With a neutral position on Ukraine, Viktor Orban attracted voters

BUDAPEST — Savoring the election victory of a rare European leader who did not convict him of a war criminal, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on Monday congratulated Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on winning a fourth term in office and said that he looked forward to an expansion of ‘partnership ties’.

As Russia’s relations with the European Union and the United States sour due to the war in Ukraine, Hungary, a member of the European bloc, has mostly sat on the fence in response to the invasion. Russia, in part to avoid upsetting a natural gas deal cemented by Mr. Orban during talks with Mr. Putin in Moscow shortly before the Russian invasion.

A landslide election victory on Sunday for Mr Orban’s party, Fidesz, suggested the Hungarian leader would stick to a policy strongly endorsed by voters.

But following a vote that independent election observers said tilted unfairly in favor of the ruling party, Mr Orban is also under increasing pressure to change course or risk not only alienating allies of Hungary, but also to lose billions of dollars in much-needed funding from the European Union. for not respecting the rule of law.

Guy Verhofstadt, a leading liberal in the European Parliament, described the election as “a dark day for liberal democracy, for Hungary and the EU, at a perilous time”.

Mr Putin received more mixed news from Sunday’s elections in Serbia, where Aleksandar Vucic, the country’s populist pro-Russian president, won re-election, according to preliminary official results released on Monday. But it looked like President Vucic could lose his increasingly authoritarian grip on power after his ruling party failed to secure a clear majority in parliament.

The Kremlin nevertheless congratulated Mr. Vucic, calling for a strengthening of what he describes as a “strategic partnership” in the interest of the “brotherly Russian and Serbian people”.

Mr Orban’s Fidesz party is divided on how to respond to Russia’s aggression, with its more traditional nationalist wing, steeped in the history of Hungary’s past suffering at the hands of Russia, uneasy with Mr Putin.

But his hopes that Mr Orban, who rose from anti-Kremlin liberal firebrand in 1989 to Mr Putin’s closest partner in Europe, could change direction again after the election appear to have been dimmed by the scale of the victory for his party. He won more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament while an openly pro-Putin far-right party, Our Homeland Movement, won enough votes to enter parliament for the first time.

“Putin is right. Ukraine gets what it deserves,” said Janos Horvath, a supporter of the far-right party, after casting his vote. Ukraine, he said, echoing a favorite Kremlin talking point, was mistreating its ethnic minorities, including Russians and Hungarians, and “must be stopped.”

The crushing defeat of Mr Orban’s opponents, who campaigned on promises of more solidarity with Ukraine and Hungary’s allies, makes it unlikely that Hungary will now join NATO and the European Union in condemning Mr. Putin for his military assault or for providing weapons to help Ukraine defend itself. Hungary, unlike Poland, firmly refused to allow weapons to pass through its territory into Ukraine.

Although increasingly isolated from his foreign allies, Mr Orban won strong domestic support for his neutral stance on the war, turning what initially threatened to become an electoral liability into a vote-collector. He did this by relentlessly distorting the position of his opponents, deploying a vast apparatus of loyal media to convince voters that his rivals wanted to send Hungarian troops to Ukraine to fight against Russia, which no one suggested. to do.

At the last opposition rally in Budapest on the eve of the elections, Fidesz activists dressed as journalists presented the main opposition candidate, Peter Maki Zay, with a white T-shirt emblazoned with a red target, shouting that c was what would become of Hungary if he won. A video of the meeting was then published online by pro-Fidesz media, which repeatedly presented the election as a choice between “war and peace”.

Shortly after Mr Putin offered his congratulations, election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe complained that, despite being well organised, the election tipped in favor of the party in power of Mr. Orban by “blurring the boundary between state and party”. .” The vote, the organization said in a statement on Monday, was “tainted by a lack of a level playing field”.

With his rivals reeling from their defeat, despite forging a united front for the first time in a bid to overthrow Mr Orban, the victorious PM showed no signs of backing down from his battles with the European Union. “This is not the past, this is the Europe of the future,” he told cheering supporters on Monday morning.

Rejoicing early in a Fidesz victory which he said was so significant it “could perhaps be seen from the moon” and “certainly from Brussels”, Mr Orban, who declined to criticize Mr Putin for his invasion, targeted Ukraine. President, Volodymyr Zelensky, placing him alongside Brussels bureaucrats and the mainstream media among his “many opponents”.

Mr Zelensky has repeatedly criticized Hungary for resisting sanctions on Russian energy exports and for refusing to let weapons flow to Ukraine.

Hungary has long had strained relations with Ukraine, which Mr Orban has accused of persecuting its Hungarian ethnic minority by restricting the use of Hungarian-language education in state schools. His complaints echo those of Mr Putin about ethnic Russians living in Ukraine and have made Mr Orban more sympathetic than other European leaders to Russia’s war narrative.

Hungarians living in Ukraine number only around 150,000, but they are part of a much larger diaspora which, having won the right to vote in Hungarian elections and provided by Budapest, has become an important source of support for Fidesz , and a constant source of friction between Hungary and its neighbours.

In a sign that Fidesz, emboldened by its electoral victory, would continue to support ethnic Hungarians in countries like Ukraine, Orban’s foreign minister Peter Szijjarto on Monday thanked the 315,000 voters outside Hungary who , according to him, had voted. “We defend our Hungarian compatriots across borders,” he said. “They can count on us just as we can count on them in important decisions like this,” a reference to Sunday’s election.

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