Hungary rocks Visegrad unity as it questions sanctions against Russia

By bne IntelliNews March 15, 2016

Hungary, alongside Italy and Greece, objected on March 14 to the "automatic" extension of EU sanctions on Russia.

Budapest's stance is no surprise given its relatively close relations with Moscow throughout the crisis in Ukraine. However, the debate pitches Hungary in direct confrontation with Poland – perhaps the most hawkish of all in the bloc on Russia – and brings to the fore once more the strains that until recently have plagued the Visegrad Four.

While the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have often been at odds this decade, their resistance to the EU's efforts to redistribute refugees through a quota system has led them to march in step over recent months. However, the widely differing approaches to Russia is a clear point of contention.

In step with the US, the EU imposed economic sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. The issue is back on the table as the current sanctions are due to end in July, and that threatens to split the Visegrad consensus formed around the migrant crisis.

In early March, EU governments extended asset freezes and travel bans on Russians and companies named on lists. However, there is no consensus on whether to prolong the deeper sanctions on the banking and energy sectors from July.

Poland and the Baltic states – which claim Russia maintains imperialist ambitions for their region – insist the sanctions must stay. They also argue that Nato should establish permanent bases at the eastern end of the EU as a deterrent.

Hungary, as well as Slovakia and the likes of Italy and Greece, are at the opposite end of the spectrum, however. Budapest has continually courted Moscow, and claims it is playing an important role as a mediator in the stand off. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has provoked criticism from Brussels and Washington over his high profile meetings with President Putin over the past couple of years, at which he has also sealed deals on nuclear power and gas.

Putin, meanwhile, is seen as a master of provoking discord among EU members. He has consistently lured member states with offers of energy and other benefits to block Western efforts to present a united front. However, EU members have, thus far, refrained from using their vetoes to prevent sanctions.

The pressure clearly remains, however. "You cannot decide on sanctions by sweeping the issues under the carpet," Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, who openly advocates a foreign policy led by commercial interests, said according to Reuters. "We believe that the question of sanctions should be decided at the highest level. It cannot be automatic."

The CEE hawks were not slow to respond. Poland's Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said "the view is negative as regards the internal situation in Russia and its foreign policy". Lithuanian peer Linas Linkevicius insisted to the news wire that, following the debate among EU ministers, "there is no revision of policy".

The Czech Republic meanwhile, although no hawk on Russia, has been busy in recent months pushing its credentials as the Visegrad state ready to do business with Brussels and Washington. Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek stated clearly as he arrived for the EU meeting that Prague will fully support a broadening of sanctions against Russia. He added hat the measures should include Russian nationals involved in the persecution of Ukrainian pilot Nadyia Savchenko.

While Hungary and the other doves on Russia have regularly suggested they would like to see sanctions lifted or eased, no member state has vetoed the measures over the past two years. EU foreign ministers reaffirmed on March 14 that relations with Moscow depend on implementation of the Minsk ceasefire. The EU will formally discuss extension of the sanctions at its summer summit, the bloc's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said.

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