Opinion |

As Ukraine Bleeds, Putin's Puppets in Europe Are Getting Stronger

Recent victories for Hungary's Orban and Serbia's Vucic are gifts for Putin. Amidst Russian atrocities in Ukraine, where is Western pressure on Europe’s most Kremlin-friendly leaders, in Budapest, Belgrade and Banja Luka?

Harun Karcic
Harun Karcic
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A man passes by a mural depicting the Russian President Vladimir Putin, that reads: ''Brother'' in Belgrade, Serbia
As Ukraine bleeds, Putin’s puppets in the Balkans and Budapest are rising: A mural depicting the Russian President Vladimir Putin that reads: ''Brother'' in Belgrade, SerbiaCredit: AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic
Harun Karcic
Harun Karcic

Europe’s most Kremlin-friendly leaders have just won an extension of their rule. In recent elections in Hungary and Serbia, Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučic secured another term in office – and amidst the destruction and atrocities his war on Ukraine are perpetrating, their reelections, both marred by irregularities, a largely captive media and a deteriorating democratic environment, must have put a broad smile on the face of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

"We have won a great victory – a victory so great you can perhaps see it from the moon and certainly from Brussels," said Orban. Helped by sophisticated gerrymandering and a divided opposition, the 58-year old Hungarian leader won a fourth term by a landslide victory in the country's general election.

In his victory speech, he promptly singled out Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a key part of the "overwhelming force" he’d defeated, along with the left, the EU, the international media and "the Soros empire with all its money."

Over the past 12 years, Hungary has drifted a long way from rule of law and human rights that the EU so much insists on. Orban has managed to rewrite the constitution and revamp the electoral system to his advantage, but he has also preemptively insulated himself from possible prosecution by filling top judicial posts with loyalists. Hungary has gone largely unpunished not least because meaningful action would require the impossible feat of all EU member states to act in unison.

Playing by the same handbook, another European fiefdom – Serbia – saw its incumbent strongman Aleksandar Vučic secure his grip on power for the next five years. President Vučic expressed his pleasure that "a huge number of people voted and showed the democratic nature of Serbian society" and immediately confirmed Serbia would maintain friendly relations with Russia.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic review the honor guard on Orban's arrival at the Constantine the Great Airport, SerbiaCredit: Darko Vojinovic /AP

His victory was no surprise. Critics have long accused him of preventing free and fair elections, curbing civil liberties, doing his utmost to convert public broadcasters into his party’s propaganda bullhorns.

Both countries have been termed "electoral autocracies." And Hungary and Serbia have a lot more in common than meets the eye.

Vucic and Orban are allies and their countries share vital economic and political interests. Trade ties and investments are well developed. But corruption and nepotism is rife too, and so is democratic backsliding.

In both countries, their leaders are shielded by a cabal of oligarchs who have enriched themselves obscenely over the years by knitting together an intricate, impermeable network that includes politicians, businessmen and even members of the criminal underground. A recent Balkan Investigative Reporting Network investigation revealed that a group of companies involving close associates of Orban and Vucic have come to dominate the obscure but lucrative business of Serbian street lighting.

Hungary’s strategic political interest in Serbia has a lot to do with the sizeable ethnic Hungarian minority in northern Serbia, which has become a catalyst for improved relations between the two countries. Orban is also a vocal supporter of Serbia joining the European Union, both to cement his country’s influence in Serbia, but also to improve Hungary’s tarnished image in Brussels. He has repeatedly stated that Serbia is the key to the region’s stability, and until it is integrated into the European Union, the Western Balkans will not be integrated.

Yet there are key differences. Orban governs a country that has for many years viewed Russia with great distrust. It is worth recalling that it was Moscow that sent tanks back in 1956 to brutally crush an anti-communist uprising in Budapest. In the late 1980s, Orban himself was a student dissident who made a spotlight for himself by demanding the withdrawal of Soviet troops in a fiery 1989 speech. He is once again a dissident, this time refusing instructions from Brussels to sanction Russia.

Demonstrators take part in a protest in solidarity with Ukraine and against the stance of Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in Budapest this monthCredit: FERENC ISZA - AFP

On the other hand, Vučic – an information minister under rump Yugoslavia’s infamous President Slobodan Miloševic – now runs a country that has reinvigorated its Slavic and Orthodox Christian identity and increasingly sees Moscow as its trusted ally and innate protector. A refined version of Miloševic, Vučic tells the West what they want to hear, while cementing his political ground at home and remaining a faithful Serbian nationalist.

Since the invasion of Ukraine began, Vučic has been markedly treading a fine line, playing a delicate balancing act between Russia, China, the EU and the U.S.

Serbia did vote at the UN General Assembly for a non-binding resolution which called Russia to end its war in Ukraine. But despite voicing his support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, he has fallen short of closing Serbia’s airspace to Russian airlines or slapping sanctions on Moscow.

In fact, after every other European state closed their airspace to Russian airlines, Air Serbia actually increased its flights from Belgrade to Moscow up to three a day. Russians are now using Serbia as a loophole, or escape hatch, to avoid the EU-wide flights ban.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a joint news conference following talks in the Kremlin in Moscow, three weeks before Russia's invasion of UkraineCredit: Yuri Kochetkov /AP

More sinister was Orban’s messaging following the invasion of Ukraine. While publicly claiming neutrality, media outlets close to him have been parroting Putin’s justification for the invasion. He has refused to allow NATO weapons to be transported through his territory to Ukraine. Orban’s bullish refusal to side with the West has even annoyed Poland, another major rule of law violator in the EU.

