Why Orban and Fico are not going to be friends despite similar views

The migration issue may escalate into a dispute between Slovakia and Hungary. Slovakia will reactivate the temporary border controls implemented on the Slovak-Hungarian border in early October. The extension will be valid for one month, until December 23, and is supported by the need to reduce unlawful migration. 

Slovakia implemented temporary border controls at the Slovak-Hungarian border on October 5, although they only lasted one day. The decision was made just one day after the Czech Republic, Austria, and Poland implemented a similar step along their borders with Slovakia. 

Slovakia’s new government dispatched hundreds of police officers and troops to its border with Hungary, purportedly to keep illegal migrants out. The personnel were stationed in routes considered frequented by migrants rather than along the full 677-kilometre length of the border.

Fico sent troops to the Hungarian border to prevent migrants from entering Slovakia 

Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico has declared that illegal migration must be regulated, warning that other people tied to “terrorist” groups could enter the country.

“This demonstration of strength, which is being shown on the entire green border, is aimed to make it clear to everyone, especially smugglers and organizers of illegal migration, that Slovakia is ready and will protect its territory from illegal migration,” Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico said.

The goal of border restrictions, according to Fico’s government, will remain to minimize the number of illegal migrants entering the country and to screen out potential dangers to public order and state security. Checks will be conducted along the whole border, as in the past.

According to Slovak officials, the number of illegal migrants entering Slovakia via the Western Balkan transit route has already reached 46,000 in the first nine months of 2023, up from 5,000 in the entire year of 2022.

Migrants flow from Hungary to Slovakia increased 5 times in 2023

Bratislava has taken steps to block further migrant inflows via the Balkan route, where an increase in unlawful entries has been reported. Many young Middle Eastern and Afghan males have entered via the Balkan route, passing through Serbia and Hungary on their way to Western European countries.

The border restrictions were enacted after measures by Austria, Poland, and the Czech Republic to tighten their borders with Slovakia.

After winning the election in September, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico took office for the fourth time in his career in October. He campaigned on vows to safeguard the borders against illegal immigration, among other things. Although Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is similarly anti-migration and pro-Russian, Fico’s border control policy may not be acceptable to him.

Is Orban playing a double game between criticizing illegal migration and letting migrants go to the West?

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán claims to be “defending Europe from a tide of migrants”. But behind his declarations, the situation at the border with neighboring Slovakia seems to show the opposite; Hungary has not resolved the problem but shifted it to its neighbor. 

The majority of Hungary’s EU neighbors have reintroduced border controls. As the number of migrants crossing through the country has increased dramatically, both Slovakia and Slovenia have taken extraordinary steps.

Some Slovak politicians, especially ethnic Hungarians, have accused Budapest of allowing migrants to travel freely. Critics accuse Orbán of playing a double game by allowing migrants to enter the country while blaming the EU for failing to control migration.

In this context, Germany is under pressure after receiving more than 250,000 refugee petitions in the first eight months of this year, more than in the entire year of 2022. It demonstrates that migrants do not remain in Hungary but continue their journey to wealthier European nations.

Once a persistent supporter of the conservative “Hungarian model” of combating illegal migration, Viktor Orbán’s country has emerged as one of the EU’s weakest links.

Despite erecting a fence on its southern borders in 2015 and granting refugee status to only 10 people last year, Budapest decided to release almost 1,500 incarcerated foreign-born people smugglers earlier this year in a bid to save money. 

Many migrants heading onwards from Serbia, which is not a member of the EU or the Schengen zone, visit Hungary and then cross into neighboring Slovakia and Slovenia on their way to Germany and other Western European countries.

Similarity and disagreements between Orban and Fico

For a reason, Fico is regularly compared to Orbán. Both populist politicians were surfing a wave of discontent, picking the benefits of Euroscepticism and spreading pro-Russian rhetoric. Both have a strained relationship with the media, have presided over the deterioration of civic society, and are staunch opponents of social liberalism. 

