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Erdoğan’s Trip to Hungary: Why Do the Two Countries Resemble Each Other?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will be in Hungary on Sunday for a day-long visit, during which he will meet with Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Turkey and Hungary share not only similar stances on foreign policy issues like Sweden’s NATO membership and the Ukraine conflict but also exhibit similarities in their domestic politics.

Turkey and Hungary established the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council in 2013, elevating their relationship to the level of a “strategic partnership.” After ten years, in 2023, their relations began to be described as an “Enhanced Strategic Partnership.”

The last official visits at the presidential level were made by Hungarian President Katalin Novak to Turkey in March 2023 and by Erdoğan to Hungary in November 2019.

Erdoğan’s visit to Hungary comes after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s visit to Ankara on March 16th for the Extraordinary Summit of Turkic States. After winning the recent election, Orban invited Erdoğan to Budapest for Hungary’s National Day celebrations.

Why Do the Two Countries Share Similar Russia Policies?

Especially in recent times, Turkey and Hungary have drawn attention for their parallel policies in foreign affairs, such as their proximity to Russia and their coordination on issues like the parliamentary approval process for Sweden’s NATO membership. So, what is the basis for this strategy and what interests are at stake?

Paul T. Levin from Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies suggests that the similarity in the policies of these two countries is not a mere coincidence. He points out that when it comes to NATO expansion, there is clear and direct coordination between the two countries. Both Turkey and Hungary are NATO members but have not yet approved Sweden’s accession protocol.

Levin mentions that Orban and Erdoğan, who are not proponents of liberal democracy, do not identify themselves with the liberal international order upheld by NATO and the EU. They share more common ground with Moscow’s autocrat in many respects than with the Prime Minister of Sweden or the President of the United States.

According to Levin, both leaders see themselves as leaders of strong and independent nations rather than natural members of the community of Western democracies. Therefore, maintaining close ties with Moscow to broaden their options makes sense to them. He also notes that Putin plays a role in ensuring that both countries remain within NATO without straying too far from Russia.

Levin comments, “To be candid, this occasionally results in them serving as Trojan horses within NATO and, in the case of Hungary, within the European Union (EU).”

Sweden’s NATO Membership Position

Both countries have been accused of slowing down the pace of NATO expansion, a matter that gained attention among Alliance members following the conflict in Ukraine.

Levin notes that coordination between Turkey and Hungary regarding Sweden’s accession protocol can sometimes lead to “comical results.” For example, he points to the decision by the ruling party in Hungary to boycott the session after Ankara delayed its approval, following Turkey’s principled consent at the Vilnius summit.

It remains uncertain when both countries will complete the approval process. The Turkish Grand National Assembly will convene on October 1st, but the process in the Turkish Parliament regarding the Sweden protocol depends entirely on the initiative of the ruling party.

Referring to Orban’s statement that Hungary would not be the last country to approve Sweden’s membership, Levin predicts that Orban will give his approval to Sweden when he is sure it will pass in the Turkish Parliament. However, the timing of this decision remains unclear, given other uncertainties, such as the approval of F-16 sales by the U.S. Congress and the actions of far-right and far-left individuals or groups in Turkey who want to instigate trouble to stop Sweden’s NATO membership.

Why Is Turkey Important to Hungary?

Viktor Orban, one of Erdoğan’s staunchest supporters, has expressed his gratitude to Turkey for stopping refugees at the European border. Hungary also values Turkey in terms of energy security due to its need for Russian natural gas.

Levin mentions that Erdoğan holds leverage over Hungary and the EU by hosting refugees at Turkey’s border with Europe. He sometimes threatens to send these people to Europe. Levin also highlights the importance of energy resources for Hungary, noting that Hungary received 4.8 billion cubic meters of natural gas via the TurkStream pipeline last year. The energy dimension could explain some of the similarities in the two countries’ relations with Russia and their policies regarding NATO expansion.

Orban stated after Turkey’s elections, “With Erdoğan’s reelection, a great burden has been lifted off our shoulders. I prayed a lot for him to win. To be honest, if Erdoğan had lost, it would have been a tragedy for us.”

Hungary currently obtains half of its natural gas consumption from Russian natural gas via the TurkStream pipeline. The country is currently looking to diversify its energy sources.

Similarities in Domestic Politics

Both countries share not only similarities in their recent foreign policies but also significant resemblances in their governance models and cults of leadership in domestic politics.

Viktor Orban has been in power as the Prime Minister of Hungary since 2010.

Political Scientist İlteriş Ergun, an expert on Hungary, emphasizes that Orban currently serves as a guide to almost all right-wing leaders worldwide, many of whom follow Orban’s playbook. Therefore, there are numerous similarities between Erdoğan and Orban, as well as between the domestic political conditions in the two countries.

Ergun notes that Orban’s influence is evident in Erdoğan’s later adoption of a nationalist turn in his policies. Orban constructed his security paradigm in domestic politics around “anti-refugee” sentiment, while Erdoğan built his around “terrorism.”

Ergun points out that both leaders pursue politics that deepen “cultural divisions” in society. Orban’s model, which he describes as “nationalist conservatism,” has significantly influenced not only Erdoğan but also politicians in the United States, Israel, Italy, France, and small European countries in the vicinity.

Orban’s domestic political stance, which has an impact on right-wing politicians worldwide, is characterized as “nationalist conservatism.”

Ergun states that both Erdoğan and Orban consider themselves “leaders challenging the liberal world order.” He also notes that the opposition situations in both countries are quite similar.

Ergun points out that Fidesz, Orban’s party, is the dominant party on the right-wing in Hungary, while the opposition fails to inspire confidence in the public due to its fragmented nature, extending from right to left.

Is Support for Turkey’s EU Membership Possible?

In recent months, while Ankara has been making efforts to align with the EU, it has also expressed its expectation that EU member Hungary will support these efforts.

However, Nilgün Arısan from the Turkish Economic Policy Research Foundation (TEPAV) states that Hungary, currently considered the EU’s “problem child” in the same way the UK used to be, may have limited influence within the EU due to its fundamentally different values compared to the Union and its member states.

Arısan believes that if Hungary supports Turkey within the EU, it would not be in Turkey’s favor but rather against it, potentially creating another reason for Turkey to be viewed negatively. She notes that Hungary is currently defined as something of a “Trojan horse” within the EU due to its different values and that its influence on the Union and its members is limited.

The European Parliament declared in early June that Hungary was not fit to take over the EU Presidency for a six-month term starting July 1, 2024, citing “democratic backsliding” caused by Orban and his government as the reason.

This article written by Gulsen Solaker was first published in DW.com.tr and translated into English by Politurco.

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