There were pink ankle boots and scuffed trainers, sensible pumps and leather loafers, a pair of child-sized yellow rubber rain boots – all laid out on the east bank of the Danube in the heart of the Hungarian capital.
The hastily assembled exhibit last month was a tribute to Ukraine’s war dead. It was also a deliberate echo of a nearby permanent memorial, where a row of cast-iron shoes embedded in the riverbank cobblestones commemorates the thousands of people, many of them Jews, who were forced to remove their shoes before to be shot by a fascist. Hungarian militia in the 1940s.
The assortment of modern shoes also had another powerful meaning. It was a rebuke from Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a longtime friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, now emboldened by a landslide election victory.
Just over a week before Sunday’s vote, Orban was vetted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who in a video-linked speech to European leaders called on the Hungarian prime minister to visit the memorial at the edge of the river at the time of the Second World War. victims and reconsider its position on Ukraine.
Hungary is the only European state neighboring Ukraine that has refused to supply it with arms – armaments are not even allowed to transit through Hungarian territory – and the authoritarian Orban is widely regarded by diplomats Europeans as a potential spoiler of European Union sanctions which require unanimity. block consensus.
“Listen, Viktor,” Zelensky said in his March 25 speech, citing the Russian siege of the Ukrainian port of Mariupol as just one atrocity among many. “Please, if you can, come to your shore in Budapest. Look at the shoes. You will see how mass murders can be repeated in today’s world.
Orban, a pugnacious politician who resents being told what to do, was urged by Zelensky: “Decide who you are with. Whether the Hungarian leader did so or not, the effect was hardly salutary.
In the days following his lopsided victory, Orban fell into a full, albeit largely one-sided, feud with the Ukrainian leader, who broke with the EU by declaring his willingness to pay Hungary’s energy bills to Moscow in rubles, as asked Putin, and pointed to the likelihood of further severe curbs on Hungarian civil society.
Such bellicosity, with all the cultural baggage it carries, has made Orban a darling of Donald Trump’s White House, and elevated his standing in America’s right-wing media ecosystem, as evidenced by the dedication of commentators. such as Fox News’ Tucker Carlson.
Hungary’s opposition, normally fractured but unusually united for this contest, had hopes of getting into this election – not of actually winning, but perhaps of succeeding in depriving Orban of the parliamentary supermajority that allowed him, during his dozen years in power, to push through constitutional changes and intimidate opponents with increasingly undemocratic measures.
But the 58-year-old Prime Minister’s right-wing Fidesz party dominated the vote, described by international observers as seemingly free from outright rigging, but as not having taken place on a level playing field.
For a time – in short, in the end – it appeared that Orban’s intimate relationship with Putin, in the context of a Russian attack in Ukraine which increasingly targeted civilians, could draw him towards the ballot boxes.
Instead, said Hungarian political analyst Andras Toth-Czifra, the prime minister managed to present himself as a shrewd statesman capable of building bridges with Moscow and cast his opponents as irresponsible warmongers who were too eager. to jump into the fray for the good of Ukraine.
“He turned it into an asset,” Toth-Czifra, a nonresident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said of Orban’s potentially toxic association with the widely reviled Russian leader. like a war criminal.
This isn’t even a case of Orban and Putin particularly liking each other, he and others have said — it’s simply a transactional relationship that has worked well for both leaders. Ever changing in political form, Orban cut his teeth in the late 1980s with the vehement opposition of a young radical to the presence of then Soviet troops in Hungary. But these are different days.
Orban’s ability to get his election message across, analysts say, is largely due to his government’s stranglehold on what most Hungarians, especially those outside Budapest and other major cities, hear. on the radio and watch on television.
State media keeps pace with the government, and many previously independent outlets have been taken over by Orban allies, said Eva Bognar, an academic researcher specializing in Hungarian media.
“There are concrete disinformation campaigns that are familiar to those who study Russian propaganda,” said Bognar, program officer at Central European University’s Democracy Institute. In recent weeks, she said, “there were two main topics: the war in Ukraine, and the election campaign, which was not unrelated to the war”.
In both cases, Bognar said, pro-Orban media used “smear and disinformation campaigns – narratives in favor of and produced by the government.”
Orban’s brand of strident nationalism, promises of security and cultural war fodder such as demonizing LGBTQ people and Muslim migrants suit a conservative rural base better than the cosmopolitan Hungarian capital, but even in urban areas , he has his devotees.
“He’s a strong guy, and that’s good for all of us!” said butcher Karoly Ludanyi, lifting a string of glistening sausages linking a stall in Budapest’s central market hall. “In the EU they are too liberal.” The war in Ukraine was unfortunate, he said, but “not our fight”.
Hungary, which has long pledged allegiance to ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine, has taken in tens of thousands of war refugees – but Orban’s government has described their presence as posing no threat, a stark contrast to its strident objections to those fleeing wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Maria R., a chemistry teacher at a secondary school in a town outside Budapest, said she suspected that a few of her students, possibly pushed by pro-Orban parents, had apparently tried to push her to make statements critical of government policies. She was sure they would report anything controversial she said.
Fearing for her job, she says she resolutely kept her political views to herself and asked that her full name be withheld, but felt saddened and demoralized that students, some of whom she has known since they were little, would try to trap her.
“I feel like there’s a bond that’s been broken,” she said.
But even if the prime minister believes his electoral clout gives him greater leeway to challenge the EU, the bloc could take steps that would deprive him of a key lever of power – large grants that Orban is suspected of divert to associates to keep them loyal. EU officials launched a mechanism this week to hold Hungary accountable for rule of law violations, but any funding cuts could take months.
Orban’s pro-Putin stance has also alienated Poland, which previously stood by him in fending off EU criticism of undemocratic practices. The government in Warsaw sees Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as an almost existential threat, fearing that if Russia is allowed to subjugate its western neighbor it could be next.
Despite Hungary’s dark history with Moscow – crushing its 1956 revolution with Soviet tanks in the streets – such fears seem fanciful to many of the prime minister’s supporters.
In the meantime, Orban seizes opportunities to gleefully poke fun at Zelensky and the EU. In a victory speech to his supporters on Sunday, he cited both the Ukrainian leader and the bloc as having tried in vain to rob him of victory.
“To a rational observer, an outside observer, it doesn’t really make sense,” said Daniel Hegedus, a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund in the United States who studies populist leaders.
But a significant part of Orban’s brand, he said, features performative confrontations with influential actors — in the case of Zelensky, a leader revered for his wartime leadership, and the EU. as the repository of billions of euros that have transformed the face of Hungary.
“It’s like he’s saying, ‘See how I resist them,'” Hegedus said. “He thinks that makes him so powerful.”