Hungary's 'Trump before Trump' PM Orban faces US reset

Peter MURPHY
·4-min read
Orban was an early and vocal Trump supporter
Orban was an early and vocal Trump supporter

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is bracing for tougher treatment from a Joe Biden-led administration in Washington after his all-in bet on a win for President Donald Trump backfired.

Orban's hardline anti-immigration policies, such as building border fences, earned him praise from the President's former advisor Steve Bannon who called him "Trump before Trump".

The only EU leader to endorse Trump's campaign during the 2016 election, Orban praised the President in 2017 for "thinking precisely as we do when he says 'America First'".

"We say the same: 'Hungary first, and then everyone else'," he said in a speech.

Orban also often called mainstream media reports "fake news", a slur popularised by Trump. He applauded his hands-off approach to Hungary compared to the previous Obama administration, which was often more critical.

In September, Orban said Trump's re-election would be best for Central Europe and boasted of receiving a phone call from the President in his kitchen in October.

During the US election campaign, pro-Orban media in Hungary portrayed Biden as a Communist and a Marxist.

Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto accused him of hypocrisy, raising corruption allegations about his son Hunter's business activities in Ukraine, a line of attack promoted by the Trump administration.

"Orban calculated that political investment in Trump could have forged a real special relationship," said Agoston Mraz, an analyst with the Nezopont think-tank.

But gambling all on a Trump win "damaged Orban's reputation that he can read the future", as he had managed in 2016, said Peter Kreko, head of the Political Capital think-tank.

Slow to congratulate Biden, Orban eventually offered congratulations on his "successful presidential campaign".

For analysts, this acceptance of Biden's win, abandoning Trump, signals a pragmatic approach ahead.

"There was no Plan B for a Biden win, but there will be a Way B," said Mraz. "As a NATO partner there will always be a kind of relationship between Hungary and US".

- 'Thugs' -

Orban's critics were quick to predict that the shifting political wind would buffet the self-styled "illiberal" premier.

Biden's win "can be the beginning of the end of the triumph of far-right populisms also in Europe", said former European Council head Donald Tusk.

"Trump was good for the Orban government, President Biden will be good for Hungary," said Budapest's liberal mayor Gergely Karacsony.

During his campaign, Biden cited Hungary in his criticism of Trump's foreign policy.

"You see what's happened in everything from Belarus to Poland to Hungary, and the rise of totalitarian regimes in the world... this president [Trump] embraces all the thugs in the world," he said.

The Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice-president, gave Orban the cold shoulder and warned him against clamping down on judicial independence, press, and civil society organisations.

In 2014 it banned several Hungarian officials from entering the US over corruption allegations.

But under Trump, "democratic backsliding in Hungary was spectacularly ignored, all the while Russian and Chinese influence grew, and Hungary got further from the US orbit," according to Peter Kreko.

- Low profile -

Considering the host of public health, economic, and foreign policy challenges faced by the incoming Biden administration, "keeping a low profile" may be Orban's best policy, according to Daniel Hegedus, a researcher at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think tank.

"Although keeping a low profile is not a strength of Orban's," he added.

Reports that Biden could appoint as Secretary of State the half-Hungarian Anthony Blinken, son of a former US ambassador to Budapest, suggest that Hungary will remain on the radar.

On Thursday Orban's cabinet chief Gergely Gulyas cautioned the US against a policy of "democracy export" that he said characterised its approach before Trump.

According to Gulyas the "badly organised election" in the US showed "perhaps little (democracy) remained at home".

Meanwhile the pro-Orban Hungarian media continues to amplify the unsubstantiated election fraud claims made by the Trump campaign.

It appears that "Budapest is ready for a fight with the Biden administration", said Peter Kreko.

"Criticism by the US can then be presented as 'revenge' for Orban supporting Trump."

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