Tim Gosling in Prague -
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has used a visit by Azeri President Ilham Aliyev to throw his weight behind European efforts to diversify away from dependence on Russian gas.
Orban and Aliyev signed a raft of bilateral agreements in the Hungarian parliament on November 11. The pair then declared that more effort should be made to bring Azeri gas to Central and Eastern Europe.
Orban complained to the lower house, in which his Fidesz party holds a constitutional majority, that current contracts only guarantee the delivery of Azeri energy to southern Europe. The giant Shah Deniz field is set to start sending 10bn cubic metres (cm) of gas via Turkey and across the Balkans to a hub in Italy by 2019.
"Our job in the next few years is to create the conditions for Azeri gas to come up from the south to central Europe, too," the Hungarian PM said, according to MTI. The only way to succeed is for neighbouring states to link up their pipeline networks, he said, and urged member states of the EU to form a common energy market, "the first step being nothing other than the connection of pipeline networks of neighbouring states".
Those words represent a remarkable turnaround, and confirm that Orban is in one of his occasional conciliatory moods. The Hungarian PM has recently climbed down on plans to introduce the world's first internet tax
, while banks in the country are sleeping easier after the government announced that the forced conversion of forex loans will be made at the current exchange rate
EU efforts to diversify energy supplies away from reliance on Russia - which includes building an internal market with interconnectors - is the topic that has put Orban in the West's crosshairs. His comments on bringing Azeri gas to Europe appear to show that once again he is blinking in the face of domestic or international criticism.
Earlier this year, just days after Orban met Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller and secured increased deliveries from the Russian gas giant, Hungary announced that it was halting the transit of EU gas supplies to Ukraine. Miller, meanwhile, came away talking confidently about South Stream
, the 63bn cm pipeline from Russia that the EU is blocking.
With the rising geopolitical tension in the region, Washington has not beaten around the bush. Since that September deal with Moscow, Hungary has been compared with Egypt and other authoritarian states by President Obama, and six Hungarian officials have been barred from entering the US over alleged corruption - the first ever such action against a Nato ally.
Budapest has reacted testily, pushing through legislation to take construction of South Stream out of EU oversight and filing charges in a highly public case against NGOs. Yet encouraged by the US pressure, the internet tax plan has sparked street protests against the government that threaten to persist and expand.
Orban appears to sense that this is a moment to pause and offer up the necessary rhetorical concessions. As his track record shows, he has often stepped back to await calm and the chance to push through his original policy. The EU has been bickering with him over policies for years. However, conciliatory statements have always been quick to arrive when it looks like the bloc may take action.
Budapest can't seriously complain about the US president's criticism, given that Orban said in the summer he aims to build an "illiberal" democracy modeled on the likes of Russia and China. Yet Orban clearly sees the double standards in the West's approach.
Hungary has no gas, and is not in a vital strategic position for transporting energy to Europe, leaving the authoritarian PM a target for his moves towards Russia, rough treatment of international companies and heavy handed legislation. His guest Aliyev, though seen as a genuine despot by many, faces relatively muted international criticism, while Azerbaijan is seen as the great hope for EU energy diversification. The Azeri leader was welcomed by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in June 2013; and hosted him on a return visit a year later for more discussions on energy.
Nora Hajdu from the Egyutt party unwittingly summed up the complications currently plaguing regional diplomacy. Neither the German nor the British nor the French premiers are standing in line to visit Hungary, yet "we are delighted" if the Azeri president comes over, she said, according to MTI.
The liberal-green opposition MP added that while the world and Europe are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Hungary's premier is hosting a president that is rarely a guest in EU countries.