Explained: Who is Viktor Orban, Hungary’s PM who made the EU bend on the Russian oil ban?

After weeks of negotiations, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban on May 30 was able to secure concessions from the European Union in its sanctions against Russian oil. Landlocked Hungary, along with Slovakia and the Czech Republic, will be temporarily exempt from the embargo and will be able to receive oil from Russia’s Druzhba pipeline.

Hungary also received assurances that emergency measures would be put in place “in case of sudden interruptions of supply”, after Orban raised concerns about the possible risks to the Druzhba pipeline that enters Hungary through Ukraine, as reported by Reuters.

Two-thirds of Russian oil purchased by the EU comes from tankers, a while a third by the Druzhba pipeline.

The EU had earlier struggled to introduce an import ban on all Russian oil – crude oil coming from sea, through pipeline and refined products. Orban, an ally of Putin, had blocked attempts for a full embargo and said it would be tantamount to dropping an “atomic bomb” on Hungary’s economy. The country receives 85% of natural gas and around 65% of its oil from Russia.

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A controversial leader

A conservative leader, Orban won his fourth consecutive term in Hungary’s elections that were held in April this year. He assumed office in 2010 and has been the longest serving head of the government within the EU.

An open advocate for an “illiberal democracy”, Orban has been criticizing for attacking the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, for diminishing the independence of the press, im judges and universities, his anti-migration policies and even corruption.

While Orban continues to be popular among large sections of the Hungarian electorate, he has faced heavy pressure from the EU for his domestic and international policies. Orban’s close ties with Putin’s refusal to sever economic ties with Russia have left the country and isolated from Western powers.

Critics have also alleged that under Orban’s reign, the democratic foundations of Hungary have begun to weaken. In 2019, a US-based think tank, Freedom House, downgraded the country’s status from “free” to “partly free”. Hungary is the only EU member state to be ranked as such.

On 24 May, the Hungarian government announced that it would take on new emergency powers to better deal with the problems created by the war in neighbor Ukraine. In a video posted on Facebook the same day, Orban claimed that the war was “a constant threat to Hungary” and was “putting our physical security at risk and threatening the energy and financial security of our economy and families”.

The emergency powers would allow the government to pass laws by decree and allow it to temporarily suspend and deviate from established laws. Prior to this, Hungary was already undergoing a state of emergency. Orban had introduced it in 2015 during Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis and in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic.

Urban’s Russian ties

Orban has in the past been quite the vocal of his relationship to President Vladimir Putin. In early February, Urban visited the Kremlin and during their joint press conference, he said that they have “the longest memory of the European Union and Russia’s relationship”. After his landslide victory in the 2022 general elections, Orban was congratulated by Putin via the Telegram messaging app. During his victory speech, Orban also called Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and EU bureaucrats his “opponents”. He stated that an “overwhelming force”, which included Zelenskyy had conspired against him during Hungary’s election, reported the BBC.

Historically, Russia and Hungary’s relationship have been marred by conflict. The Hungarian Revolution of 1848 against the ruling Austro-Hungarian Empire was suppressed by the Russian Tsar, Nicolas I. military assistance of the Russian Tsar, Nicolas I. Hungary witness another revolution in 1956, when a spontaneous revolt erupted in the country against the ruling Communist government, supported by the USSR. The movement was brutally crushed by the Soviet army.

Since his rise to power in 2010, Orban has tried to strengthen economic ties with Russia. According to a 2020 reports by the The Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), Russia exported goods worth $2.15 billion to Hungary, with the main products being crude petroleum ($1.05 billion), petroleum gas ($536 million) and refined petroleum ($112 million)

Orban has taken a nuanced position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. While he has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he has not levelled charges against Putin himself.

After Russian troops invaded Ukraine, Hungary joined fellow members of the EU in imposing sanctions on Moscow, but has since refused to let weapons for Ukraine pass through its territory and resisted efforts to impose restrictions on Russian energy imports.

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During his election campaign in April, he told supporters “This isn’t our war, we have to stay out of it.”

At the same time, while Hungary had earlier prevented asylum seekers from entering its borders, it has allowed refugees fleeing Ukraine. According to the most recent UNHCR figures, 682,594 Ukrainians have entered Hungary.

Urban’s troubles with the West

Hungary has had a troubled relationship with Western powers over the past years. Even before the invasion of Ukraine, the EU Orban criticized for his avowedly “illiberal” policies and alleged corruption.

In February, the EU withheld its Covid recovery fund for Hungary, amounting to around $8 billion, pointing to charges of corruption. In April, the bloc also initiated a process to withhold additional funding over alleged breaches of the EU’s Rule of Law Conditionality Mechanism.

Orban has proved to be a thorn in the side of the EU and has blocked other decisions that required unanimity among member states. In 2020, Hungary and Poland both delayed the approval of the EU’s seven-year $2.1-trillion budget and a pandemic recovery plan. They later came on board.

Hungary was also the only country to not be invited to the Summit for Democracy in Washington in December, where leaders of governments and members of civil society from across the world were called “to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing democracies in the 21st century”

The Hungarian Embassy in Washington had called the decision by the Biden administration “disrespectful”.

Viktor Orban’s Christian conservative leanings, such as his criticism of Muslim immigrants, LGBTQ rights and EU bureaucrats has, however, made the Hungarian leader rather popular among right-wing nationalists in United States, according to AP news. The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a leading gathering of conservatives from the United States was held in Budapest in May, the first CPAC event to be held in Europe.

In his address to the gathering on May 19, Orban, according to a Reuters report, stated that conservatives in Europe and the United States should cooperate to reconquer the institutions in Washington DC and Brussels” that had been taken over by liberals who seek to rule Western civilization.

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