In the European Union, Viktor Orban knows his place – and his limits. He has no delusions of grandeur. His country, Hungary, has a population of under 10 million and is not part of the eurozone. When he talks about Germany or France with other European partners, he says “the Big Guys,” and everyone understands. He relishes the veto power conferred on him by the treaties, which allows him, from time to time, to hold the Big Guys in check, but he is careful not to cross certain red lines. He votes for sanctions against Russia, even though he disapproves. He does not like the European Union, but he is not leaving it.
In power for 13 years after a first mandate from 1998 to 2002, the Hungarian prime minister, a champion of “illiberal democracy,” has settled into the European landscape as a kind of black sheep whose nuisances we have learned to limit. “It’s painful, but we deal with it,” said a diplomat from one of the Big Guys, with a sigh. “He has lost his friends.” Has the populist fire that stunned pro-Europeans in the wake of the Brexit vote been contained?
Not quite. The fire is still smoldering, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia is blowing on the embers. The war in Ukraine has reshuffled the cards in post-communist Europe. It has broken up the Polish-Hungarian double act, which since 2015 has been united on the issue of the rule of law but divided on how to deal with Russia. Warsaw is fiercely hostile to the country, while Budapest maintains close ties with Moscow. It destroyed the Visegrad group, in which Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia had stood together since the 1990s against the powerful Western EU member states.
Above all, the war and its collateral effects – inflation, energy prices, debates on military aid – weaken the moderate political forces, often grouped in heterogeneous coalitions. This was seen in 2022 in Bulgaria, where Prime Minister Kiril Petkov was ousted from power. The next victim could well be Slovakia. The nationalist Robert Fico, an emulator of Orban, is in a good position to win the legislative elections in September. He was forced to resign his position of prime minister in 2018 following the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak, who was investigating corruption.
“Fico has risen from the grave,” Slovak Foreign Minister Rastislav Kacer said, alarmed, speaking with The world in Paris on Thursday, May 4. “His return to power would be a tragedy for Europe.” A pro-European liberal, this minister did not hide his disappointment in the face of the political polarization in his region and had given up on running in the September elections. The next day, he resigned. On Sunday, May 7, his prime minister, Eduard Heger, also resigned.
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