If European leaders still harbour any doubts about the Hungarian conservative Viktor Orbán’s loyalties to Europe, the events in Hungary last week will have done little to dispel them. Hungary has a new VIP asylum seeker, the former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. He was convicted by a court in Skopje of using a government Mercedes for personal travel and he also faces a number of other charges relating to corruption, the abuse of power, electoral fraud and illegal wiretapping. Gruevski claims that the cases are politically motivated, but a court has upheld his conviction and he now faces a prison sentence. Macedonia issued an international arrest warrant for him on 13 November two days after he fled the country for Hungary where according to his own Facebook page he has requested asylum.
Whilst the Hungarian government formally denies having anything to do with Gruevski leaving Macedonia to escape serving a jail term, there are reports that he entered the country in a Hungarian diplomatic vehicle, and is now accommodated as a VIP in Orbán’s private villa. Orbán and Gruevski are longstanding political allies, and Orbán’s ruling Hungarian Fidesz party, which is affiliated to the European Parliament’s EPP Group, has said that Gruevski was “persecuted and threatened by a left-wing government”.
In the European Parliament there have been calls for Gruevski to return to Macedonia to face justice, and questions have been asked about how Hungary can square the harbouring of a convicted criminal with its own national immigration and asylum policy.
Viktor Orbán now faces a choice; if he sends Gruevski back to Skopje, as the Macedonian government demands, then he can claim the high moral ground to be a supporter of the western world and a defender of democracy. If he decides either to grant Gruevski asylum, or to transfer him to Moscow, then he will be giving the clearest of signals that he is committed to the Kremlin and openly supports the Russian President’s strategic objectives in the region.
Based on his recent track record, the latter would appear to be the most likely scenario. Together with Italian and Czech populists Viktor Orbán has been campaigning to lift sanctions imposed against Russia for military aggression in Ukraine.
Russia is actively waging a disinformation campaign in Hungary to ideologically mould members of extremist organisations in the country to believe that the Russian annexation of Crimea sets a precedent for Hungary to regain its territories, primarily Zakarpattia in Ukraine. Russian policy in the region aims to question the existing state borders and to spark territorial conflict with a view to creating instability. Actions are being undertaken to promote Hungarian separatist movements in the neighbouring countries of Ukraine and Romania. Much of the funding for such activities comes from oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin such as Konstantin Malofeev, who has business interests in Hungary.
An important element of Russia’s Hungary strategy is to locate in Hungary the EU centre of the pro-Kremlin right-wing “International Movement”. For example, events organised by the Hungarian right-wing attract participation from pro-Russian extremists from Great Britain (in particular, Jim Dowson of the Knights Templar International (KTI) and Nick Griffin of the National Front). Confirming the trend, the “Wolf” International Centre for Combat and Special Training held exercises for local activists of paramilitary organisations near Budapest in August. The head of the Wolf Centre is a Russian national Denis Ryauzov, who previously served in Russian special operations and is on a US Treasury sanctions list.
The Hungarian leadership which once so actively fought against the Soviet past, now advocates modern Russia’s policies against the West. But Orbán is not just working to weaken unity in the EU, he is actively trying to reunite Budapest with territories that formerly belonged to Hungary such as Zakarpattia in Ukraine, where 150 000 ethnic Hungarians make up just under 10% of the region’s population.
The current dispute between Budapest and Kyiv over the Hungarian minority in Zakarpattia began in 2017, starting at first from a disagreement on legislation on languages and education, but then spiralling into Hungarian opposition to Ukraine’s meetings with NATO and the issue of threats to block Ukraine’s European integration process under their Association Agreement with the EU. Hungary has also provoked Ukrainian irritation by issuing passports to Ukrainian nationals from the Hungarian minority living in Ukraine, where dual citizenship is not allowed.
This is all part of a broader strategic plan to threaten the stability of Europe’s Eastern flank, in Hungary, Romania, Ukraine and the Balkans. Moscow’s main goal is to create new regions of conflict along the EU’s borders, and to split EU unity on the policy of maintaining sanctions against Russia. An absolutely key strategic target for Russian sponsored actions in the EU is Hungary, so Orbán’s next move on the Gruevski case will be instructive.