Hungary's Orban treads fine line with supporters over Russia stance

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  • Orban seeking fourth consecutive term in April 3 election
  • Hungarian leader built relatively warm ties with Putin
  • Has condemned Russian invasion, opposes energy sanctions
  • Suggests opposition wants to drag Hungary into conflict
  • Cautious, balanced stance goes down well with some voters

BUDAPEST, March 23 (Reuters) - When Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban addressed his party faithful at an election rally this month, he found strong support for his efforts to strike a balance between the West and Russia over the war in Ukraine.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine could have proven awkward for Orban, who has fostered good ties with Moscow over the past decade, but his cautious, pragmatic stance on the crisis has gone down well with voters and his ruling Fidesz party has edged ahead in a tight race ahead of Hungary's election on April 3.

"We must stand up for our own interests... We must stay out of this war," he told tens of thousands of supporters waving national red, green and white flags at the March 15 rally in central Budapest to huge applause. read more

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Orban has condemned Russia's attack on Ukraine but has avoided personal criticism of President Vladimir Putin.

He has also refused to allow the delivery of arms to Ukraine via Hungary, unlike the other NATO states bordering Ukraine - Poland, Romania and Slovakia - and is strongly opposed to sanctions on Russian energy, a stance backed by many voters.

"Look, (Orban) condemns the war, he said so, but is against the sanctions as that could cause a lot of damage to us, the halt to energy imports," said Fidesz voter Erzsebet Lakatos, 66.

"We don't need to be on bad terms with Putin."

Orban has cast the election, in which he is seeking a fourth consecutive term, as a choice between a leftist opposition that he says would drag Hungary into the war, and the peace and stability he insists only his conservative Fidesz can offer.

A poll published on Wednesday put support for Fidesz at 41%, two percentage points ahead of the six-party opposition alliance, up one point from February levels. read more

EVOLVING VIEWS

To an outsider Orban's - and Hungary's - relatively nuanced view of the Ukraine crisis may seem surprising. Orban first came to public prominence in 1989 when he told Russian soldiers to leave Hungary as communism in eastern Europe was collapsing.

Older Hungarian voters also recall the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising that was then crushed by Soviet tanks at a time when Hungary was firmly part of the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact.

But analysts say Hungary's close energy ties with Russia, Orban's battles with the EU on many issues and a state media tightly controlled by the government have all contributed to a climate that, at least until the invasion of Ukraine, was relatively favourable towards Moscow.

Some Hungarians believe the West helped spur what Russia calls its "special military operation" in Ukraine by pushing NATO's eastward enlargement against Moscow's wishes.

"It was Russia who attacked (Ukraine) but after they had been, to say the least, provoked," said Erzsebet Montvai, 77, who attended Orban's rally with her family. She praised Orban's "balanced" positioning between East and West.

Shortly before the invasion of Ukraine, Orban hailed 2021 as the most successful year yet in relations between Budapest and Moscow, thanks to Hungary's imports of Russia's Sputnik vaccine against COVID-19 and a new long-term gas supply deal.

"Hungary always got respect from Putin and we have always given respect to Russia and its leader," he said then.

According to a poll by think-tank Publicus this month, 44% of Fidesz voters believed Russia's attack was an aggression and 24% said it was a defensive move. In the opposition camp, 91% believed Russia's move amounted to aggression.

CRITICISM

Peter Kreko, director of liberal think-tank Political Capital, said conspiracy theories flourished among conservative voters about how Ukraine or the United States provoked the war.

"I would say that blaming the victim, Ukraine, for this conflict, and the U.S., is very widespread among the right-wing electorate and is partially a result of many years of West bashing that the government did," he said, referring to Orban's clashes with the EU on media freedom, LGBT rights and migration.

Voters' attitudes are also influenced by state media, which generally couches developments in the Ukraine crisis within a narrative favourable to the Orban government, analysts say.

An analysis by media think-tank Mertek of a popular news show Kronika, which airs every noon on Kossuth public radio, showed it "avoids any coverage of issues that could prove embarrassing to the (Orban) government".

"Thus there was no discussion of how Putin started a senseless and cruel war, thereby jeopardising decades of stability in Europe," Mertek said of the shows it examined.

Orban faces criticism from both left and right over his stance.

Liberal opposition leader Peter Marki-Zay accuses him of being too cosy with Putin, of serving the Kremlin's interests and of seeking to build an "illiberal" state in Hungary similar to that in Russia.

Meanwhile, the far-right Our Homeland looks to poach Fidesz voters by campaigning against sanctions on Russia and any deployment of NATO troops in Hungary.

But analysts said Orban's balancing act could well succeed, noting the war has also diverted voters' attention from surging inflation and a strike by teachers for higher wages.

"In view of Orban's vast financial advantage over the opposition, his control of most media ... and his ability to appeal to his voters as a true defender of the nation... we believe the Ukraine war will assist the incumbent prime minister in the short term," said Mujtaba Rahman, a managing director of Eurasia Group, a think-tank, in a note this month.

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Editing by Gareth Jones

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