The Hungarian Gambit
Recently, it became known that the Hungarian government plans to hold the thirteenth public consultation, focusing on support for Ukraine's membership in the EU. The consultations were announced in a short video by Tamas Menzer, the State Secretary of the Hungarian government. At the same time, the text read by a representative of Viktor Orban's government plays into Russian narratives and encourages citizens to answer "no" to the main question of the consultations. In particular, it mentions the war on the territory of Ukraine, as well as the threat of having the war spill into the EU. Another statement emphasized during the consultations is that Ukraine will receive funds intended for Hungary, which is not true. Additionally, during the consultations, Orban's government is preparing to argue about the infringement of the rights of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine.
The manipulative formulation of the questions suggests that the final results will be negative, as their skewed nature leaves no other alternatives. It is with the results of the consultations that Orban plans to attend the EU Summit on December 14-15, calling them a manifestation of the Hungarian people’s will.
One should note that these consultations are not analogous to a referendum. They are a purely Hungarian invention of Orban's, which he began to use after being elected prime minister. Unlike referendums, which involve statutory procedures and corresponding legal consequences, Orban's consultations more closely resemble political campaigning. Citizens simply receive colored pieces of paper in the mail, which they can send back in the envelopes after making some notes. The consultations don’t involve polling stations or a proper vote count. The majority of voters simply ignore the notion. In the last consultation, merely 17% of citizens voted.
Why have akin consultations? Firstly, they allow Orban to refer to his decisions as to the will of the people. Secondly, it is a convenient tool for political campaigning; the very formulation of questions influences socio-political sentiments. Thirdly, it creates the illusion of democracy in the Hungarian government. At the same time, outside Hungary, people are skeptical about the said consultations. When Orban reported that most Hungarians were against anti-Russian sanctions, it did not affect the EU's decision to extend them.
What is Hungary Trying to Achieve?
Although officially the Orban government's anti-Ukrainian policy is explained by the alleged situation of Hungarians in Ukraine, it is driven by Russian influence. For a long time, Orban was the only leader of an EU member state who regularly communicated with the Russian leadership. Shortly before Russia's full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, Orban visited the Kremlin and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian-Hungarian relations continued after the outbreak of the bloodiest war in Europe since 1945.
In particular, Orban recently visited China, where he met with the Russian president. According to the official rhetoric, the two discussed energy issues, and some of these issues later became public. In particular, the Hungarian authorities and the Russian state agency Rosatom agreed on a schedule for the construction of the Hungarian nuclear power plant Paks-2. The relevant agreement was signed on Tuesday, November 14, by Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto and Rosatom CEO Alexei Likhachev at the Paks site, 100 kilometers south of Budapest. Also, one should remember Hungary's receipt of Russian gas at a reduced tariff to understand that all this is a geopolitical bribe from Russia.
The Kremlin is paying Orban to defend Russia's interests in the EU and NATO, and Budapest is fully recouping these funds. It's not just about Ukraine. Hungary is still the only country that has not ratified Sweden's NATO membership. There is no Hungarian diaspora in Sweden whose interests could motivate this. The lack of such a decision demonstrates simply fulfilling a Russian ask.
At the same time, Hungary's options are quite limited, as it is highly dependent on EU money. Therefore, so far, each time it has been possible to influence official Budapest to stop it from interfering with Ukraine's assistance. However, Orban has consistently made sure that any decision is made later than it could have been. This seems to be his role - to stall for time, receiving preferences from the Kremlin.
Orbán's "consultations" have nothing to do with the will of the people or legal procedures, and they are likely to be ignored by other European leaders. At the same time, the start of negotiations on Ukraine's accession to the EU will require Hungary's approval, and Orban will try to block it. Next, European diplomacy, which has long experience in dealing with the Hungarian government, should come into play. Most likely, the EU will use various means of persuasion, including threats to withdraw EU funding. Since Hungary is dependent on EU funds, this could be a powerful argument. In any case, this will take time.
It seems that this is exactly what Orban and Putin's joint strategy is: to stall for time as much as possible, hoping that the situation will change in their favor. Every day they win is something worth the effort. At the same time, Budapest's constant blackmail seems to be increasingly irritating Brussels. Therefore, it is possible that eventually, the means of pressuring the Hungarian authorities will become more severe, especially as the nature of the Hungarian game becomes more transparent.