How Viktor Orbán angered his closest friends in Europe
Newly-elected Hungarian president Katalin Novák tried to put her best foot forward on her first official foreign visit to Warsaw in May 2022. She was wearing one of Poland’s national colors, red, and managed to arrange a meeting not only with President Andrzej Duda, but also with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who is more directly involved in the day-to-day political operation of the country.
Novák went to Warsaw on the mission to heal Hungarian-Polish relations, which were in danger because of the war in Ukraine. The Polish leadership, formerly Viktor Orbán’s closest European ally, was angered by the Hungarian government’s reluctance to take a clear position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Hungary voted in favor of all EU sanctions against Russia but, at the same time, vociferously criticized them.
With such a history, the Hungarian leadership had high hopes for Novák’s journey. The plan was that the new president would make gestures, condemn Russian aggression, and thus, as one Hungarian source involved in the preparations for the visit put it, “the image that will be conveyed to Morawiecki and the Poles is that the president is taking a different line from Orbán (…) that there are centers of power in Hungarian politics that think differently.”
However, according to Hungarian and Polish government sources with detailed information about Katalin Novak’s visit, at least one of her meetings was extremely tense and went very badly for her.
While the Hungarian president and her staff could have hoped that Novák would disarm her Polish counterparts with friendly gestures and her personal charm, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was more interested in concrete political-economic issues. According to information obtained by Direkt36, this surprised Novák and her entourage.
For example, Morawiecki asked the Hungarian head of state to explain why Hungary’s dependence on Russian energy is so severe. Novák responded with the Orbán government’s usual argument that this is an unfortunate heritage of the past and that it is technically impossible to replace Russian energy sources. The Polish PM, however, knew well in advance what her response would be and immediately came up with counter-arguments.
In preparation for the meeting, Morawiecki asked his own staff and experts working for the Polish government for detailed calculations on Hungary’s dependence on Russian energy and whether it is possible to replace Russian energy sources.
“The Polish analyses all came to the conclusion that Hungary could technically replace Russian energy, it just doesn’t want to,”
explained a source familiar with the details of the meeting.
The Poles, for example, checked—and found disputable—claims of the Hungarian government and MOL, Hungary’s state-affiliated oil company, about the exact time it would take to switch oil refineries from Urals-type Russian oil to other types of oil. The Hungarian argument was that it would take between two and four years and hundreds of millions of dollars. But the Polish PM’s experts concluded that this could be achieved in a much shorter time than the Hungarian claims. Morawiecki also confronted Novák with the fact that, even if the Russians shut down the Friendship (Druzhba) pipeline, Hungary would not collapse, because Hungary could replace the lost oil through the Adriatic pipeline from Croatia.
The Polish prime minister and his staff prepared in advance on the topic of natural gas, too. Morawiecki lectured his guest on the various interconnectors and alternative gas routes that, according to his experts, could help Hungary to gradually wean itself off Russian gas if it wanted to. He also mentioned that the Hungarian government signed a long-term gas contract with Russia’s Gazprom in the autumn of 2021, which also did not point in the direction of reducing Russian energy dependency.
At this point, Novák tried to dodge further questions in the debate. Emphasizing that she was still new to her position, she deferred the questions to one of her aides, Kristof Altusz, the diplomatic director of the Hungarian President’s Office. However, Polish government sources said that his answers did not convince Morawiecki and his staff either.
Katalin Novák’s unsuccessful debut in Warsaw was typical of the last year or so, during which politicians from the Polish right-wing governing coalition led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party have started to confront the Orbán government, sometimes behind closed doors and sometimes in public.
Direkt36 and VSquare have, in recent months, talked to more than 30 sources, including Hungarian and Polish government officials, who are closely following the development of relations between the two countries. The picture that emerged is one in which Poles have not completely severed ties with the Orbán government but have seriously cut them back.
Among other things, it has emerged that Polish government circles have a particularly bad opinion of Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó, whose staff has even upset an influential Polish pro-government media tycoon. And although Hungarian diplomacy is making serious efforts to court Polish leadership, reactions to these attempts were rather cold in recent months. This also hampers Orbán’s ambitious plans for creating a new European political alliance.
Hungary’s government did not reply to our request for comment. Katalin Novák’s office responded that they always follow “the written and unwritten rules of diplomacy,” and thus “the non-public part of the negotiations is not disclosed” by her office. The Polish prime minister’s office did not provide any substantive answers to our questions, and only said that details of Morawiecki’s official visits are published on their website.
