The US embassy in Budapest has hit back at weeks of vitriolic anti-American comments from Viktor Orban’s Fidesz government over the war in Ukraine.
A one-minute video posted by the embassy this week on Twitter presented five anti-US remarks by government figures or their media allies.
Viewers were asked to guess if the remarks came from Russian President Vladimir Putin or the Hungarian leader’s men.
The right answer, each time, was Team Orban.
Comments included: “[The US] is the beneficiary of the war, so it is hardly interested in ending it quickly.” That was from the head of a government-funded institute.
The US embassy quiz is loaded with irony, as it coincides with the launch of a 14th “national consultation” in Hungary, in which Mr Orban’s government presents a quiz of its own, involving seven loaded questions to the public.
The aim is to elicit Hungarian support for, in this case, government criticism of EU sanctions on Russia.
Among the questions posed in the questionnaire are:
Opposition parties in Hungary argue that the current economic crisis is at least partly the result of prolific overspending by the Orban government, squandering EU money to reward its business allies over the past 12 years, and to win the election in April.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is presented by Fidesz-controlled media as the fault of the US. While the prime minister has occasionally referred to “Russian aggression”, the conflict is presented as a superpower battle, provoked by Nato attempts to encircle Russia – an argument used by Vladimir Putin to justify going to war.
At the same time, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto holds regular meetings with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and with the directors of Russia’s state-run companies Rosatom and Gazprom, to secure continued nuclear and gas supplies.
To encourage people to take part in the national consultation, and give the “correct” answers, the government put up giant billboards all over Hungary this week.
“The Brussels sanctions are destroying us,” is the message, with a bomb labelled “sanctions” sailing through the air. The Momentum opposition party has made a formal complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority that the ad breaches ethical guidelines.
Government media either fail to report or under-report the damage that sanctions have caused the Russian economy.
The same authors assumed a rapid Russian victory, and now seem non-plussed by Ukrainian advances on the battlefront. Hungary’s remaining independent or opposition media cover the situation on the ground in detail.
Another irony is that the Hungarian government has actually voted in favour of all eight sanctions packages introduced so far by the EU. This from a government that launches constant verbal attacks on “Brussels” or the “Brussels bureaucrats”.
“Brussels is a city,” European Commissioner Thierry Breton told reporters drily in Budapest on Tuesday, after talks with government officials.
Behind both the latest row with the US, and the constant needling of the EU, lie hard financial realities:
- Year-on-year inflation in Hungary was 20% in September
- All centrally funded spending has been suspended
- Cultural and sports institutions, including in towns under Fidesz party control, are closing for the winter, unable to cope with soaring heating bills
- Teachers are on strike
- Dark clouds are gathering over the future of the Russian-built and funded nuclear power extension, Paks-2.
The government desperately needs European Union funds, still held up over EU Rule of Law and corruption concerns.
In private negotiations, it is showing a new willingness to compromise. In public, its rhetoric has no limits.