Pro-Putin leaders are gaining votes in Hungary and Serbia, reminding the Kremlin that it has friends in high places

In both Hungary and Serbia, openly pro-Russian parties easily won parliamentary elections, providing Putin with a welcome reminder that despite the international community’s determined and largely unified response to the invasion, he has one some friends to his west.
The most significant victory came in the form of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his nationalist Fidesz party won a landslide victory. Hungary is a member of both the European Union and NATO, meaning Putin can claim to have a friend with seats at the helm of two of his most hated institutions.

In his victory speech on Sunday evening, Orban goaded not only the EU but also Ukraine.

“We have such a victory that you can see from the moon, but it is certain that you can see it from Brussels,” he said, adding that Fidesz “will remember this victory until the end of our lives, because we had to fight against a huge crowd of opponents.” That list of opponents included Brussels bureaucrats, international media, and specifically Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Zelenskyy has squarely criticized Orban for not having as enthusiastically supported Ukraine as many of his European counterparts have done in recent weeks.

Putin was quick to congratulate Orban on his victory. But few believe it will be much more than a token victory and will do little to sway the EU’s resolve towards Ukraine.

The reality is that Orban was expected to win and the EU has been working on his leadership for years. Despite initial delays, Orban has aligned himself with EU sanctions against Russia and has largely come to terms with the rest of the Western alliance. Hungary’s main obstacle to supporting Ukraine has been Orban’s refusal to allow arms to flow through his country to support Ukrainian troops.

Hungary is also the main holdout in EU talks on a ban on energy imports from Russia. Germany said over the weekend that following reports of war crimes in Ukraine, the bloc must discuss a ban on Russian gas – a move Orban has repeatedly ruled out.

Hungary’s obstinacy angers its key ally Poland, Europe’s other major constitutional offender, which has repeatedly used its veto power to shield Orban from EU penalties in recent years. Whether Poland will do so after the war is over is unclear.

Orban sits next to Putin during the World Judo Championships in Budapest August 28, 2017.

Hungary has strayed far from EU values ​​on the rule of law and human rights, cracking down on cultural institutions and suppressing press freedom.

Most attempts to punish Hungary at EU level have failed, not least because any meaningful action would require the consent of all EU member states in a vote.

Poland and Hungary have recently struck a pact of sorts, effectively each using their EU veto to protect the other. However, Poland is arguably the biggest anti-Russia hawk in the EU and it is so far unclear how this will affect the post-war Poland-Hungary axis.

And since the war began, EU officials have quietly talked about offering Poland a carrot to draw closer to the rest of the bloc, rather than treating Poland and Hungary as two delinquents.

Serbia's Aleksandar Vucic, pictured after his win on Sunday, has been put in a difficult position by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The situation is completely different in Serbia, since it is not a member of the EU or NATO. It is currently going through the EU accession process, with negotiations likely to be completed in the next few years.

Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić has found himself in a difficult position as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For years he has tried to balance maintaining strong diplomatic and economic ties with Russia (and a special fondness for Putin) with the Western embrace that would come with full EU membership.

During the election campaign, Vučić did not deviate from this balance and ran on a platform of peace and stability in the region, Reuters reported.

Serbia is almost entirely dependent on Russian gas, while its army has ties to the Russian military. Despite supporting two United Nations resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Serbia refused to impose sanctions on Moscow, Reuters reported.

The Kremlin is also supporting Belgrade’s opposition to Kosovo’s independence by blocking its membership in the United Nations.

There is no doubt that the weekend’s election results — particularly in Hungary — will have Putin smiling and Brussels’ leaders putting their heads on their hands. For the EU, however, more Orban really means more of the same. It could give Putin some propaganda gains, and it could put the brakes on broader EU plans in the future. But the EU has been working on ways around Orban for years, and knows that when push comes to shove, Orban is happier causing trouble at the club than planning to leave him. Pro-Putin leaders are gaining votes in Hungary and Serbia, reminding the Kremlin that it has friends in high places

Chris Estrada

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