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NATO Allies Pressure Hungary Over Blocking Sweden's Accession

A view of the Hungarian parliament in Budapest, Feb. 5, 2024. Hungary's NATO allies are increasing pressure on Prime Minister Viktor Orban to approve Sweden's accession to the alliance.
A view of the Hungarian parliament in Budapest, Feb. 5, 2024. Hungary's NATO allies are increasing pressure on Prime Minister Viktor Orban to approve Sweden's accession to the alliance.

Hungary's NATO allies are turning up the pressure on Prime Minister Viktor Orban to swiftly approve Sweden's accession to the alliance after his MPs refused an opportunity to vote on the issue this week.

Sweden applied to join the alliance in May 2022 in the wake of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of that year. But Hungary has repeatedly delayed ratification.

Hungary is now the only country preventing Sweden from joining NATO after Turkey finally gave its approval last month. Ankara had initially raised concerns over Sweden's purported harboring of Kurdish separatist groups, which Turkey considers terrorists.

No-show vote

With Hungary's parliament currently on winter recess, opposition MPs convened an extraordinary session of lawmakers Monday in an attempt to force a vote.

Lawmakers from Orban's Fidesz Party refused to attend, though, despite Orban declaring last month that he supports Sweden's accession to NATO and would urge his party to approve the application at the first opportunity.

Tompos Marton of Hungary's Momentum Party was among the opposition lawmakers pushing for Monday's vote.

"What is quite ridiculous for us is that we understood why Turkey was pushing the issue. They had demands. However, in Hungary, there was no demand articulated at all," Marton told VOA Wednesday, adding that many suspected Orban had different motives.

"On the one hand, we could say that it's a miscalculation, they [Fidesz] just didn't catch the flow, didn't understand the situation. On the other hand, there are also understandings that the only person who benefits from this is [Russian President] Vladimir Putin. And Mr. Orban has done a few favors for him already, and why not another one?" Marton said.

Agnes Vadai, a lawmaker with the opposition Democratic Coalition, echoed those concerns.

"Orban is personally responsible. He wants to favor Putin, and through that, breaking the unity of NATO," she told Reuters.

The Hungarian government repeatedly refused VOA requests for an interview. In the past, Orban has denied favoring Putin but has called for an immediate cease-fire in Ukraine, arguing that Western support for Kyiv will only prolong the war.

Allied pressure

Hungary's NATO allies are turning up the pressure. U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Pressman spoke to reporters after attending Monday's session of parliament in Budapest.

"The prime minister pledged to convene parliament to urge parliament to act at its earliest opportunity," he said on Monday. "Today was an opportunity to do that, and we look forward to watching this closely, and to Hungary acting expeditiously."

U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, chairman of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said earlier this month that Hungary was "the least reliable" NATO ally and that Washington should consider imposing sanctions, along with a suspension of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program for Hungarian citizens.

A German government spokesperson said Tuesday that Hungary's approval of Sweden's accession was a "matter of loyalty" to the NATO alliance.

NATO Allies Pressure Hungary for Blocking Sweden’s Accession
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Hungary's demands

Orban has made no specific demand of Sweden but has indicated displeasure over its criticism of perceived democratic backsliding in Hungary.

Fidesz MPs want Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson to visit Budapest before they approve his country's NATO membership.

"If it is important for the Swedes, then obviously they will come to Budapest. Or at least they will make steps that will lead to the Hungarian MPs to vote for the accession with good hearts," Gergely Gulyas, Orban's chief of staff, told reporters in Budapest February 1. "I think it is better if we start running to jump a hurdle if we know that we can jump over it."

Meanwhile, Kristersson has said he will visit Budapest only after Hungary has approved his country's accession to NATO, adding that Sweden's membership and Hungary's perceived offense at the criticism of its democracy should not be linked.

Loss of face

With his country now isolated among allies, Orban is looking for a way out, said analyst Peter Kreko, executive director of the Political Capital think-tank in Budapest.

"Fidesz and Orban maneuvered themselves into a dead end. And they do not seem to be able to correct the mistake, because right now, I think they put themselves in the center of attention to an extent that it's just more difficult to leave this situation without a loss of face," Kreko told VOA.

"I do think Orban will not let this situation go until he receives some kind of public recognition," said Kreko. "I think for Orban, this is partially an ego game. This is about showing that he deserves respect in the international domain."

Hungary's parliament is scheduled to return from recess on February 26. It is not clear if or when a vote on Sweden's accession will take place.