Explaining the Hungarian anomaly and its consequences for Central and Eastern Europe

May 2024

Máté Szalai

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Cofund Fellow at Ca’ Foscari University

The foreign policy of Hungary, especially concerning participation in the decision-making process of the European Union and NATO, has widely been described as disruptive. The government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán vehemently criticised the Western support provided to Ukraine, vetoed joint statements criticising Russia, China, Turkey, and Israel, among others, and slowed down the integration process of various countries to the EU and NATO, including Ukraine, Sweden, and Finland. Notably, many observers describe Hungary as “Russia’s trojan horse within the EU”, or, as Vitalii Rikshko (2024) put it in an analysis previously published by The Hague Research Institute, as playing a “dangerous game” that involves “blackmailing” EU leaders for additional funds.

Such a foreign policy is quite unusual for a small state. Most countries with limited material resources try to brand themselves as reliable partners who value cooperation, participate in the development of international institutions and respect international law. From this perspective, Hungary defies both theoretical and practical expectations – instead of seeking such a status similar to its neighbouring small states, Budapest opted for a more confrontational and divisive tone that often provoked backlash in European capitals.

Several narratives have emerged in the international public and academic discourse to interpret the Hungarian anomaly. Most of these narratives provide a unit-level explanation, referring to democratic backsliding and the long-term reign of a national conservative/populist government. In contrast, other explications in the literature highlight the effects of systemic developments on small states like Hungary, most importantly concerning growing regional instability and unpredictability. In either case, explaining the Hungarian anomaly can be crucial in interpreting ongoing geopolitical trends in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and drawing lessons for transatlantic security.

The paper will examine various narratives explaining the particularities of Hungarian foreign policy from the last decade with two specific aims: to differentiate between the systemic and state-level variables and to draw conclusions on the future trends of the CEE region. As the region is characterized by a multitude of small states and middle powers, the case helps us identify the ongoing challenges which resource-scarce entities face and the opportunities they see during the transformation of the Eurasian and global orders and the intensification of great power rivalry.

Alignment with Russia, the main revisionist power

One of the most mainstream interpretations treats Hungary as being allied with Russia. According to Dániel Hegedűs (2016), Budapest gradually turned to Moscow during the tenure of the Orbán government since 2010. The process can be traced back to a meeting between Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and President Vladimir Putin in November 2010 and was further reinforced by the Eastern Opening/Global Opening policy introduced by Hungary. Later, the Hungarian foreign policy, both rhetorically and substantively, proved to be beneficial for the Kremlin, including vetoing joint actions and statements in the EU, and expressing criticism of Ukraine and Western countries. After the Russian attack on Ukraine, Viktor Orbán became the loudest critic of the Western sanction regime and the first EU leader to meet with Vladimir Putin (Politico, 2023).

Even if close alignment with Russia, a revisionist power would not seem like a rational decision by a small NATO and EU member state, except if it sees the balance of power favouring Russia. Accordingly, the Hungarian decision to freeze Swedish accession to NATO in tandem with Turkey can be attributed to an attempt to postpone strategic choice to see how events unfold in Ukraine (24.hu, 2023).

In addition, several other reasons are brought up by the public discourse to justify this narrative. The dependence of the country on Russian energy remained substantial even after 2022 (Csernus, 2023).Additionally, members of the Hungarian elite sympathise with Moscow ideologically, which is evidenced by not just several speeches by Viktor Orbán but also the pro-Russian narratives circulating in public media, and the copy-pasting of Russian laws concerning LGBTQ rights and NGOs (Reid, 2021). Lastly, some argue that the Russian government has gradually built up influence in the country, affecting decision-making.

While this narrative certainly is attractive concerning many specific cases, it cannot give a comprehensive interpretation of the full scope of Hungarian foreign policy. In the most substantial instances, Hungary “only” slowed down the Trans-Atlantic decision-making processes but did not block them completely. Additionally, in other cases, the country’s stance aligned more with Turkey than Russia, another major geopolitical player in the CEE region. Lastly, in multiple major international crises in the last years, Hungary advocated a position which directly went against Russian interests. For example, Budapest sided with Azerbaijan in the newly erupted Karabakh crisis (Kolarz, 2023) and provided unwavering political support to Israel in the Gaza crisis (The Jerusalem Post, 2024).

Hedging as a response to systemic uncertainty

A more nuanced interpretation describes Hungarian foreign policy as hedging. This strategy can be described as avoiding strict alignment policies while pursuing contradicting measures to avoid potential risks (Kuik, 2016). Practically, despite its affirmative votes for EU sanctions and UN resolutions, Budapest uses vivid criticism of such decisions to signal to Russia and China that it does not support the European mainstream. The intention of differentiating oneself from others is not uncommon among small states which can seek both security and other political and economic benefit.

Describing Hungarian foreign policy as hedging, nonetheless, also indicates that Budapest’ policy towards great powers is a product of systemic developments. According to Kuik, hedging can be an often unintentional reaction to regional or global instability and unpredictability. Without a clear dominant great power, a higher level of security and more profit can be realized by maintaining connectivity and cooperation with all sides. Small states are especially incentivized to conduct hedging in buffer regions (Efremova, 2029) where the balance of power between great powers is comparable to each other. In the last years, Central and Eastern Europe fits this description (Grygiel and Mitchell, 2016: 42-116): Russian aggression seems to be unanswered with equal intensity, the political will in Washington to defend the region is questionable, while the EU has so far failed to become a security guarantor.