The reelection of Orban and Vucic has nonetheless gratified Putin immensely. The war in Ukraine played an outsized role in the pre-election campaigns in both countries and helped in mobilizing support for the incumbents. Both are close allies of Moscow and both countries are almost entirely dependent on Russian gas.

Serbia’s army additionally maintains very close relations with Russia’s military and the Russian defense ministry even has a liaison office inside Serbia’s defense ministry. Vucic has boasted of his close personal ties with Putin, and consistently attempts to portray himself as a guarantor of peace and stability in the Balkans. Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin obediently passed on to the Kremlin transcripts from wiretapped meetings in Belgrade of Russian opposition leaders, leading to the arrest of Andrei Pivovarov, former director of the Open Russia organization.

Partizan soccer fans wave a Serbian flag and the letter Z in support of Russia's invasion of Ukraine during a Serbian National soccer league match in Belgrade, SerbiaCredit: AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic

The years of Vucic’s Putin worship have filtered down to the Serbian grassroots, ably aided by Moscow-funded localized media platforms such as the Sputnik Srbija news portal and radio station which depicts an image of world affairs that is ardently anti-Western.

According to a 2021 survey, 83 percent of Serbian respondents see Moscow as a "friend." Putin has been awarded honorary citizenship by at least a dozen Serbian cities. Thousands of Serbs waving Russian flags and carrying pictures of Putin marched through Belgrade at the beginning of Russia’s invasion in a show of public support, with pro-government tabloids boasting upside-down, propaganda headlines such as "Ukraine attacked Russia!"

Pro-government tabloids in Serbia boast upside-down, propaganda headlines such as this in the Informer newspaper: 'Ukraine attacked Russia!' Credit: Twitter

Meanwhile in Hungary, the Kremlin has focused exclusively on the Hungarian political elites and its business oligarchy, for whom government-backed business deals with Moscow serve as a lucrative source of income. While these elites see Russia’s illiberal model worth emulating, they do not necessarily agree that Moscow should serve as their geopolitical reorientation point.

Regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a survey conducted in March 2022 revealed 72 percent of Hungarians saying their country should keep an equal distance from both Ukraine and Russia, while only 26 percent believe their country should have provided Ukraine with more support.

Orban and Vucic’s re-elections will also have ripple effects of the security of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Both leaders have thrown their full support behind Milorad Dodik, the ultranationalist Bosnian Serb leader who has for years been actively working to dismantle Bosnia and declare his own Luhansk or Donetsk-like statelet.

Dodik and Orban have been cozying up to each other for years now, exchanging a number of high profile visits. Back in 2021, Orbán invited Dodik to attend the fourth Demographic Summit in Budapest, an annual get-together of far right leaders and activists. It was at that summit that Dodik infamously said, "We are Christians…and from experience I can say that Muslims do not abandon their values" (not intended as a compliment) – and called upon Europe to defend itself. Orban reciprocated a few months later when he queried how Europe would ever be safe coexisting with a state (Bosnia) in which two million Muslims live.

Politically and economically, it’s a useful friendship to Dodik. When the EU pondered imposing sanctions on Dodik because of his secessionist policies, Orban promised he would veto any such sanctions. Instead, he offered Dodik €100 million in assistance.

On the other hand, Vučic and Dodik meet very frequently and hold joint government sessions, with Belgrade strongly backing Dodik and, through him, interfering in Bosnia’s state affairs. Another key player is Aleksandar Vulin, the former defense minister of Serbia and incumbent interior minister who has been the ideological mastermind behind the ‘Serbian world’ concept, a copy-paste of the ‘Russian world’ concept.

Serbian ultranationalists protest Russia's suspension from the UN Human Rights Council, waving the flags of Russia, Serbia and the neo-fascist Russian Imperial MovementCredit: ANDREJ ISAKOVIC - AFP

Serbia today views the Republika Srpska entity in Bosnia as its most valuable war-booty and has no intensions whatsoever of relinquishing its vested interests in the neighboring country. Russia has explicitly warned Bosnia that any decision to join NATO would result in "Ukraine-style" retribution from Moscow.

For Hungary and Serbia, any quick change of course regarding sanctions on Russia seems highly unlikely. Both Orban and Vucic have long tried to juggle several geopolitical balls, and while maintaining close relations with Russia and China, they have both enjoyed the warmth of former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany. Such a policy will most likely continue with Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Both Orban and Vucic are likely to cement their relations with like-minded leaders in the UAE, Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Western leaders have long struck Faustian bargains with Balkan and East European autocrats, propping up what’s termed a "stabilocracy": semi-authoritarian regimes legitimized by the U.S. and EU because they offer a (false) promise of stability. The Ukraine war has exposed how flawed, illusory and unsustainable this reasoning always was.

With transatlantic solidarity at an all-time high and popular opinion firmly critical of Russia, the time is ripe for the West to pressure Putin’s puppets in the Balkans and in Budapest to sever their relations with the Kremlin. What has become a residual U.S. diplomatic engagement with the Balkans must be amplified and augmented with a potent military force.

This is nowhere more pressing than in Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose Lebanese-styled ethnic based system is most prone to Russia’s malign influence and destabilization, a vulnerability about which Putin and his local allies are all too aware and willing, and capable, of exploiting.

Harun Karcic is a journalist and political analyst based in Sarajevo covering foreign influences in the Balkans, with a particular focus on Middle Eastern influence in the region. Twitter: @HarunKarcic

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