Punching above its weight? - The building of Hungarian political influence
International influence-building is a legitimate goal pursued by all nations to expand their room for manoeuvre and enforce their political, security and economic interests. However, Orban’s influence-building efforts have several specific features that differ from the practice of democratic countries. Most importantly, the strategic aim of Orbán’s international alliance building is to ensure the long-term survival of the domestic political system by seeking to create a favourable foreign policy environment and to counter criticism and prosecutions for dismantling the rule of law and systemic corruption. Another specificity is that the influence-building is not linked to institutions but to parties and political actors selected based on interests and ideology. Thus, although the Orbán regime justifies its international influence-building with national slogans, it does not yet seem to serve national interests beyond the regime itself.
While Hungary’s geopolitical weight is limited by its size, its geographical location makes it an important transit country and a mediator between the West and the East. In contrast to his predecessors, Orbán aims to achieve a middle power status for Hungary in the European Union, or at least in the Central and Eastern European region, to increase his room for manoeuvre and to maintain his regime in the long term.
The Orbán government's foreign policy is based on the theory of realism, with interests and "national sovereignty" at its core. It interprets the global power shift as the West eroding its own foundations and losing its dominance through liberal policies. Therefore, on the one hand, Orbán seeks to develop good relations with the rising powers of the East, and on the other, he fights for a change in mainstream politics in the West.
While the Orbán government has invested significant efforts into building new alliances to change the existing power structures in the Euro-Atlantic area, Hungary is becoming increasingly alienated within its own alliance system. This is also because the Orbán regime has built its international relations not through institutions but through parties or individual politicians. As most of the government's international allies and partners are not in government, Hungary's ability to assert its interests has been weakening. Most of the economic benefits of influence-building have not materialised in the national economy but in the companies close to the government.
To achieve its goals, the Orbán regime often uses unconventional tools also in foreign policy. These have repeatedly brought the Hungarian Prime Minister and the country into the international spotlight. In this way, Viktor Orbán has increased his relevance and significantly transformed his image: from a former liberal politician to a flag-bearer of illiberalism and an internationally renowned figure of the populist right and far right.
Foreign policy goals of the Orbán regime:
- overthrowing the political mainstream in the Euro-Atlantic system and achieving a change of social/cultural hegemony;
- establishing strong bilateral and economic relations with countries in the East and the South;
- building a network of allied countries and committed politicians in the Western Balkans and the Central and Eastern European (CEE) region, opposed to mainstream European politics;
- building good relations and economic influence with neighbouring countries;
- establishing hegemony among Hungarian communities living in neighbouring countries to win their votes.
Main tools for building political influence:
- ideology-based influence-building;
- building media influence;
- building economic influence.
Main Hungarian actors of influence-building:
- prominent politicians of the Orbán regime (e.g., PM Viktor Orbán, President of the Republic Katalin Novák, Political Director of the Prime Minister Balázs Orbán, Minister of Justice Judit Varga, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó), and Hungarian diplomats,
- government-organised non-governmental organisations (GONGOs) and "think tanks" (e.g., Alliance for a Civic Hungary Foundation, Centre for Fundamental Rights, Mathias Corvinus Collegium),
- business intermediaries.
The Orbán regime is building political influence in EU member states, in the US, in the CEE region, in the Western Balkans, and among Hungarian communities in neighbouring countries.
- By now, the Orbán regime has allied or partner parties in almost every EU member state based on the parties’ support for Fidesz and ideological similarities or sympathy for Orbán's policies. The most important ones are the Polish Law and Justice (PIS), the Italian League and the Brothers of Italy (FdI), the Spanish Vox and the French National Rally (RN). Fidesz also has partners among the mainstream parties, such as the French Republicans (LR), the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), the Direction - Slovak Social Democracy (Smer) and Forward Italy (FI).
- Political Capital’s online infographic on Fidesz’s EU-wide partner network is accessible here.
- In the United States of America, Fidesz has built close ties with the Republican Party, especially with its Trumpist wing. In this process, Orbán's anti-immigration and anti-gender policies, the activities of Hungarian GONGOs, the US lobbyists he has hired, and biased coverage in pro-Tump US media have played a significant role.
- In the Western Balkans, media acquisitions and other economic activities (including corruption) are the primary tools of influence-building. The main allies are Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, former Slovenian PM Janez Janša, President of Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina Milorad Dodik and in North Macedonia Nikola Gruevski's party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization - Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity.
- Among Hungarian communities in neighbouring countries, the main tools of influence-building are financial support for organisations, bringing Hungarian political actors into a position of dependency, media and sports investments, and real estate purchases.
The English summary of Political Capital's study, conducted in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation's Prague office, is available here.
An online infographic presenting Fidesz’s allies and partners in the EU is available here.
A podcast in English, entitled ‘Punching above its weight? – The balance of Hungary’s international influence-building efforts’, featuring Flora Garamvölgyi, a US-based Hungarian journalist, covering the relations between Fidesz and the Republican party for The Guardian, and Zsuzsanna Végh, visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and Associate Researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, is available here.