On February 2, for the second time in less than two years, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban will warmly welcome Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Budapest. Hungary is the only EU country visited by the Russian president so frequently since the annexation of Crimea and the freezing of EU-Russia relations.
Orban’s pro-Russia stance was harshly criticised by Brussels, Washington and also by Hungarian opposition parties in February 2015, the first time Putin visited Orban following Russia's incursions into Ukraine in 2014. Two years later, with Brexit about to be launched, Donald Trump in the White House, and a fragmented opposition at home, Orban finds himself in a more comfortable position to strengthen economic ties with Russia and pose as a well-intentioned driver of improved relations between the West and Moscow.
Seen by many as an anti-communist hero in 1989 when he called for Soviet troops to leave the country, Orban – now in his third term as Hungarian PM – has long moved past his harsh anti-Russian views. His government claims that maintaining what it calls a “pragmatic” good relationship with Russia is in Hungary’s national interest, and has been keen to organise an annual bilateral meeting between the two country leaders since 2015.
Putin’s Budapest trip in February 2015 was his first official visit to an EU member state since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis one year previously. The first Putin-Orban meeting attracted extensive international media coverage and allowed Putin to demonstrate that he is still welcome in the European Union.
Since then, Russia has left “the diplomatic quarantine”, Policy Agenda points out in a note. Although Western sanctions imposed on Russia have remained in effect, Putin’s first Budapest visit was followed by bilateral meetings in Italy, France, Greece, Finland, Slovenia and Germany.
Having been the first EU leader to openly come out in support of Donald Trump during his candidacy last summer, Orban now seems to be keen to assist the US president in his stated goal to normalise relations with Russia.
“Regarding relations with Moscow, the EU follows the United States in many respects, despite the fact that the Russia policy of the United States has not been to our liking so far. We therefore welcome Donald Trump’s election victory,” Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said in a statement on the government’s website, adding that Hungary seeks to be one of the “pillars” of the re-establishment of European-Russian relations.
He also told Reuters that the EU's sanctions regime against Moscow was ineffective and should be scrapped. "Hungary's position on the sanctions is that [they are] useless," Szijjarto said, estimating Hungary had lost export opportunities worth $6.5bn since they were introduced in 2014.
Szijjarto claimed that Hungary chose not to exercise its veto against the sanctions because it “did not wish to upset unity within the EU”. He did not say, however, whether Hungary plans to announce a veto during the March meeting of the EU foreign ministers.
Hungary’s increasingly harsh stance regarding EU sanctions suggests that Budapest has miscalculated Trump’s anti-sanctions sentiments, the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy (CEID) writes in a note, reminding that the US president recently admitted that “it is too early to talk about the lifting of sanctions”.
“If Budapest moves forward with its highly critical position regarding the sanctions, it will result in a conflict with all key Western allies…However, if Budapest takes a step back, then the Hungarian government…will lose a lot of credibility in Moscow. Either way, it is highly unlikely that Hungary’s ambitions to be one of the engines of resetting the relations between the EU and Moscow would be realised any time soon,” CEID writes.
Besides potentially discussing global events, the government emphasised that the main purpose of the February meeting is to revive bilateral economic relations between the countries. The agenda includes follow-up consultations on previously agreed economic deals, together with negotiations regarding the possible extension of the cooperation with Russia on natural gas supplies beyond 2021.
Szijjarto also insisted that Hungary is “pressing ahead” with its Russian-backed project to expand the Paks nuclear power plant. As soon as Budapest receives the EU approval for the project, which is not yet certain, it will start construction, Szijjarto said.
With more than 80% of Hungarian gas imports already coming from Russia and the Paks project overshadowed by a lack of transparency and corruption allegations, many fear that Orban is guiding the country into an irreversible dependency on Russia.
Besides strengthening economic ties, Orban is also stepping up efforts – in line with his plans his plans outlined in 2014 – to abandon the principles of a liberal democracy in favour of an “illiberal state”, citing Russia as an example. In recent months, the governing Fidesz party has renewed attacks on NGOs, while continuing to clamp down on transparency and press freedom.
“Other EU countries are friendly towards Russia - Cyprus and Greece and Slovakia for example - but Hungary is the only one that uses Russia as a model in practically every field: ideological, economic and leadership, and all at the same time,” Peter Kreko, analyst at Political Capital writes.
Stronger economic ties between Hungary and Russia are supported by the majority of Hungarians (58%), the latest opinion poll conducted by the Centre for Russian Studies at the Eotvos Lorand University showed in December. The survey also points out, however, the the support is well below the level seen in 2012 (68%), and with regards to political ties, the Hungarian society is much less enthusiastic: 20% of Hungarians would like to weaken the existing ties, 40% would prefer no change and only 35% support closer political ties.
Two years previously, ahead of talks between Putin and Orban in 2015, around 2,000 people marched through the capital, representing one of the many protests against Orban at that time. The governing Fidesz party – mired in a diplomatic spat with the US over corruption – saw its popularity dropping to record low levels, and later in February it lost its two-thirds supermajority in parliament as it suffered a defeat in a by-election.
This year, Putin will find Orban in a far more comfortable domestic situation. Having used a harsh anti-immigrant campaign to regain popularity, Fidesz is again leading the polls well ahead of a fragmented opposition.
Only the small opposition party Egyutt - supported by 1% of the Hungarian population - scheduled a protest in front of the parliament on February 2. However, it is yet unclear whether the demonstration can be held at the planned location, as Hungary’s counter-terrorism force announced that it would close the entire square in front of the parliament on the day of Putin’s visit.