Pro-Putin Leaders in Hungary and Serbia Set to Win Re-election

BUDAPEST — Overshadowed by the war in Ukraine, Sunday’s elections in Hungary and Serbia appear to have extended the tenures of Europe’s two most Kremlin-friendly leaders, both populist strongmen bolstered by their overwhelming control over the media and cheap energy from Russia.

With more than 60 percent of the vote counted in Hungary, preliminary results indicated that Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister since 2010, and already Europe’s longest-serving leader, had won a fourth straight term, despite opposition allegations that he the Russian military strike made possible by befriending Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin for years.

“We’ve had a victory so big that you might be able to see it from the moon, and certainly from Brussels,” Orban told a cheering crowd of supporters late on Sunday, as he did a dig at the European Union, which he already saw there. long accused of LGBTQ and migrant rights in defiance of the democratic will of Hungarian voters.

The preliminary results crushed the hopes of Orban’s political enemies that an unusually united opposition camp could break his ruling Fidesz party’s increasingly authoritarian hold on the Central European nation alongside Ukraine.

Speaking early Sunday in his capital Kiev, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky described Mr Orban as “virtually the only one in Europe to openly support Mr Putin.”

Asked about Mr. Zelensky’s assessment after casting his vote in Budapest on Sunday morning, Mr. Orban said curtly: “Mr. Zelensky is not voting today. Thank you. Are there any other questions?”

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, also Moscow-friendly, has ruled Serbia since 2012 and is said to win re-election after rallying his nationalist and pro-Russian base by refusing to join the European Union in imposing sanctions on Russia. Serbia hopes to join the European bloc, but the application has stalled.

An unusually high turnout in Serbia of nearly 60 percent forced officials in some areas to keep polling stations open late into the evening. Amid complaints of foul play by the opposition, the Central Election Commission in Belgrade, the capital, said it would not release the results until Monday morning.

But exit polls indicated that Mr Vucic would win another term as president and that his Serbian Progressive Party would maintain its grip on parliament, albeit with a reduced majority. The opposition said it had won control of the Belgrade city council.

Hungary and Serbia have very different histories. Mr. Orban rules a country that, until he came to power, viewed Russia with great distrust as a result of his past suffering at the hands of Russia, particularly when Moscow sent troops in 1956 to brutally fight an anti-Communist uprising. to knock down. nation, however – Slavic and Orthodox Christian, like Russia – has long looked to Moscow as its ally and protector.

But under the two strong leaders, both countries have drastically reduced the space for critical media voices over the past decade, turning national-reach television stations into propaganda bullhorns and moving towards authoritarian rule. Each has maintained close ties to Mr Putin, who supported the Hungarian leader’s election campaign when he visited Moscow in February shortly before the invasion of Ukraine.

Serbia refused to impose sanctions on Russia, while Hungary, which has been a member of the European Union since 2004, agreed to a first round of European sanctions but strongly opposed extending them to restrictions on energy imports from Russia.

Unlike leaders in neighboring Poland, previously a close ally of Orban thanks to their shared hostility to liberal values, the Hungarian leader has also refused to allow weapons destined for Ukraine to pass through his country.

Before the Hungarian election, Orban hit back to refute opposition allegations that his policies toward Ukraine had betrayed not only foreign allies, but Hungary’s own painful memories of aggression by Russia. Mr Orban mobilized the news media, most of which is controlled by the state and by friendly magnates, to portray his opponents as warmongers bent on sending Hungarian troops to fight against Russia. The elections presented a “choice between war and peace,” pro-government media warned.

The campaign seems to have worked, even among some elderly voters who remember the suffering caused by Moscow’s troops in 1956. “Why would Hungarian guys fight for Ukraine?” asked Janos Dioszegi, who was 13 at the time of the Hungarian uprising and whose father was imprisoned for 14 years by the Soviet-backed authorities for his part in the anti-Moscow uprising. He said “of course” he chose Orban’s Fidesz party when he voted in Nagykovacsi, a small town near Budapest.

Following a line often broadcast in Fidesz-controlled media, Mr Dioszegi said there was no need to help Ukraine defend itself because it had provoked war by becoming “a military base for America”.

Until Mr Putin sent troops to Ukraine on February 24, the focus of Mr Orban’s election campaign was an incendiary referendum, timed for parliamentary election day, on whether young children should be taught about gender transition surgery treatment in school. , and without limitation exposed to sexually explicit material.

However, the war next door in Ukraine derailed Orban’s attempt to get voters to focus on transgender and gay people, forcing a reboot aimed at portraying his opponents as eager to go to war with Hungary.

As hundreds of pro-Ukrainian Hungarians and refugees from Ukraine gathered in central Budapest on Saturday to denounce the government’s fence over the war, the main state-controlled television station, M1, described the event as a “pro war meeting”. Anna Olishevska, a 24-year-old Ukrainian from Kiev who took part, praised the ordinary Hungarians who had helped her after she fled the border. More than 500,000 Ukrainians have entered Hungary in the past month, far fewer than the more than two million who entered Poland, but still a large number for a country where toxic hostility towards foreign migrants has long been the cornerstone of Orban’s often xenophobic political stage. .

While delighted at her reception in Hungary, Ms Olishevska said the government had been so hesitant in condemning the Russian invasion and resisting helping Ukraine defend itself that she is concerned about staying in Hungary. if Mr Orban wins another term.

“I can’t stay in a country where the government supports Russia,” she said, waving a hand-painted sign telling Mr Putin where to place his missiles.

Some prominent supporters of Orban’s party have even blamed Ukraine for the 1956 bloodshed, with Maria Schmidt, a historian and museum director, falsely claim on Saturday that Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Soviet leader who ordered troops to Hungary that year, was Ukrainian. He was Russian. Ms. Schmidt misrepresented the Soviet leader’s parentage in response to a… tweet from British comedian John Cleese, who urged Hungarian voters to consider whether it was Russia or Ukraine that invaded Hungary in 1956.

The blizzard of distortions and falsehoods in Hungarian news media controlled by Fidesz has driven opposition supporters to despair.

“They repeat lies over and over, day in and day out,” said Judit Barna, 81, a doctor, outside a central polling station in Budapest, where she had just voted for a united opposition ticket led by Peter Marki Zay, a conservative town mayor. .

Referring to Mr. Orban’s early political career as an anti-Moscow brand who demanded that Soviet troops leave in 1989, she asked: “How is it possible after 40 years of Soviet occupation and 30 years of democracy that the same man who once shouted, ‘Russians , go home’ can now say that Russia is waging a just war in Ukraine?”

Thanks to Fidesz’s stranglehold on the media, she added: “Half of the Hungarian population is eating all these lies. This is the shame of Hungary.”


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