I. WRATH IN WARSAW
In the spring of 2022, a parcel arrived at the Hungarian Embassy in Warsaw, the likes of which had never been seen before by members of the diplomatic mission, which had until then enjoyed respect (or, at worst, neutrality) in Polish public life. They received a box with a strong smell, so when the embassy secretariat opened the package, the contents were not as surprising as they might have been: the box was full of excrement (one source describing the incident said it was not clear whether it was animal or human excrement, as no such analysis was carried out by embassy staff).
This episode was far from the only extreme manifestation of Polish anger against the Hungarian government. According to a source familiar with the events, there was a mass of abusive comments on the Facebook page of the Hungarian Embassy in Warsaw, and even death threats, which were reported to the embassy’s security department, which in turn informed the Polish police. “We’ll cut your guts out, you Russian hirelings!,” read similar messages that were received in droves in the spring of 2022, according to the source.
On March 30, 2022, activists protesting against the pro-Russian policies of the Orbán government poured red paint on the embassy, and on May 25 of that same year, protesters climbed the embassy’s railing and hung protest banners depicting Orbán and Putin toasting with glasses filled with oil on it. The second case was investigated for alleged trespassing, but the police closed both cases quickly and did not find the perpetrators. Some protests were organized by local Ukrainians, others by Polish civilians, and others by Greenpeace.
In one protest, an effigy of Viktor Orban dangling from Vladimir Putin’s buttocks was displayed. During another rally, protesters placed children’s shoes in front of the Hungarian Embassy in Warsaw, referring to the mass killing of Ukrainian children.
The protests were not only in Warsaw, but also at the Hungarian consulate in Krakow. According to a source who followed the events closely, one of the main organizers of the demonstration in Krakow was a former classmate – a Hungarian citizen – of one of the local Hungarian consuls. “This story shows what this has come to and how it has come down on a personal human level,” the source said, adding that Hungarian diplomats in Poland are overwhelmingly either of Polish origin or have other strong family ties to the country.
“To experience that it is a shame to be a Hungarian diplomat in Poland was simply shocking,”
the source added.
The protest actions targeted not only Hungarian diplomacy in Poland, but simply everything Hungarian. In spring 2022, some Polish travel agencies canceled their trips to Hungary, and a few Polish companies and shops announced a boycott of Hungarian products, including Hungarian wine, in addition to Russian and Belarusian products.
According to a source working in the Hungarian-Polish cultural scene, the father of Hungarian Ambassador to Warsaw Orsolya Kovács, István Kovács, a renowned expert of Polish history and culture, feared he would be booed and canceled his participation in the 2022 World Congress of Polish Literature Translators in Krakow. “I don’t want to go because I don’t want to become a target of attacks,” he said in private conversations to explain his decision, according to the source. (In his reply to Direkt36, Kovács did not comment on this specific episode, but stressed that last year he presented one of his books at five events in Poland.)
A still higher-profile event was the resignation of Artur Balazs, Hungary’s honorary consul in Szczecin and a former Polish minister of agriculture with close ties to leading politicians in the ruling PiS party, from his post. “I fear that Viktor Orbán, by maintaining his relationship with Putin, is creating the worst Hungarian-Polish and Hungarian-EU relationship in history,” he told valaszonline.hu while explaining his decision. Balazs told us that since his resignation, he no longer has any contact with the Hungarian Embassy in Warsaw, nor does he have any information about bilateral relations.
Orsolya Kovács, who has held the post of Hungarian Ambassador to Warsaw since the beginning of 2017, has taken the events particularly badly, according to several sources involved in shaping Polish-Hungarian relations. Orsolya Kovács has been described as a good diplomat, a decent person and an excellent Poland expert with a broad network of contacts.
Part of her network is due to her father, István Kovács, but she has also become an important player in Polish-Hungarian relations in her own right. Orsolya Kovács was, and still is, Viktor Orbán’s long-time Polish interpreter. Since Jarosław Kaczyński, who heads Law and Justice, does not speak any foreign languages, he cannot communicate directly with Orbán. “She has always been there at the Kaczyński-Orbán one-on-one meetings, and even after her appointment as ambassador, Kaczyński insisted that she should interpret,” a source familiar with the internal affairs of the Hungarian foreign ministry said. According to the source, this made Kovács a confidant for both sides, “who knows everything, the highest level talks and even the most sensitive issues.”
According to sources who know the ambassador personally, Kovács—whose posting had expired, but was extended due to a clear lack of a suitable successor—has said in private conversations that she wants to go home to Hungary. According to the sources, Kovács elaborated that she was finding the deterioration of Hungarian-Polish relations difficult to bear and that she was less and less able to put her face to the Orbán government’s policy towards Ukraine. (Neither Kovács nor the Hungarian foreign ministry reacted to our request for comment.)
