- Ruth Ben-Ghiatauthor and professor of history and Italian studies at New York University.
Far-right nationalist prime minister and longtime Putin-ally Viktor Orbán won his fourth consecutive election in Hungary, aided by biased media coverage and campaign regulations that favored the sitting prime minister. We speak to historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat about the future of Hungary under the Fidesz party, which, aside from passing anti-LGBTQ legislation and stoking xenophobia, has also been an important ally for Russian President Vladimir Putin. “He’s very much a conduit for the infiltration and spread of Putin ideas in a more palatable frame,” says Ben-Ghiat. She also discusses how Orbán has become a model for many Republicans in the United States, and notes the Conservative Political Action Conference will be held in Istanbul next month.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Hungary has broken with the European Union and announced it’s prepared to start paying for Russian gas in rubles. Hungary’s right-wing nationalist leader, Viktor Orbán, made the announcement Wednesday, just days after he was reelected to a fourth consecutive term as prime minister.
PRIME MINISTER VIKTOR ORBÁN: [translated] We have no problem paying for gas in rubles. If Russia asks for this, we will pay in rubles.
AMY GOODMAN: Orbán is widely viewed as Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in Europe. He has refused to join other NATO nations in sending arms to Ukraine, but he has also condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. During a conversation Wednesday, Orbán reportedly urged Putin to implement an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and offered to host talks in Budapest. Ukraine, which shares an 85-mile border with Hungary, criticized Orbán’s ties to Putin. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying, quote, “Apparently, after the elections, Budapest moved on to the next step — helping Putin continue his aggression against Ukraine,” unquote.
While Orbán has been widely criticized for cracking down on press freedom and promoting anti-immigrant policies, he’s been embraced by many Republicans in the United States. Donald Trump endorsed his reelection. And CPAC — that’s the Conservative Political Action Conference — is planning to hold a three-day meeting in Hungary in May. The keynote speaker? Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
To talk more about Orbán and his reelection, we’re joined by Ruth Ben-Ghiat. She’s the author of Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall. She’s a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and publishes Lucid, a newsletter on threats to democracy. Her recent piece for CNN was headlined “Orban’s juggling act with Putin and Europe faces a key test.”
Talk about the significance of his reelection. Was he hurt in any way by his support of Putin?
RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Yeah, so, Orbán played it very well. He said, “We have to stay out of this war. This isn’t in Hungary’s interest.” And he notably, you know, poo-pooed the idea of any sanctions, EU sanctions on Russian energy, but saying to Hungarian voters, “Well, this will drive up our prices.” And so he posed as this protector of Hungarian interest. And many people, you know, they felt, with the war so close by, they wanted stability. And so he always manages to pose as this kind of stable protector figure.
Now, what swayed the election were two things, though, that he has developed this system called electoral autocracy, where he uses gerrymandering, and he’s captured the judiciary, and he has essentially developed a system over his 12 years in rule where it’s very, very difficult for an opposition party to prevail. The system is kind of gamed from the outset.
And the other factor, which is of interest to global politics and progressives everywhere, I think, is that he faced this unprecedented opposition. They had six parties that banded together for the first time to try and unseat him. And that’s been used in Chile in the 1980s, this kind of idea that everybody comes together, and it’s worked in other places. But this coalition included Jobbik, which was a very far-right party, which joined the coalition and was becoming a little more centrist. And that part backfired, because Jobbik voters did not want to embrace a centrist coalition that included progressives, because politics, after so many years of Orbán, a demagogue, has become polarized. So those Jobbik voters defected to Orbán’s party or even to an extremist, kind of neofascist Hungarian party. And so, it’s like there’s no center anymore. And so, almost a million votes were lost in that way, and that further harmed the opposition.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Orbán’s chief rival, Peter Marki-Zay, campaigning, saying Hungary’s future lies in the European Union and in NATO. But some voters seemed swayed by Orbán’s claim that this could lead Hungary into war. This is a voter.
HUNGARIAN VOTER: [translated] Obviously, Russia and Ukraine had a lot to do with it. And Viktor Orbán said that he would definitely not allow the Hungarian families to send their sons to the frontline. So this was really an important factor.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Ben-Ghiat?
RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Yeah, well, this is classic Orbán, you know, kind of savvily saying — playing on fears of people, because it is a very remote chance that Hungarians would have to send people to war, even if they were allies, but he plays on these fears. And it’s the same, this kind of ideology of, you know, Hungary — of protection, that we have to be protected from George Soros, from — he made this victory speech, and it was Brussels bureaucrats — he takes the EU’s money, but they’re a hostile force, that the world is stacked against Hungary, and only I can protect you. It’s like Hungary first, Hungary for Hungarians. And so, that voter is expressing these fears that we have to stay out, but this attitude that he promotes is a kind of — it leads to more xenophobia. It leads to more paranoia. And that’s exactly the kind of attitude that right-wing politicians like him need in voters so that they can stay in power.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, talking about xenophobia, I wanted to go back to last October, when Fox News host Tucker Carlson broadcast nightly from Budapest — I think it was for about a week — and interviewed the Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán, who talked about his anti-immigrant policies.
