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Hungarian PM demonstrates power over EU oil bank

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has never been more isolated on the European stage, but he has taken advantage of plans for a Russian oil embargo to demonstrate that he is still a major player in the EU.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the outspoken right-wing populist has taken a softer line on Russia than other Western leaders, supporting sanctions but refusing to send arms to Kyiv and allowing state-owned and government-friendly media outlets to promote Russia's war narrative.

Orbán's stance has set him apart from other Western capitals. It has also put him at odds with Poland's right-wing nationalist government, his only reliable long-term EU ally, and drawn the wrath of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

It is also strained his ties with EU institutions, which have long accused Orbán of undermining Hungary's democratic standards. Last month, the relationship deteriorated further when Brussels began a process that could result in Budapest losing critical funds due to rule-of-law deficiencies.

The oil ban plans, on the other hand, have given Orbán, one of the EU's longest-serving national leaders and one of its most cunning operators, the chance to flex his muscles in Europe once more — and win concessions.

Orbán has seized the political spotlight in the days since European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen proposed that the EU end all Russian oil imports, delaying a final agreement by demanding more phase-out time for his country before the ban takes effect.

Orbán effectively has the EU dancing to his tune, thanks to EU rules that require unanimity on major decisions. Von der Leyen flew to Hungary on Monday to discuss the oil embargo with him. The EU announced the next day that it was considering a financial compensation package for the country.

While Hungary is not the only country demanding changes to the latest EU sanctions package, it has been the most vocal, with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán calling the oil embargo a "nuclear bomb" for his country's economy.

The EU has already agreed to give Hungary two more years, but Orbán claims that the transition will take five years — and a significant amount of EU funding.

"Viktor is a player, he now got a powerful card," one former Hungarian official said of Orbán's political approach.

Orbán has been bolstered by a major victory at home last month, when he cruised to a fourth term in office with a two-thirds majority in parliament, despite international observers' claims that the campaign was not conducted fairly.

However, he has not always had his way.

One of Orbán's closest allies, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jana, lost a parliamentary election just days after his own victory, while French far-right leader Marine Le Pen — whom he openly supported — lost her presidential bid on the same day.

All of this occurred as Russia's invasion of Ukraine raised uncomfortable questions for Budapest about its long-standing policy of cultivating a friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

According to Péter Krekó, director of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute think tank, the Hungarian leader is in a more "complicated diplomatic environment than ever before."

Orbán may not be able to rely on traditional regional allies in the Visegrád Group of Central European countries, where the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland have all taken a more aggressive stance against Russia than Hungary.

"You see that there has been a huge rift inside the Visegrád Four over Russia," one EU diplomat said.

The war has wreaked havoc on Hungary's and Poland's once-strong ties. The relationship had "worsened very much," according to a senior official from Orbán's ruling Fidesz party.