In an example typical of diplomatic difficulties, while every EU country’s embassy in Warsaw immediately displayed the Ukrainian flag on its own premises, the Hungarian Embassy in Warsaw was not allowed to do so. According to a source familiar with the case, though Kovács tried to explain at length to the Hungarian foreign ministry why this was necessary, but no one at the level of deputy state secretary or state secretary dared to give her permission. “She had to explain why they were asking for this, that this is Poland and everyone there is putting up the Ukrainian flag. Because Hungarian embassies elsewhere or government institutions in Budapest have not put it up,” the source said, adding that the approval finally came from “the highest level.”
A more serious inconvenience arose in another case when, partly at the intervention of Orsolya Kovács, the Polish government did Hungary a favor, but quickly came to regret it. At Hungary’s request, weeks after the outbreak of the war and the ban on Russian flights, they allowed a Russian plane carrying nuclear fuel from Russia to the Paks 1 nuclear power plant to fly over Poland multiple times in April.
“They were really not happy, but they allowed it. Then the press found out about it and reported it, and that’s what caused the fuss,” a source familiar with the internal affairs of the Hungarian foreign ministry recalled, adding that the Polish government then vowed not to allow any more such transfers. “The Poles are otherwise understanding about the existing Paks 1 nuclear plant, they know it has to be operated with the Russians. However, they do not understand why Paks 2 should be built with the Russians,” the source added.
In an indication of dramatic change to come, ambassador Orsolya Kovács, who previously could easily get access to anyone in the Polish government or PiS leadership at almost any time, found after the outbreak of the war that all those doors were suddenly closed.
“They simply canceled the Hungarian ambassador from one day to the next, and it happened everywhere,”
a source familiar with the Hungarian foreign ministry’s internal affairs as well as Polish affairs said. According to the source, rumors were spreading of an alleged ban on the ambassador and it looked very much as if the order had come from the PiS top leadership. According to this rumor, Kovács can only be received with special permission and should not be met by default.
A Polish government source said he did not know whether there was a specific order coming from on high that said doors should be shut to Kovács, but added that he had heard the ambassador complain about this. “She could not arrange a single meeting because everyone turned away from her visibly, all at once,” the source said.
Relations have become frosty not only at the ambassador’s level, but also at the very top.
II. THE DISAPPOINTMENT
Many in the Polish leadership expected that, once the election campaign in April 2022 was over, the Orbán government’s attitude to the war would change. Initially, and for some time, the Polish leadership believed that Hungarian statements about the war were just serving domestic election campaign purposes, and that, sooner or later, Orbán and his Fidesz party would adopt position similar to the Poles. But they were proven wrong.
The Hungarian prime minister lashed out at Ukraine on the eve of his election victory, when he listed president Volodymyr Zelensky among his political opponents in a speech. And a few days later, at an international press conference, he said that the mass graves uncovered in Bucha near Kyiv needed to be investigated first as he did not want to condemn Russia outright for the killing of civilians. Jarosław Kaczyński responded in a radio interview on April 8 by saying that “if Viktor Orbán can’t see what happened in Bucha, he should go to see an eye doctor.”
Such statements would have been unimaginable from the Polish leadership before. Kaczyński and his Law and Justice party was considered the closest ally of the Orbán government. The Poles and Hungarians supported each other wholeheartedly in the face of criticism and legal action from EU institutions. They also found common ground on political, ideological and cultural issues, whether it was putting pressure on independent journalism or restrictions on LGBT rights.
“Even PiS party members themselves admitted in unofficial conversations that their draft laws were modeled on Hungarian laws. And they were always amazed at how Fidesz has won so many elections,” Grzegorz Schetyna, a leading Polish opposition politician, former foreign minister and former chairman of the opposition Civic Platform (PO), told us. As a center-right party and a member of the European People’s Party (EPP), PO was for a long time Fidesz’s main ally in Poland, but the Hungarian attitude changed with the rise of the more conservative PiS. According to Schetyna, who also used to have a close relationship with the Hungarian prime minister, there was a transitional period during which Orbán “played on two pianos at once,” trying to maintain good relations with both Polish parties. Eventually, he anchored himself with PiS.
A clear turnaround came after Kaczyński’s party came to power in autumn 2015 and quickly set about transforming Poland.
“PiS learned from Fidesz in many areas, especially media and family policy,”
a source familiar with the internal affairs of the Hungarian foreign ministry who closely followed these negotiations said. Polish government officials in Warsaw and the Polish Embassy in Budapest also asked the Hungarians to provide them with legislation and research studies on the Orbán government’s family policy measures.
In particular, PiS has studied Hungarian law on family tax allowances in detail, and essentially copied it “one by one” in 2016, according to the source. The Kaczyński government introduced legislation under which families would receive PLN 500 per month for every second and subsequent child, a measure that has contributed greatly to PiS’s popularity. It was not surprising that Warsaw was also keeping a close eye on several similar measures of the Orbán government.
