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Orban Urges Hungary’s Parliament to Back Sweden’s NATO Bid

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News Analysis

The Hungarian leader has repeatedly opposed European efforts to boost Europe’s security in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He also blocked a $52 billion aid package for Ukraine.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, center, said he had told NATO’s secretary general that he supported Sweden’s admission.Credit…Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto, via Getty Images

Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary pledged on Wednesday to push legislators to vote for Sweden’s admittance into NATO, as he faced mounting pressure as the last holdout blocking its entry to the military alliance.

But Mr. Orban’s intervention, which offered no timeline for a vote and repeated a longstanding assertion that a final decision is not his to make, even though he essentially controls Parliament, left unanswered a question that has shadowed Hungary’s long foot-dragging over NATO’s expansion.

Why “are we messing with the Swedes?” an opposition legislator, Tamas Harangozo, asked nearly a year ago when Mr. Orban’s party, whose large majority in Parliament invariably follows his instructions, abruptly dropped plans to vote on Sweden’s NATO membership.

That question took on urgent relevance this week when Turkey’s Parliament voted to accept Sweden into NATO. That left Hungary as the last big obstacle impeding efforts to boost Europe’s security in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Mr. Orban has often said he wanted Sweden to join NATO, but that his legislators were “not enthusiastic,” blaming Hungary’s repeated delays in accepting Sweden on lawmakers’ right to make their own decisions.

It was unclear whether Mr. Orban’s remarks Wednesday, posted on social media, meant that the Parliament — which is in recess and not scheduled to return until Feb. 15 — would swiftly vote on Sweden’s membership.

Hungary’s tough stand on Sweden, up to now, echoes a position it took last month at a gathering of European leaders in Brussels to discuss Ukraine. Mr. Orban stood alone to torpedo an aid package for Ukraine worth $52 billion. Leaders will take another run at convincing Mr. Orban to fall into line when they reconvene on Feb. 1.

Hungarian officials have insisted all along that they would not block Sweden, but have offered different, sometimes contradictory reasons for delays. These include claims of scheduling hiccups, a desire to avoid isolating Turkey, complaints about a Swedish video that casts Hungary in a bad light, and quibbles over remarks that Stockholm officials made years ago, while they were in opposition.

Lurking in the background has been Mr. Orban’s determination to stay on good terms with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and keep Russian natural gas and oil flowing to Hungary. While other European leaders have kept their distance from Mr. Putin and slashed Russian imports, Mr. Orban in October assured Mr. Putin that Hungary “never wanted to confront Russia.”

While Turkey made clear, if shifting, demands, like demanding that Sweden crack down on Turkish dissidents there, or linking NATO accession to a Turkish weapons deal with the United States, Hungary has been unclear on what it wants.

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Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson of Sweden, right, and NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, in Stockholm in October. Credit…Jonathan Nackstrand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The only constant feature of Hungary’s stalling, according to some analysts, is that it has put Mr. Orban, the leader of a small Eastern European country, where he likes to be: the center of attention as a combative defender of national sovereignty, and courted rather than pushed around by more powerful nations.

Just hours after Turkey indicated Tuesday it would approve Sweden’s bid, Mr. Orban issued a curt “invitation” to Sweden’s prime minister to visit Budapest and “negotiate” over the future of the military alliance, led by the United States and including significant military powers like France and Britain.

That drew a swift rebuff from Sweden’s foreign minister, Tobias Billstrom, who said he saw “no reason to negotiate” with Hungary, one of the alliance’s least consequential members in military terms but one that is now holding membership effectively ransom.

Admission of a new member requires the unanimous support of NATO’s members, and all but Hungary and Turkey granted approvals more than a year ago. Finland’s admission last April delivered a strategic defeat for Mr. Putin. But the blow to Russia was softened by Hungary and Turkey scuppering plans that Sweden and Finland would join “hand-in-hand.”

