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Orbán’s alliance with Vučić demonstrates strategic Hungarian interests in the Western Balkans

Over the past decade, relations between Hungary and Serbia have become so close that they consider themselves “sincere partners and friends” as Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić described at the first meeting of the Strategic Council for Cooperation between the two countries, held on 20 June in Palić. This was yet another high-level meeting (two leaders met and talked 41 times in the last two years) and another confirmation of what  officials on both sides refer to  as “historical reconciliation” between the two countries.

Considering the difficult past and historical disputes between Serbia and Hungary, this rapprochement has raised many questions, including what is the Hungarian foreign policy strategy towards Serbia and whether it is part of the wider Hungarian approach to the Western Balkans.

Hungary has become one of the major players in the Western Balkans since Viktor Orbán came back to power in 2010. Although there is no written strategy that specifically defines Hungary’s foreign policy towards the Western Balkans, Hungarian presence in the region and close ties established between the leaders of the countries show the important role that the Western Balkans play in Budapest’s wider foreign policy approach.

Orbán’s aim to transform Hungary from a middle-income country to a regional power and to position himself as the key player in Central Europe is at the core of his policy towards the region. As a pragmatic leader, driven by interests to strengthen Hungary’s position at the international level and consolidate his power at the domestic level, Orbán sees the Western Balkans as a perfect ally that can contribute to achieving his goals.

Having that in mind, it does not come as a surprise that Hungary is such a strong supporter of a fast-track EU accession of the Western Balkan countries, especially considering that the current European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement is Olivér Várhelyi, a Hungarian diplomat loyal to Orbán’s regime. While he is seen as a true ally of the Western Balkan countries’ leaders, he is faced with criticism from Brussels for neglecting the rule of law reforms in the candidate countries.

Hungary’s push for EU enlargement is based on political, economic and security interests

There are several reasons behind Hungary’s interest in pushing for EU enlargement. First, as the Hungarian government is often criticised by Brussels for democratic backsliding and illiberal practices, having like-minded regimes in the EU, such as most of the Western Balkan countries, would be of great use for strengthening the power of this potential illiberal bloc, thus reducing the pressure from Brussels.

This is especially important in the current geopolitical circumstances and the ongoing war in Ukraine, which led to a notable distancing between Orbán’s regime and the last of his partners amongst the Visegrad countries, particularly Poland. Not having Poland to watch Hungary’s back when it comes to EU pressures anymore puts Budapest in a position of needing new allies within the EU.

Besides these political interests, Hungary’s concrete security concerns also influence the support for EU enlargement. It is of crucial importance for Budapest to maintain stability in the region, primarily because of the persistent fear of possible spillover of instabilities from the Western Balkans going back to the 1990s.

To prevent that from happening, Hungary sees the solution in the Euro-Atlantic integration of the region, which is also why Hungary is part of peacekeeping missions both in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. During recent violent demonstrations in Kosovo, peacekeepers, including the Hungarian KFOR contingent, were attacked and injured, which led to 12 of them being moved from Kosovo.

In addition to being perceived as a potential security threat, the Western Balkans are at the same time a security provider for Hungary, specifically when it comes to migration. Ever since the 2014/15 migration crisis, the Orbán government has viewed illegal migration as a significant security concern and uses this issue as an instrument for gaining voters’ support and solidifying its power on anti-immigration campaigns. In that sense, Hungary’s top priority is cooperating with Serbia and North Macedonia as the main transit countries to control the migration influx to Hungary.

Economic cooperation between Hungary and the region should not be overlooked either. The level of trade and the number of Hungarian investments have significantly increased, making economic interests another reason for encouraging EU integration of the region and including it in the EU single market. Expansion of big Hungarian companies, such as OTP Bank or 4iG, as well as Hungarian media investments in the region, also serves to achieve political goals, further deepen the ties between the regimes and position Hungary as a regional power.

Partnership with Vučić’s Serbia based on lot more than ideology

Of all the Western Balkan countries, Serbia is the most important bilateral partner, primarily because it is a country with significant Hungarian minority. As part of Budapest’s more comprehensive approach to supporting Hungarian communities living outside Hungarian borders, both the Serbian and Hungarian regimes identified reconciliation between the communities living in Vojvodina as a principal goal. However, political proximity between the leaders of the two countries has not been completely translated to the level of society.

This also affects the decline of the Hungarian population living in Serbia which is primarily a result of introducing the law on dual citizenship, which enables Hungarians living abroad to obtain Hungarian passports and full voting rights. Many saw an opportunity in this to get an EU passport and move to the EU member states more easily, or simply travel, study or work there.

Although the precise data on the number of Hungarians who left Serbia is not available, the 2022 census results show that the number of Hungarians in Serbia dropped by nearly 28% compared to the 2011 census results (while the overall depopulation in Serbia from 2011 to 2022 is 6,7%).

Along with Serbia’s specific position as the only country in the Western Balkans with a Hungarian minority, the most recent announcements of joint projects and cooperation in the energy sector between Serbia and Hungary makes Serbia stand out as the biggest Hungarian partner in the region.

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the two leaders agreed to build a new oil pipeline that would connect Serbia to the Druzhba pipeline. The Serbian President also announced that Serbia would buy 5-10% stakes in the new nuclear power plant Paks 2 in Hungary. The cooperation in terms of gas has also been intensified, considering that Hungary receives Russian gas mainly through Serbia and the so-called Balkan Stream gas pipeline, while Serbia depends on Hungarian gas storages.

Viktor Orban and Aleksandar Vučić; Photo: Instagram/buducnostsrbijeav

These and many other projects are undertaken mostly because of close personal business ties between President Vučić and Prime Minister Orbán.

The latest example of a business affair that includes Serbian and Hungarian companies was discovered last month, when a leaked proposal from Hungary’s MVM Group was published. For a joint venture with Serbian state energy enterprise Elektroprivreda Srbije (EPS), it is planned in the proposal that MVM Group would invest 600 million euros and EPS would give up 11 hydropower plants. As with the rest of the aforementioned projects that lack economic rationale behind them, the same goes for this announcement – it does not seem reasonable to start privatisation process of a key state company and give up renewable energy resources in times of crises and energy uncertainty.

Historical ties, geography and the economy make Serbia and Hungary natural partners. Relations are likely to persist and possibly grow stronger even after the end of two autocratic regimes. However, the longer Orbán’s and Vučić’s reign last, the more it will take to reclaim the bilateral ties between the two countries and separate national interest from corrupt particularistic relations between their leaders.

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