“They also wanted to copy the CSOK (Family Housing Benefit, a state loan for buying new homes available to parents or married couples who pledge to have children), they studied this Hungarian solution intensively, but then the economic crisis intervened,”
the source familiar with the internal affairs of the Hungarian foreign ministry cited another example. According to Grzegorz Schetyna, PiS was also closely monitoring the Orbán government’s methods of consolidating power, which were sold as economic crisis management measures. “PiS has carefully studied Hungarian laws and Orbán’s know-how in limiting the power of local officials and cutting municipal funds,” Schetyna said.
That the relationship was so harmonious for such a long time suggests that serious diplomatic tensions could only have been caused by personal interactions gone wrong.
One such case was related to Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó. In 2021, at the International Economic Forum in Karpacz, Hungarian embassy staff were tasked with arranging an interview for Szijjártó with PiS-affiliated media owned by media tycoon Tomasz Sakiewicz. Sakiewicz is an influential figure in Polish government circles, described by a source familiar with the inner workings of the Hungarian foreign ministry as “the Lajos Simicska of PiS and Kaczyński [comparing him to Viktor Orbán’s former ally, the oligarch who once governed the pro-Orbán media empire],” who helped create the party’s media background during the opposition days.
Sakiewicz is the owner and editor-in-chief of the Gazeta Polska newspaper, and in connection with this newspaper, he has set up Gazeta Polska clubs similar to the Hungarian civic circles (small local political groups established by Fidesz throughout Hungary after their election defeat in 2002), whose members are typically small-town conservative people. This also gives Sakiewicz considerable political clout, as he can easily organize events and protests at any time through the network of clubs. It was also the Gazeta Polska clubs that used to organize charter trains to Budapest so that their supporters could parade with Polish flags at the so-called pro-Orbán Peace Marches and at other Fidesz events marking Hungarian national holidays.
This is the important man Szijjártó’s staff managed to offend at the 2021 event. Sakiewicz was also present in Karpacz, and when he saw the Hungarian foreign minister, he wanted to greet him personally. However, Szijjártó’s staff did not recognize Sakiewicz, and one of the minister’s aides tried to keep him away by almost pushing him to the ground. According to a source familiar with the details of this episode, a member of Szijjártó’s staff even told local Hungarian embassy staff to “keep that fat idiot away from the minister!”
“Sakiewicz was obviously outraged, and then poor Orsi Kovács had to apologize personally, making amends and sending him all sorts of gifts,”
the source added. (Sakiewicz did not reply to our comment request.)
Alongside these incidents, an important substantive tension has been running through the relationship between the two governments. This was differing attitudes towards Russia. This predates Russia’s all-out war in Ukraine: In February 2015, PiS announced that Jarosław Kaczyński had turned down a meeting initiated by Orbán. According to the party, Kaczyński decided to do so because he believed Orbán—who had received Vladimir Putin in Budapest a few days earlier—was “destroying European solidarity.” (Hungary’s government denied at the time that Orbán had wanted to meet the PiS leader.)
Later, probably partly as a result of joint Polish-Hungarian disputes with Brussels, these differences were pushed into the background. However, as the Russians made increasingly obvious preparations for an invasion of Ukraine in 2021, this deep-seated tension was bound to resurface again.
One of the first signs of this was when Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki traveled to the countries of the region in the autumn of 2021 with information that he believed pointed to the conclusion that Russia was preparing for war. In November 2021, Morawiecki also visited Orbán in Budapest for a Visegrád Group (V4) meeting but his warnings fell on deaf ears. The official topic of the meeting was the refugee crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border, but Morawiecki also told Orbán about evidence of an imminent Russian invasion.
“He talked about the information he had not only on military operations, but also on the accumulation of roubles, on the cutting of welfare measures, all of which pointed to the Russians preparing for war,”
a Polish government source familiar with the details of the meeting explained, adding that “nobody believed him.” (Direkt36 has previously detailed how the Hungarian government had been distrustful at all foreign intelligence predictions of war.)
After the war started, the rift between the two governments became even more apparent. In the days after the invasion began, reports started circulating in international media that Hungary would block the exclusion of Russian banks from the SWIFT interbank communication system. Hungary’s government denied these claims, but Morawiecki still felt the need to talk to Orbán on the matter. On February 26, the Polish prime minister announced on Twitter that Orbán had assured him that Hungary supported sanctions against Russia, including the SWIFT ban.
