From Soros scholar to Putin's friend: Who is Viktor Orban

Why Orban is one of Europe's most controversial politicians / collage by Ulad Rubanau, Euroradio
Why Orban is one of Europe's most controversial politicians / collage by Ulad Rubanau, Euroradio


"I don't think anything drastic will happen [between Russia and Ukraine - Euroradio]," Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban assured the public in early February. He said this after meeting with Putin.

The politicians then not only talked at the infamous long table but also drank a glass of champagne - it was the warmest meeting between Putin and a Western politician in the months preceding the war.

От стипендиата Сороса — до друга Путина: кто такой Виктор Орбан
Orban and Putin three weeks before the war / EPA

Today Orban is the one leader in the EU who blocks the imposition of an embargo on Russian oil. What's more: he speaks unflatteringly of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and bans arms shipments to Ukraine via his territory. Read more about how Orban has become one of the most controversial figures in European politics.

He took from Soros, now they are enemies 

Orban's views have evolved dramatically: he was secretary of a communist youth organization when he was in school and later became a fierce anti-communist. He said this happened during his military service.

At university, Orban studied law. He even wrote his dissertation on the Solidarity movement -- back when the Communists were in power. Then he received a scholarship from the George Soros Foundation to study at Oxford. Curiously enough, after a while, Soros basically became his number one enemy.

От стипендиата Сороса — до друга Путина: кто такой Виктор Орбан
Orban (center) in 2001 / EPA

Then Orban went into opposition for eight years but remained active both inside and outside the country. In 2010, he again formed a government that he has been heading to this day. 

Russia -- friend or foe?

Like his position on NGOs, Orban's position on Russia has also changed several times. At the beginning of his political career, he took an anti-Russian stance, which helped him attract voters, given the bloody role of the USSR in the history of Hungary in the second half of the 20th century.

For example, in 1989, Orban publicly advocated the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. During his first term in office, he tried to prevent Russian state corporations from buying Hungarian companies, and during the war in Kosovo, he did not allow aid to Serbia to pass through.

But then, when Orban was already in opposition, his attitude toward Russia and Putin personally began to change little by little. Especially after he lost two more elections and became leader of the "patriotic forces" in Hungary. The turning point came in 2009 when Orban attended the United Russia congress.

Upon his return to power, Orban suddenly and officially began to advocate the Russian regime. In addition to active economic cooperation, which is a regular occurrence, there was also political cooperation. Thus, official Budapest opposed anti-Russian sanctions back in 2014 -- after the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in the Donbas.

От стипендиата Сороса — до друга Путина: кто такой Виктор Орбан
Putin and Orban in 2019 / Getty Images

The Orban government is doing the same thing now. Many think it's realpolitik: Budapest cares about its well-being and doesn't want rising food and energy prices (which it buys relatively cheaply from Russia). But there are more interesting versions: for example, "Insider" wrote that the Kremlin may have dirt on Orban after the detention of mafia boss Semyon Mogilevich.


Opposing LGBT?

With right-wing populist views, Orban has fought not only deep European integration and migration, but also LGBTQ+ movement. His government, despite protests from Brussels, pursues an openly homophobic policy. For example, in 2020, it refused to legally recognize transgender people.

In 2021, Orban's party initiated legislation (!) to censor "any positive LGBT content". In fact, this would be similar to the Russian law on "gay propaganda". The amendments to the legislation were passed despite criticism from international partners and the fact that they contradicted the basic acts of the EU. 

Finally, the government tried to "hide behind" public opinion and put four questions (with manipulative wording) to a referendum that was held simultaneously with the parliamentary elections in April 2022. But none of the questions passed the required threshold of 50% of registered voters.

От стипендиата Сороса — до друга Путина: кто такой Виктор Орбан
Protest against discriminatory laws in Budapest in 2021 / AFP

The irony of Orban's and his party's stance on LGBTQ+ is that one of his closest associates, Jozsef Szajer, found himself in the middle of a gay scandal. It was late fall 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus restrictions. Jozsef Szajer, at the time a Hungarian member of the European Parliament, was caught by Belgian police after trying to flee the scene of a gay (!) orgy. The cops, of course, did not care who was having sex with whom, but this was a quarantine violation.

After the scandal, Szajer had to leave the European Parliament and the party disowned him. But there were even more questions for "Fidesz": populist politics leads to more mishaps than that. After all, the same Jozsef Szajer was one of the active lobbyists for both restrictions on abortion rights and homophobic laws. 

War in Ukraine as a domestic politics tool

Already in 2014, Orban showed that he did not actually consider the annexation of Crimea and the war as something worthy of sanctions. Later, especially in the last weeks before the full-scale invasion, the politician assured everyone that there would be none. Well, then he sat on several chairs at once.

On the one hand, Orban spoke negatively about the invasion, offered to negotiate in Budapest, and supported the previous sanctions packages. On the other: he refused to agree to an embargo on Russian oil, banned the transportation of weapons into Ukraine through the country and, moreover, called Zelensky his adversary.


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