Viktor Orban’s comments to foreign journalists on Ukraine as well as Hungary’s EU membership sparked a fierce backlash over the weekend, showing that the Hungarian Prime Minister has not lost his power to shock.
Hungary's ambassador to Kyiv has been summoned by the Ukraine government after Orban compared Ukraine to Afghanistan and called it a "no man's land" during the meeting with 15 foreign journalists, mostly from right-wing publications.
Orban also said that he did "definitely not" want to stay in the EU, but was forced to do so because of Hungary’s trade links with the bloc.
The meeting with foreign journalists on January 26 was part of a two-day media conference organised by the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC), a government-funded interdisciplinary educational institution widely seen as a breeding ground for the Fidesz party elite.
MCC has been active in promoting the government’s narrative in Europe and the United States. The think tank, set up with hundreds of billions of forints, has recently entered the Brussels policy wonk scene with a new office headed by Frank Furedi, a Hungarian-Canadian academic who founded the UK's now defunct Revolutionary Communist Party 45 years ago.
The list of invitees for the media conference included Rod Dreher, a senior editor and blogger at the The American Conservative, Roland Tichy, a German author, economist and journalist, Yair Netanyahu, the son of the Israeli PM, and Ralf Schuler, head of the parliamentary editorial team of German tabloid newspaper Bild.
Topics covered the usual popular talking points of the conservative press – the spread of ‘woke’ and ‘cancel culture’ and the position of conservative voices within mainstream liberal media, but roundtable discussions included the future of print and the spread of digital and social media.
Yair Netanyahu defended the Hungarian government’s smear campaign against George Soros. Criticising the Hungarian-born Jewish billionaire and philanthropist is not anti-Semitism, because the businessman was causing very serious damage to Israel, "the only Jewish state", by funding anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist, and pro-Palestinian NGOs that are destroying Israeli society from within, he said.
It was the lecture by Balazs Orban, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's political director and chairman of MCC's board of trustees, that was picked up by independent media. He said that the media was a strategic sector and a matter of sovereignty because whoever controls the media of a country controls the mindset of that country and, through that, the country itself.
Independent observers said the lecturewas an open admission that the Orban government was using media dominance to control society.
After the break-up with his old friend, Lajos Simicska, the former financer of Fidesz, in February 2015, Orban has systemically built up his own media empire. The holdings were in the hand of half a dozen oligarchs and cronies who later transferred them to a media conglomerate consisting of roughly 500 media outlets.
"The West is in a war with Russia"
After the end of the conference, Viktor Orban hosted foreign journalists for an informal meeting, an "open and friendly exchange of views in his office in the Buda Castle.
Orban, who has not given an interview to independent media since sweeping to power in 2010, tends to speak openly and candidly on thorny issues when surrounded by people sharing his ideology.
Some of his responses were off the record, according to the account of Dreher in The American Conservative. Dreher, a 55-year-old year journalist and a fellow at MCC, relocated to Budapest in the autumn and is a fervent advocate of Orban’s policies.
"I told the visiting journalists and publishers that they were going to be blown away by this guy because they're not going to believe how different he is from the way he is portrayed in the Western media. He's sharp, funny, brilliant, and completely confident," Dreher enthuses in his article entitled “Viktor Orban: West Is ‘In A War With Russia”.
According to Dreher, Orban said that the West needs to understand that Putin cannot afford to lose, and will not lose, because he is up for re-election in 2025, and he cannot run as the president who lost a war. Russia cannot allow Nato to establish a presence in Ukraine.
Orban said the West doesn't understand that time is on Russia's side in Ukraine as Moscow can mobilise a vast army, while Ukraine is running out of troops.
The West is "in a war with Russia. That's the reality," he said. "Every day we are moving further in."
"The West might think it's not at war with Russia, but by sending more and more weapons, and getting closer to actual troop intervention, Western leaders are playing an extremely dangerous game with themselves, with Russia, and with the Western public," Dreher quoted Orban as saying, adding that called himself the lone dissenter among the 27 European Union leaders on policy towards Ukraine.
The Hungarian leader, when asked, said he can’t exclude the possibility that Vladimir Putin would resort to tactical battlefield nukes.
According to a report by Tichy, also present at the closed meeting, Orban said that an "immediate ceasefire" would be the solution to the conflict. The prime minister also admitted that this is "laborious", as "territories have to be defined, conditions have to be formulated and negotiated, guarantees have to be promised", and this is a process that takes several months, and which Ukraine seems to reject.
Installing a Russian-friendly government in Ukraine might have been possible once, but not now, according to the prime minister. Therefore Russia's goal is to make Ukraine an ungovernable wreck, so the West cannot claim it as a prize, and they have already succeeded.
"It's Afghanistan now and a no man's land", according to Orban.
Fears of 'Huxit"
Besides the war in Ukraine, journalists asked Orban about the divisions between Hungary and the EU during the two-hour session. He acknowledged that the gap is expanding due to fundamental differences in ideas, such as views on the future of society. Orban reaffirmed views opposing gender ideology and immigration, defining ideological pillars of his government’s policies since 2015, the first wave of the migrant crisis.
Dreher writes in the post that the prime minister was asked "if he wanted Hungary to stay in the EU". Orban's response was: "Definitely not!", adding that "Hungary has no choice, because 85% of its exports are within the EU", according to Dreher.
A few hours after the article in The American Conservative was published, this phrase was replaced with the following: "Orban said that it is painful for him personally to have Hungary in the EU, subject to its bullying, but there is no question that Hungary will remain in the EU, because its economic prosperity depends on it."
Dreher did not give an explanation for his move and the prime minister’s press spokesman tried to downplay its importance."The prime minister made it clear on several occasions that EU membership is in the national interest of Hungary," Bertalan Havasi told state news agency MTI in a short statement.
Hungarian opposition parties and observers rang the alarm bell, saying the prime minister is advancing his agenda that could eventually lead to ‘Huxit’.
Hungary’s strongman has hinted on numerous occasions that with the country’s economic convergence to the EU average, the political balance of power could shift to CEE countries by 2030. By that time V4 countries could become net contributors.
Speaking at the annual gathering of right-wing intellectuals in September, before the autumn session of parliament, Orban said that Hungary and its regional peers should "think about the meaning of EU membership" at around 2030.
Hungary has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of EU funds since joining the block in 2004 and the case will remain unchanged in the current budget if the country meets some two dozen "super milestones" to unfreeze some €22bn from the EU's cohesion funds.
Hungary’s strongman for long has used Brussels as a scapegoat, and compared the EU’s functioning to that of the Soviet Union. The anti-EU rhetoric has become stronger in recent months and pro-government pundits now openly raise the question of the relevance of EU membership.
However, Orban’s room of manoeuvre has narrowed significantly with the use of the EU’s new conditionality mechanism to force his regime to fulfil a series of milestones to tackle corruption and repair the rule of law if he wants to unfreeze EU Cohesion Funds.
Despite Orban's constant EU-bashing, support for membership remains high. According to a recent survey by the Publicus Institute, 68% of Hungarians believe that EU membership is more beneficial for the country overall, compared to 85% in March 2022. At the height of the migrant crisis in June 2015, the poll showed 57% support for the EU.
The survey commissioned by leftist daily Népszava showed that 91% of opposition and 65% of undecided voters said EU membership is overall positive for Hungary. The recent wrangle with the EU on the release of EU funds dented support among Fidesz voters to 45%.
Two-thirds of Hungarian would vote yes in a referendum but support hinges on political affiliation. While nine out of 10 opposition supporters would support membership, only 42% of Fidesz voters would vote to remain in the block.