From the beginning, the Poles were critical of the Hungarian government’s reaction to the war, but they did not want to cut off relations completely. Although they canceled a joint public event because of the war, they agreed to a secret high-level meeting between the two countries. According to a source with knowledge of the details, this meeting took place about a month after the outbreak of the war and was a ministerial-level dialogue. The source did not say exactly who the participants were, but said that “the aim was to understand the differences between the two governments.”
However, the secret meeting was useful to keep the channels of communication open, but not to settle differences.
“For us, Poles, it is difficult to understand how Hungarians who lived through 1956 can take such a different approach to the issue. Why can’t they understand that this is not only about Ukraine, but that the Russians want to occupy other countries as well,”
explained a Polish government source.
Although members of the Orbán government do not usually hold back in the face of criticism from abroad, they have reacted very moderately to criticism from Poland. As Direkt36 reported earlier, the Hungarian prime minister has spoken very sympathetically about the Poles, even behind closed doors. In a closed parliamentary meeting in March 2022, Orbán noted that he believed that “the Poles want to push NATO into a military conflict” but added that he did not want to evaluate this “on the basis of Polish national interest.” “We are not Poland. It is not our business to imagine ourselves in the moral place of another party,” the Hungarian PM added.
President Katalin Novák’s visit to Warsaw in May 2022 was also aimed at salvaging the relationship—but it was not only because of the energy issues raised by Morawiecki that it was not fruitful. Her meeting with the Polish head of state, Andrzej Duda, did not go well either. According to a Polish source familiar with the details of the meeting, while Duda was making clear that he did not like the Hungarian government’s attitude towards Vladimir Putin, Novák tried to focus only on what she saw as links between Hungarians and Poles. She was speaking about Catholicism and the faith in God, the importance of the family and John Paul II, rather than diving into political issues. “It quickly became obvious that she doesn’t have the ability to do or say much,” a source close to the Polish president’s office said of Novák.
It was clear to the Poles that Novák represented something different from the Hungarian government, but only in style and not in substance. “Many in Warsaw expected Novák to have a different opinion, but they were disappointed. Novák has never done anything in her political life that went against Orbán’s wishes,” a Polish government official who follows Hungarian affairs said, summing up the president’s trip.
“Katalin Novák’s role is image management. She is the good cop, the nice face of the Orbán government towards the EU and the world. She is the nice auntie,”
the source added.
It was also clear to the Hungarian side that the visit of the Hungarian head of state and the image-building associated with Novák’s persona had not been successful. “In Warsaw, they see exactly that the power in Hungary is a monolithic structure, and if there is a unique voice, it is only because the chorus has been centrally choreographed in such way,” a Hungarian source involved in the preparations for Novák’s visit said, adding that the Polish government and PiS know exactly that Novák represents the same thing as Orbán.
But the Hungarian head of state’s charm offensive also failed for a different reason. “Her position is not credible, and the Poles are not deceived by her,” Zsuzsanna Végh, a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said of Novák. She highlighted that Novák, once vice-chairperson of the Fidesz party, built ties with notoriously pro-Russian far-right politicians such as France’s Marine Le Pen, Austria’s Heinz-Christian Strache and Italy’s Matteo Salvini.
The deteriorating relationship is not helped by the fact that the head of Hungarian diplomacy, Péter Szijjártó, does not have a great reputation in Polish government circles. What bothers them is not so much the arrogance that was evident in the friction with pro-government media tycoon Tomasz Sakiewicz, but the fact that Szijjártó has very cordial relations with senior Russian officials.
According to a Polish government official, it sends a particularly bad message when Szijjártó meets such people immediately before and after EU meetings. There were multiple embarrassing cases, the source said, for example, when Szijjártó arrived at a Swedish-Polish event in May last year after meeting with Rosatom CEO Alexey Likhachev in Turkey. “Such things do not strengthen our relations and trust,” the source said, adding that Szijjártó also met with Likhachev after a diplomatic meeting between Egypt and the V4 countries in 2021, and went to meet with Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller after an event of the Czech EU presidency in October last year.
The Poles also do not understand why it is necessary to be so vocal about Hungary’s outlier policy towards the war. According to a Polish government official, the Hungarian government is far from being alone in the EU in its lenient attitude towards Russia, but the Hungarians are also making it known.
“Romanians, French and the Germans are voicing their dissent behind closed doors,”
the Polish government official said, adding that the Hungarians, by comparison, are loud and public with their similar attitude.
The main critic of the EU sanctions is Viktor Orbán himself, who has not had an official bilateral meeting with Polish leadership since the outbreak of the war.
However, Orbán has been meeting with Morawiecki at EU summits and European Council meetings. According to a Polish government official, at last spring’s EU summit, the two discussed the Hungarian government’s controversial decision to prevent Russian Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Kirill from being sanctioned by the EU.