In other words, the narrative of systemic hedging suggests regional development which incentivizes smaller states to review their existing alignment policies. In some cases, we can see some indications of these tendencies – including Armenia, Slovakia, or even Belarus –, a regional trend is yet to emerge. Consequently, this explanation fails to interpret the particularity of Hungary in the region.

Small states are especially incentivized to conduct hedging in buffer regions”

Radicalism as small state influence-building strategy

In contrast with the previous narratives, Hungarian foreign policy may be hard to define due to its innovative and unique nature. That is the interpretation that the leaders of the country, including Prime Minister Viktor Orbán promote. In a speech delivered in December 2023, Orbán expanded on the strategic logic behind the unique foreign policy course of the country which he labelled as “radical foreign policy” (Orbán, 2024).

Orbán’s foreign policy vision centred around the smallness of Hungary. He categorised Hungary as “a country without relative advantages” and argued that the small state status should not result in the renunciation of independent foreign policy but working harder to achieve it. Orbán described the need to take a firm moral position in international relations and concluded that such a moral position should include taking radical positions and constantly searching for fights to take part in. According to Viktor Orbán, these policies can form the basis of the soft power of Hungary.

From the perspective of Orbán’s speech, the conflictual nature of Hungarian foreign policy seems like a tool in itself in the pursuit of leverage. Slowing down the accession of Sweden to NATO is just one example of this strategy – taking a stance against Stockholm is indeed a radical decision which causes conflicts with the country’s Western allies, which can potentially strengthen the bargaining position of Budapest.

Using radicalism as an influence-building strategy thoroughly defies traditional expectations. Instead of deliberately creating a bad boy image, most small states opt to seek attention with a positive image, as a reliable partner and a champion of international liberal values. While this approach is certainly uncommon, its novelty does not necessarily make it successful. According to our recent study (Garai and Szalai, 2024), there are some indications that Hungary managed to maintain or even increase the perceived importance of the country at the cost of a negative image. That being said, this approach does not necessarily lead to tangible results. Besides short-term gains, we cannot see strategic victories for Budapest, neither in terms of securing EU funds nor in terms of its relations with Russia or China.

Small state populism

Lastly, another unit-level explanation attributes the unique foreign policy behaviour of Hungary to the dominance of populist parties in domestic politics. The main governing party, Fidesz, has clearly followed the populist guidebook since at least 2010, projecting a constant fight between the morally righteous people and the corrupt elites (Mudde, 2004). While populist governments can conduct markedly different foreign policy strategies, some commonalities occur, including the almost complete subjugation of foreign policy to domestic political interests, the maximization of national sovereignty, and the continuation of the fight against elites internationally (Chryssogelos, 2021, Wojczewski, 2020).

In practice, this narrative is almost completely in line with the previous one concerning radicalism as both argue for the deliberate provocation of transnational groups and political forces. The difference between them is the target audience – while Viktor Orbán’s radicalism narrative points to specific and tangible foreign policy gains vis-á-vis partner countries, the narrative on populism emphasizes building narratives for domestic audiences. Accordingly, the Hungarian government has a history of using foreign actors, including members of the EU elite or George Soros in constructing the enemy. Additionally, the populist narrative can explain supporting other populist movements abroad (Varga and Buzogány 2021) and the fascination with criticizing the “West” which is still considered to be the synonym of traditional transnational elites.

The most pressing issue concerning the populist narrative is that it questions most theories and discussions on the foreign policy of small states. According to mainstream thought, such actors do not have the luxury to prioritise domestic politics in foreign policy, given their security deficit or their exposure to external threats. Populism is a much riskier and more costly ideology for small states than larger ones, given their limited influential capacity and high stress sensitivity. From this perspective, the foreign policy of the country is irrational in the traditional sense.
Implications for Central and Eastern Europe

Similar to most cases, the most suitable explanation of the Hungarian anomaly combines multiple narratives. The foreign policy course of the country can most probably be attributed to the Hungarian elite’s ideological and political sympathy towards Russia, hedging behaviour caused by systemic uncertainty, influence-seeking by following a radical foreign policy, and domestic political considerations at the same time. Consequently, both unit- and system-level attributes need to be taken into account.

This also means that Hungary is not a completely unique phenomenon and is connected to wider geopolitical trends in Central and Eastern Europe. Except for the unlikely scenario that regional and global balance of power repositions into a fixed and transparent state, small and weaker states will continue to reevaluate their existing foreign policy course and implement new kinds of strategies. Alongside the global tendencies strengthening populism, this process has already put existing relations under pressure, not just in the case of Hungary (see Armenian-Russian relations for instance).

From the perspective of great powers, two lessons can be drawn. First, many smaller states are disinterested in the emergence of Cold War-like geopolitical blocs. Second, putting pressure publicly on their partners when they opt for hedging instead of bandwagoning can be counter-productive. Criticism from the US, the EU, or even Russia can be utilized both domestically and internationally and serve as further incentives for non-traditional foreign policy courses. Consequently, similar to great powers, small states and middle powers also have to find their own ways in the current incomplete transformation process of the international system.

Disclaimer: This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 945361.


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