• Tens of thousands of freedom-loving teachers and students rallied in Budapest over the weekend on the 66th anniversary of the 1956 revolution, protesting against the government, demanding better wages and educational reform. At the same time, many expressed their disgust at the current abuse of the memory of the revolution by the Orbán regime.

    Why? Because, in a shocking U-turn, the prime minister now says that the Hungarians of 1956, thousands of whom lost their lives, were in fact not fighting for their freedom or democracy – but to force a ceasefire and peace negotiations conducted over their heads by the Western and Eastern blocs.

    That’s what he wants for Ukraine, too. It does not matter what the Ukrainians want, the war can only be ended by negotiations between the US and Russia, Orbán said in Berlin in mid-October.

    To get them to the table as quickly as possible, the parties must be forced, Orbán explained. For example, he said, a major problem is that weapons from the West are pouring to the front. He did not mention weapons from the East. He also hopes that the Americans will turn away from Kyiv.

    Thus, for Orbán, it is not the Russians who need to be coerced, but the country under attack. In the struggle between two political systems, he is rooting for autocracy. Meanwhile, a current government campaign portrays the EU’s sanctions against Russia as bombs falling on Hungary.

    The memory of the revolution could perfectly mirror Ukraine’s struggle today. As in 1956, Russian tanks have once again invaded a country striving for freedom and democracy.

    Unlike our prime minister, who began his career by standing up to the Soviet empire in 1989, many Hungarians have not forgotten this.

    Viktor Orbán uses Twitter to tackle Hungary’s energy crisis. This is the only logical explanation as to why he joined the platform a week ago, why he communicates entirely in English and why he was looking for his friend Donald Trump with a confused Travolta meme. He wants to win an international audience for his cause.

    The Hungarian prime minister is trying to maintain his popularity with cheap petrol, which he can only finance because Russian oil coming by pipeline is much cheaper than sea freight. Orban has built his economic success so far on Russian energy imports.

    The country’s budget cannot pay for the much needed transition away from Putin’s companies. That’s why he must seize every opportunity and use every platform to lobby against sanctions, which he sees as the root of all his problems. His dependence makes him more aggressive than ever.

    In early October, Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko declared that “all price increases will be banned”. As usual, the dictator’s statements were widely mocked outside Belarus. Yet Hungary has already shown it can be done.

    Since February, supermarkets have been forced to freeze the prices of six essential food products – granulated sugar, flour, milk, pork legs, chicken breast and cooking oil – at the levels they were at on October 15, 2021.

    The government decree also required retail chains and small shops to ensure at least the same stock in the shop as before. They receive no subsidies or other support.

    Initially, prices were frozen until May 31, with the government citing a need to protect families but saying nothing about the more important goal of winning April’s general election. As inflation skyrocketed, the freeze was extended until the end of the year.

    The move may indeed bring relief to Hungary’s poorest. But supermarkets are becoming increasingly inventive in trying to extricate themselves. The grocery chains make up the shortfall by hiking the price of other products. Losses on chicken breast, for example, are made up for on legs, which cost 61% more than a year ago. 

    Some retailers are restricting the quantities their customers can buy, forcing makers of homemade plum jam to go from shop to shop buying a kilo of sugar in each. Many shops refuse to sell sugar at all or offer unregulated substitutes at much higher prices. Some hide the cheaper items at the back of the shelves or label them misleadingly.

    International food chains can make up the losses more easily but have nevertheless lodged a constitutional complaint that the government is curtailing their right to free pricing. The judges were all appointed by Viktor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz so are unlikely to rule in their favour.

    An hour after Vladimir Putin ordered the mobilisation of 300,000 reservists, Viktor Orbán took to Facebook, not to express concern at a potentially more dangerous phase of the war in Ukraine, but to prod his finger at the West.  “Energy prices are rising because of the misguided sanctions imposed by Brussels,” he wrote.

    Orbán’s siding with Russia and his undermining of a strong European response is not merely a domestic matter. The key question facing Europe is whether Russian imperialism can be stopped. False narratives are what help Putin win. 

    Orbán is looking for a scapegoat for his own mistakes: economic hardship, the weakening forint, rising debt, above-average inflation… That’s why he condemns European sanctions and remains silent on the Russian threat. His most important tool is the Hungarian language, with which he builds a private reality for his compatriots. Key to this is control of the press. 

    What Orbán says resounds a thousand times louder than anyone else’s words in Hungarian. And few people in his country are able to hear or read dissenting opinions in English, German, French, or even Ukrainian. Orbán has a monopoly on storytelling about the dangers posed by the outside world that – so the story goes – only he can save Hungarians from.

    There is still a free part of the Hungarian press that sticks to its calling and tries to present all sides of what’s going on. But its power and possibilities are limited by the system. With unfair taxes, legislation and the power of oligarchs, the still-free media is squeezed into such a narrow space it cannot reach the furthest corners of the country.

    The fate of Europe also depends on how much of the world Hungarians are able to see. And on what conclusions Europe’s citizens draw from Hungarian autocracy.