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Hungary and Serbia’s elections: Will the Ukraine war impact votes?

Two elections mark two crucial opportunities to halt Europe’s drift towards authoritarianism. But war in Ukraine adds an extra obstacle

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
31 March 2022, 12.00am
Aleksandar Vucic and Viktor Orban attend the inauguration ceremony of the Belgrade-Novi Sad section of the Belgrade-Budapest railway, 19 March, 2022.
Wang Wei/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

“War in Ukraine is really bad for this election,” says Biljana Stojković, speaking to me from Vranje in the south of Serbia, which she’s visiting as part of her campaign to be the country’s president.

As a human rights and anti-war activist, she says she has spent much of her life talking with people in the streets across her country. She clearly loves it.

“I meet people every day. They want something to change. It fills me with energy.”

Stojković’s party, a Green-Left alliance called Moramo (‘We Must’ in English), is currently polling third ahead of the parliamentary elections, which are running alongside the vote for president on 3 April. On the campaign trail, she says she talks with people about their everyday lives – healthcare, childcare, clean air and water.

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But the governing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), led by president Aleksandar Vučić, is doing well from the Ukraine war, she says.

“He is using this crisis to increase the panic, saying NATO will bomb us again,” explains Stojković, referring to the 1999 Kosovo war, when NATO launched a three-month air strike campiagn. Vučić, who is expected to win more than 50% of the vote, trades on the idea that when people are afraid, “they need a father”.

Stojković adds that the governing party “are ruling by media” – its allies own almost all of the press.

Vučić, who started his career as information minister under former president Slobodan Milošević and went on to appoint Tony Blair as an adviser, is one of the European leaders closest to Vladimir Putin. Perhaps surprisingly, the Serbian activists I’ve spoken to over the past few days think Vučić’s relationship with the Russian president will work to his benefit.

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For Serbian millennials, the animating political memory is NATO bombing Belgrade in 1999. For their surviving grandparents, it’s Russian troops supporting them as they forced back the Nazi line: Yugoslav partisans were the only resistance movement that comprehensively defeated Hitler’s forces.

For such people, “Russia is anti-fascism. Russia is freedom-bringers,” says one left-wing Serbian activist, a political organiser who asked not to be named.

Vučić’s “whole narrative is based on how he’s good friends with Russia”, says the organiser. Many Serbians see Russia as a champion of their country’s interests on the world stage: Russia, for instance, refuses to recognise Kosovo, which formally declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Vučić taps into a deep national sentiment, which is only now being challenged. Images of Russians bombing hospitals in Ukraine are causing cognitive dissonance for many Serbians. “It’s hard for them, they don’t know what to think,” she says.

The Serbian government’s equivocation over the war in Ukraine reflects this wider national mood. “The Republic of Serbia feels that it is very wrong to violate the territorial integrity of any state, including Ukraine,” Vučić commented, shortly after Russia launched its invasion – before adding that Russia was “the biggest guarantor” of the UN Resolution that ended the Kosovo war, and denouncing sanctions.

Striking a balance

Vučić has historically tried to balance relations with rival international camps. Serbia is an important ally to both Russia and China in Europe, but also a major recipient of EU investment.

“It’s a small country without any non-aggression pacts, [so] I think most Serbians would expect the president to try to be friends with everyone,” says one Scottish IT worker who has lived in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, for the most of the past decade. They’re part of a growing community of digital types attracted to a city famous for its nightlife and excellent morning coffee and lower living costs.

At the last national election – just two years ago – a number of opposition parties boycotted the vote, saying it wouldn’t be free or fair. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) sent observers, who reported that “most television channels with national coverage and most newspapers promote government policies”. The OSCE also found that “threats, attacks or pressure on journalists and media outlets, combined with a lack of financial independence, foster self-censorship”.

But in the two years since, streets across Serbia have been enchanted by vast demonstrations. Belgrade, which has more than a million residents, is famous as the confluence of two mighty rivers – the Danube and the Sava. But the city has no sewage treatment works and pumps its faeces straight into the Danube. “It’s amazing Romania and Bulgaria haven’t sued us,” says one contact.

Stojković talks about visiting factories where workers lack basic employment rights, in towns and neighbourhoods where the air is filled with noxious fumes. In Belgrade, air pollution is poisoning children’s lungs. Congestion on the roads, activists say, means a three-mile commute can take more than an hour. In rural areas, lithium mining threatens environmental damage, although protesters forced the government to revoke mining licences earlier this year.

This confluence of issues, alongside growing concern at Vučić’s authoritarianism, has bubbled up into protests. Organisers claim more than 100,000 people in 50 towns and cities took part in demonstrations last year, which included blockading major roads across the country. Even if the 31,000 claimed by the president is more accurate, that’s still large in a country of seven million people.

The social movements behind these protests were the catalyst for Moramo’s formation in November last year. The alliance represents an attempt to shift Serbian politics away from the abstractions of international power games and media myths, and towards the reality of people’s daily lives.

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“Elections in Serbia are all about ‘is it Russia or America who are our friends? Do we recognise Kosovo?’ If you start to talk about ‘small’ issues, you are admitting that Serbia is a small country,” says the political organiser. “We have never lived in a truly functional democracy.”

The war in Ukraine, however, threatens to derail Moramo’s project. “Many people, especially in the [rural] south of Serbia, don’t even know there are elections,” says Stojković, explaining that the war has distracted people. For opposition parties, which rely on boosting turnout among those not loyal to the governing party, this is a disaster.

Stojković tries to sound hopeful. “These elections will be one step towards [Vučić’s] defeat. The opposition will consolidate and do better in the local elections in two years,” she says.

Hungary’s struggling opposition

Follow the Danube upstream from Belgrade, and soon enough you find yourself in Hungary, where another increasingly autocratic ruler faces elections on 3 April.