In Poland, this created big waves. “In Poland, Kirill appears in the media as a warmonger. Even Hungarian embassy staff in Warsaw did not understand why it was necessary to remove him from the sanctions list,” a source familiar with the internal affairs of the Hungarian foreign ministry said. (As Direkt36 previously revealed, the Hungarian government decided to block the sanctions against Kirill after a request from the Russian Orthodox Church.)
For the Hungarian government, these developments are uncomfortable not only because its relations with an old ally are deteriorating, but also because partnership with Poland was key to the Orbán government’s regional and EU ambitions. As this relationship weakened, Hungarian aspirations were also threatened.
III. AMBITION AND REALITY
Delegations from the parliamentary foreign affairs committees of the V4 countries—the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia—gathered in Bratislava Castle for a two-day meeting on February 19 this year. Held behind closed doors in one of the castle’s elegant rooms with gilded trim, the main topic of discussion under the oil portraits and a huge crystal chandelier was, of course, the war, and differences quickly emerged.
A member of the Slovak opposition party Smer, which is close to Fidesz, presented arguments similar to those of the Hungarian government, calling for an immediate peace agreement and an end to military support for Ukraine. The Hungarian government party was represented by Zsolt Németh, perhaps the most pro-Western politician of Fidesz, who, according to several participants, condemned Russian aggression and stressed the serious assistance the Hungarian state had provided to Ukrainian refugees. Still, Németh did not deviate from the official government position. “He was not Orbán in his rhetoric, but he didn’t say anything significantly different,” recalled a source who attended the meeting.
Several other participants, including the Poles, were much more critical of the Russians. Radosław Fogiel of PiS was cautious in his criticism of the “pro-peace” Hungarian position, according to a participant, while Paweł Kowal of the Civic Platform (PO), even mentioned that Viktor Orbán had worn a scarf with a Greater Hungary motif at a national football match a few months earlier. This seemed particularly striking in the context of the war, as Greater Hungary also includes Transcarpathia, part of Ukraine.
“Behind the scenes, I told Németh that Hungarian revisionism is against the interests of my country,”
Kowal admitted to us when asked about the Bratislava meeting.
V4 cooperation has never been free of internal disputes, but the war has intensified them. This has been unpleasant for the Orbán government, which previously sought to increase its influence on the international stage by relying on close cooperation within the region. A recurring theme for the Hungarian prime minister in recent years has been that the V4 region, and of course Hungary, is becoming the economic engine of the EU, thus strengthening its geopolitical position. Now, however, after the outbreak of war, he has found himself in the position of facing criticism from his partners in the region on several fronts.
Last November, for example, the V4 Speakers’ meeting was canceled after Czech speaker of the chamber of deputies Markéta Pekarová Adamová said she did not want to meet Hungarian speaker of the parliament László Kövér at the V4 Speakers’ meeting. Adamová had previously criticized Orbán, and justified her absence from the Speakers’ meeting by saying that “Hungary is Russia’s Trojan horse, and I think it is important to send them a clear signal that this is unacceptable.”
Behind closed doors, the Hungarian speaker himself—Orbán’s close ally and the second most influential inside the Fidesz party—made some sharp remarks about the Visegrád partners. At a closed-door meeting held in the period since the outbreak of the war, Kövér claimed that the 2015 refugee crisis and the all kinds of demands from Brussels at the time had brought the four countries closer together, but that the war had changed that. According to a source familiar with the meeting, the Hungarian speaker explained that the situation first changed for the worse with the changes in government in Slovakia and the Czech Republic (in both countries, governments with a different orientation from Orbán’s came to power in the last few years) and then, eventually, the war also put “pressure on the Hungarian-Polish axis.”
He said that the Polish media and the Polish opposition were responsible for the deterioration of Hungarian-Polish relations, and that PiS had made a mistake by allowing them to drive a wedge into these relations. Kövér, however, was optimistic that “things will get better because the Poles need Hungary to help them prevent Article 7 proceedings.” The speaker hinted that he believes that the Hungarian and Polish governments are dependent on each other in EU proceedings against them for weakening democratic institutions.
Indeed, those around Morawiecki still count Orbán as an ally in the dispute with Brussels, which is dragging on.
“If you ask me if we want to support Orbán in his foreign policy, the answer is, of course, no. If you ask me whether it means we cannot collaborate in other fields, the answer is, again, no,”
a source close toMorawiecki told.
However,there is currently no such close cooperation on EU disputes. “The Hungarians have a completely different approach to negotiating EU funds than the Poles. The ministers talk to each other, but each one does things their own way,” a Polish government official claimed, adding that Viktor Orbán himself had previously expected the two countries to resolve their issues independently of each other.
Orbán spoke about this in private multiple times, for example, at a joint summit of the V4 and France in December 2021, according to the source.
