Ego, Putin or Jets? Reasons for Orban’s Stance on Sweden Perplex Many.

Ego, Putin or Jets? Reasons for Orban’s Stance on Sweden Perplex Many.

It took 19 months of broken promises and belligerent rhetoric for Hungary to finally ratify Sweden’s entry into NATO.

Why all the foot-dragging, many observers wondered, when Hungary was going to approve the Nordic country’s membership of the military alliance anyway?

That question has perplexed even members of Hungary’s governing party, Fidesz, according to Peter Ungar, an opposition legislator. He said he had been approached by one Fidesz lawmaker, in the run-up to Monday’s vote in Parliament to accept NATO’s expansion, and asked: “‘What the hell is going on with Sweden?’”

That a member of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s governing party would seek an explanation from a rival politician is a measure of how puzzled even allies of the Hungarian leader, never mind his opponents, became over their country delaying NATO’s expansion.

“The whole thing is incomprehensible,” said Mr. Ungar, a Hungarian progressive whose mother, Maria Schmidt, is a prominent conservative and longtime ally of Mr. Orban. “Nobody understands what the problem was,” Mr. Ungar added.

He declined to name the member of Parliament who had sought him out, saying that Fidesz demands unquestioning loyalty to and acceptance of Mr. Orban’s decisions, no matter how bewildering they might seem.

Asked why the process to approve Sweden’s membership in NATO had taken so long, the Hungarian government’s International Communications Office referred to a statement by Mr. Orban last Friday welcoming a decision by Sweden to provide additional jet fighters.

When the Parliament finally voted on Monday, it gave overwhelming support for Sweden’s membership. Zoltan Kovacs, the secretary of state for international communications, declared it a “historic moment,” noting that “Hungary has a vested interest in Europe’s security” and that Sweden will be “a strong and reliable ally.”

The reliability of Hungary, however, is more in question.

The government submitted the NATO applications of Finland and Sweden to the Parliament in July 2022, but dawdled on putting them to a vote. Finland was accepted by Hungary in March last year but it took the Parliament another 11 months to get to Sweden.

Mr. Orban and government officials put forward a host of shifting and sometimes far-fetched explanations for the delay, including complaints about references to Hungary in textbooks used in Swedish schools.

Some critics of the government like Peter Kreko, the director of Political Capital, a research group critical of Fidesz, blamed Mr. Orban’s ego and his desire, as the leader of a small country with little economic or military leverage, to be at the center of attention.

More conspiracy-inclined critics suspected a secret deal between Mr. Orban and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, pointing to the fact that, of the European Union’s 27 national leaders, only Hungary’s has met and been photographed shaking hands with Mr. Putin since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

But there is no evidence that Mr. Orban’s cozying up to Russia is anything more than an expression of his oft-stated desire to stay on good terms with Moscow, an important source of energy, and avoid getting entangled in the war next door in Ukraine.

That stance, which runs counter to those of fellow European leaders who see support for Ukraine as a moral and security imperative, helped Fidesz to a landslide victory, its fourth in a row, in Hungary’s last general election in April 2022.

The ego theory perhaps has more basis. Hungary’s stalling certainly put a spotlight, albeit a mostly unflattering one, on Mr. Orban and his country, which has only 10 million people and accounts for only 1 percent of the European Union’s economic output.

Alarmed by the long delay, a bipartisan delegation of United States senators trekked to Budapest, the Hungarian capital, earlier this month to show that Hungary was being taken seriously. Government ministers and Fidesz legislators all declined to meet the senators, a snub that the government and its media machine celebrated as evidence that Hungary takes its own decisions and will not be pushed around.

“It is not worth it for visiting American senators to try to exert pressure,” Hungary’s pugnacious foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, said.

Receiving a warmer reception was the prime minister of Sweden, Ulf Kristersson, who traveled to Budapest on Friday to talk Mr. Orban down from his defiant one-against-all stand on Sweden’s membership. To help do that, he brought with him promises of increased military and industrial cooperation between the countries.

Soon after he arrived in Budapest, Saab, a Swedish aeronautics company, announced it had signed a contract with the Swedish state for the delivery of four new Gripen fighter jets to Hungary.

Mr. Kristersson, who had earlier said he would visit Budapest only after Hungary had ratified his country’s NATO membership, also brought with him a promise that Saab would open a research center in Hungary.

Perhaps more important, though, the Swedish prime minister’s visit gave Mr. Orban the satisfaction of settling an old personal score. While serving as a member of the European Parliament in 2019, Mr. Kristersson helped deliver a humiliating blow to Mr. Orban by supporting calls for the expulsion of Fidesz from a powerful bloc of centrist and conservative legislators.

To avoid the humiliation of being booted out, Fidesz withdrew.

Agoston Mraz, the director of Nezopont Institute, a research center that does opinion polling for the government, said the most important aspect of Mr. Kristersson’s visit was not just expanded military cooperation but that the Swedish prime minister had to smile for the cameras with Mr. Orban.

“He is not a big fan of Mr. Orban but in order to be accepted into NATO he has to smile,” Mr. Mraz said.

Without that, he added, Mr. Orban would have had a hard time explaining to his core voters in the countryside why, after so many months of delays, Hungary dropped its objections to Sweden and let it join NATO. “It had to be explained and the explanation is that there is a deal with the Swedish prime minister,” he said.

The deal over military cooperation, in the works for many months, had little to do with Sweden’s membership of the Western alliance and, according to diplomats and analysts, became tied to the NATO issue only so that Mr. Orban could point to a concrete benefit from his policy of obstruction.

That policy, at least initially, fit into a familiar pattern, particularly evident in Hungary’s repeated battles with the European Union, of defying mainstream opinion and asserting Hungarian sovereignty. Hungary also blocked for months a financial aid package for Ukraine but relented under heavy pressure on that on Feb. 1, a few weeks after the European Union released $10 billion in frozen funding for Hungary.

The government, in the meantime, plastered the country with billboards featuring a photograph of Ursula Von der Leyen, the president of the E.U.’s executive arm in Brussels, and calling on citizens to resist outside pressure: “Let’s not dance to their tune.”

As time dragged on, however, and Turkey, the only other holdout blocking Sweden’s membership, ratified the Nordic nation’s admission in January, Hungary’s continued delays, despite a pledge by Mr. Orban on Jan. 24 to accept Sweden “at the first possible opportunity,” caused increasing puzzlement, even among some government allies.

When opposition legislators called an extraordinary session of Parliament on Feb. 5 so that a vote could finally be held on admitting Sweden, Fidesz boycotted the session.

Mr. Mraz, a Fidesz supporter with ties to its leadership, said the boycott simply reflected Hungary’s domestic political reality. “We are living in a polarized democracy and that means that the opposition does not decide the date of Sweden’s acceptance,” he said.

But Hungary, he acknowledged, had been caught by surprise by the speed with which Turkey, a close economic and political partner, had, after more than a year of stalling, swiftly ratified Sweden’s entry. “It was not comfortable for Mr. Orban that his promise that Hungary won’t be the last could not be kept,” Mr. Mraz said.

But, in the end, Mr. Orban got what he wanted, including a big portion of humble pie eaten by Mr. Kristersson and a plausible story to tell his supporters.

“The Hungarian way of politics,” Mr. Mraz said, “is to be loud and fight.” Others, particularly Scandinavians and E.U. officials in Brussels committed to seeking consensus, might not like the Hungarian approach. But, Mr. Mraz said, “it works.”