The Russian war breaks the European illiberal alliance

WARSAW, Poland – The illiberal Central European alliance between Hungary and Poland is now in its twilight hours due to gaping differences over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although Warsaw has become one of Kyiv’s most vocal defenders, calling for tougher sanctions on Moscow and increased military aid, Budapest has turned away from any meaningful support, instead focusing on maintaining good relations. with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This division has prompted Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to say that the paths of the two national conservative governments – long fellow travelers in their opposition to immigrants, Brussels and the rule of law – have “diverged”. Poland’s opposition to Russia’s war has helped rehabilitate its image in Europe, but it’s a blow to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has tried to salvage the relationship by arguing that the two countries are actually “aligned” with their hopes for Ukraine.

“The problem of Hungarian-Polish relations is a problem of the heart,” Orban said recently in a controversial speech to Hungarians in Romania. “We both want exactly the same things, and yet this war makes relations with our friends difficult. … We Hungarians see this war as a war between two Slavic peoples, and as a war we want to stay out of. But the Poles see it as a war in which they are also involved.

Warsaw, Poland-The illiberal Central European alliance between Hungary and Poland is now in its twilight hours due to gaping differences over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although Warsaw has become one of Kyiv’s most vocal defenders, calling for tougher sanctions on Moscow and increased military aid, Budapest has turned away from any meaningful support, instead focusing on maintaining good relations. with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This division prompted Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki say the paths of the two national conservative governments – long companions in their opposition to immigrants, Brussels and the rule of law – have “diverged”. Poland’s opposition to Russia’s war has helped rehabilitate its image in Europe, but it’s a blow to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has tried to salvage the relationship by arguing that the two countries are actually “aligned” with their hopes for Ukraine.

“The problem in Hungarian-Polish relations is a problem of the heart,” Orban said. said recently in a controversial speech to ethnic Hungarians in Romania. “We both want exactly the same things, and yet this war makes relations with our friends difficult. … We Hungarians see this war as a war between two Slavic peoples, and as a war we want to stay out of. But the Poles see it as a war in which they are also involved.

The erosion of relations between the two countries that have been the standard-bearers of opposition to the democratic standards of the European Union presents an opportunity to throw the hammer at countries that flout the rules of the bloc, according to liberal analysts.

What is sorely lacking now is trust. Since the first Russian missile hit Ukraine at the end of February, the Polish government can no longer count on Orban and his Fidesz party. Not only has Budapest delayed EU sanctions against Russia, but Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto to stroll in Moscow for a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in July. Before the invasion, Orban was the only Western leader not to visit Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after a visit to the Kremlin.

“Poles no longer trust Hungarian partners,” said Daniel Hegedusvisiting scholar for Central Europe at the German Marshall Fund.

The break signifies the end of the illiberal axis of Central Europe and presents an opportunity for democracy advocates to demand real consequences for those who undermine EU treaties and values. “What we have is an opportunity to drive a wedge between them,” said Wojciech Przybylski, editor-in-chief of Overview of Visegrad at the Res Publica Warsaw Foundation, a think tank. The “ultimate” step, he suggested, would be to invoke the EU’s own rules, known as Article 7, to limit one’s right to vote and other rights. recalcitrant member states, although he acknowledged that “it would take bold steps”. (Hungary and Poland were both subject to preliminary EU censorship under the auspices of Article 7.)

For now, however, the split between the two black sheep of Europe’s unruly flock does not mean respite for Brussels. The European Union has found itself locked in a bitter dispute with both over their failure to uphold the rule of law. Although both Poland and Hungary agreed to some reforms at the behest of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, neither country received COVID-19 pandemic recovery funds from the EU after receipt of the money was linked respect for democracy. Last week, Warsaw opened fire on the commission after it claimed the bloc had refused to meet the steps it had taken to receive the grants and loans.

“We showed maximum goodwill, but concessions did not help,” said Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chairman of the ruling Law and Justice party. Told Polish media. “Since the European Commission is not fulfilling its obligations towards Poland in this area, we have no reason to fulfill our obligations towards the European Union.”

Budapest has been Warsaw’s ally in teaming up against Brussels, but now they are attacking their common enemy from very different vantage points – a fracture that could further weaken the illiberal axis. Orban denounces the European Union as a group of liberal elites who have criticized Moscow too much. Morawiecki complaints the bloc has imperialist tendencies which must be fought in the same way as Russia’s expansionist dreams.

“Hungary and Poland had a strategic partnership based on shared illiberal values ​​and a political vision based on a strong semi-authoritarian state,” Hegedüs said. “There have always been differences in this relationship, and most of them could be attributed to different strategic orientations towards Russia.” Right now, “they’re practically pushing opposing narratives about the European Union,” he said, but “their end goals are more or less the same.”

What the breakup promises to do is leave Orban more isolated, especially on the European stage. In March, the defense ministers of Poland and the Czech Republic refuse to attend a meeting of the Visegrad Group – a bloc made up of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – in Budapest because of Orban’s stance on the war. Shortly after, Kaczynski slammed Orban after he refuse to condemn the massacre of Ukrainian citizens in Bucha, Ukraine. “We cannot cooperate as we have done in the past if this continues,” warned Poland’s de facto leader.

“Orban for 15 years has behaved as if he were the spokesperson for a region, and that no longer works,” said Zsolt Enyedi, professor of political science at Central European University. “But the Visegrad 4 collapsed [and relations with Poland deteriorated], it is therefore extremely difficult for him to continue this discourse in which he has invested so much. Now he has to switch to a new frame, and that’s a bit inconvenient.

A source of relief could be the American right, which sees in Orban another nationalist crusader. (Orban, after delivering a speech that horrified even his own advisers and moved closer to Putin, spoke at the conservative Republican Political Action Conference in Texas this month.) But he will have to compete with Republicans who have already shifted their nostalgic gaze to Poland, Przybylski said; one of former US President Donald Trump’s greatest foreign policy speeches was an anthem in Poland about the country’s nationalist turn.

Orban still has potential recruits closer to home, including Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and the far-right Brothers of Italy, who are on the right track for an electoral victory in the Italian general election next month. Throughout his career, which began as a pro-democracy reformer, Orban repeatedly returned to the drawing board, each time coming back stronger in his quest to erode Hungarian democracy. The illiberal bond between Poland and Hungary may be hanging by a thread, but the threat to European democracy has not gone away.