There is more than a hint that US patience with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his acolytes is running dangerously low.
Hungary is the most graft-ridden country in the 27-member European Union (EU), according to Transparency International, gets a dismal ranking as “partly free” from Freedom House — notably worse than neighbors like Slovakia and Romania — and, perhaps most significantly for its allies, has consistently dragged its feet on assistance in Ukraine’s fight for survival, blocked arms shipments and worked to halt or slow anti-Russian EU measures.
It hardly came as a surprise therefore that recent leaks of classified information included a CIA report that Hungary’s premier had told colleagues that the US was one of his country’s “top three adversaries” and that this marked “an escalation of the level of [Orbán’s] anti-American rhetoric.”
For much of Orbán’s 13-year rule, Hungary has thumbed its nose at political repercussions. But there are now signs of nervousness. When the US sanctioned the Russian-controlled International Investment Bank (IBB) in Budapest on April 12, Orbán was quick to respond. Instead of the expected invective, Hungary withdrew from the IBB one day later. “The United States is our friend and an important ally as well,” Orbán said.
As Daniel Hegedus, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, noted, Hungary’s actions show it responds to pressure, or at least pressure from the US (as EU action appears to have elicited little response.)
Hungary may soon face additional pressure. An RFE report on April 14 quoted unnamed US officials saying that Congress was working on legislation allowing the Secretary of State to sanction individuals close to Orbán and to the government. The bipartisan bill has been in the works since last year and is expected to be put to a vote within the next few months.
For now, at least, the US seems content to limit itself to the sanctions on the International Investment Bank (IIB), a Russian-directed organization long seen as very close to the Kremlin and whose officials are free to move within the EU’s Schengen-free movement zone. Many believed IIB was being used by Russian intelligence, supplementing the work of around 50 Russian officials at its Budapest embassy.
Nikolay Kosov, the former IIB board chair and a Russian citizen, is the offspring of Russian spies. His father was a KGB resident in Budapest and his mother was described by Tass as “one of the most remarkable spies of the 20th century.” He was one of the three sanctioned by the US. Two senior management officials, Imre Laszlóczki, a Hungarian, and Georgy Potapov, a Russian, were penalized as well.
The US had repeatedly warned Hungary about the IIB and its activities, according to US Ambassador David Pressman: “Unlike other NATO allies previously engaged with this Russian entity . . . Hungary has dismissed the concerns of the United States government regarding the risks its continued presence poses to the alliance.”
Western concerns are much broader. There have been years of criticism by Western allies about Orbán’s self-described “illiberal democracy”, which among other things has targeted sexual minorities with repressive legislation and made it difficult for opposition parties, journalists, and other elements of civil society to operate. Pressman, a distinguished US diplomat, has been subjected to vicious denigration by pro-government outlets, in part because he is gay.
The pro-government media has meanwhile continued to issue a drumbeat of hostile commentary aimed at the US, Ukraine and the EU, and favorable observations about Russia. That caused the US embassy to issue a wry Twitter post in October asking readers to identify whether a series of abusive comments had been made by pro-government Hungarian figures or by Vladimir Putin (none came from the Russian leader.)
This is not the first time the US has targeted Hungary. In 2014, the Obama administration sanctioned six Hungarian citizens, forbidding them from entering the US due to corruption allegations.
President Joe Biden has been a long-time critic of Orbán’s government, condemning Budapest’s democratic backsliding and rule of law deterioration. To show his disdain, Biden excluded Hungary from the 2022 and the 2023 Democracy Summits.
And yet, throughout Russia’s war in Ukraine and Orbán’s illiberal reign, it has been more or less business as usual for Hungary. Orbán still views the Kremlin as a close partner. Prior to the sanctions, Peter Szijjarto, Hungary’s Foreign Minister, visited Moscow for energy discussions as Budapest continues to import oil and gas from Russia. Orbán’s ministers made clear they didn’t want a NATO battlegroup of a few hundred troops on their soil, but eventually backed down. It has also joined Turkey in slowing Swedish membership of the alliance because its government has pointed to Hungary’s democratic failings.
In truth, the US has been soft on Hungary. It has been tolerant. It understands that leaders don’t remain in power forever and that in the longer-term US and Hungarian interests align.
Summer is approaching in Washington, but the temperature in relations with Budapest is getting much colder. If the proposed new sanctions bill passes, it would be a strong signal to Orbán that the time for grand nationalist gestures is at an end. But regardless; it’s time the US amplified the message and adopted more aggressive penalties.
SaraJane Rzegocki is a Program Officer with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She holds an M.A. in Political Science with a concentration in European Union Policy Studies from James Madison University.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.