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Hungary PM's relationship with Putin is now at the centre of his country's election campaign

Viktor Orbán, who is hoping to win his fourth consecutive term as prime minister of Hungary in what is expected to be a close election race on Sunday, has fostered close ties with Putin during his last 12 years in power.

Viktor Orbán has condemned the Russian invasion, but hasn't criticized Vladimir Putin

Division in Hungary as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán seeks 4th term

3 months ago
Duration 2:15
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has ruled the country with the far-right Fidesz party for 12 years, is seeking a fourth term in Sunday's national election.

On the streets of Budapest, posters promoting Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party are visible on nearly every block, with candidates' photos wrapped around poles and plastered on walls.

In the capital, where two-thirds of electoral districts voted for the opposition in the last election in 2018, the government ads are routinely defaced. 

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands after a news conference following talks in Budapest on Oct. 30, 2019. Orban is hoping to win his fourth consecutive term in what is expected to be a close election race on Sunday. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

On several, the letter "Z" has been scribbled. 

In Russia, it's become a symbol of support for the country's military offensive in Ukraine. In Hungary, it's targeted at Orbán, who is accused of not doing enough to denounce Russia and President Vladimir Putin. 

"Orbán is the most pro-Putin prime minister in the whole European Union," said Péter Krekó, a political scientist and executive director of Political Capital, a Budapest-based think tank. 

"I think the rest of the world has come out as stronger out of this conflict. Hungary is clearly an outlier."

An election poster for Kovács Balázs Norbert, a member of Orbán's political party, is defaced with a 'Z' in this photo taken on March 28, 2022, in Budapest. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

Close ties with Putin

Orbán is hoping to win his fourth consecutive term as prime minister in what is expected to be a close election race on Sunday. His party had a slim lead (41 per cent of the electorate) over a six-party opposition alliance (39 per cent of the electorate) in a survey by the think tank IDEA Institute conducted in the last week of March.

He has fostered close ties with Putin during his last 12 years in power.

While he has condemned the Russian invasion, he has not criticised Putin personally, and it put him in an awkward position with EU leaders. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called Hungary out during an address at a virtual meeting on March 24, saying Orbán needed to  "decide for yourself who you are with."

WATCH | Hungary opens its borders to Ukrainian refugees:

Hungary welcomes Ukrainian refugees in stark contrast to past

3 months ago
Duration 2:31
For weeks, Hungary has been welcoming Ukrainian refugees — a marked difference from its response in 2015 when officials closed the border with Serbia to keep migrants out.

Orbán has said Hungary will not send weapons to Ukraine, or allow shipments from other countries to transit through its territory. 

While analysts say his stance has left him more isolated from Western leaders, including some of the country's strongest allies like Poland and the Czech Republic, the war has allowed him to craft a campaign message for his domestic audience. 

He has billed himself as the only choice for peace and security, and says what Hungary needs now is neutrality. 

During a rally in Budapest on March 15, he told a crowd of Fidesz supporters that Hungarians should stay out of the war and can't be caught between "the Ukrainian anvil and the Russian sledgehammer."

Hungary depends on Russian gas, oil

Orbán, a hardline nationalist, visited Moscow just three weeks before Russian troops moved into Ukraine. 

In a press conference afterward, he spoke about the need for co-operation and reliable energy. According to Hungarian officials quoted in news portal Hungary Today, the country gets 85 per cent of its gas, and more than 60 per cent of its oil, from Russia.

Putin, left, listens to Orbán, right, during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 1, 2022. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool Photo/The Associated Press)

That dependence is why Orbán has said he will not support sanctions on Russia's energy sector, although Hungary has supported other rounds of sanctions already adopted by the EU. 

"It's not about us putting on a sweater, turning up the heating a bit as some in the West think," Orbán said Friday during an interview with the Hungarian national radio station Kossuth.

"This is a question about the functioning or non-functioning of the economy."

In 'Stalin City,' people are divided

Outside of the capital, most electoral districts voted for Fidesz candidates in 2018, but not the industrial city of Dunaújváros, a community built in the 1950s around a still-functioning steel mill. 

A local woman buys produce at a market in Dunaújváros, Hungary, on March 31, 2022. (Lily Martin/CBC )

It was once called Stalin City. While the name was later changed, soviet apartment blocks still line the streets. 

