Two Illiberal Democracies Break Over Ukraine
Hungary's closeness to Russia has become toxic to Poland
An old proverb goes, "Hungarians and Poles are two brothers, they fight together and they drink together.” The two nations have a centuries-long history of friendship. Following the victory of Poland's illiberal Law and Justice Party in 2015, this friendship turned into a political alliance against the European Union, which charged that the countries were backsliding on democracy. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the Polish government backed each other in Brussels when they were accused of compromising the independence of the judiciary and the media.
The war in Ukraine has thrown a spanner into this alliance. Hungary has been the most resistant to sanctioning Russia of any EU state. Following his March re-election, Orban named Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as one of his "opponents" he defeated and got a congratulatory Telegram message from Putin. However, Poland has been one of Ukraine's most enthusiastic allies. Polish President Andrzej Duda embraced Zelensky on a visit to Kyiv. The country has accepted approximately three million Ukrainian refugees and has delivered more financial and military aid to Ukraine than any other EU state.
The war in Ukraine pushed both countries to take sides. Poland's biggest threat changed from Brussels to Moscow. Suddenly, Putin was fighting a war next door that rattled windows in Eastern Poland. Brussels, by comparison, wasn't menacing -- and could fund the enormous cost of absorbing three million Ukrainians. However, for Orban, who already had a friendly relationship with Putin, Russia was the ticket for cheap energy amid skyrocketing inflation.
The disintegration of this friendship has far-reaching implications for both countries, as well as for the European Union. The two countries have relied on each other for protection against the EU's Article 7, the punishment procedure to suspend a member state's voting rights, which requires unanimity. The break raises the possibility that Poland could revoke its protection against Hungary, should the E.U. initiate the process against Hungary, which it did in 2018.
The political bromance between Orban and the most powerful politician behind Law and Justice, Jarosław Kaczyński, has broken due to Orban’s closeness with Putin. In 2011, Kaczyński said that he wanted to emulate Hungary’s illiberal democratic model: "The day will come when we will succeed, and we will have Budapest in Warsaw." The two met for hours in the countryside in 2016. However, in a radio interview in April, Kaczyński said his opinion of Orban was "unequivocally negative" and called his positions on Russia "very sad" and a "disappointment." He said that Orban should have his "eyes checked" if he could not see Russian war crimes in Bucha.
The rift was on display last week as the European Union negotiated a sanctions package to block Russian oil imports by the end of the year. There was one holdout on the deal -- Hungary. To appease Budapest, E.U. leaders agreed to continue to allow oil imports by pipeline, while banning them by sea. After winning the concession, Orban took a victory lap in a Facebook video, declaring that “families can sleep well tonight as the most outrageous idea has been averted.” By contrast, Poland, which gets about 64 percent of its oil imports from Russia, had decided in March to cut off all Russian energy imports (oil, gas, and coal) by the end of the year. Its government has been urging Brussels to cut off Russian energy exports, and this deal fell short of what they wanted.
The European Union has also started to treat Poland and Hungary differently. This past week, the European Commission unfroze some $38 billion in coronavirus recovery funds that it had blocked Poland from receiving over concerns about judicial independence. Poland's government rolled back some changes to disciplining judges, although critics charged that the changes were window dressing to make it easier for the EU to reverse itself. It's far from clear that Poland will completely abandon its attempts to weaken the independent judiciary or the media. However, those same funds remain frozen for Hungary.
One of Putin's strategic goals has been to divide the European Union through propaganda, backing far-right candidates, and cheap energy deals. However, his war with Ukraine has ended up dividing the two European illiberal democratic governments that are closest to Moscow's own totalitarian form of illiberalism -- and increased European unity.
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