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Putin’s European Allies – The New York Times

President Biden has described the world as being engaged in a “battle between democracy and autocracy”, and Ukraine has emerged as the central front.

There, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s autocratic leader, has launched a military invasion designed to destroy a democracy, and his army appears to be committing horrific atrocities in the process. A crucial part of Russia’s war effort is the economic aid it receives from another authoritarian government, China. On the other side of the fight, many democracies – including the United States and much of Europe – have rallied in support of Ukraine, supplying it with weapons and imposing harsh economic sanctions on Russia.

But Ukraine is not the only place where the struggle between autocracy and democracy is taking place. It also happens in several European democracies, through elections rather than military conflicts. In these countries, politicians who are friends of Putin – and share his right-wing nationalist vision – are trying to win power.

Two of them seem to have succeeded yesterday. In Hungary and Serbia, incumbent leaders who support Putin have been re-elected. A bigger test will come this month in France, which will hold its own presidential election – and where a victory for the far-right candidate would be a geopolitical earthquake.

Today’s bulletin looks at all three countries.

Viktor Orban, Hungarian Prime Minister favorable to Putin, seems to have been re-elected there. “We have won a victory so big you can maybe see it from the moon, and certainly from Brussels,” Mr Orban told his supporters last night, as he searched the European Union.

Hungary is the purest example of a democracy sliding towards autocracy. After taking power in 2010 with a legitimate election victory, Orban decided to change the rules to stay in power. He stacked the courts with allies and used lawsuits to quash critical media coverage. He radically changed the election rules, as reported by my colleagues Matt Apuzzo and Benjamin Novak.

In each of the last two national elections, Orban’s party, Fidesz, won less than half the vote, but still won a two-thirds supermajority in parliament. After yesterday’s elections, Fidesz seems to be on track to win 135 of the 199 seats in parliament.

Orban has overseen a government that combines cultural nationalism, economic populism and high-level corruption. His policies have boosted the incomes of many Hungarians, including in the more rural areas that make up his base, while stoking fears among immigrants and, more recently, LGBTQ people.

All of this aligns him with Putin. In recent weeks, Orban has tried to portray himself as a neutral peacemaker in Ukraine, knowing that many Hungarians have long feared Russia. But he mostly sided with Putin.

Hungary has not joined Western European efforts to supply arms to Ukraine, and it has opposed efforts within the EU to ban the import of Russian energy. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky yesterday described Orban as “virtually the only one in Europe who openly supports Mr Putin”.

Hungary has become the closest thing to a fifth column within NATO and the European Union. It’s officially a Western democracy – but effectively an ally of Putin.

Read more about the election results in Times coverage.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic used both Putin and Orban as role models. After becoming president in 2017, Vucic helped transform the once independent Serbian media into something more like a propaganda machine. In recent months, he has aired rants from pro-Russian commentators and reinforced Putin’s lies that Ukraine is a Nazi hotbed, wrote The Times’ Andrew Higgins.

Serbia is neither a member of NATO nor the EU, and many of its citizens share Russia’s distrust of the West.

But the country is not strictly pro-Russian. Although Vucic did not impose sanctions on Russia or suspend flights to Moscow, his government voted in favor of a UN resolution condemning the invasion.

In yesterday’s election turnout was high but opposition politicians said they were concerned about foul play. Vucic’s party is on track to retain its hold on parliament, albeit with a reduced majority, according to exit polls.

French voters will go to the polls for the first round of the presidential election on Sunday. If no candidate wins a majority – and none are likely to – a run-off will take place two weeks later, on April 24.

The favorite is the holder, Emmanuel Macron. But his lead in the polls is not huge, and the war in Ukraine seems to be hurting him. Inflation was already quite high in Europe, as in much of the world, because of the pandemic. The war pushed up prices further, mainly because of sanctions against Russian oil.

While Macron has focused on finding a diplomatic solution in Ukraine – and so far fails – his main opponent has instead focused on the French economy, my colleague Roger Cohen explains in an overview of the election. This opponent is Marine Le Pen, a far-right candidate.

As Roger writes, “His patient focus on cost-of-living issues has resonated with the millions of French people struggling to make ends meet after a more than 53% rise in petrol prices. over the past year”.

Le Pen has a long history of friendship with Putin. Her party took out loans from a Russian bank, and she met with him in 2017 to try to boost his political image, Elisabeth Zerofsky writes in a Times Magazine article on France’s far-right. Until the invasion, Le Pen largely supported Putin’s policies. Even now, she largely opposes hardline policies toward Putin.

Le Pen trails in the polls by about six percentage points — a margin small enough that an upset is conceivable. If she wins, the pro-autocracy caucus in European democracies would become much larger than it already is.

“A victory on his part,” writes Roger, “would threaten European unity, alarm French allies from Washington to Warsaw, and confront the European Union with its greatest crisis since Brexit.”


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Lives Lived: Estelle Harris, who played George Costanza’s mother in “Seinfeld,” thought the character screamed too much. But she conceded: “The more I shout, the more they laugh.” Harris died at age 93.

On Saturday, a reverent crowd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music watched Adam Tendler play a piano like a guitar — an effect that could lull you into a trance or snap you out of a trance, depending on how smoothly he plucked the strings. The Brooklyn String Orchestra accompanies him, performing an experimental composition by Devonté Hynes.

Despite the opulent setting, the concert was not stuffy. Stylish participants were just as likely to wear running shoes as evening wear. Many wore both.

The performance was part of a series of concerts at BAM organized by writer Hanif Abdurraqib. The acts are eclectic, incorporating poetry, classical music, gospel and more contemporary sounds. So far, each show had its own flavor, Abdurraqib told me. When Mdou Moctar performed, the crowd was “swirling in the aisles and dancing”, he said, while at Moses Sumney’s show, “people were just a little frozen in admiration for two and a half hours”. .

There’s even a mish-mash of genres at the gigs, like one that featured poet Nikki Giovanni and British rapper Little Simz. “I wanted to mix the contemporary with the legendary,” Abdurraqib said. “I wanted to start with my wildest dreams and work from there, and I didn’t have to work very far.”

Shows run through May. — Sanam Yar, a morning writer


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