“He was sure that Hungary would receive EU funds after the elections [of spring 2022]. He said the bigger problem would be in Poland, because there would be elections there in two and a half years,”
the source who was familiar with details of the meeting recalled.
In Brussels, too, there were those who recognized that the disagreement over the war was a way of separating Hungary and Poland. According to Márton Gyöngyösi, a MEP and chairman of the Jobbik party, this is openly acknowledged in private by the staff of the European Commission, which plays a key role in the rule of law procedures. “I first heard from a Commission official at the end of 2021 about the intention to separate the Hungarian and Polish governments. This was after the United States did not invite Hungary to the Democracy Summit at that time,” Gyöngyösi said.
The estrangement between Poles and Hungarians is also noticeable at the diplomatic level in Brussels. According to a long-time EU affairs expert who works alongside a Hungarian opposition MEP, the Hungarian government’s permanent representation in Brussels has complained about this. “They say that it has become a common phenomenon that their proposals are met with dead silence in the European Council, and that not even the Poles speak up for them,” the source said.
These tensions not only make it difficult for the Hungarian government to maneuver on EU issues. Even more seriously, they are hampering Orbán’s long-standing ambitions to build a new European party alliance, which he began after Fidesz was forced to leave the European People’s Party (EPP) in 2021. Orbán’s plan was to bring the parties to the right of the EPP under a common umbrella.
This is why, in recent years, it has built close ties not only with the Polish PiS, to the right of the EPP, but also with parties across Europe with somewhat similar policies. For example, Orbán had high hopes for Marine Le Pen in the last French presidential election—so much so that Le Pen’s campaign was partly financed by a loan from the state-owned Hungarian Foreign Trade Bank (MKB). Another seemingly positive development for Orbán was the election of Giorgia Meloni as prime minister of Italy, with whom he and Katalin Novák both have tried to build a close relationship on issuessuch as immigration and LGBTQ rights.
However, the building of a far-right European alliance has been hampered from the outset by the fact that some of the possible partners (Le Pen or Italy’s Lega, led by Matteo Salvini) are openly pro-Russian, while others are anti-Russian. The latter include not only PiS—it quickly became apparent after the outbreak of the war that Italian Prime Minister Meloni would join the European mainstream in condemning Russia and supporting Ukraine. Meloni is thus not looking to forge an alliance with Orbán, but with leaders of larger countries and party families.
According to a source familiar with the inner workings of the Hungarian foreign ministry, while Orbán and his closest aides used to visit Warsaw frequently to discuss building a new European right-wing party family, such trips have completely dropped off the agenda since the start of the war.
“However, what Viktor Orbán has said about the need to create a new right-wing party family may well be achieved, but ironically without him,”
the source added, referring to the rapprochement between Kaczyński’s PiS and Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia.
IV. BEYOND FRIENDSHIP
In November 2022, an invitation letter arrived in the office of Polish President Andrzej Duda from Hungary. The Hungarian side wrote that it would like to host the Polish head of state on March 23 the following year, on the so-called Hungarian-Polish Friendship Day.
In the past, the two countries have celebrated the day with high-level meetings, taking turns providing the venue. In 2022, Poland was due to host the event, but the joint celebration—which János Áder, then outgoing Hungarian president, was set to attend—was canceled. This was announced jointly by the two countries, which named the war as the reason, but a source involved in the organization of the event claimed that, in fact, it was Poland alone that had taken the initiative to cancel the meeting.
As similar meetings had been canceled in the previous two years also due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Hungarian leadership hoped that this year they would finally be able to organize a joint presidential-level celebration. It would also have been a strong signal that Hungarian-Polish relations, which had been shattered by the war, were on the mend.
But Hungarian hopes proved futile. Duda’s office said that as long as the war in Ukraine was going on, it would be considered a priority and that they could not deal with celebrations. They indicated that they would only be able to say for sure closer to the specific date, but in the end, their final answer was that the Polish head of state could not travel to Hungary for security reasons and because of the war.
Ultimately, Duda only had a telephone conversation with Katalin Novák on Friendship Day in 2023. The Polish president did not post anything about the call on his Twitter channel, where he had previously proudly shared photos of himself and US President Joe Biden, and the much smaller Twitter account of the Polish presidential office instead reported the Hungarian call. Interestingly, it also stressed that the two heads of state had spoken “at the initiative of the Hungarian side.” According to a source close to the Polish president, Novák’s staff has tried to contact Duda several times in the past year, but his advisers have opposed the meetings. “We did not want to give the Hungarians a chance for PR,” the source said.
