China’s bid to expand its influence in Eastern Europe could hit a snag if Hungary’s controversial Prime Minister Viktor Orban is defeated in what is shaping up to be an unexpectedly close election next year.Hungary under Orban has fostered ever-closer ties with China, which sees the country as a linchpin of its efforts to reach deep into Europe with elements of its global Belt and Road initiative involving infrastructure and cultural projects on several continents.Among those projects is a new railroad running from the Hungarian capital, Budapest, to Belgrade, Serbia. Hungary is also the proposed site of the first overseas campus of Fudan University, one of China’s top educational institutions.FILE – Demonstrators protest against the planned Chinese Fudan University campus in Budapest, Hungary, June 5, 2021.In a letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping late last month which has since been made public, the mayor of Budapest and several other prominent Hungarian politicians pledged to terminate both projects if a new opposition coalition comes to power in next year’s parliamentary election.Until recently, that prospect would have seemed remote, given that Orban has retained power in three successive landslide elections and has steadily increased his control over the nation’s media.FILE – On June 11, 2021, leaders of six opposition parties in Hungary — DK, Jobbik, LMP, Momentum, MSZP, and Dialogue — announce the coalition has established common ground and will lay out a governing program in the fall.(Photo courtesy Dialogue for Hungary)But six opposition parties joined forces in an anti-Orban coalition late last year and have been running neck and neck with the prime minister’s Fidesz party FILE – Budapest’s mayor candidate of the center left opposition party Gergely Karacsony addresses the audience after his victory on Oct. 13, 2019.Gergely Karacsony, who defeated a Fidesz-backed candidate to become mayor of Budapest in 2019, was already an outspoken critic of Orban’s outreach to China, which has included a move to block the European Union from criticizing Beijing’s crackdown on individual rights in Hong Kong.”EU cohesion on foreign policy is key to protecting our values and sustaining the EU as a global player. Time and again Viktor Orban sabotages that unity and protects in our Union the interest of autocracies,” Karacsony said in a statement. Hungary’s “next government will break with all that!”Karacsony has already named streets in Budapest after the democracy movement in Hong Kong and in solidarity with victims of the Chinese Communist Party’s oppression in Tibet and Xinjiang.The Budapest mayor has also taken aim at plans for a Fudan University campus in his city, saying it “would put in doubt many of the values that Hungary committed itself to 30 years ago” after the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe.Since Orban took office in 2010, Hungary has been widely accused of moving away from democratic principles. Even so, its membership in Western alliances, including the European Union and NATO, and the efforts of opposition parties have kept the Beijing-backed railroad and university project from advancing unchallenged.During a conversation with Orban in April, Xi described the Budapest-Belgrade railroad as the “leading force” for closer ties between the two countries. But critics say the project, first proposed in 2013, is nowhere near completion.The plan for a Fudan campus has also sparked public protests in Budapest, prompting the Orban government to suggest there could be a referendum on the project in the future. Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and an expert on China’s effort to influence foreign governments, told VOA that an opposition victory in Hungary next year would present a setback for Beijing at the EU.”The Hungarian government has been the Chinese government’s most reliable country to draw on repeatedly to prevent statements at the EU level, most recently a criticism of the National Security Law in Hong Kong,” she said in a written interview.Ohlberg added: “Even if the opposition does not do a 180-degree turn on China policy, it will probably be a less ready ally of Beijing’s in Brussels.”

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