Authors: Nutsiko Dzandzava, Leila Chkhetiani
Putin’s Last “Understander*”: Relations Between Georgia and Hungary Since the Start of the Russia-Ukraine War
*“Putinversteher” literally translates as “The one who understands Putin”. The term was first used in 2014 by the German publication Der Spiegel to describe politicians who justified and whitewashed Putin’s policies.
The Russia-Ukraine war that started in February 2022 fundamentally changed the security landscape of Europe. Widespread old ideas about expected threats and potential partners, improvement of defense capabilities and energy dependence have been fundamentally reevaluated. The Russia-Ukraine war and the unanimous response of the states on the European continent once again redefined the group of countries united around Western values, which help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian aggression. In this context, Hungary is a notable exception in the European family, its prime minister already having been called “Putin’s last ally in Europe” due to his reaction to the Russia-Ukraine war. Along with Hungary, the current Government of Georgia also has a less rigid policy towards Russia. The purpose of our blog is to analyze the reasons for the rapprochement of the governing forces of Hungary and Georgia since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war.
The partnership between Georgia and Hungary dates back to 2008, although relations between the governments of the two countries have become particularly close since the Russia-Ukraine war began. Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili’s frequent visits to Hungary, as well as the statements and speeches of senior officials, are a manifestation of this friendship. In October 2022, a declaration on strategic partnership was signed between Georgia and Hungary, which aims to deepen cooperation in the field of energy. On his part, Viktor Orbán said that not granting Georgia the EU candidate status was “inexplicable, morally unacceptable, damaging, and disrespectful to the Georgian people”. The cooperation of the states has reached such a scale that, according to one speculation, Hungary will agree to the negotiations on Ukraine’s accession to the European Union only if the organization also grants Georgia candidate status.
After Viktor Orbán came back to power in 2010, a democratic backsliding began in Hungary. This process is related to the consolidation of power, the limitation of political participation, the establishment of control over the media, and anti-liberal and conservative rhetoric. Soon, the idea of “illiberal democracy”, as a new Hungarian ideology, was born, the main driver thereof being the prime minister himself. This idea is based on conservative/Christian values that oppose the “immoral” values of liberalism. Fidesz’s policy, characterized by strong Euroscepticism and rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community, migrants, and non-governmental organizations, has been the subject of international criticism many times. In September 2022, the European Parliament passed a resolution stating that Hungary is no longer an absolute democracy, and is instead a hybrid regime of “electoral autocracy”.
Georgia’s rapprochement with Europe’s “dictator” Orbán, who has been a detrimental force for the unanimity of the European Union for years, causes concern in European institutions. According to European Parliamentarian Viola von Kramon, calling Hungary a friend “says everything about Georgia.”
In addition to the active political cooperation between Georgia and Hungary, the closeness of the ideological narrative of the states’ first persons is also worth noting. The participation of Irakli Gharibashvili in the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) organized by the Union of American Conservatives, with the motto “Liberals’ Nightmare: International Fusion of National Powers”, validates this assumption. The conference, hosted by Hungary, brings together populist, far-right, and conservative politicians from around the world.
Hungary, which is often criticized by the European Union for its democratic backsliding, in response accuses the latter of undermining the country’s sovereignty and imposing its values. According to Orbán, the bureaucratic and elitist Brussels is forcing its own values upon the European people. It is interesting that in response to EU resolutions and European parliamentarians’ instructions, which point to Georgia’s democratic backsliding, Georgia’s own ruling party often repeats Fidesz’s rhetoric. This is indicated by a constant appeal that Georgia should become a member of the European Union with its own values and traditions, and not with a lost identity and values imposed upon it.
Along with the issue of the European Union, the narrative of Georgian and Hungarian officials also coincide with each other on the Russia-Ukraine war. Apart from the fact that relations with Ukraine during the war have been strained in both Georgia and Hungary’s cases, the leaders of both states put the blame for the war on the shoulders of the West; in particular, on NATO. According to Orbán, the main reason for the war kicking off between Russia and Ukraine was Ukraine’s desire to join NATO – the expansion of NATO threatens Russia’s security, and Putin is waging the war in an attempt to protect his country. Irakli Gharibashvili voiced the same pathos as Orbán at the thematic discussion held within the Global Security Forum (GLOBSEC). The top officials of the states both named Ukraine’s aspiration to join NATO as the main reason for the war, and disregarded the Kremlin’s official justification that the purpose of the so-called special military operation is the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.
The Prime Minister of Hungary often appeals to conservative-Christian values, which is why the rights of the LGBTQ+ community in Hungary are facing challenges. In 2021, Hungary passed the Child Protection Act, otherwise known as the “Anti-LGBT law”, which seeks to protect children from “propaganda of homosexuality”. This law violates the fundamental values of the LGBTQ+ community and turns children into propaganda and populist tools. Recently, the leaders of the ruling party of Georgia have been voicing a narrative similar to that of Fidesz on many issues. In his speech at CPAC, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili spoke about the protection of family and traditional values, condemned the “violence of the minority against the majority” and criticized LGBTQ+ propaganda and the novelties imposed by them.
State leaders “learning political lessons” from each other is nothing new. Viktor Orbán himself, while formulating the doctrine of “illiberal democracy”, relied on Vladimir Putin’s concept of “sovereign democracy” which emerged in Russia in the 2000s. Against this background, the friendship between Georgia and Hungary is less surprising. The recent “turn” of the Georgian Dream policy and rhetoric is similar to the path taken by Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. Moreover, according to the Prime Minister of Georgia, they have adopted numerous examples from Hungary.
In addition to the fact that the ruling party of Georgia repeats the main messages of the Hungarian government, the rapprochement of the states also has pragmatic goals.
In 2022, due to the democratic challenges in the country, Georgia was not able obtain the status of a candidate for the European Union. This was followed by a wave of speculation and tensions about the European Union, in parallel to which, Georgia’s ruling party became particularly close to Hungary. Hungary, which has experienced an erosion of democracy since joining the EU, represents an interesting precedent in this regard. Despite the populist, conservative and Eurosceptic rhetoric and politics, Hungary still remains a member of the European family and benefits from the aid received from it. Hungary manages to pursue an illiberal agenda while remaining within the ranks of the EU. Yet, according to the latest research, 81% of the Georgian population wants Georgia to become a member of the European Union. In the context of such support for European integration, the government cannot openly deviate from the path chosen by the population. We can say that the reintroduction of the Hungarian example by the ruling power of Georgia is an attempt to join the European family by maintaining non-democratic governance.
Before the Russia-Ukraine war, Hungary tried to create an illiberal agenda in the European Union together with Poland, which is ideologically close to it. Hungary and Poland threatened the unity of the European Union with their democratic backsliding and anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic, and conservative agenda to such an extent that, in 2021, the EU began a procedure to deprive them of the organization’s funds. However, after the start of the Russia-Ukraine war in 2022, the “Eurosceptic Alliance” of Hungary and Poland dissolved due to their radically different attitudes towards Russia. In light of this, Georgia, whose current government upholds Hungary’s anti-liberal and conservative agenda, will be a favorable partner for Hungary within the European Union – perhaps Budapest thinks that with Georgia’s accession to the European Union, it will have a new ally in the fight against “elitist Brussels”.
Therefore, it is obvious that the changes in the political landscape of Europe after the start of the Russia-Ukraine war pushed Hungary to search for new associates. Its close ties with the Government of Georgia, along with being practical, are precipitated by ideological unity, manifested in the Euroscepticism and conservative values of the ruling parties of the two countries.