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The end of the Budapest–Warsaw axis

Wojciech Przybylski is the editor in chief of Visegrad Insight and is Europe’s Futures Fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna. 

The war in Ukraine has cracked the foundations of the long-standing Polish-Hungarian political friendship.  

With Warsaw leading the charge in Europe against Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression, and Budapest doing its best not to pick a side between the West and the Russian president, the once like-minded governments have found themselves on opposite sides of one of the worst crises in recent memory. 

Since the ascension of the conservative Law and Justice party in Poland in 2015, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has made common cause with the government in Warsaw. With both under fire for their attacks on the media and judiciary, they formed an ideological bloc — backing each other when Brussels or other European capitals accused them of democratic backsliding. 

Together with the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Poland and Hungary had formed what became known as the Visegrád Group of Central European countries, which led to their joint accession to NATO and the EU. But Orbàn hijacked this agenda in 2014, becoming its confrontational ringleader, especially on the divisive subject of migration.

But even though one of the things these countries shared was a history of repression by Russia, Orbàn made no bones about cozying up to Moscow. Putin has given Orbán the cheapest gas prices in Europe, special loans to fund the expansion project for Hungary’s Paks II nuclear power plant and installed Russia’s International Investment Bank in Budapest.  

When it comes to Putin, favors like that do not come for free. In return for Russia’s support, the Orbán government orchestrated its official media to follow the Kremlin’s narrative so closely that Moscow’s main propaganda channels never even needed to expand into Hungary. Budapest also became an ally inside the EU for Putin, and other anti-democratic forces like China, playing a blocking role in efforts to stand up to them. 

While this pattern of behavior had attracted notice before the war in Ukraine, Putin’s aggression has now made it impossible to ignore — even for Orbàn’s allies in Warsaw. Following a visit to Poland by U.S. President Joe Biden last week, the country’s President Andrzej Duda gave an interview to the main independent TV channel, criticizing the Hungarian leader for denying Ukraine meaningful support. 

Just a week earlier, the three right-wing prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia had all gone to Kyiv to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, literally distancing themselves from Hungarian leadership. 

Yet Orbán continues to stand his ground. When Zelenskyy recorded a direct video appeal in which he reminded the Hungarian leader of the massacre of Jews carried out on the Danube riverbank during World War II, the response from Budapest was to belittle his words simply as those of a former comedian — and to accuse the government in Kyiv of meddling in Hungarian politics. 

Hungarians are now set to vote in a parliamentary election on Sunday, with polls predicting a victory for Orbán. Although the opposition has united behind the conservative candidate Péter Marki-Zay, unfair electoral tactics, including gerrymandering, control over the media and smear campaigns, have left them trailing behind the Hungarian prime minister’s Fidesz party.  

HUNGARY NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

These are not tactics the Law and Justice party would usually mind; the two governments have happily shared know-how when it comes to tamping down democratic opposition. But the fact that Orbán is likely to be reelected on April 3 means a majority of Hungarians will have embraced a political agenda that openly shadows Russia’s — no small thing for a country like Poland that sees Moscow as the greatest threat to its security. 

Whatever the outcome of the Hungarian election, this will have lasting repercussions in Central Europe. A victory by Orbán will drive the wedge deeper between Poland and Hungary, providing the EU with an opening to address the growing democratic deficit in both countries. 

Even a victory by the opposition, an unlikely prospect, would not necessarily mend the relationship, as the new pro-EU government would likely seize the moment for democratic reforms, leaving its old ally alone in the rule of law spat with the EU. 

In Hungary, Márki-Zay has painted the choice voters will make as between Russia and the West, a slogan that rings ever more true. Whatever their decision, however, the dynamics of Central and Eastern Europe will not remain the same. 

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