Putin didn’t do Orbán the favor of waiting until April to invade Ukraine. Five weeks before the elections Orbán has to deal with being associated with a deranged Putin.
It is impossible to tell what Putin’s invasion of Ukraine means for Orbán’s reelection. (It was impossible to tell anything about this election, period. Even before the invasion.) New polls are not yet in (and the ones we have are utterly unreliable). But we can already see a few ways the invasion can hurt Orbán at home.
I was on the tram today and overheard two teens discussing the war in Ukraine. The older one schooled the younger one on why it is dangerous to upset Putin. He also divulged that his father works at one of the regime-favored companies so we can make an educated guess about the source of his opinions and early-onset authoritarian submission and cowardice. Plus, I should probably mention that the Orbán-controlled media in Hungary is still blasting Russian propaganda so a big chunk of the population has only heard of Putin’s favorite talking points about Ukraine.
Western Europe may have had enough of Russian propaganda and did the obvious, shutting down RT and Sputnik in their own languages. But Hungary doesn’t have those things in Hungarian. Our very own, taxpayer-funded public media does the job. Plus the hundreds of TVs, radios and papers that are now owned by Orbán’s media holding. How does the EU switch off those? (Not to mention the army of fake profiles on social media.)
Some influencers are hilariously trying to perform am awkward about-face on the topic of Russia, but most are still blasting the old talking points. They have also suddenly become fluffy little puppies and peace doves, fretting what their abusive husband (Putin) would do to them if they resisted.
I am delighted to hear so many people pointing out the parallels between an abusive relationship (or rape) and the one Orbán had with Russia. Yes, authoritarian submission is the same process whether it happens in the mind of a battered wife or that of a political vassal like Orbán. (Which is a fancy way of saying that Orbán was Putin’s b*tch.)
Orbán has created the most surprisingly pro-Putin population among his followers. It may come as a surprise in the land of the 1956 revolution (that attempted to send the previous Russian dictator’s occupying army home), but an outsider has no idea how relentless the decade-long propaganda was and how it would have influenced anyone. Especcially the information that was concealed from them. The Orbánist information bubble formed during the last years’ media takeover ensures that Orbán has a near-complete control over much of the country.
Some Orbán-voters are unfazed and ready to chant Orwellian slogans without any irony if he asks them. Indeed, on the March 15 celebrations, when they will be bussed to Budapest to march for Orbán, they probably will. The same way global activists are trying to pierce into Putin’s information bubble around Russian people, Hungarian activists are trying to reach voters who are surrounded by Orbán-only media. Analysts watch helplessly as absurd poll results keep coming out of the countryside, showing black-and-white how effective Orbán’s media blackout is. Activists on the ground, however, feel much less helpless. Only the election can show which one was right – unless it will be even more heavily fraudulent than expected.
What could also work for Orbán is the well-documented rally-round-the-flag effect leaders enjoy during wars. Orbán lives and breathes that method to mobilize his voters – but only during wars against imaginary enemies. And to be honest, what is taking place now is not really a rally. It looks more like tail-between-leg cowardice that sends some voters hysterically flocking under Orbán’s protective wings.
And this cowardice is visibly stoked by Orbán’s troll army and taxpayer-boosted influencers. Every social media post is immediately descended upon by fake profiles militantly declaring that they “choose gas” over standing up to Putin. They blame the west for not negotiating with a dictator (who already allowed himself to start a war). They keep repeating how dangerous it is to upset Putin. Fanning the flame of cowardice is a really snot-spined thing to do but all authoritarianism is just that, if you think about it. It is just more visible during war and if you are not under its spell.
The question is not the hardcore believers. The people that may cause Orbán a headache right now are the Orbán voters who are better informed and who were a bit more cerebral in their justification of Orbán’s recent love affair with Russia. Russia’s imperial ambitions and autocracy export has been a difficult pill to swallow for anyone who knows the first thing about eastern European history – but many Orbánists managed to rationalize it by saying that it is a different Russia now. It was about trade, about “interests” (by which they meant their own, not the country’s) and about the end of history. It was about being edgy and doing things before it was cool. It was about finally being at the vanguard of the future and leading the decline of the West before others join in.
Sadly, however, even Spengler didn’t prognosticate the aforementioned decline before 2122, almost a century from now. Those who keep throwing his name around only read the title of his book – and not the actual conclusions. (Conclusions that came first – and dubious analogies to support them came later.)
Some of these Orbánists are in the higher ranks. And even though Orbán has decimated his highest ranks to fire all politicians who had any organic appeal (to replace them with loyalists who have only Orbán to thank) these people are still kinda itchy. The Fidesz delegation in the European Parliament seems to be particularly inclined to jump ship (or at least to abandon Orbán’s), which is no surprise. Many of them are former high-ranking Fideszniks, sent to be parked in Brussels. And all of them are under personal pressure by civilized people around them who have not been marinating in Orbán’s fart-smelling feudalism for a decade.
