Over the last years, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has deployed an ambitious strategy to gain influence in the Balkans. Connected to the Balkans through history and culture, Hungary was already a regional player, although lacking a high profile status. Now it is trying to earn it.
To many observers, Orban wants to drag the Balkans under the influence of the faction promoting “illiberal democracy” in Europe and elsewhere. Fidesz, the party he leads is a prominent member of this club. Funds for the Hungarian ethnic minorities, a law for granting Hungarian citizenship and investments in banking and media sector are the incentives offered to make Orban’s plan attractive.
To Srdan Cvijic, a senior policy analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute (a very partisan NGO for Hungary’s government), Orban’s strategy can be successful. “It requires coherent ideology; only the simple rejection of another one”, Cvijic, a Serb, wrote in a comment published by Politico in 2018.
He and other liberal-minded commentators argue that some authoritarian twists in the region, like those in Serbia or in Northern Macedonia under Nikola Gruevski’s tenure, recall the Hungarian recipe for state capture, based on an increasingly suffocating control over judiciary, law enforcement agencies, education and media.
In a recent article, Balkan Insight told how the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians (VMSZ), the main party of the Hungarian minority in Serbia, has fully aligned with Fidesz during the last years. Today the VMSZ distributes funds channelled by the Hungarian government to the Hungarian minority in Vojvodina, Serbia’s northern multi-ethnic autonomous province, and controls Magyar Szó, the main daily newspaper of the Hungarian community.
The VMSZ is allied at both local and national level with the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), led by the Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. “Critics of the Progressives say Vucic is also following Orban’s lead in marginalising dissenters and controlling the media”, noted the author of the article, the Hungarian reporter Akos Keller Alant.
As for North Macedonia, the Hungarian government granted political asylum to Nikola Gruevski, the Prime Minister of the Balkan country from 2006 to 2016. There are strong ties between Fidesz and Gruevski’s party, the VMRO DPMNE. Pro-EU parties and NGOs stress that it followed Orban’s path to illiberal democracy.
After he lost elections in 2017, Gruevski was accused of corruption but fled to Hungary in November 2018 to avoid a trial. “One treats allies fairly. If he turns to us, he can expect due process. We can’t place him above the law, but we can give him due process”, Orban said.
In the last months, there have been Hungarian investments in media sector in Northern Macedonia. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and partners have showed that two senior executives of Hungarian public television, a government mouthpiece, established companies in Northern Macedonia that bought stakes in several local outlets. The reason of the investment is not clear. It could be only business, but also a move to support the electoral campaign of the VMRO DPMNE, which would want to take the power back at parliamentary elections on the 12th of April.
Today, the Western Balkans appear as one of the many arenas where the challenge between liberal democracy and illiberal democracy, full democracy and limited democracy takes place. Hungary works to expand the boundaries of the illiberal camp, as critics of Mr. Orban say, and this could ignite tensions in the region. Yet, Hungary is also a NATO member, committed to guarantee peace. Furthermore, in the new EU Commission the enlargement portfolio is run by Olivér Várhelyi, a Hungarian diplomat. He supports European integration for the Western Balkans.
In other words, Hungary is part of the problem but also part of the solution. In the current chaotic, fluid and naïve geopolitical scenario, such double-headed approach to the Balkans and to foreign policy in general can last.
Journalist and analyst, he covers the Balkans for a wide range of media networks. He worked as electoral observer for the OSCE/ODIHR in Albania, Macedonia, Russia, Georgia and Ukraine.