For prime minister Viktor Orbán, this bid for a fourth term was meant to be tricky. The EU has denied him access to COVID recovery funds over his erosion of democratic norms. The currency, the forint, has collapsed in the wake of the war in Ukraine. Orbán is Putin’s closest ally within the EU, and won the last election by encouraging a moral panic about Syrian refugees – which now seems darkly ironic given the scenes of Hungarians generously welcoming Ukranians.

Perhaps most significantly, over the past couple of years, the Hungarian opposition has been getting its act together. In 2019, Orbán’s Fidesz party lost a series of vital local elections to an alliance of its opponents. Most prominently, the Green candidate, Gergely Karácsony, became mayor of Budapest.

Coming into this election, opposition parties held a series of primaries to choose a candidate for prime minister, as well as for MPs from across the country. The winner, Peter Márki-Zay, wasn’t the choice of most progressives – he is the conservative Catholic mayor of a small town. But at least he plans to undo most of Orbán’s war on democracy: “Our project is to dismantle the system, so that nobody in Hungary's future can hijack democracy like Orbán did,” he told openDemocracy in January.

For a while, it looked like this strategy might work, with the United for Hungary alliance jostling with Fidesz in the polls. But over the past month, as Putin has bombed Ukraine, Orbán has seen his lead grow. His party looks more confident than ever.

“I’m thinking [there will be] a comfortable Fidesz victory,” says Justin, an American journalist who has been based in Budapest for more than a decade and asked for his surname to be withheld. “They’ve managed to dominate the narrative on the war, and I think that sealed it for them.”

“Orbán has managed to get his ducks in a row re the war, preaching the message of peace while toeing the NATO line – in contrast to his friendship with Putin a few weeks before,” agrees a Hungarian activist, who also asked for their name to be withheld.

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Before the war, Orbán built up a strong relationship with Russia, including securing Russian funding for two nuclear reactors. Although he has condemned Russia’s invasion, he has opposed key international sanctions, and Hungary is the only one of Ukraine’s EU neighbours to have refused to supply military aid. Nor has it allowed weapons to be shipped across its territory.

“The answer to the question of which side Hungary is on is that Hungary is on Hungary’s side,” Orbán tweeted last week. Within the EU, his government has opposed sanctions that would damage Hungary’s own economy.

The opposition, on the other hand, has taken a more firmly pro-Ukraine position, with Márki-Zay even saying he would send troops to fight Russia if NATO asked him to.

The opposition “got off on the wrong footing when it called for resistance against Russia and is now seen as warmongering by rural populations in particular who are scared,” says the Hungarian activist. She adds that the opposition “is unable to get its messaging crystal clear and still looks and feels a bit disorganised”.

According to Justin, the American journalist, “there’s no actual ideological unity, just tactical unity. So [the opposition] can’t hammer down on arguments with one voice. Each party still has their own interests they are pursuing.”

Orbán’s oligarch friends own most of the media. He can switch his message in a moment, and jump from being a refugee-bashing Putin loyalist to a neutral leader generously welcoming Ukrainians. For a lumbering opposition coalition, agreeing and communicating a message about a sudden new event is much harder.

Where the opposition has communicated its message, it has failed to appreciate some of the complexities of Hungarian attitudes to both Ukraine and Russia, says Jutka Bari, a Roma activist.

First, there is the contentious question of Hungarian-speaking populations in the western Ukrainian region of Transcarpathia, who many Hungarians believe are treated badly. “The Hungarians of Transcarpathia have suffered many disadvantages, so the pro-Ukrainian attitude of the opposition coalition may also send a message to non-party voters that the opposition supports the West and America instead of Hungarian interests,” says Bari.

On the other hand, she adds, views about Russia are filtered through the fact that “most Hungarians have a romantic attitude to the Soviet Union”. A poll in 2010 found that 72% of Hungarians thought most people were better off under communism. (For the Roma population, she believes, that’s objectively true.)

These opinions illustrate just part of the complexity of Hungarian attitudes towards the war – which isn’t reflected by the opposition’s decision to cling like a koala to NATO and the EU.

Economic impacts of war

Hungary’s economy has been hit hard by the war, although the forint has now regained some of its value.

“The poor state of the economy and the weak currency will definitely peel some less dedicated Fidesz supporters off,” says Justin, the American journalist. “But voters don't respond in expected ways to things like a weak economy and corruption because support for Fidesz and Orban is so tribalistic.”

It’s also not clear that the economic impact of war has actually been negative so far for Fidesz’s middle-class, property-owning voters. The party’s support is built on the vast inflation of house prices over their 12 years in power, driven by a combination of AirBnB in Budapest, speculation by outside investors, and the Central Bank pumping cash into the market to keep it afloat. Hungary has one of the highest home-ownership rates in the world, with renting historically the preserve of the country’s Roma community. Most people feel richer as long as house prices rise.

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So far, the war appears to have affected the market in two ways. First, refugees arriving in Hungary have helped push rents to record highs, rising 2% as compared with January. Second, the fall in the value of Hungary’s currency has made it cheaper for outside investors to buy up Hungarian property. Particularly as many speculators pulled out of Russia, this seems to have pumped some cash into the market, sustaining the bubble on which Orbán sits.

There are also losers in this process: the renters and young, first-time buyers spending higher portions of their incomes on housing costs. But these people aren’t Fidesz’s core support anyway and, in Márki-Zay, the opposition haven’t exactly rallied around a candidate likely to enthuse them.

Despite all this, the election will likely be the closest in a long time in Hungary. At the very least, Fidesz should lose its two-thirds majority in Parliament, which has allowed it to rewrite the constitution at will.

But any notion that Putin’s European allies would suffer from association with his war crimes appears to be wishful thinking.

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