In addition to their anti-migrant and anti-Muslim positions, both Orbán and Fico have maintained ties with Russian dictator Putin and oppose sending military aid to Ukraine.

Robert Fico became Slovakia’s prime minister on October 25 when his Smer-SSD party formed a governing coalition with Hlas-SD and the far-right Slovak National Party. In the parliamentary elections, Robert Fico and his leftist-populist Smer-SSD party gained 23% of the vote on a platform that included the vow that if his party “enters government, we will not send a single round of ammunition to Ukraine.”

Slovakia has been a persistent backer of its neighbor, Ukraine, since the Russian invasion began in February 2022. It has diplomatically supported Kyiv in the UN, EU, and NATO. Slovakia’s previous liberal government was among the first to send military assistance to Ukraine.

Slovakia has also deployed ammunition, surface-to-air missiles, and helicopters to Ukraine. They were the first country, along with Poland, to transfer fighter jets, their entire fleet of MiG-29s, and the first to send an air defense system, the only S-300 they had.

So, on the issue of Ukraine aid, Fico aligned with Orban. Hungary is the only EU country bordering Ukraine that has not only refused Kyiv military assistance but has also refused permission to supply Ukrainians with weapons across its territory. Hungary had previously been referred to as Putin’s “Trojan horse” in Europe due to its overtly pro-Russian policies, and there are even more grounds for this now that the conflict has begun. Orbán has received harsh criticism not only from Kyiv and Brussels but also from his influential EU partners.

Where Fico’s populist and pro-Russian rhetoric ends

However, Fico has other reasons to avoid conflict with Brussels. Despite the country’s dire financial situation, he was appointed Prime Minister of Slovakia. As a result, his government urgently requires EU recovery funding if he is to provide people with the stability and prosperity he has promised. But political experts say that Fico is a pragmatist. He knows that with EU funds, Slovakia will be stable.

At the EU summit, Fico demonstrated this balancing strategy by refusing to follow Orban’s lead in opposing the EU’s planned €50 billion aid package for Ukraine. It was an attempt by Budapest to unfreeze some of its funds. Fico stated that financial assistance for Ukraine is conditional on promises that European funds will not be misappropriated and that Slovak enterprises will participate in Ukraine’s reconstruction.

Meanwhile, Slovakia’s private weapons industry, which has received significant orders from Western countries, especially Germany, to manufacture and supply weapons to Ukraine, appears prepared to continue moving armaments across the border.

In this regard, Fico is unlikely to follow Orban and support his hopes of establishing a rival power bloc within the EU.

Historical rivalry aspect and Hungarian revanchism views

These high-level situational consents conceal profound historical enmity and open antagonism between Slovakia and Hungary, making long-term cooperation impossible. The Slovak nationalism Smer and its SNS ally are now promoting came from opposition to Hungarian power, which Slovakia had been subject to for 800 years. Slovaks, a Slavic tribe in northern Hungary’s mountains centuries ago, rejected the Hungarian nationalist ambition of assimilation known as Magyarization. 

For centuries after that, the region was marked by political unrest. Following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the post-World War I endeavour to incorporate Slovakia into Czechoslovakia resulted in a Hungarian invasion of what is now eastern Slovakia in 1919. The move was intended to secure sovereignty over the land and protect ethnic Hungarians, but a coalition of Hungary’s neighbors thwarted it. 

A year later, the Treaty of Trianon confirmed Hungary’s defeat. The victorious allies of World War I forced an agreement on Central Europe that deprived Hungary of nearly three-quarters of its prewar territory, including Slovakia, and separated one-third of Hungarians from their country.

The “tragedy of Trianon”, in Orbán’s words, was a “death sentence” for Hungary. The trauma would define the next century of Hungary’s policy toward its neighbours, including its decision in 1938 to collaborate with Nazi Germany and to occupy southern Slovakia. 

