Russian President Vladimir Putin has seen Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban as a useful partner within the EU and finds himself in a better position now than he did when he was last in Budapest two years ago. The geopolitical cookie has crumbled in his favor, at least for now.
Pictured: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban before the negotiations. Photo: Kremlin.ru
It’s not often that Russian President Vladimir Putin is welcomed onto EU soil with open arms and warm gestures, but that was the case with his flying visit last week to the Hungarian capital to talk trade, sanctions and energy. Putin was received in Budapest by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban who he has cultivated a strong relationship with since the latter returned to power in 2014. The two leaders were meeting for the third time in three years.
Orban has taken a starkly different approach to Russia than his European counterparts. He has repeatedly criticized economic sanctions placed on Russia over the civil war in Ukraine and reintegration of Crimea and publicly denounced the United States for putting “great pressure” on Hungary over its energy deals and relations with Moscow. He has taken reprimands from Brussels over his "pro-Putin" stances, but hasn’t changed tack.
On Thursday he condemned what he calls “anti-Russian politics” in Western Europe and expressed hope for improved relations. Just ahead of Putin’s visit, a new monument was unveiled on the burial site of Russian soldiers from the two World Wars. This also stands in contrast to other central and Eastern European nations that have been tearing down monuments that tie their history to Russia’s, not erecting them.
Putin has seen Orban as a useful partner within the EU and finds himself in a better position now than he did when he was last in Budapest two years ago. The geopolitical cookie has crumbled in his favor, at least for now. Russia has managed to weather sanctions and conduct a relatively successful military campaign in Syria, shifting the balance to become a major power broker in the conflict and in the wider region.
What’s more, Putin’s many Western opponents are preoccupied with so many of their own problems, that he no longer appears to be their top priority or target for ire. The visit came as Brussels tries to come to terms with a Donald Trump presidency in the U.S. — while at the same time faces worries about the UK’s "Brexit" plan and the rise of what some might call Trump-like figures within major EU nations.
During a joint press conference after talks in the Hungarian parliament, Orban criticized economic sanctions on Russia, arguing that non-economic problems “cannot be solved” with economic means. “Everyone stands to lose from such solutions,” he said.
Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto told Kommersant recently that his country had lost $6.5 billion in trade with Russia due to sanctions. Meanwhile, Orban also told reporters he was hoping for “open and transparent” relations with Russia. In other words, he’s looking to conduct relations with Moscow without having to worry about interference or pressure from Brussels and Washington.
With Trump now in the White House, Orban seems to believe he’ll get his wish. As with Russia, Trump has also promised improved relations with Hungary. Both leaders have expressed admiration for one another. Trump was particularly impressed with Orban’s controversial stance on Europe’s migrant crisis. He has already suggested that the Hungarian prime minister visit him in Washington.
To a “certain extent” it is true that Orban may face less pressure from the U.S. now that Trump is president, according to András Deák, senior research fellow at Institute of World Economics at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
“The Hungarian cabinet can go further without being retaliated. Merkel seems to be the only constraint in the current situation, and she is less threatening,” Deák said.
According to Dániel Bartha, the executive director of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy (CEID), the Hungarian government “miscalculates” the effect Trump’s presidency can have on Hungary mainly because the U.S. relationship with Russia isn’t likely to change all that much. While Trump might want a détente, the same can’t automatically be said for Congress, the Department of Defense or State Department.
This will be especially true, Bartha says, if Hungary decides to increase its industrial cooperation with Russia, procuring helicopters from Russian defense companies rather than procuring them from the U.S., for example.
“If cooperation like this happens, this is where Orban’s government can expect the most criticism [from the U.S.],” Bartha says.
Many analysts argue that Putin has deliberately fostered the relationship with Orban, using him cleverly to sow division within the EU, with the hopes that it could lead to the removal of sanctions. But despite Orban’s rhetoric, each time Hungary has had the chance to vote against the EU’s sanctions, it has instead voted to keep them in place.
“Orban plays more than two sides," Deák said. "He would like to collect all benefits from non-Western relations, even at the expense of Western relations. But if there are certain disincentives on the road, potential punishments from the U.S., Germany, EU, he will stop. Until now he has not crossed any red lines.”
If indeed less pressure does come from Washington under Trump, it could also encourage other sanctions-skeptic EU nations to speak up on the issue. With loud criticism Orban could encourage other countries to join him against sanctions, but, Bartha says, Hungary will likely maintain its support of them as long as Washington does.
Energy was another focus of the talks. Two years ago, Hungary cut off gas supplies to Ukraine after Russia threatened to cut off countries re-exporting to Kiev. Hungary, which receives 85 percent of its gas from Russia could not risk losing its own supplies.
Russia is hugely involved in Hungary’s energy projects and the leaders said they had discussed gas supply contracts to 2021 and beyond.
They also discussed a controversial $12.5 billion nuclear energy deal, Paks II, which has faced regulatory probes from the European Commission. The project is 80 percent financed by Russia. Putin and Orban confirmed construction on the reactors would begin in 2018 with much work on the project being conducted by Russian scientists.
Orban critics cite efforts to reign in independent media and curb judicial powers to argue that the prime minister is learning illiberal policies from Putin. Now Trump’s own war against the media in the U.S. may embolden Orban further.
One small opposition party, Együtt (‘Together’), organized a protest to express their concerns over Putin’s visit. About 500 people gathered on a corner near the Hungarian parliament as Putin prepared to leave.
While protesters may be louder and more inclined to take to the streets, the most recent polls have shown that in fact 75 percent of Hungarians favor pragmatic and good relations with Russia. The polls also show that Putin is seen generally more favorably than Trump or Germany’s Angela Merkel.
Együtt’s protest was more an opportunity to gain some media attention than a reflection of the general feeling in Hungary, according to Pál Tamás, a sociologist and expert on Hungary-Russia relations at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Nonetheless, Tamás said, “historical phobias are deep” and most Hungarians have a “very uncertain feeling towards Russia’s presence in the national history”. Feelings towards Russia, he said, are “very emotional” and not pragmatic in the way they are where the economic relationship is concerned.
Orban sees Hungary as having the ability to be a bridge between Russia and the EU, but given the rapidly changing global political landscape, we can’t say for sure that it will even need to be. With important elections coming up in the Netherlands, France and Germany this year, it’s impossible to tell what the EU could look like just a few years from now.
More than anything, the Russia-Hungary relationship is one of mutual convenience for two leaders that see themselves as pragmatic above all else. But Washington still holds many of the cards.