Comrades in Arms

Russia’s intervention in Syria is helping nationalist leaders in Europe by making the refugee crisis worse.

Viktor Orbán Vladimir Putin
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Russian president Vladimir Putin answer questions from reporters in Moscow, February 17, 2016 (Facebook/Viktor Orbán)

Sometimes in politics everything is exactly what it looks like.

This was the case when the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, visited Moscow last week, extended a gas contract with Russia and told the Russian president that the period when the EU automatically extended sanctions against Russia was “behind us.”

The moment of honesty came when Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán got to compliment each other on their Syria and refugee-related policies. “We value greatly the efforts made to resolve this problem [of Middle Eastern refugees],” said Orbán, adding, “We wish you great success in your international initiatives.” Putin then said, “Our people has sympathy for the position taken by the Hungarian government” on the refugee crisis.

And yes, in a perverse way, the two policies do indeed work very well together — that is, to suit the needs of the two leaders: Russia’s intervention in Syria aggravated the war and the refugee crisis. Which, in turn, strengthened Orbán’s position in Hungary and in Europe. Which, in turn, helped far-right parties and Putin allies and weakened the EU.

This unspoken but existing alliance, ultimately, against the EU and against the solution of a refugee crisis that benefits them both, was behind the chumminess that the Hungarian prime minister and the Russian president showed in Moscow.

The Russian pro-government press could hardly hide its joy over the visit. Izvestia wrote about a meeting of “not only partners, but friends on principles,” noting that Orbán was the first foreign leader whom Putin met in the new working building at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence. But calling Orbán and Putin friends is an exaggeration. Just as Orbán himself declared last year, Putin “is not a man who has a known personality,” which largely rules out making friends with fellow leaders. Even on principles.

From products to partners

However, the two leaders do share a whole range of similarities. Orbán is actively using pages from Putin’s textbook in Hungary. He staffs independent institutions with his own people; he tampers with the electoral system; he blames opposition to his government on foreign influence, particularly the EU, the United States and George Soros; he enables violent nationalism; he has his own oligarchy and his own extravagant yet grey cardinal; his government harasses NGOs; thugs related to his party threaten opposition politicians to prevent them from exercising their constitutional rights. He has used his power extensively to enrich and help the careers of the members of his family.

But this is only a similarity of tools. Or, in other words, it is Orbán following what the second man of his party, János Lázár, recently called, referring to Putin, “a great school, a special culture of exercising power.”

Most importantly, both Orbán and Putin are the products of a traumatized society. Putin is the product of the shock that the Soviet people, so accurately described by Svetlana Alexievich, felt after the collapse of the USSR. People who choose not to condemn Stalin not only because of nostalgia for past grandeur, but because then they would have to condemn uncle Yura as well. Orbán is the product of all of Hungary’s failed revolutions plus the one that the country never had, in 1989. And the answer is, in both cases is a strange, late-nineteenth-century nationalism built on a lukewarm nostalgia for “the old days” that people knew and felt comfortable with. Maybe they even believe in it.

Viktor Orbán is a dangerous man. He represents the dark side of the European Union. The EU, which built an Eastern Partnership catering for the needs of political elites rather than the people who actually wanted to belong to the EU. The EU, which, by following whimsical and clueless policies toward Turkey, based on short-term political interests, ultimately helped Recep Tayyip Erdoğan become what he is today. The EU, which willingly throws away its most potent political tool, its being a normative force, for short-term gains. The EU, which designs weak policies that lead to bad politics.

And this makes Orbán Putin’s new best friend in Europe.

Enabling Putin’s vision of the EU

Orbán’s foreign policy resembles a whac-a-mole. Free of any strategic principles, it pursues short-term business gains, using enablers with questionable past, disguised as diplomats, and so-called “trading houses,” jumping at every opportunity where the government smells money — often by unscrupulously flattering authoritarian leaders.

Orbán’s EU would be willing to suspend sanctions against Russia as part of a political deal. Ultimately, as many have now pointed out, this was one of Russia’s main goals in Syria from the beginning: to weaponize the refugee crisis; to strengthen parties like Orbán’s; to put pressure on the EU; to come up with meaningless ceasefire deals to show the weakness of its opponents; in the best case, to send a message: I can help you with your problem, but I can also make it much worse. And he has.

Orbán and Putin are certainly together on their weapons of choice and the vision that they offer, namely, that a country is only fully independent if its leaders do not have to follow rules. And they — and their supporters — also share the tragedy that their visions are anachronistic and impossible in the twenty-first century, with Russia’s ailing economy that depends strongly on globalization and Hungary’s membership in the EU which alone ensures, for an otherwise insignificant economy, a constant flow of investments and easy access to export markets.

Ultimately, both men depend strongly on what they call the West. At this point, they both have enough unfiltered information about the state of the world to know this, so Russia will not invade an EU member state and Orbán will not publicly attack Angela Merkel. But make no mistake: they will keep trying their limits.

This is why the European Union cannot afford to suspend sanctions against Russia this summer, unless the Minsk Agreement is fully implemented, which seems unlikely. The sanctions must not be part of a political deal — not only because this would result in another weak policy, but also because Russia is not only unwilling but unable to help the EU solve the refugee crisis.

The key lies on the other side of the Syrian war: in Turkey. Erdoğan is a similarly unattractive partner, strengthened, to a large extent, by the EU’s own failures. But unlike Vladimir Putin, he can actually help the EU and if anything can help Turkey, it is a closer engagement with Europe that has to start with the refugee crisis.

It is a hard pill to swallow. It is to be hoped that it will teach the EU something important about engaging with its neighbors. Although right now this is not the case, at some point in the future the EU might want something important from Russia and it will want an easier, better communicable deal than it is getting now with Turkey.

If, however, the EU chooses to make sanctions part of a political deal with Russia this summer, it will resign, today, of any such deal in the future. Instead, Putin will have tried his limits and succeeded, so next time he will go a little further. And he will encourage Viktor Orbán to do so, too.

If the EU should do anything about the sanctions, it should expand them should any doubt emerge about Russia’s parliamentary election this September. It should openly support NGOs that monitor the election, such as the election watchdog Golos, as well as aid politically active Russian emigrants, many of whom live in the EU. It should threaten officials and politicians actively participating in the falsification of the vote and the intimidation of the political opposition with travel bans and asset freezes.

If you are the president of Russia and you need Viktor Orbán to prop up your image, you know that you are well past your heyday. But if the EU is blinded by the humbuggery and follows the recipe of the Hungarian prime minister, there will be other, bigger and stronger Orbáns until one cannot see what is left of the EU.

This story first appeared at No Yardstick, February 24, 2016.