Freezing fog covered Budapest as Russian President Vladimir Putin flew in to talk “trade, energy and culture” with the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on February 3. With the streets around parliament on lock-down, journalists – at least those not currently banned from the Hungarian Parliament building – were told to convene on a street corner just outside the highest security zone. Putin’s habit of keeping guests waiting is well documented, but within an hour reporters were filing through the gilded halls, past the Hungarian crown and its uniformed guards, and into a magnificently frescoed conference room.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was the first big beast to appear in the hall, which was peppered with Putin’s security officers, soon followed by Orban’s understudy, Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office Janos Lazar, and his defence minister, Istvan Simicsko. After around 15 minutes the two leaders entered stage left, to a backdrop of Russian and Hungarian tricolours.
The mood between Orban and a pinched looking Putin – on his first visit to an EU member state since Donald Trump’s US election victory in November – was cagey rather than triumphant. Communicating through translation headphones, there was little sign of camaraderie. “Is there anybody who has seen the personality of Putin?” Orban said after their last meeting in Budapest, in 2015. “Putin is someone you can cooperate with: he’s not an easy man.”
On the 80% Russian-financed expansion of the Paks nuclear power plant, the Hungarian premier expressed hope that preparation work will begin in 2017, with construction commencing next year. “We can cover up to 100% – it’s all possible,” Putin said of the €10bn project, which the European Commission has blocked over issues regarding procurement and whether its funding amounts to state aid.
Orban rued the economic impact of EU sanctions against Russia, even claiming that Hungary has lost out on exports worth some €6.7bn. “Non-economic problems cannot be managed by economic means – everyone shall lose from such solutions,” Orban said.
“We have seen a falling of our trade: it almost halved last year,” Putin agreed.
The Hungarian PM seemed to tacitly acknowledge that he will not veto the sanctions at the European Commission, however, saying their countries operate on “different geopolitical dimensions”. “One of the most important human qualities is to know one’s place,” he said, in a rare self-effacing moment.
Putin underlined his desire to trade with other EU countries: “We absolutely depoliticise these issues – above all, they are of a purely economic nature and viability: no routes are excluded,” Putin said. “We are not going to take offence at Bulgaria or other countries that found it beyond their courage to oppose European Commission decisions in time. We cannot and no longer want to sustain losses from imprudent decisions.”
“If we go together along this path, particularly in a dialogue with Brussels, then everyone will be satisfied and it will benefit development of bilateral relations and energy security of the continent at large,” Putin added.
“We all sense, it’s in the air, that the world is in the process of a substantial realignment [and] this will create favourable conditions for stronger Russian-Hungarian relations,” Orban said.
Putin declared that he was happy about an alleged rise in interest in Russian-language learning in Hungary, as well as Orban’s promise to renovate Russian Orthodox churches in his country.
On the edge
On Ukraine, Putin said “hostilities broke out on Friday – but why now? He posited that, “the Ukrainian leadership needs money and you can only get money if you portray yourself as a victim of aggression”.
Orban took a softer line on their common neighbour, however, saying: “Hungary is interested in the complete fulfillment of the Minsk [peace] agreement, and having a stable and successful Ukraine.”
Putin’s last visit to Budapest, in February 2015, made Orban the first EU leader to host him after Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea – just before the refugee crisis diverted attention from Hungary’s democratic backslide. At that time, political observers in Budapest only whispered of the rumoured long-term Kremlin salami tactics to weaken the EU with Kremlin-funded extremist websites and disinformation groups. Since then, the British vote to leave the EU has rendered these le Carré-esque intrigues passé, and the arrival of a former reality TV star into the Oval Office has dragged geopolitics into a new era in which cyber war, fake news and election hacks are realities.
At the end of the presser, the only two Hungarian journalists called to ask seemingly pre-vetted questions were from state television channel M1 and Origo.hu, both outlets that have been commandeered by Orban. Questions on Paks II and the future of Nato, as well as the cases of Bela Kovacs, the Hungarian Jobbik MEP who faces charges of spying for Russia, and Istvan Gyurkos, the fascist with GRU connections who shot a Hungarian policeman dead last year, remained unanswered. After two further questions from Kremlin-friendly media, Orban and Putin shook hands for the cameras, and were gone.
At 7:00pm, Liberal opposition party Egyutt (Together) and around 300 people protested the Putin visit. Activists waved banners with slogans such as “1989-2017: You’re a Traitor, Viktor”, “We will not be a colony” and “Go home Russians” around half a mile from the parliament – as close as security would allow. Although the protesters had the same righteous energy – and even the very same placards in some cases – as they had during Putin’s last visit, this time the turnout was a fraction of the some 3,000 who had symbolically walked between Budapest's Keleti (Eastern) and Nyugati (Western) stations in 2015.
As Egyutt chairman Viktor Szigetvari denounced Putin as “a war criminal” and called Hungary's alliance with Russia “a dead end”, the Kremlin motorcade passed next to the protests, prompting whistles and jeers from the crowd. But the motorcade drove on down Andrassy boulevard which, like much of the city, had been closed for their benefit, on to the airport, where three planes were waiting to take them back east.