Roch Dunin-Wasowicz / Apr 2022
The devastating toll of Russia’s crime of aggression against Ukraine is continuously unfolding. Apart from physical destruction, military and civilian casualties, evidence of crimes against humanity, as well as the genocidal intent of the aggressors are now common knowledge. As with every traumatic collective experience, the return of full-scale conventional war to Europe was heralded as a game changer for the political system of the continent. While it is true that the EU has flexed its geostrategic muscle by imposing unprecedented sanctions, providing weapons to Ukraine, and continuously supporting the government in Kyiv (despite internal opposition), the experience of war has not yet led to momentous electoral changes in Europe. Many commentators were initially expecting that Russia’s assault on an independent sovereign state would mean a rapid defeat of Putin’s European allies. In Hungary they came on top, in France they were close second.
At the same time, the war is further evidence that the logic of European integration follows a responsive pattern. The pressures exerted on Brussels and Member States capitals by the public, faced with ongoing atrocities delivered by Russia in Ukraine, are unprecedented. Especially in Germany, society is now resolutely pro-Ukrainian, and it is the Federal Chancellor that’s still dragging his feet when it comes to delivering armaments to Kyiv on a level commensurate with the German economy. This shift in the public opinion is seen across Europe and is likely to embolden those who want to consolidate the EU as a political union further with respect to its security and defense cooperation. Still, Europe’s old fractures over liberal democracy and particular economic interests have not been eviscerated by the experience of war, but alliances that underpin the political system are shifting. In particular, the Hungarian-Polish alliance of illiberals is all but dead.
Europe’s united reaction to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has been a surprise to many. The EU’s Versailles Declaration is a significant step forward in the Union’s geostrategic self-understanding – it now knows it must take defense seriously. This development is a vindication of the outlook of the majority of EU’s eastern flank on the dangers posed by Russia but also France’s military ambitions for the union, its “sovereignty” in the international arena as an independent political actor. In that vein, any talk of downplaying NATO’s involvement in Europe’s collective security will most likely fade away, especially now that Macron will stay in power. Populations in Central-Eastern Europe sympathize with Ukraine’s plight precisely because they know they could be next, or that it could have been them had it not been for their membership in NATO. West Europeans are slowly catching up, but physical distance from Ukraine and dependency on Russia’s hydrocarbons is still diluting their empathy.
While the Versailles Declaration recognized Ukraine as belonging to the European family, expedited membership, which the country had hoped for, is not on the horizon. However, a quicker route to a candidate status is, as hinted during Ursula Von Der Leyen’s visit to Kyiv (Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU could enable this). What matters more, however, is that Ukraine’s European aspiration, first displayed at EuroMaidan nine years ago is now increasingly recognized by the European public. Sympathy for Russia and it cultural cache in Europe has all but evaporated. EU enlargement is back on the agenda, since Croatia’s 2013 accession, and its importance as a geo-strategic tool has been vindicated in the eyes of the public. This also applies to the Western Balkans, as well as Moldova and Georgia, which have long been a space where liberal democracy clashed with authoritarian governance. While Hungary might maintain its peculiar neutrality towards the war in Ukraine, most European leaders (and many citizens) now realize that Ukrainians are indeed fighting “for their freedom and ours”. This kind of renewal of European values, and the purpose of EU’s enlargement, is one of the most tangible results of the war so far.
Hungary’s “illiberal” democracy
Old fractures over the definition of democracy within the EU have not evaporated, however. Putin’s nativist aggression did not upend Viktor Orbán’s rule, who keenly follows many of his political strategies and policy choices at home, even though he seemingly condemns the war. For Orbán, opposing Putin’s war does not equate abandoning one’s own version of ethno-national populism. This is mainly because Hungary’s multi-vector and transactional approach to European politics made a pivot to Russia (and China) necessary. Since early in his premiership, Orbán’s has benefited from cheaper hydrocarbons because of that alliance. While hollowing out of substantive democracy, authoritarian governance and kleptocracy are ongoing challenges to democracy in Europe, but they have reached unprecedented proportions in Hungary. Orbán has secured a 4th term in power on the back of arbitrarily and selectively redistributive economic policies, a near-total media takeover, as well as documented distortions of Hungary’s electoral system. Hungary’s more than a decade long experiment with national populism and illiberal democracy has distorted the political system in the country to the point of no return. Hungarians were willing to turn a blind eye to the tragedy of Ukraine for the promise of relative economic stability and ever vaguer vision of ethno-national revival. Hungary’s opposition will need to turn to grassroots “power of the powerless” style organizing to attract those left out by Orbán’s Estado Novo, if it is to ever recapture power. All this coincided with the European Commission finally putting in place the Rule of Law conditionality mechanism against Hungary for apparent corruption. There is now consensus that continued financing of Hungary’s anti-European regime with European money cannot last.