CBC visited the town's market, where stalls were filled with produce, flowers and sausage, and people were divided over Hungary's government and its loyalty to Russia. 

"Europe will freeze to death if it doesn't get Russian gas," said Lazlo, who would only give his first name.

He said that he thought Orbán's relationship with Putin was a good thing, and that the Russian president had justification to go into Ukraine. 

Fidesz supporter Lazlo, photographed in a market in Dunaújváros on March 31, 2022, says he believes Putin was justified to send troops into Ukraine. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Down another aisle, fruit seller Tünde Tamás said she feels hopeless with the direction her country is heading. 

"In the event that this regime remains, our country is done," said the 45-year-old mother of four. 

"I want to be part of the West," she said, "I don't want to belong to the East."

Fruit seller Tünde Tamás, shown at a market in Dunaújváros on March 31, 2022, says she feels hopeless. (Lily Martin/CBC)

A political transformation

Long before Orbán became prime minister, he was part of an upstart group of democrats trying to launch a political transformation across Hungary. During the waning days of communism in 1989, he made an impassioned speech where he called for free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops. 

The Fidesz party was founded by Orbán and other activists who wanted Hungary to be shaped by democratic ideals, but today he has embraced the idea of an "illiberal democracy."

WATCH | A roundup of events in week 6 of Russia's invasion of Ukraine:

What happened in Week 6 of Russia’s assault on Ukraine: Peace talks, Mariupol evacuation

3 months ago
Duration 8:22
Russia’s vow to scale down its military activity near Kyiv was met with skepticism, and a humanitarian convoy attempted to evacuate Mariupol. Here’s a roundup of events in Ukraine, and how world leaders reacted, from March 26 to April 1.

According to Freedom House, a U.S.-based think tank, Hungary is the first and only EU country to be listed as "partly free." 

"I think Orbán wants a system like in Russia," said Gergely Kálló, an opposition politician running for re-election in Dunaújváros.

"We see Putin's politics is there is no free media, every power is in one hand. I think Orban wants the same thing." 

Tighter grip on the media

Over the past decade, Orbán's government has created a tighter grip over the country's media, exerting more influence over both public and private outlets.

Dozens of newspapers, radio and TV stations have been bought by Orbán supporters and hundreds of local publications were centralized. According to government officials, state ownership of local media has increased in recent years to 55 per cent. 

One of the most influential independent news magazines, HVG, says the government is also channelling advertising revenue to pro-government outlets, which puts a strain on the rest of the publications. 

A few years ago, the magazine was banned from putting up displays of its satirical front covers, which poke fun at government officials, and frequently Orbán's relationship with Putin.

A front page of HVG, an influential independent news magazine, depicts Orbán shining Putin’s shoes, in this photo taken on April 1, 2022. (Lily Martin/CBC)

"The publication on the streets of our front page was so important for us — even if you don't buy our paper you can see our statement against the government," said Mercédesz Gyükeri, who leads the publication's economics column. 

She says in the past month, much of the campaign has shifted from a conversation about the economy to which party can ensure peace and stability. 

A tilt toward Russia

Péter Márki-Zay is leading an opposition coalition of six different parties. He's been trying to gain traction among voters by calling out Orbán's close relationship with Putin and tilt toward Russia. 

But Orbán is leading in the polls and has positioned himself as the only candidate who will keep the country from being dragged into the Ukrainian conflict. 

A billboard for the opposition reading 'The Hungarian Putin or Europe? Vote April 3' is seen outside Dunaújváro. (Lily Martin/CBC)

This week, Hungary's Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto accused Ukraine of trying to influence the election by collaborating with the country's opposition parties. Ukraine has denied the claim, but Krekó, of think tank Political Capital, says the allegations are being echoed in pro-government media in Hungary.

He says throughout the West, countries are concerned about Russia and China interfering in elections, but in Hungary they are concerned about interference from Ukraine and the U.S. 

"I think it tells a lot about how far Hungary has shifted from the Western mainstream. "

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Briar Stewart is the Moscow correspondent for CBC News. She has been covering Canada and beyond for more than 15 years and can be reached at briar.stewart@cbc.ca or on Twitter @briarstewart

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