That Hungary, a military minnow, would block Sweden, which has a highly developed weapons industry and a modern navy and air force, vital for the defense of the Baltic Sea, has caused widespread dismay and even led to calls in some quarters for Hungary’s expulsion from NATO.

Hungary shares a border with Ukraine and could have played a significant role in Western efforts to help it resist Russian forces. But it refused to follow Poland in offering a transit route for weapons, and has consistently undermined other support for Ukraine.

Peter Kreko, director of Political Capital, a Budapest research group critical of Mr. Orban, said Hungary’s defiance was baffling given its past subjugation by Moscow, and its hard-fought efforts to join the West. Geopolitical interests, Mr. Kreko said, have perhaps played a role — Hungary under Mr. Orban has long cultivated close ties with Russia and Turkey — but “this strange saga is also partly about Orban’s ego and his own political narcissism.”

“If you are the troublemaker you have to be taken seriously,” Mr. Kreko said. “This is a typical feature of authoritarianism: you have to pay theatrical respect to the strongman.”

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Turkey’s Parliament voted on Tuesday to allow Sweden to join NATO.Credit…Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Szabolcs Pany, a Hungarian investigative journalist, said he doubted the “ego theory” and was perplexed by Mr. Orban’s goals. A more plausible theory, he added, is “some sort of deal with Russia,” though that, he conceded, is not supported by hard evidence. “It is all a mystery unless you believe conspiracy theories,” he said.

Given that Hungary’s Parliament is in recess, and assuming Turkey does not delay filing its formal approval, Hungary has already broken a promise made last summer by its foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, that “we will not be the last one to ratify. This is a promise that we will keep for sure.” He repeated that promise in December.

The constant chopping and changing has infuriated even Hungary’s closest friends. Poland, governed until an October election by a nationalist party that saw eye-to-eye with Mr. Orban on most issues, was among those left feeling betrayed.

After a meeting with Mr. Orban in November 2022, Poland’s then conservative prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, declared that the Hungarian leader had given a firm commitment to ratify the NATO membership of both Finland and Sweden “as soon as possible.” That, Mr. Morawiecki said, was a “promise.”

Four months later, Hungary accepted Finland but left Sweden in the cold — and embarrassed Mr. Morawiecki, who has since been replaced by Donald Tusk, a centrist politician highly critical of what he sees as Hungary’s democratic backsliding.

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A soldier in the Donetsk region eastern Ukraine last week. Hungary refused to follow Poland in offering a transit route for weapons and has consistently undermined other support for Ukraine.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Mr. Orban sees time on his side, looking to June elections for the European Parliament, which could boost nationalist forces that share his wariness of Ukraine and sympathy for Russia. The Parliament, currently dominated by mainstream groups hostile to Mr. Orban and Mr. Putin, last week adopted a resolution condemning what it described as the “deliberate and systematic efforts of the Hungarian government to undermine the E.U.’s founding values.”

Mr. Orban has long delighted in playing a scourge of what he derides as the “woke globalist elite.” His terrible relations with much of Europe, and the Biden administration, only buttress his main selling point at home as an indefatigable champion of Hungarian national interests.

His Fidesz party, aided by television stations and other media outlets it controls, last year won its fourth straight election victory by a landslide.

His unassailable position at home combined with his readiness to sow mischief abroad have made him a beacon for nationalist politicians, particularly in the United States, where Donald J. Trump has praised him, and an unavoidable interlocutor for European officials worried by his capacity for obstruction.

Among those reaching out to him this week was Britain’s foreign secretary, David Cameron, who said Tuesday that he had spoken with Mr. Orban about the “importance of Sweden’s swift accession to NATO, making allies safe, NATO stronger and the Euro-Atlantic area more secure.” He did not say if he made any headway.

On Wednesday, Mr. Orban got a call from NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, who said on social media that he “looks forward to the ratification as soon as Parliament reconvenes.”

Andrew Higgins is the East and Central Europe bureau chief for The Times based in Warsaw. He covers a region that stretches from the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to Kosovo, Serbia and other parts of former Yugoslavia. More about Andrew Higgins

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