Hungarian-Polish alliance is in doubt
Until recently Hungary could count on Poland’s support in its efforts to undermine the EU’s supranational governance and keep the money flowing in. Yet, Polish society’s response to the war and the influx of Ukrainian refugees - the outpouring of genuine solidarity transcending historical ills - all but prevents Poland to keep unequivocally supporting Hungary as it had in the past. This doesn’t mean, however, that Warsaw has given up on undermining the EU’s current mode of governance. Since 2015, PiS have been drawing on Fidesz’s electoral and governance handbook and trying to reenact “Budapest in Warsaw”. While Jarosław Kaczyński has managed to pack the courts, take over public media, create a system of cronyism in state run industry, and restrict abortion rights, Poland is not yet a competitive authoritarian kleptocracy, like Hungary. Incontinences in this marriage of illiberals have been visible for a while, however, the war in Ukraine is likely to alter political dependency between Kaczyński and Orbán quite fundamentally. Despite the traumatic collective memory of 1956 Budapest, Orbán has managed to convince Hungarians that an alliance with Putin will lead to economic prosperity (a claim that has no substantive merit beyond the price of fuel). Such discursive shift with respect to Russia has never been attempted in Poland. This can be attributed to a much longer track record of Russia’s often successful attempts to undermine Polish statehood (including genocide during WWII side by side with liberation from Nazism), but also lack of any real progress in Polish-Russo reconciliation since the year 2000. Consequently, just as in the Baltic states, a pro-Russian political platform could not garner any substantial support in society. While Law and Justice have successfully been deploying xenophobia as a political tactic – against Germans, LGBT+ people and to some extent Ukrainians – suspicion against Russia has been a mainstay of their nationalist imaginary too. This has been exacerbated by the 2010 Smolensk (Russia) plane crash with the Polish president on board – a source of ongoing political strife continuously reignited by PiS for electoral purposes.
War in Ukraine has changed Polish society, especially with respect to their approach to refugees. Majority of Poles (94 per cent) support welcoming refugees from Ukraine – a development which cannot be ignored by the government who spent the last year illegally pushing back non-European migrants trying to get into the EU via Belarus. The nearly 3 million Ukrainian refugees who have entered Poland in the first month and a half of the war, and the outpouring of solidarity towards them by Poland’s civil society (formal and informal) is borne out of a realization of community of fate with Ukraine. Despite history of feudal/colonial subjugation and genocide, Poland’s reentry to the west could have easily been jeopardized as Ukraine’s had. The images of Polish society’s generosity have given the country an unprecedented amount of goodwill in the eyes of the international public opinion. Poland’s president – Andrzej Duda – was first to seize this opportunity by his rapprochement with Joe Biden. Just after Viktor Orbán’s landslide electoral victory, Jarosław Kaczyński followed suit and criticized the former’s stance on Russia. All this heralds Poland’s pivot away from Hungary to repair its own standing inside the EU and internationally, in close cooperation or dependency on the United States .
Europe’s shifting alliances
Hungary has not been the only country opposing excluding Russian hydrocarbons from EU’s consecutive sanction packages. Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria also very dependent on Russian gas imports and have been reluctant to curb them. There is, however, something particularly sinister in Orbán’s approach to the war in Ukraine. Not only is he refusing to send military help for Ukraine, or allow it to transfer via Hungarian soil, he’s singled out Zelenskyy as his political adversary (including using antisemitic tropes), and his ill-conceived plan for peace talks with Putin was also nothing more than virtue signaling. While the political projects of Orbán and Kaczyński could benefit from synergy, especially vis-à-vis Brussels in the past, the visceral experience of war mediated by the Polish media, felt thought the presence of 3.5 million Ukrainian migrants and refugees past and present (now constituting 10 per cent of society), as well as the historical legacy of the Polish-Russo conflict means the Warsaw-Budapest alliance as we know is likely to come to an end.
This doesn’t mean that the government in Warsaw has abandoned its aim of reshaping European politics in their own image, but there is now scope to reach compromise with Brussels over the rule of law in order to focus efforts on defending (and rebuilding) Ukraine. What’s at stake for Poland is not just the post-Covid EU Recovery Fund but the whole of the 2021-27 budget now subject to the rule of law conditionality mechanism. While the current government in Warsaw is guilty of politicizing the judiciary, its faults pale in comparison with Hungary’s established system of corruption funded by EU funds. Poland has now taken on a decidedly pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian orientation. It has also lost another illiberal ally in Slovenia’s Janez Janša who just lost power. This means that Europe’s core illiberal alliance between Hungary and Poland cannot function as it once had. Despite the synergies of the past, and some common visions of sovereignty, Poland’s right-wing government will tread its own path in Europe from now on. Despite its own problems with democracy, Poland too is now much more likely to endorse consolidation within the EU.