The threat posed by the manoeuvre pushed Slovak nationalists to separate from Czechoslovakia in exchange for German protection the following year. However, this did not prevent a brief war that resulted in further Hungarian domination. After WWII, the Trianon borders were re-established, and Czechoslovakia expelled many ethnic Hungarians, although they still constitute 10% of Slovakia’s population today.

These events still impact the minds of many Hungarians. In 2020, two-thirds agreed that parts of neighboring countries belong to Hungary. No other European population is as revanchist.

Tensions between Hungary and Slovakia

Orbán has also used Slovakia’s Hungarian name and worn a scarf depicting historical “greater” Hungary, prompting outrage from Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania, as this map included parts of their territories. While Orban’s revanchist rhetoric is directed toward Hungarian nationalists, it ignited a confrontation with Slovak nationalists. 

Orbán also sparked controversy in neighboring states by wishing high school students good luck with a history exam in a Facebook post featuring a map of historical Hungary.

Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party granted citizenship and voting rights to Hungarian speakers in neighboring nations a decade ago, and they have since become among the party’s most faithful supporters.

The effect of Slovakia’s independence conflicts has developed a political culture of defensiveness and xenophobia in the country. Since Smer and SNS took power in 2006, they have attempted to curb Hungarian influence and have frequently engaged in interethnic culture conflicts.

At the time, Ján Slota, then SNS leader, made graphic anti-Hungarian rhetoric a cornerstone of his political appeal. He threatened to “level Budapest” and called Hungarians “bowlegged mongoloids” who were “a tumor on the Slovak nation”. For his part, Fico called Orbán’s Fidesz party a grave threat to Slovakia and panned Orbán as an “extremist nationalist”. 

When Orbán pushed through in 2012, without consulting the Slovak government, a measure offering Hungarian citizenship to Hungarians in Slovakia, Fico’s government retaliated by prohibiting dual citizenship. Notably, both leaders were courting nationalists at the time, Fico in preparation for an election and Orbán to fulfil a campaign promise.

Despite their many disagreements in the past, Fico and Orbán have become closer in recent years. But Poland’s conservative government’s recent electoral defeat showed the trend now that right-wing Eurosceptic populists are losing support. 

So, Orban becomes isolated in a united Europe. He’s not a leader that Fico would like to be friends with. At the same time, nationalist forces in Orban’s and Fico’s administrations, which remain sceptical of one another, will likely deepen the mutual disagreements between the two leaders.

Fico’s choice between joining a rogue leader and EU funds

So now Robert Fico has a choice: join Viktor Orban in forming an anti-EU, Eurosceptic, and pro-Kremlin bloc of two small nations, or follow the large lines outlined by Brussels and profit from EU funds for his country’s economy.

In this environment, Orban becomes a leader with whom no one in Europe wants to be friends. Some of his peers at the summit blasted Orban for meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in China last month, while Moscow is fighting Ukraine and the European Union is banning the Kremlin.

Orban told Putin that Hungary “never wanted to confront Russia” and “has always been eager to expand relations.” His approach to Russia was too toxic. Almost everyone was trying to avoid him.

In addition to causing consternation among European Union and NATO members, Mr Orban has enraged them by delaying Hungary’s approval of Sweden’s membership in the military alliance.

Moreover, on the European stage, Fidesz is isolated and mostly alone; it withdrew from the broad bloc of centre-right parties in the European Parliament in 2021 to avoid the humiliation of being ejected. It has yet to find another parliamentary group ready to take it.

In this case, allying with Orban’s Hungary brings no benefits for Fico’s Slovakia; the opposite, it might be harmful as Orban became too toxic in Europe for his continuous anti-Western and pro-Russian stance in the times of Russia’s war against Ukraine backed by the West. Such a relationship might also harm Fico’s party’s internal support, as nationalists will not accept it. 

Which path Fico will choose, a balancing, forming a pro-Russian group inside the bloc with the toxic Orban, or joining the EU unity, will be seen shortly. The next European Parliament elections (set for June 2024) campaign will highlight his stance.

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