Russia in Hungarian public opinion

2019-02-12

This article was first published as Krekó, P. 2019. Russia in Hungarian public opinion in: Tóth, I. Gy. ed, 2019. Hungarian Social Report 2019 Budapest:Tarki, pp 358-371.

The complete article can be downloaded as a pdf document (436 KB) from here.

Conclusions

First of all, Hungary is still characterized by a powerful pro-West attitude, particularly compared to the rest of the region’s countries. This is apparent in its favourable assessment of Western countries and institutions, and in its man-ifestly expressed pro-Western orientation. The more general the phrasing of the East–West question, the clearer is Hungarian society’s essential westward orientation.

Secondly, however, almost half of Hungarian society adopts an ‘in-be-tween’ position on the West–East question. This shows convincingly that there remains a strong element of a tradition in Hungarian public opinion that emphasizes the country’s sovereign politics, its ‘bridging’ role and the idea of occasional alliances that serve the national interest. The popularity of the ‘in-between’ position – which is also sceptical of the West – suggests that Hungarian society could be turned eastward, if there is sufficient political will.

Thirdly, there is such a will. The general assessment of Russia has under-gone a significant positive change since the regime change, and particularly in re-cent years. What we essentially see is that when government policy makes clear the importance of improving the relationship with Russia (during the two Gyurcsány administrations, and the second and third Orbán cabinets), Rus-sia’s approval rating improves substantially. This suggests that political dis-course on the subject fundamentally shapes and moulds public opinion.

Fourthly, people’s opinion of Russia is determined by a fine balance of at-traction and repulsion. The attraction of Russia is partly the country’s eco-nomic potential, as well as its leader’s abilities and strength – it is no wonder that Russia’s ‘soft power’ aspirations accentuate precisely those key features: ‘strong man leading a strong country’. The rather pragmatic turn toward Rus-sia is bolstered by a low sense of threat to our country and by the Hungarian people’s ambivalent feelings toward Ukraine (which came to the fore follow-ing the Russian annexation of Crimea). At the same time, there is also a factor that has possibly indirectly contributed to the improvement in Russia’s image: to wit, the decline in the US approval rating.
It is interesting that negative historical experience does not appear to have a strong influence on the Hungarian assessment of Russia: one might assume that Hungary’s geographical position and history (post-1945, 1956) would en-courage suspicion of Russia and fear for our sovereignty; however, we do not see anything of the sort in the data. For those, however, who are more alarmed by Russia, the Crimean conflict and the Russian threat to the West played an important role in raising awareness.

Fifthly, socio-demographic variables seem to be of relatively little im-portance in determining sentiment toward Russia: although education, age and dwelling place do play a part, public opinion on the issue continues to be pri-marily shaped by the political discourse and party preference. That is clearly reflected by the spectacular improvement in Russia’s image among supporters of Hungary’s governing party in recent years. Meanwhile the left, traditionally more indulgent toward Russia, has become considerably more critical of it. It is likewise interesting that even among supporters of Jobbik (the party that used to be loudest in advocating better relations with Russia), pro-Russian voices are now rarer than among the Fidesz voter base (where they form a majority). Hungary’s situation is unique: whereas in Western Europe Russia’s most fervent supporters are to be found on the radical right (Shekhovtsov, 2017; Krekó et al., 2015), in Hungary it is within the Fidesz electorate. This is of course not unrelated to public discourse on Russia and the Russia–Ukraine conflict in the media and political discourse (Pynnöniemi and Rácz, 2016).

At the same time, analysis of international statistics sheds light on another interesting phenomenon. Public opinion is rarely the cause of foreign policy; rather it tends to be the consequence. While Hungarian public opinion – espe-cially around 2010 – preferred to keep Russia at a distance, the Hungarian government started to pursue a strong pro-Russian course; instead of back-firing on its popularity, this served to reshape public opinion. Furthermore, in those countries where an East-oriented, pan-Slavist policy enjoys more seri-ous support (such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic – and, from a certain per-spective, also Romania and Bulgaria), the governments take urgent action at both the rhetorical and the policy level against such phenomena as Russian disinformation without facing a backlash from voters. Leaving aside rare ex-ceptions (e.g. Poland), there are indications that public opinion is a weak pre-dictor of foreign policy measures toward Russia.
TÁRKI’s previous research suggests that in terms of its values, Hungary is much closer to the East) and especially to Orthodox countries) than to the West (Tóth, 2009). Our results show a country drifting eastward in its geopolitical preferences as well. When asked, the Hungarian population would still like to belong to the West, but it thinks highly of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian pol-icies, and sees Russia increasingly as a friend rather than a threat. Also, it has an increasingly favourable opinion of the social-political system of Russia (and of China), and a declining opinion on the United States. And this shift is mostly a consequence of the government’s politics and policies, and not the other way around.

 

The complete article can be downloaded as a pdf document (436 KB) from here.

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