The Russo-Hungarian bond: exploring the patron-client relationship patterns in the energy field



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Tartu Ülikool


Since Viktor Orbán came back to power as Hungary’s Prime Minister in 2010, his policies have caused a lot of indignation across the Western media and governments (Ash 2019; Horowitz and Karasz 2018; Lehotai 2020). Within the context of democratic backsliding, a rapprochement with Putin’s Russia is perceived to be suspicious (Janjevic 2018). Orbán’s growing interest in Russia since 2010 was particularly puzzling due to his anti-Russian stance in the past. The U-turn initially kick-started from an “Eastern Opening” policy which was supposed to boost trade with Eastern countries, such as China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Russia. The relationship with Russia landed itself at predominantly energy trade turnover with some of the bilateral deals causing major corruption suspicions. The latter ones are the result of high-scale opaque agreements, such as the intergovernmental Paks nuclear plant deal. A certain degree of ideological convergence between Budapest with Moscow ‘pours some more oil into the flames’. Media headlines call the relationship between the leaders as “Eastern bromance” (Bozsik and Amiel 2019) and label Hungary as Russia’s ‘Trojan horse’ (Müller 2014). This study aims to explore and critically analyze what might be considered as the actual foundations of the relationship. By reviewing the existing theoretical literature, it provides its version of patron-client theory as a prism for the case study. The theoretical framework is applied in three phases using textual thematic analysis across the sources. The first phase assesses Hungary’s energy insecurity perception in the strategic documentation. The second phase looks at the inequality and reciprocity aspects of its energy tie with Russia. Reciprocity is analyzed through key issues of bilateral energy relations such as gas deals, pipelines cooperation and Paks deal. The third phase of the research deals with the conceptual part of the relationship – it analyzes proximity in the leaders’ rhetorical discourse. The results demonstrate that energy insecurity drives Hungary into Russia’s orbit. The relationship is further reinforced through mutually beneficial and favourable energy deals and proximity-enhancing rhetoric from the leaders. In sum, the research gives a fresh look at the relationship through properly-sourced evidence and unprecedented research design.