisor Stephen K. Bannon – is a regular guest at Government-sponsored events, and one of Orbán’s most influential British fans. Eurosceptic historian John Laughland, a regular fixture on Russia Today, is currently on a half a year, €10,000 per month fellowship at the state-funded Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest. Laughland was recently detained and questioned at Gatwick because of his Russian ties.
The list goes on
Besides the reliable – and rarely disclosed – flow of Hungarian public money behind a large amount of Orbán apologism in British punditry, there are another common characteristics. They emphasise Orbán’s “anti-woke” and “anti-migration” ideas and present them as a role model to the UK. At the same time, his supporters never speak or outright downplay the importance of Hungary’s increasingly pro-Kremlin tendencies fully at odds with Great Britain. In that regard, Kwarteng’s defence of Orbán’s visit to Downing Street last year was in a way much more honest – he at least admitted the relationship was just about some common interests.