PRIME MINISTER VIKTOR ORBÁN: If somebody, without getting any permission on behalf of the Hungarian state, cross your border, you have to defend your country and to say, “Guys, stop. And if you would like to cross or you would like to come, there’s a legal procedure. We have to do it. But you can’t cross, you know, without any kind of limitation and permission and any contribution and control of the Hungarian state.” It’s dangerous. You have to defend your people against any danger.
TUCKER CARLSON: And you think you have a right to do that?
PRIME MINISTER VIKTOR ORBÁN: Of course. That’s got from the — it’s coming from the God, the nature. So, all arguments with us, because this is our country. This is our population. This is our history. This is our language. So we have to do that.
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk, Professor Ben-Ghiat, about Orbán as an icon for the right in the United States, that CPAC is going to have its conference there — that’s the Conservative Political Action Conference — and this, an interview with Tucker Carlson, where he was based for a few days in Hungary?
RUTH BEN-GHIAT: For a whole week. And I’ve been tracking this. I’ve written about three essays for my newsletter on this. Mike Pence went there last year. Orbán had a Demographic Summit, and, you know, Mike Pence chose — who’s not the most worldly traveler, let’s say — he chose to go there. And there, he expressed his hope that we would no longer have abortion in the United States, and it was all about pro-family. And Tucker Carlson, it’s quite extraordinary that he chose to broadcast for a whole week there. And, you know, he and other Republicans are very open about Hungary and electoral autocracy and Orbán’s idea of, quote, “illiberal democracy” — there’s not much democratic in there, but it sounds good; it lets you keep EU funding — and this should be the future of America. And Tucker Carlson has said on his show, “Should we hold up Hungary as an example of what America should be in the future?” And the answer for them is yes.
And it’s not just anti-immigrant sentiment. These elections on April 3rd, there was also a referendum to further stoke anti-LGBTQ sentiment. And Orbán has been one of the most aggressive in Europe at cracking — at repressing the rights of LGBTQ people. In 2018, he outlawed gender studies. In 2020, he ended legal recognition for trans people and intersex people. And in 2021, he banned all television or other educational materials showing — you know, educating about gender identity and sexual orientation. And you see how there’s so many bills, hundreds of them, now pending around the United States that are on the same key. And so, there’s a lot of ideological affinity between the GOP and Orbán. And what the GOP is fixing on now, with gerrymandering, voter suppression, is leading — they see somebody who has succeeded in what they want to do politically.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, if you could comment on what Orbán means for Putin right now? I mean, you have Orbán, the third-longest-serving leader in Europe, behind Lukashenko, another Putin ally, in Belarus, 28 years, of course Putin himself, between prime minister and president, something like 23 years, and then Orbán. Now he says he’s going to buy gas in rubles. What does that mean? And also, his relationship with the rest of the United States government?
RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Yeah, Orbán is very useful for Putin. And it’s interesting that shortly before the war started, Orbán made a declaration that 2021 was the best-ever year for Hungarian-Russian relations. And what Orbán is able to do — and he’s much more palatable. So, Orbán is the palatable, “acceptable” — between quotes — autocrat, like Lukashenko is not. Lukashenko is an upright and outright dictator and Putin puppet. And Orbán, because he’s in the EU, has this veneer of, you know, a little more independence. But for that reason, he’s dangerous. And he’s very much a conduit for the infiltration and spread of Putin ideas in a more palatable frame. And that’s also why the GOP and other — and Le Pen in France, they feel that even though Putin might be toxic, Orbán is acceptable.
AMY GOODMAN: This weekend. Le Pen running this weekend.
RUTH BEN-GHIAT: That’s right. And Orbán seems more acceptable. We don’t hear about people being poisoned or falling out of windows. And yet Orbán is very tied to Putin, and not just because of energy. So, he is definitely one of these partners that Putin has long depended on. He had Gerhard Schröder in Germany. He had Berlusconi in Italy. And now he has Orbán.
AMY GOODMAN: Ruth Ben-Ghiat, I want to thank you for being with us, expert on the psychology of authoritarianism. We’ll link to your piece, “Orban’s juggling act with Putin and Europe faces a key test.” Author of Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall. She’s also publisher of Lucid, a newsletter on threats to democracy.
Next up, as President Biden extends a pandemic pause on federal student loan repayments through August 31st, we’ll speak to Astra Taylor of the Debt Collective, in 30 seconds.