The Russian media frame Hungary as the friendliest of countries, portraying it as closer to Moscow than to Brussels, and emphasising how Russia and Hungary collaborate in pressuring Ukraine.
The coronavirus pandemic has triggered responses from all affected states. Different countries have taken different measures. Some were purely medical, others regulated the employment and labour law, the activities of financial institutions, state institutions, the education system, essential services, transportation and so on.
The prevailing trend was an introduction of quarantine-type measures such as self-isolation, movement restrictions, curfews, identification of infected persons and the like. The introduction of such measures often required the adoption of legislative amendments.
Several countries have declared states of emergency. In some of them, discussions have subsequently started on the appropriateness of these measures and their possible consequences.
In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, for example, the discussion has primarily focused on the consequences of the economic emergency and their severity. In Bratislava, this discussion even resulted in strong tensions within the new government, which was formed only a few weeks ago.
In some countries the focus of the debate has shifted, centring on whether the legislative changes are in line with democratic principles, whether they pose a threat to democratic institutions or to the system of protection of human rights and freedoms.
Hungary as Russia’s best friend?
One such country is Hungary. Here, the government passed a law that, as the opposition claimed, further concentrated power in the hands of the ruling party, Fidesz. Some of the EU member states and representatives of the Union’s top bodies responded critically to the Hungarian government’s actions.
The governments of these thirteen EU member states – albeit without naming Hungary specifically – have drawn attention to the unacceptability of using the pandemic as an excuse for actions that contradict democratic standards. In the European press, articles have appeared that contextualise the measures taken by Budapest within wider political developments in Hungary, marked in recent years by elements of authoritarianism.
But there was one country whose media (especially state-aligned outlets) covered the steps taken by the government of Viktor Orbán with obvious sympathy – for the measures themselves, Orbán’s character and Hungary’s internal development and foreign policy in general. That country was Russia.
The way Russian pro-governmental media approached Hungary’s stand-off with the EU in the time of COVID-19 is in line with the outlets’ long-term attitude towards Hungary. They describe it as the most Russia-appeasing of all EU member states; as an advocate of close economic cooperation with Russia, a strong critic of European sanctions against Russia, as a champion for its own sovereignty against an unjust Brussels, and as Russia’s ally in its conflict with Ukraine.
And, in addition, Hungary defends the same traditional and Christian values that Russia seeks to preserve.
Ordinary readers in Russia thus may form the impression that Hungary is a state with a clearly pro-Russian foreign policy and a domestic policy very similar to that of Russia. They may, therefore, wonder why Hungary is a member of the EU and NATO at all if it has such serious disputes with its Western allies and such friendly relations with Russia?
However, Russian pro-government journalists do not concern themselves with these questions and do not suggest any answers to them.
COVID-19, Budapest and Brussels
According to the paper Vzglyad (Sight), the reaction of many EU member states and EU officials to the Hungarian government’s measures reveals “another crack within the EU”.
It is clear to the commentator that the EU is not applying the same standard: “if something similar were adopted in the countries that Brussels perceives positively, such as Finland or Portugal, the scandal would not happen”.
And why does Brussels not have a positive perception of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán? There are three reasons:
“First, he is too conservative for the EU – he is categorically against migration, has adopted a new constitution that prevents same-sex marriages and admitted the possibility of banning abortion. Second, he is anti-globalist and Eurosceptic. He gets into conflict with the European Union as a protector of Christianity, Hungarian identity and national sovereignty. The Hungarians are a patriotic nation, they love it. And thirdly, he is a stubborn enemy of his well-known compatriot, the financier Georg Soros, who long ago dreams of Orbán’s ousting from power and massively buys up Brussels bureaucracy”.
The paper points out that, as in Russia, Hungary has introduced criminal prosecution for the publication of ‘coronavirus’ fake news, and that this is ‘atypical’ for the EU. According to the author, that is why the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, mentioned “freedom of expression” in her statement regarding Budapest.
The same narrative on the dispute between Budapest and Brussels was evident in EurAsia Daily in an editorial article: “Hungary under fire from EU criticism: Orbán is fighting with Soros’ speculators from Brussels”.
The portal calls Viktor Orbán a “long-term enfant terrible No. 1 in the EU”, whose “unusual” actions always elicit criticism in the Union, and quotes the radio speech given after the controversial legislation was approved, in which the Hungarian prime minister states that “it is obvious that this is a political attack because some people are trying to take over this country, they want to rob it, they want to use its resources. George Soros is at the forefront of this network. His people are in Brussels from where criticism is now coming”.
EurAsia Daily also notes the critical reaction of eleven political parties within the European People’s Party (EPP) faction in the European Parliament, supported by its President Donald Tusk. A few weeks earlier, in mid-February 2020, EurAsia Daily published a detailed excerpt of Viktor Orban’s letter to the EPP leadership, proposing a fundamental change to EPP’s ideological and political profile. According to the portal, Orbán proposed a “perestroika” of the EPP, meaning a return to its conservative values.