On friendship day, Katalin Novák had to settle for taking part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the House of Polish-Hungarian Friendship in Balatonboglár, together with a Polish parliamentary delegation and the Polish Ambassador in Budapest. The head of state shared pictures of the event on Facebook, saying that “Polish-Hungarian friendship survives all trials.”
However, there are signs that the Poles do not want to burn the bridge between the two governments. Last year’s change of ambassadors, for example, was a sign of this.
Previously, Poland was represented in Budapest by Jerzy Snopek, in his 70s, who was mainly active in the cultural field. But after his term expired last April, he was replaced by a young, dynamic ambassador, Sebastian Kęciek. He is politically well-embedded as he had previously worked on Morawiecki’s staff. In addition, his interest in Hungary is shown by the fact that he wrote his thesis on the Hungarian constitution adopted by the Fidesz parliamentary majority in 2011.
The Polish ambassador has already spoken critically about the Hungarian government in public multiple times.
“Dialogue is ongoing, but it is not easy (…) If we look at the events of the last few days, when the Hungarian foreign minister visited Moscow and then Minsk – it is a difficult moment for us and for Warsaw,”
Kęciek said, referring to Péter Szijjártó’s recent trips. And a few days ago, the ambassador published an indignant letter protesting against the new Hungarian army chief of staff’s description of Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 as a “local war.” Subsequently, he tweeted to Katalin Novák that “Madam President, one sentence, even word would be sufficient”, suggesting that Poland is still waiting for an apology.
The Poles became victims of Hungarian government propaganda, too. According to sources closely following Polish-Hungarian relations, there were several occasions when the Hungarian government-controlled media did not publish articles written by leading Polish politicians that had been pitched to them. This was the case, for example, when an article by Morawiecki was sent to main Hungarian pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet after the outbreak of the war. However, the daily, which is part of government propaganda holding group KESMA, refused to publish it, claiming that Nemzet had a “different approach” when it comes to the war. (Magyar Nemzet did not react to our questions.)
As a result, the next Morawiecki article on the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion was sent instead to Hungarian independent media outlets and to Index.hu, all of which published it.
Poland also monitors what comments are made about them on pro-government media platforms. A source with ties to the Polish government noted, for example, that Polish government officials had noticed when, under articles such as one from Tomasz Sakiewicz published online on Hungarian pro-government site Mandiner.hu, there were comments, like, “Poland should be divided between the Germans and the Russians. Scumbag warmongers.”
Moreover, authors of hostile content included not only those in comment sections but also paid government propagandists. “Anti-Polish articles regularly appear in Hungary, written by Zsolt Bayer and Kristóf Trombitás, among others,” the Polish official gave as examples, highlighting that Trombitás alleged in one of his posts that Poland wanted a third world war to erupt.
So it seems that Hungarian government circles are no longer necessarily keen to please Poland at all costs. Of course, the whole relationship is also haunted by the fact that there will be elections in Poland in the autumn. Current polls show PiS in the lead, but analysts expect a close race between the government and opposition.
“Both the governing parties and the opposition are critical of the Hungarian government’s attitude towards Ukraine and Russia, so I don’t expect Hungary to be an issue that either side can mobilize for or against,”
said German Marshall Fund visiting fellow Zsuzsanna Végh.
For Orbán, the worst-case scenario would certainly be the win of a center-right opposition led by the Civic Platform (PO). Its chairman, former prime minister Donald Tusk once enjoyed a very good personal relationship with Orbán. They understood each other well and had a shared passion for football, too. They were also allies at the European level when Fidesz was a member of the EPP, as was the Civic Platform.
Tusk has since become one of Orban’s harshest critics on the international stage. In the days after the outbreak of the war, for example, he tweeted that the Hungarian prime minister and his foreign minister should be given board membership in the Russian energy giant Gazprom for their loyalty. Tusk even went so far as to visit Hungary during last year’s election campaign and spoke at the political rally of the Hungarian opposition alliance on March 15.
But the Orbán government still has at least one ally in the Polish public sphere. While most pro-government bodies criticize the Hungarian government’s pro-Russian policy, the far-right circles close to Sovereign Poland, led by justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, still stand by Orbán. According to a Polish government official, the Polish weekly Sieci, which is close to Ziobro,
“regularly defends the Hungarian government, criticized everywhere else.”
However, the source added that it was the Sieci weekly where an interview with the Russian ambassador in Warsaw was published shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, which became a big scandal in Poland. “So it’s no coincidence that they also treat the Hungarian government differently,” the Polish government official said, illustrating how the Hungarian government’s supporters in Polish public life have narrowed down.
Cover photo: Péter Somogyi (szarvas) / Telex
Anna Gielewska, Konrad Szczygieł, Piotr Drabik contributed to the story from (VSquare/Frontstory).
The article has been updated on May 18th 2023.