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.