Putin’s Illiberal Pals Are Down but not Out

Photo: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a news conference following their talks in Budapest, Hungary, October 30, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
Photo: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a news conference following their talks in Budapest, Hungary, October 30, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

Russia’s war on Ukraine is changing European politics. But it would be complacent to think that the war will do away with pro-Putin illiberals.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has had a deep impact on European politics. Germany’s new government reversed decades-long policies on Russian energy, arms shipments, and defense spending in under a fortnight. Central and Eastern European countries that had been warning the European Union (EU) of the threat Putin represented for years, are becoming important drivers of the bloc’s foreign policy.

The war has also forced Putin sympathizers in Europe’s political class onto the defensive—at least for now.

Less than a month before France’s presidential election, Emmanuel Macron looks closer to a second term than at any time in the past year, as a large majority of French voters approve of his handling of the war. Moreover, his main opponents, from far-right to far-left, were all forced to explain their previous coziness with Putin and to put some distance between themselves and the Russian president. None of them look likely to be elected French president next month.

Other illiberal politicians chose a different tactic. The Czech President Milos Zeman, up until February one of Putin’s most reliable allies in Europe, suddenly changed his tone, calling Putin a “madman” and urging sanctions against Russian banks.

Matteo Salvini, head of Italy’s far-right Lega party and one of the most shamelessly open admirers of the Russian president in Europe — going as far as wearing a Putin t-shirt in Moscow in 2017 — is trying to reinvent himself as a champion of Ukrainian refugees.

The unconvincing turnarounds of Salvini and Le Pen may very well cost them votes at the polls. However, before that could happen, two European elections on April 3 will be followed closely by illiberals across the EU, as they may show a path to the future of pro-Putin politics. They also serve as a warning to Democratic leaders that the war itself will not defeat the enablers of autocrats in the EU.

The elections will take place in Serbia where President Aleksandar Vučić has been building an illiberal state since 2012, and in Hungary where Viktor Orbán faces the strongest challenge yet to his 12-year rule. The two leaders, who have built a particularly amicable relationship, both obtained assurances on gas delivery from Russia in recent months, which allowed them to put their ability to provide cheap energy to their citizens at the forefront of their domestic campaigns.

While Vučić was forced to make certain concessions — such as declaring support for the integrity of Ukraine and voting for a UN resolution condemning the invasion — his government has refused to impose sanctions. Serbian nationalists who have been egged on by the government in past years, held a pro-Putin rally in Belgrade, a shocking sight, even considering deep cultural links between the two countries. The EU is only now starting to realize the damage done by the politics of Vučić — who has long since built a false image as a “stabilizer” — that allowed a cult of Putin to flourish and Serbian nationalism to strengthen in the region.

As the prime minister of an EU and NATO member, Orbán has had to tread a more careful path. After initial hesitation, Orbán supported EU sanctions. He also agreed on March 24 to the deployment of a NATO battlegroup in the country, while insisting it be based west of the Danube, away from the eastern border, near Ukraine. But domestically Orbán presented a much-more ambiguous picture. In the public broadcaster, run through political appointees, as well as in media owned by the pro-Orbán KESMA conglomerate, which together control more than three-fourths of news-focused media in the country, viewers, and readers had been treated to pro-Putin and anti-Western narratives for years. This has barely changed. A survey suggested that Fidesz voters have a radically different picture of the war than opposition supporters.

Orbán also recast his own image. Before the war, he tried to sport an edgy look like a vagabond fighter against the “globalist” EU elite — much like Le Pen, Salvini, and the rest of his allies. New campaign ads depict him as an experienced elder statesman who will guard Hungary’s peace, security, and cheap energy, while his opponents would drag the country to war.

A week before the election, Orbán’s tactics seem to be working: opinion polls show little, if any changes in party preferences, which would give Fidesz a comfortable parliamentary majority. Vučić’s position was never in jeopardy and he too is headed towards a comfortable, if not fully legitimate win.

The horrors of the war will almost inevitably be pushed into the background by issues such as steeply rising energy and food prices. Even if overtly pro-Putin politics are too toxic in the future, pro-Putin politicians and public personalities can recast themselves, like Orbán and Vučić, as the guarantors of stability and security who defend their nations from the secondary effects of the war, all while remaining attractive partners to autocrats.

For now, the groundswell of public animosity to Putin allows the EU and the US to make it much more difficult for his enablers to reinvent themselves.

The expulsion of Russia from the Council of Europe will deprive it of one important staging ground for its influence operations. But the Council should now be strengthened and rebuilt as an authoritative institution of human rights and civil liberties. Countries should better enforce and strengthen rules governing the transparency of campaign and party financing and ramp up efforts to investigate existing cases.

Leaders should push for a new EU-level consensus on barring senior officials from taking up well-paid positions in companies headquartered in autocracies. Putting Germany’s former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who has still not resigned from his positions with Russian energy firms, on a US sanctions list, while rescinding privileges he enjoys as a former head of government in Germany, would be a powerful message that Western enablers bear the same responsibility as Putin’s Russian allies.

Seizing the properties of Russian oligarchs, in what increasingly looks like a coordinated Transatlantic effort, is another good step. While there is little chance that these people will be able to exert any influence on politics in Russia right now, precisely due to their dependence on Kremlin, several have acted as conduits of influence operations. It is important to ensure that this is pursued with a strategic vision, recognizing that Russia is not the only autocracy that uses dirty money to bend rules and decision-makers to its will.

The EU should ban golden passport schemes faster than the 2025 deadline suggested by the European Parliament (as the UK has now done), and radically increase the transparency of company records, including those on beneficial ownership data. This should be complemented with steps to protect the independence and the security of the media and of courts, the two most important guarantees that foul play is spotted and stopped. The European Commission, the EU’s Court of Justice, and the European Public Prosecutor’s Office are well placed to be at the forefront of this.

Last, but not least, the war in Ukraine should prompt the EU to thoroughly reform its moribund accession policy. The failure to make good on progress to membership has contributed to the toxic politics of the Western Balkans and embittered people living in the EU’s Eastern neighborhood.

There is now a realization that this should change. Illiberals have long pushed for a false solution: integrating countries with illiberal governments, such as Serbia, ostensibly to prevent them from destabilization. Vučić and Orbán are the proof that this is a bad idea. The EU should instead allow quick access to candidates to the single market, while refocusing negotiations for full membership on good governance and the rule of law.

András Tóth-Czifra is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. He is a political analyst from Hungary, based in New York City.

 


Photo: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a news conference following their talks in Budapest, Hungary, October 30, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo.

March 25, 2022