The last Soviet Russian soldiers left Hungary in 1991 after a 47-year long occupation that has left a long-lasting, less than positive mark on the Hungarian national consciousness. But our relationship with Russia is not only based on memories of the past, it is a constantly evolving and fickle creature. Based on the current stance of the Orbán government, one gets the impression that, when compared with how we saw the Russians 30 years ago, the relationship between the two countries is much better today.
Hungarian prime minister Orbán Viktor, unlike many other European leaders, does not shy away from talking about his positive relationship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. He has had prominent meetings with Putin in the past and has held up the current Russian model as an example of a successful “illiberal society”. Russia, and increasingly Hungary, have come under fire for their policies in various areas such as media regulations, religion, and LGBT rights.
The most obvious example of Hungarian-Russian cooperation is the Paks II nuclear power plant project. This power plant, with an estimated cost of 12 billion euros, is being 80% financed with loans from the Russian government. There have been many critics of this project, including former president László Sólyom, who criticized the secrecy of the negotiations with Russia.
Overall, the current Hungary-Russia relationship can be described as a sort of balancing act, but this is not limited to Russia.
Over the last decade, Orbán has constructed and maintained a sort of complicated 4-way teeter-totter of the EU, USA, Russia, and China.
Orbán has done an admirable job of balancing these interests so far, but there are moments when the balancing act falls apart, and Hungary comes in danger of falling off of the playground toy.
The most recent disturbance happened just a few weeks ago, when Viktor Orbán unveiled a new statue of George H. W. Bush in Budapest’s Liberty Square. Orbán framed the new statue in the context of two existing statues on the square, a monument to the victims of the Nazi occupation, and a monument to the victims of the Soviet occupation. He was quite explicit in his statement, “as a Hungarian, you only have two options: either you side with the occupiers, or you side with freedom.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded to this statement with “such statements flagrantly distort the historical truth and the events of World War II, the results of which were formalized in the decisions of the Nuremberg Trials,” and continued with an emphasis of Hungary’s voluntary involvement in the Second World War.
It is always funny to hear a Russian talk about “fairness”, but in this case Zakharova does have (at least half) a point. Hungary did, in fact, ally itself with the Axis of its own volition, and this something that is controversial in Hungarian historiography to this day.
This does not mean, however, that the Soviet Union was any sort of magical liberator that should be thanked, as their “liberation” was in fact an open attack on democracy culminating in the forced adoption of communism.
At the end of the day though this is just a war of words that will not have a significant impact on the Hungarian-Russian relationship. Russia’s financing of Hungary’s energy sector will not for a moment be in danger due to Orbán making a comment about the Soviet Union. Russia is neither friend nor foe, the only thing black and white about it is that it stands up for its own interests above all else, and when those interests align with Hungary’s, we are friends for a moment, when they don’t, we are foes.
In the featured photo illustration: PM Orbán and President Putin in Budapest, 2017. Photo by Tamás Kovács/MTI