The current manifestation of the EPP is thus viewed by the Hungarian leader: “Instead of fighting communism and Marxism, which have left a hard legacy in Europe, we are pushing for Fidel Castro and Karl Marx. Instead of the Rhine Christian-Democratic model, we accept egalitarian social theories. Instead of subsidiarity, we advocate strengthening bureaucracy and centralisation in Brussels”.
The periodical said that Orbán decided to strongly criticise the European Christian Democrats because he sensed the political weakness of the outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and was convinced there were internal problems amongst German Christian Democrats. That is why Orbán, a week after his visit to Berlin, produced a memorandum containing direct attacks upon the EPP leadership and indirect attacks upon the current CDU leadership.
In Russian media reports, the Hungarian prime minister is depicted as a plucky fighter defending national sovereignty against the might of a transnational colossus.
Coordinated pressure of Moscow and Budapest on Kyiv?
One way in which the pro-governmental Russian media see considerable agreement between Russia and Hungary is in their relationship with Ukraine.
The issue of how minority languages are used in education, which has been dividing Kyiv and Budapest for some time since the adoption of the Ukrainian Education Act, is presented in Russian media as part of the basis for the formation of a de facto Russian-Hungarian alliance.
With barely disguised schadenfreude, they note how Budapest, due to disputes with Kyiv over the provisions of the Ukrainian law, has steadily blocked the activities of the NATO-Ukraine Council, which substantially complicates the Alliance’s overall cooperation with Ukraine.
It is not surprising that Hungary’s attitude is viewed by the Russian media as impressive, especially in a period marked by the continuing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, since it helps to weaken the Ukrainian state, and also because resistance to Ukraine’s NATO membership is a priority in Russian foreign policy; any hindrance to their accession is welcomed by Moscow.
The debate around using minority languages in the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine, where a large Hungarian minority live, is framed by Russian authors through the lens of the West’s allegedly ulterior perception of Ukrainian statehood. According to Mezhdunarodnaya zhizn (International life) magazine, “Ukrainian independence can have only one dimension – nationalistic, without which it will lose its geopolitical value in the eyes of the West. Ukraine’s rejection of nationalist ideology would be accompanied by a loss of support from the Western powers”.
In such an interpretation, Hungary, which disagrees with Ukrainian language policy, slowly ceases to be a part of the West, which allegedly supports Ukraine for its “nationalism” and inclines to Russia, which insists on the realisation of minority rights in Ukraine (including those of Hungarians).
This is a rather cumbersome and, of course, misleading construction, especially with regards to Ukraine and the West, but the Russian media is trying to validate it with various examples.
For example, at the end of 2019, the Russian news agency RIA published a report that “Hungary has asked Russia to help protect the rights of ethnic minorities in Ukraine”. It says that the speaker of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin announced that “the Hungarian Parliament addressed the Duma with a request for a joint effort aimed at protecting the rights of minorities, in particular, their right to study in their native language”.
According to Volodin, “after the adoption of the Act on Languages in Education by the [Ukrainian] Supreme Council, this right was taken to the nations in Ukraine”. The Duma spokesman said he was discussing the protection of minority rights in Ukraine with the speaker of the Hungarian Parliament, Laszlo Köver, at the summit of the heads of parliaments of Eurasian countries in Nur Sultan, Kazakhstan.
Russia is seen as the final bastion for the protection of ethnic minority rights in neighbouring Ukraine, after the alleged failure of the EU, NATO and other international organisations; the Kremlin could not wish for a better narrative for its domestic audience.
In October 2019, the Hungarian prime minister spoke about the language situation in Transcarpathia at a press conference in Budapest, following a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Orbán claimed that the Hungarian minority is exposed to discrimination and threats, even physical violence.
EurAsia Daily reported on the whole case that “Putin’s visit to Budapest showed one obvious fact – a coordinated Russian-Hungarian pressure on Ukraine“.
In February 2020, Izvestiya (Reports) published an extensive article on the situation in the west of Ukraine, using a very positive reference to the fact that ethnic Hungarians in Transcarpathia do not regard themselves as “diaspora” but as “irredentists”. According to the paper, Hungarian diplomats were ordered not to support any Ukrainian initiatives in international organisations due to a dispute over the Education Act.
The daily Vzglyad concludes that it is quite natural that “the interests of Russia and Hungary in Ukraine coincide not only in the protection of languages – Russian or Hungarian. Like Russia, Hungary informally views what is happening in Ukraine as an internal conflict and the events in Donbas as a civil war… And most importantly, Hungary does not consider Ukraine’s trajectory towards European integration and Atlanticisation to be the right thing.”
Such a statement may surprise many, some may question whether this is really the case, but a patriotic Russian reader, feeling deep nostalgia for the days of the Soviet Union, can only say, “Yes, that’s right, that’s how it should be.”
This article is the fourth of a monthly series called “Central Europe in the mirror of Russian media“ run by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) and the supported by the Open Information Partnership. It is also available in Slovak on Denník N.