Facing Tough Election, Orban Turns to Putin for Support

BUDAPEST — Facing a tough election in two months, Hungary’s far-right populist prime minister, Viktor Orban, last week opened the centerpiece of a new state-funded museum district celebrating his country’s role as an anchor of European culture and identity.

A shrine in the newly opened “House of Music” honors Hungarian champions of democracy routed by Austrian and Russian troops in 1848, anti-communist rebels crushed by Soviet soldiers in 1956 and, on a happy note, Hungary’s successful defiance of Moscow in 1989, when Mr. Orban made his name by demanding that 80,000 Soviet troops go home.

On Tuesday, just days after the museum opening, a celebration of the national pride that Mr. Orban has long used to rev up his voters, the Hungarian prime minister swerved in the opposite direction to shore up another vital if contradictory pillar of his support — Russia.

Meeting in Moscow with President Vladimir V. Putin, he signaled sympathy for Russia in its standoff with the West over Ukraine, and pleaded for more deliveries of the natural gas he needs to keep energy prices low and voters happy.

Mr. Orban has long been seen as a political chameleon — and reviled by foes as a brazen opportunist — but he is now pushing his shape-shifting talents to a new level. He has broken ranks not only with Hungary’s allies over Ukraine but also with his country’s own long history of wariness toward Russia as he seeks to reconcile economic populism with the nationalism that underpins his political brand.

Hungary, according to the European Union’s statistical agency, has the lowest electricity prices and third lowest gas prices for consumers in the 27-member European bloc. While prices elsewhere have doubled or tripled over the past year, Hungary has kept them steady, a feat that Mr. Orban’s governing Fidesz party is hoping will help it defeat an unusually united opposition in elections on April 3.

Analysts question whether Hungary can keep prices low for consumers indefinitely without crippling the finances of a huge state-owned electricity provider. But Mr. Orban has turned to Moscow to help convince voters he has their economic interests in hand.

Hungary has sided unequivocally with Mr. Putin as fellow members of the European Union and NATO have voiced growing alarm over what they see as Russian bullying of Ukraine, on whose borders Moscow has massed more than 100,000 troops.

Speaking on Hungarian radio Friday, Mr. Orban brushed off criticism of his cozying up to the Kremlin, saying that Hungary wanted to act as an “icebreaker” by pursuing a policy that he acknowledged “deviates entirely from most EU and NATO ally countries.”

At a news conference Tuesday in the Kremlin with Mr. Putin, Mr. Orban left no doubt about the main reason for this deviation.

“If we have Russian gas, we can provide a cheap supply of it to Hungarian households. If there is no Russian gas then we cannot do this,” he explained.

Peter Kreko, the director of Political Capital in Budapest, said cheap energy was one of Fidesz’s main selling points to voters. “The party says that while people in the rest of Europe are freezing or becoming impoverished because of energy prices, Hungary has no problems.”

Mr. Orban’s Moscow trip, he said, could therefore be a “big win — so long as the war does not escalate in Ukraine.” But if Russia invades, he added, Mr. Orban, who described his trip to Mr. Putin as a “mission of peace,” will be “in serious trouble internationally and also domestically. His whole narrative crumbles.”

Mr. Orban is not the first Hungarian leader to go cap in hand to Moscow in pursuit of energy. But when a predecessor did so in 2007 and reached a gas deal with Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled energy behemoth, Mr. Orban lambasted the arrangement as evidence his country was slipping back into Moscow’s orbit.

Since then, however, Mr. Orban has dropped the anti-Moscow sentiments that catapulted him to prominence in 1989, and instead developed a form of far-right populism more focused on stoking contemporary cultural wars by targeting the European Union as a threatening threat to Hungarian sovereignty and values.

Nationalist leaders in other European countries like Poland share Mr. Orban’s hostility toward Brussels but reject his outreach to Mr. Putin, a rift that has hobbled a yearslong effort by Europe’s far right to form a united front.

“We had a bad relationship with the Soviet Union for many reasons that I do not need to list here,” Mr. Orban told radio listeners on Friday. “But that era is over, and now we are trying to have a system of relations with this new Russia that is different from what we had with the Soviet Union.”

Mr. Putin has returned the favor.

After blasting NATO for “ignoring” Russia’s security concerns as Mr. Orban stood at his side in the Kremlin, the Russian president effectively endorsed the Hungarian leader.

“As we usually say when our partners are having elections, we will work with any elected leader,” Mr. Putin said, adding: “But I must note that you have done so much in your work on the Russian track in both the interest of Hungary and Russia. I hope our cooperation will continue.”

More important, he offered Mr. Orban a helping hand with energy, noting that underground storage facilities for gas in Europe are just 40 percent full and “our European partners in Europe will probably face problems next year.” But Hungary, Mr. Putin promised, “will have no problems because we will coordinate additional volumes.”

Around 80 percent of the gas used in Hungary is imported from Gazprom, more than double the European Union’s average level of Russian imports. Then there is nuclear energy. The biggest producer of electricity in Hungary is the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, a Soviet-designed facility whose expansion Mr. Orban also discussed with Mr. Putin. It generates around half of Hungary’s electricity. Russia has provided loans of $10 billion to fund the plant’s expansion, a project led by Russia’s state-owned nuclear power company, Rosatom.

“It should be clear for everyone that as long as this government is in power, energy prices will be reduced,” Mr. Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, declared last year.

Hungary’s dependence on Russia for energy helps explain why, when the Biden administration announced this week that it would send more American troops to the region, Hungary said it didn’t need them. Poland and Romania welcomed the American offer.

Hungary has a long history of animosity toward Russia, but this has faded as media outlets controlled by Mr. Orban and his supporters have praised Mr. Putin and steadily eroded trust in the Western alliance.

“The era of cheap Russian gas has ended,” said Attila Weinhardt, an energy analyst at Portfolio, an online financial journal. The government’s hope that it can keep fixed energy prices for households, he said, is probably unsustainable.

Mr. Orban’s Moscow visit secured no written commitment of additional supplies and mostly just reaffirmed a 15-year deal signed last September. That deal, which advanced Russian efforts to reduce gas deliveries to Europe through Ukraine by using alternative pipelines, was condemned by Ukraine as a “purely political, economically unreasonable decision.”

Mr. Orban’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, responded that Hungary was not playing politics but simply securing its own economic and security interests. “You cannot heat homes with political statements,” he said.

Valerie Hopkins contributed reporting from Moscow.