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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — After two European nationalist strongmen won landslide victories in Sunday’s elections, one of the first foreign leaders to congratulate them both was not from a neighboring country or a regional ally. It was Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Parliamentary elections in Hungary and Serbia both scored landslide victories for the two countries’ longtime pro-Putin leaders – Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
Their victories on Sunday highlighted an underlying discord in the attitudes of European nations toward the autocracies of Russia and China. As these powers seek to wield greater influence on the continent and beyond, Orban and Vucic have sought to emulate the autocratic touch through their own style of governance in the heart of Europe.
Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party won more than 53% of the vote, shocking both pollsters and a Western-looking coalition of more liberal opposition parties that had called on voters to end 12 years of rule autocratic rule of Orban and to strengthen ties with Moscow. and Beijing.
In Serbia, Vucic scored an outright victory with the nearest opposition candidate trailing by around 40%. It was the first time a presidential candidate had won a second term without a second-round vote.
“I achieved something that no one else has done before me,” Vucic said in a victory speech. “It wasn’t even close.”
The results – which cemented the power of two leaders accused of undermining democratic standards – underscored an accelerating drift in liberal values and vision for the European Union among Hungarian and Serbian voters.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has played an outsized role in campaigns in both countries, and analysts say the conflict has helped rally support for the incumbents.
The largely pro-Russian Serbian electorate shuns groups identified with pro-Western policies, while Orban’s reputation as Putin’s closest ally in the EU has led his supporters to view Russia as a crucial partner.
Formally on the path to EU membership, Serbia has seen a rise in pro-Russian sentiment under Vucic and growing skepticism and distrust of the EU, even as major financial inflows from the countries come from the bloc.
Vucic’s government supported the UN resolution condemning the attack on Ukraine, but it refused to join the sanctions against Moscow.
“Vucic has created this atmosphere of enormous adoration for Russia and hypocrisy towards the EU,” said Biljana Stojkovic, presidential candidate for a leftist Green coalition. “I don’t think he understood the importance of (the war in Ukraine) and geopolitical changes.”
Orban, while reluctantly voting for most EU sanctions against Russia, has refused to supply arms to Ukraine or allow their transfer across the Hungarian-Ukrainian border. He also fought hard against sanctions on Russian energy imports on which Hungary is deeply dependent, earning the scorn of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
In a victory speech on Sunday, Orban singled out Zelenskyy as part of the “overwhelming force” he said his party had fought in the election – “the left at home, the international left all around, the Brussels bureaucrats , the Soros empire with all its money, the major international media and, in the end, even the Ukrainian president.
Andras Biro-Nagy, a researcher and director of the Policy Solutions think tank in Budapest, said Orban and his “media empire” had succeeded in dominating the war of narratives unfolding in Hungary over the war in Ukraine.
“There was a conflict of narratives between the East versus West narrative that was used by the opposition campaign, and the security and peace versus war narrative created by Orban,” Biro-Nagy said. “It seems that Orban’s narrative that appeals to the Hungarian society’s thirst for security, stability and peace won out this time.
Vucic, too, presented himself as the guarantor of Serbia’s security and used the media channels under his control to spread this message. Many Serbs now see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the result of Western pressure rather than growing Moscow ambitions.
Likewise, Orban campaigned to remain neutral in the conflict while maintaining close economic ties with Russia, never mentioning Putin by name.
A survey by Hungarian pollster Publicus in March showed that only 44% of Fidesz supporters saw Russia as the aggressor in the war in Ukraine.
In the final days of the campaign, Orban traveled to Serbia in support of his ally Vucic, and the two politicians traveled on a fast rail linking their capitals, Belgrade and Budapest.
The joint project is part of China’s “Belt and Road” global trade initiative and is being built by Chinese and Russian state-owned enterprises using large Chinese and Russian bank loans.
At a joint rally, they described relations between their nations as the best in history and pledged to continue working to improve them.
Orban and his officials have repeatedly called for Serbia’s immediate admission to the EU, with Orban stating that “the EU needs Serbia more than Serbia needs the EU”.
Jovana Gec reported from Belgrade, Serbia.
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