There is an anecdote recounted about Orbán that once (just once!!!) he was almost resisted by his fellow party members. When in 2006 he started riots against the election results and wanted to join them personally. According to the anecdote his brave, brave men were on the edge of saying no to him. In the end they didn’t have to because Orbán backpedalled but the anecdote tells you all you need to know about Orbán’s reign within his party. Once it cracks, it collapses.
And there is simply no greater failure than having exposed the country so much to Putin’s autocracy export in the last decade. And there is no bigger rub than the invasion of Ukraine.
Orbán’s job is now to try to keep quiet about it – or lacking that option, to try and keep it from spilling over before April 3. In other words, he is not dictating the campaign theme, he is only reacting – or avoiding it to be precise.
There is simply no move that would please everyone, so he refrains from moving at all. Abroad he is signing off on sanctions (once others already did) and at home he is trying to play it low, preaching about peace.
The man who is famous for war rhetoric against a range of things (inanimate objects like the IMF or the national debt, actual people like migrants, Soros, Brussels, judges, or gypsies, and even against imaginary things like LGBTQ-propaganda in nurseries), is suddenly forced to talk peace. In the middle of his campaign. I am not sorry for him and I wonder what the effect will be in the public opinion. The public opinion is probably asking itself the same question right now.
Ukraine showed that it history is not over and even though there is nothing wrong with Russia per se, but Putin is a dictator. And once a dictator takes hold over a country, we can only expect bad things from there.
Plus, there were obvious clues re Putin. Not only does Putin regard the genocidal Stalin as his role model, not only does he poison, murder and imprison his political challengers, but he also regards the 1980s as the era that must be brought back – plum skin, cold war and all. With the invasion of Ukraine these intelligent Orbánists can no longer lie to themselves anymore. If Putin is a madman Orbán had to see it when he met him over and over again.
The opposition, on the other hand, has received an unexpected gift from Putin. It is a sad thing that Orbán’s Russian “spy bank”, the shamefully one-sided conditions of the Russian nuclear power station, and the general sucking up to Putin have not pissed people off in the first place – but at least they piss them off now. And give or take a few fake news claiming that the opposition leader said something he did not, Orbán’s propaganda machine can’t really defend against that.
Orbán is walking a tightrope between a population he had conditioned to love Putin (and who expect more loyalism with the excuse of “peace”, all of a sudden) and those who had enough of goulash Putinism and blame Orbán for it. He simply can’t please them all – and five weeks before the elections he is forced to take sides and lose voters with it.
There is also the issue of the votes from Hungarians living in Ukraine. Hungarians in neighboring countries are one of Orbán’s many election weapons. Orbán has infamously handed out over a million new Hungarian passports to ethnic Hungarians in Romania, Ukraine, Serbia, etc. by 2018. (Some of those went to Russian and Chinese spies, plus he had a lush golden passport program for them, but that is a different matter.) These voters were allowed to vote even via mail, and even if they were already dead. The counting of these votes was even more opaque than the rest of the 2018 elections.
It will be curious to see just how many of those votes the regime will claim they received in April 2022, after many of those passport holders have escaped to Hungary and beyond. And even among those, how many will be grateful for Orbán for the passports – and how many will be pissed off of Orbán for enabling Putin in Ukraine for so long.
As the March 15 national holiday is approaching we are expecting a speech from Orbán. It will be no doubt full of “peace” slogans and whatever his spin doctors will come up with until then. But it will be an awkward speech for sure. He already sent out an email to addresses people gave to get their covid vaccines “informing us” that the opposition wants war (not true) and he is the dove of peace, sending all sorts of humanitarian aid to Ukraine. So far “peace” and “humanitarian aid” appear to be his go-to talking points regarding Putin’s war to occupy Ukraine. And his propagandists are full of colorful arguments about it – offering something to everyone who wants to believe. One just finished talking on state TV bending over backwards to convince me that the aggression is bad but that has nothing to do with Putin, condemning Putin is dangerous.
As of the energy prices and their impact: Orbán has frozen energy prices in 2014 and fuel prices a few months ago. Whatever happens, whoever wins the elections, those prices will have to be unfrozen after the elections. (All of Orbán’s price controls expire after the election, anyway.) Their impact will hit the winner, no matter what. And if the gas stops flowing as a retaliation for the sanctions, it is curious whether they can keep flowing only to Hungary. If that happens even Orbán’s infamous “peace mission” in Moscow was in vain, when he claimed to have negotiated a better deal for Hungary for gas. And if Hungary fails to join EU efforts to reduce Russian exposure, Orbán’s foreign policy “peacock dance” was an utter and absolute disaster.
Nothing his propaganda machine can’t explain away though.