Press play to listen to this article
The United States is trying to isolate Viktor Orbán. But Hungary’s prime minister might be too rogue to care.
On Thursday and Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden will gather leaders from over 100 countries to a virtual “Summit for Democracy.” He invited rule-of-law troublemaker Poland. He invited Serbia, despite some questionable democratic credentials. He invited every EU member but one.
That one was Hungary.
The high-profile snub is not necessarily a surprise — Orbán has faced years of international reprimands for muzzling the media, meddling in the judicial branch and eroding LGBTQ+ rights. And that’s on top of the warm relationships Orbán has developed with Moscow and Beijing, a troubling development for Hungary’s NATO allies.
But the singularity of Hungary’s omission raised eyebrows, fueling speculation about what Washington is hoping to achieve and whether this is the best approach. While the decision shines a spotlight on Hungary’s track record, even some of the prime minister’s critics wonder if it also feeds Orbán’s political grievances of unfair treatment. Meanwhile, others question if it even really registers for Orbán, given how far he has already drifted from the political mainstream.
The ostracization is “humiliating” but “not surprising,” said Géza Jeszenszky, Hungary’s U.S. ambassador from 1998-2002, Orbán’s first term as prime minister. Nevertheless, he added, the approach “makes it easy for the Hungarian government to say that ‘well, this is a double standard.’”
The guest list for Biden’s democracy summit has been a source of speculation since he first floated the idea on the campaign trail.
As the final slate of attendees emerged, U.S. officials faced tough questions about their opaque rationale.
“The United States reached out to a regionally diverse set of democracies who we assessed whose progress and commitments would advance a more just and peaceful world,” said Uzra Zeya, the State Department’s under secretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, during a briefing with reporters this week.
When it comes to Hungary, one U.S. official said the government’s strident rhetoric may have played a role.
“At a certain point,” the official told POLITICO, “one looks at where it’s possible to move forward effectively in accordance with the shared values that underpin liberal democracy. Other countries do not seem as adamant as Hungary in expressing their opposition to these values in word and in deed.”
Publicly, the Hungarian government has reacted to America’s snub with a mix of trolling and obstructionism.
“Hungary doesn’t have such serious democracy problems as the United States,” Gergely Gulyás, Orbán’s chief of staff, told reporters last week.
He poked at a particularly sensitive spot in the U.S. cultural fabric — Donald Trump’s ongoing effort to convince his supporters the 2020 election was stolen, a falsehood that persists.
“If we can help, and America thinks it would ask for our advice, we are available,” he said. “In Hungary, we are not at the point where close to one-third of voters think that democratic elections were rigged.”
More formally, Hungary argued at an EU ambassadors meeting last week that the bloc can’t formally contribute to the summit because not all members are attending, leading diplomats to abandon the draft of a written statement. Nevertheless, given that EU Treaties include a commitment to democracy, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel still plan to speak at the event.
Hungary’s foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, has also dismissed the summit as a “domestic politics-type event,” telling reporters last month that it was obvious countries that developed good ties to Trump did not get an invite.
His remarks ignored the fact that even Hungary’s close allies — including Slovenia, whose prime minister is openly pro-Trump — managed to snag invites, while Budapest alone was left out.
Behind the public derision, some Hungarian officials do appear to be taking the snub seriously.
“I think this is a completely wrong decision based on a fundamentally bad concept that divides the world into teachers and pupils, including NATO allies,” said one senior Hungarian diplomat.
“The suggestion is also incomprehensible in light of the fact that Hungarian soldiers have served shoulder to shoulder with their American comrades in Afghanistan, Iraq or Kosovo,” the diplomat added. “NATO needs cohesion and unity in the face of the security challenges of the 21st century, not divisive initiatives.”
Politically, however, there is a sense in Hungary that Orbán has moved so far away from other democratic countries that being excluded from a White House summit is not a major point of concern.
One Fidesz politician, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he does not believe Orbán and the party are upset by being left out. “They think they are on a different track … illiberal democracy,” the politician said.
Orbán’s domestic opponents said the prime minister has brought on his own isolation.
“I noticed that the international community treats Orbán like a virus,” said Péter Márki-Zay, a conservative mayor who is running against Orbán in next year’s election as the opposition’s candidate.
“He worked hard for this for a long time,” Márki-Zay said in a text message, citing a list of controversies involving the Orbán government’s close relationship with the authorities in China, Russia and Azerbaijan, as well as Hungary’s decision to grant asylum to Nikola Gruevski, North Macedonia’s fugitive former prime minister.
Still, Jeszenszky, the former ambassador — who is now critical of Orbán’s government — argued keeping Hungary on the sidelines could be “a missed opportunity” to work on dialogue.
“The Hungarian prime minister should be confronted with the choice: Are you still a member of NATO and a member of that community of democracies, or are you going to link your nation’s fate to Russia and China?” said Jeszenszky, who also served as foreign minister in Hungary’s first democratically elected government.
Keeping Hungary out, he said, will “further alienate Mr. Orbán — and it is not in the interest of the U.S. and not in the interest of NATO.”
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.