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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Hungary’s Parliament approves Sweden’s NATO bid after stalling

Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson of Sweden at a bilateral meeting with President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, July 5, 2023. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

By Andrew Higgins

Hungary’s parliament voted Monday to accept Sweden as a new member of NATO, sealing a major shift in the balance of power between the West and Russia set off by war in Ukraine.

The vote allowed Sweden, which has long been nonaligned, to clear the final hurdle that had blocked its membership in NATO and held up the expansion of the military alliance.

Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, whose Fidesz party has a large majority in parliament, has maintained cordial relations with President Vladimir Putin of Russia despite the war in Ukraine and had stalled for 19 months on putting Sweden’s NATO membership to a vote in the 199-member legislature.

His decision to finally allow a vote followed a visit to Budapest, the Hungarian capital, on Friday by Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson. During the visit, it was announced that Sweden would provide Hungary with four Swedish-made Gripen jets in addition to the 14 its air force already uses, and that the maker of the jets, Saab, would open an artificial intelligence research center in Hungary.

The formal admission of Sweden to NATO still requires some procedural paperwork. Once finalized, it will, along with Finland’s entry last year, give a significant boost to NATO’s military strength in the Baltic Sea and reduce Russia’s ability to dominate the waterway, which controls access to ports in St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad and Ust-Luga, an important transit point for Russian energy exports.

In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed Hungary’s decision, saying that “Sweden’s membership will make us all stronger and safer.”

Sweden has been providing weapons and other support to Ukraine, so its membership in NATO won’t immediately change Ukraine’s fortunes on the battlefield, but it delivers a grave blow to what Putin declared as one of his principal reasons for his full-scale invasion — keeping NATO away from Russia’s borders.

The Hungarian parliament endorsed Sweden’s admission to the alliance by a large majority, with only six members from a far-right party, Our Homeland Movement, voting against. The Fidesz party and mainstream opposition groups all voted in favor.

The unusual display of consensus faltered when the opposition called for a minute of silence in memory of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who Russian authorities say died on Feb. 16 in an Arctic prison camp. Legislators opposed to Orban all stood to honor Navalny, but the prime minister and his Fidesz allies remained seated.

Orban thanked his party members for “keeping their cool in the Navalny affair” and, explaining Fidesz’s decision to stay seated, said, “Chauvinists do not deserve respect.” Claiming that Navalny had derided Georgians during Russia’s invasion of their country in 2008, Orban said he should not be honored.

“Otherwise, may he rest in peace,” Orban told parliament.

The overwhelming vote in favor of NATO’s expansion followed the visit to Budapest by Kristersson that Orban said had repaired strained relations between the countries and made it possible for Hungary to accept Sweden as a member of NATO.

Hungary’s long delay in accepting Sweden puzzled and exasperated the United States and other NATO members, raising questions about Hungary’s reliability as a member of an alliance committed to the principle of collective defense.

Hungary, which had repeatedly promised not to be the last holdout, became the final obstacle to Swedish entry into NATO after the Turkish parliament voted Jan. 23 to approve membership. All other NATO members approved Sweden’s bid in 2022, just months after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Orban has a long record of using his country’s veto power over key decisions in Europe to try to extract money or other rewards. That pattern was on display during not only his foot-dragging over Sweden’s NATO membership but also his opposition to a European Union financial package for Ukraine worth $54 billion.

Orban relented this month on approving EU aid for Ukraine, a retreat that raised hopes he would quickly order his party to hold a vote in parliament on Sweden. Orban had assured Stoltenberg on Jan. 24 that Hungary would ratify Sweden’s entry “at the first possible opportunity.”

But when opposition legislators called a session of parliament on Feb. 5 to vote on Sweden’s membership, Fidesz members boycotted the session.

Even with Hungary’s acceptance of Sweden into the alliance, the long, drawn-out process to get to this point is likely to leave a bitter aftertaste. And the belated assent to the expansion of NATO, to which Hungary makes only a modest contribution, will not quickly change Orban’s reputation as a troublemaker more interested in cozying up to Putin, with whom he held an amicable meeting in October during a visit to China, than in supporting the alliance.

Hungary, whose air force depends heavily on Gripen jets from Sweden, has offered multiple and often shifting explanations for the long delay in voting on Swedish membership. It has cited scheduling hiccups, criticism in Sweden of democratic backsliding by Orban’s increasingly authoritarian government, teaching materials used in Swedish schools and comments made by Kristersson years before he took office.

Orban’s tough stance on Sweden, as well as his initial blocking of the Ukraine aid package, reflected his penchant for trying to establish his small country — Hungary has only 10 million people and accounts for just 1% of economic output in the EU — as a force to be reckoned with on the European political stage.

That approach has infuriated fellow European leaders, but rocking the boat and defying mainstream opinion on both NATO and the EU has increased Orban’s standing with Europe’s far right and in segments of the far left, both of which are often partial to Putin. They see Orban as a courageous scourge of conventional wisdom.

Orban has long been positioning himself as the contrarian leader of a Pan-European movement that defends national sovereignty and traditional values against what he disparages as out-of-touch “woke globalists” in Brussels, in the headquarters of both NATO and the EU, and in Washington under the Biden administration.

Sweden, like most members of the EU, has long accused Hungary of undermining democracy and violating minority rights. But after a right-leaning government came to power in Stockholm last year, it retreated from criticism of Hungarian domestic policy.

Admission to NATO requires the unanimous support of the alliance’s members. Finland was admitted to the alliance last April, but the strategic defeat that move dealt to Putin had been undermined by the delays in approving Sweden.

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