The chorus at Budapest’s grand opera house sang fortissimo, over crashing, triumphant orchestral chords: “We have defended our fatherland with blood! Glory to the army! Russia’s glory will never fade!”
The words were not about the war in Ukraine, but from the opera War and Peace, based on Leo Tolstoy’s novel about the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, and adapted by the composer Sergei Prokofiev in the 1940s, with the Soviet defeat of the Nazis fresh in the mind.
The Hungarian State Opera, which presented a new production of the opera last week, has been at pains to note that the scheduling and staging of the opera were planned long before Vladimir Putin took the decision to invade Ukraine.
But the bombastic music and patriotic Russian-language libretto have an unnerving resonance as the first anniversary of Russia’s war in Ukraine approaches, especially when performed on a stage just a three-hour drive from Ukraine’s border.
Budapest, however, has emerged as the friendliest European Union capital towards Russia since the war broke out last year.
Here, there are no Ukrainian flags flying from government buildings like in other central European capitals. Hungary’s far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has blocked the supply or transit of weapons to Ukraine through Hungary, and repeatedly called for peace talks.
Outside the opera house, and all through central Budapest, billboards proclaim: “Hungarians have decided: 97% say NO to sanctions”, referencing polling done by the government, using leading questions to ask the population if they supported EU sanctions on Russia. Although Orbán has signed up to EU sanctions packages, he has frequently criticised them as counterproductive.
While other regional leaders have enthusiastically posted selfies from the train to Kyiv, and competed to portray themselves as Ukraine’s biggest ally, neither Orbán nor his foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, has travelled to Ukraine since the war began, although Szijjártó did visit Moscow in July.
Orbán claims Hungary is staying neutral in the war, but many critics say his actions amount to tacit support for Putin’s war effort, a strange look for a Nato ally.
“It’s infuriating. This is not a time when you can be neutral, especially in this part of the world, and when you’re supposed to be a member of Nato and the EU. Being neutral means you support Putin,” said a diplomat from another European country in Budapest.
Orbán, who won a fourth consecutive term in office at election last spring, has long thrived on criticism from abroad. He has proudly announced he is building an “illiberal democracy” in contrast with what he views as the degenerate, “woke” west.
However, even some of Orbán’s conservative friends have been alarmed at the Hungarian prime minister’s courting of Russia. Most notably, it has torpedoed the country’s warm relations with Poland. The two countries had previously supported each other over criticism on rule of law issues from Brussels, but now Poland has emerged as a leading supporter of Ukraine.
Sławomir Dębski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw, a thinktank close to the Polish government, said Orbán’s position on Russia has in effect ended bilateral ties, as well as activities of the Visegrád Four, a grouping of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia that holds frequent leader summits and has often been aligned on issues in the past.
“Nobody wants to meet the Hungarians any more. Now, when the time for a summit comes around, everyone starts communicating in Warsaw, Bratislava and Prague, saying ‘What shall we do?’”
Dębski said part of the problem was that Orbán’s dissent from the common European position was being done very publicly.
“They could have just shut up. Look at Austria, they perhaps share some of the Hungarian positions, but they simply stay quiet and the spotlight is not on them. By contrast, Orbán is actively spreading nonsense about the war,” he said.
The latest furore came after the American conservative Rod Dreher, an Orbán cheerleader, wrote a blogpost about a meeting between foreign rightwingers and the Hungarian prime minister. In it, he quoted Orbán saying Russia had turned Ukraine into an “ungovernable wreck”, and comparing the country to Afghanistan.
The remarks drew fury in Ukraine, prompting the Hungarian ambassador in Kyiv to be summoned to the foreign ministry for an explanation, and a sharp-tongued response from Borys Filatov, the mayor of Dnipro.
“You have to be a total moral degenerate to hide under the EU and Nato umbrella while sniping at everyone. Get out from under the umbrella and we’ll sort you fuckers out in three days,” he wrote.
Some think that Orbán’s public trashing of Ukraine is a way to prove loyalty to Moscow, and to court favourable investments from Russian business in Hungary as well as credit from Moscow in the event Russia wins the war. This may also explain Hungary’s efforts to have several Russian businesspeople removed from EU sanctions lists.
“Many people around Orbán are convinced that there’s away back to the status quo ante, and saying bad things about Ukraine is seen as a way to please Russia,” said András Rácz, at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
There have been other signs of deference towards Moscow. The Hungarian government, unlike most other European countries, has declined to expel Russian diplomats over the war, and now has one of the largest Russian embassies in Europe. Some fear that the open borders of the Schengen zone mean Russia can use Budapest as a base for spying operations across Europe.
In November, Ukrainian security services detained a former official at the Hungarian border, accusing him of carrying classified information about Ukrainian military and intelligence personnel on a flash drive inserted in his rectum. The man was planning to deliver the material to the Russian embassy in Budapest, according to Ukrainian authorities.
More recently, concerns are mounting over a law that allows the defence minister to fire any army officer over the age of 45, with a potential massive purge of the army top brass now under way.
The government has claimed the move is aimed at rejuvenating the ranks, but critics question the timing, as well as the lack of public discussion.
“It’s highly unusual that a Nato country decides a fundamental reorganisation and cuts in its armed forces during a tense situation like now, when every other country is strengthening its armed forces,” said Rácz.
Ágnes Vadai, an opposition MP and former junior defence minister, noted that many officers with long years of experience with Nato and connections in the structures of the alliance would now be fired.
“It was a surprise to everybody and it’s difficult not to see the connection between the foreign policy strategy of the prime minister and this,” she said.
For now, Orbán’s position on the war has gone down well domestically, amplified by a media that is largely under government control and has often parroted Russian narratives on the war.
Polling shows that a majority of Hungarians have a negative view of Ukraine, and the government may be able to sell record inflation and a worsening economy as consequences of European sanctions.
Budapest has continued to remain open for Russian tourists, unlike some other parts of the region, and at the opera house on Wednesday evening, there was no visible unease at the sections of the libretto about the Russian army crushing “foreign locusts” and leaving enemies with “no skin and no face”.
At the end of the four-hour operatic marathon, the production received a standing ovation.