Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's frequent attacks against Brussels and his warm relations with Russia have left the country increasingly isolated as it takes over the bloc's rotating presidency on Monday.

The longest-serving leader in the European Union, Orban has recently ramped up his rhetoric against what he calls the "technocratic elite of Brussels," warning "we will rack our brains on how to hurt them."

"It's unbelievable. It's like the defendant in a trial has suddenly taken over the prosecution," said his biographer, veteran Hungarian journalist Paul Lendvai.

While he warned not to "overestimate the importance" of Hungary's six-month presidency, he predicted that Orban would continue to block key issues as he did with EU aid for Ukraine while "loosening restrictions" on rule of law issues on which he has been censured by Brussels in order to unlock blocked EU funds.

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"Both sides play a game but this is not a decisive game," he told AFP.

From liberal to 'illiberal'

Brussels has frozen billions of euros in funds for Hungary, citing concerns over corruption and the rule of law. Both sides are also at loggerheads on other issues from migrants to Ukraine.

In stark contrast to his European partners, Orban openly supports former US president Donald Trump, with Budapest vowing to "make Europe great again" during its presidency.

Close to both the Chinese President Xi Jinping as well as the Kremlin, the nationalist has refused to send weapons to Kyiv.

Orban Talks About Visits to Kyiv and Moscow in Confidential Letter to EU Leaders
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Orban Talks About Visits to Kyiv and Moscow in Confidential Letter to EU Leaders

In the letter, Orban said that he was not speaking for the entire EU during his visits but claimed his aim was to understand the Ukrainian and Russian positions.

Yet the start of his political career in the last days of communism began very differently.

The radical 26-year-old law student became a household name in 1989 with a fiery speech demanding democracy and that Soviet troops go home.

The then liberal Alliance of Young Democrats party (Fidesz) he had co-founded soon became the symbol of Hungary's aspirations to escape the clutches of totalitarianism and adopt Western values.

Nowadays his party is seen more as hard-right and Orban slams the "decadence of the West" in the face of what he calls the gender "lobby" and the influx of migrants he deems potential "terrorists".

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Orban became prime minister at 35 in 1998 but suffered a humiliating and unexpected defeat at the hands of the Socialists four years later.

When he returned to power in 2010, he began remaking the Hungarian state and its institutions, with a new constitution advancing his "illiberal" brand of democracy.

After changing election rules to favour Fidesz, he was re-elected in 2014, 2018 and 2022, every time with two-third majorities.

Aligning with Russia

"Over the past 14 years, Orban has aligned with Vladimir Putin's ideology that the West is in disarray" as he similarly dismantled checks and balances, historian Stefano Bottoni of the University of Florence told AFP.

"This explains Orban's position" on Russia's war in Ukraine, he said.

Orban has drawn fierce criticism from Western nations for his views, accusing NATO and the EU of provoking a "world war."

"He does not understand how toxic his position is," said Bottoni, because "for many countries, the war in Ukraine is the single most important issue in the redefinition of Europe."

Even with the far right surging across the EU, Orban has manoeuvred himself into "a strategic impasse," the expert said, after Fidesz quit the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) in 2021.

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"He felt he could be the kingmaker of the far-right coalition but he is now sliding into a third league," he added.

Under pressure internationally, Orban has also been facing an additional challenge at home, with opposition figure Peter Magyar rallying support by railing against Orban's "system."

According to Andrea Peto, an analyst at the University of Central Europe, "Orban plays different games for different audiences" and makes sure bad news "will never get to his voters," who "only inform themselves via state-controlled media."

"What is really happening does not matter," she said, adding that Orban's single objective is "to maintain control" over the country together with his close circle of oligarchs.

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