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Putin’s Semi Regular Visit Seen Using Hungary as ‘Message Platform’

While Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, once again, attacked economic sanctions against Russia during President Vladimir Putin’s official visit to Budapest on February 2, the Russian President’s trip to an EU and NATO member drew widespread criticism from Western powers for giving the leader a “message platform” from which to justify his views about the Ukraine crisis.

Orbán walks with Putin and his delegation through the  Parliament Building on February 2.

“Hungary values its cooperation with Russia”, Orbán said during a joint press conference with Putin, whose safe landing at Budapest’s Ferenc Liszt International Airport was secured by Gripen fighter jets of the Hungarian Air Force once in Hungarian airspace, with the special approval of NATO. Orbán attacked the West of for its “strongly anti-Russian sentiment”, adding that he sees “anti-Russian politics have become the fashion”. Orbán stressed again in relation to the Russian sanctions that issues that are not economic in nature should not be punished via economic measures, as this only results in “everyone suffering and everyone losing out”. He noted that he has difficulties imagining Hungary being successful if the country does not develop “open, strong and fruitful” economic and trade cooperation with “the major players in the global economy”.

Strategic Move 

This was the second time in the past three years that Putin has received a warm welcome in Hungary, a fact that is seen as a strategic move by many. “Hungary has become an entry point to the EU for Putin, who has been persona non grata since the Ukrainian crisis erupted,” Edit Zgut, analyst at Political Capital Policy Research & Consulting Institute, told the Budapest Business Journal.

“He could use Budapest as his own ‘message platform’ about the Eastern-Ukrainian crisis for the second time, blaming Kiev with the one-sided violation of the Minsk Agreement,” she added. Not surprisingly, Orbán’s opposition to the economic sanctions as an answer to a matter of politics also seems to find favor with the Russian president. “It was also important for Putin that, together with Orbán, they made a united stand against the EU-sanctions. The Hungarian PM has technically assisted him by arguing that non-economic problems cannot be solved with economic means and by this he denied any economic or political solidarity with Ukraine,” Zgut said. 

The political analyst suggested that Orbán’s criticism of the EU in the issue of Russian sanctions is in line with the president’s plans for weakening the bloc. “One of Putin’s most important strategic goals is to disrupt EU unity through disinformation and influence exerted on the European public. We should take this into account when we examine the nature of the bilateral relations that are not based on truthful trust but instantaneous interests,” Zgut added.

The Sovereignty Paradox 

During the meeting, the two leaders were reported to have discussed existing deals, as well as regional cooperation agreements, such as the upgrade of Hungary’s sole nuclear power plant in Paks, and also the long-term Russian-Hungarian gas deal amended last year, and which expires in 2021.

Orbán promised that, in order to “maintain open and transparent relations with Russia”, the two countries will revisit negotiations on the transport of gas from Russia to Hungary annually “at the highest level”. Orbán also remarked that Hungary’s supply of natural gas is guaranteed up to 2021, promising that negotiations between the two countries will soon commence for the period after 2021. Zgut, for one, isn’t sure that is such a good idea: “Hungary’s energy dependence on Russia will increase in the future – thanks to the Hungarian government, which is paradoxically always referring to sovereignty,” Zgut told the BBJ. Another step in increasing Hungary’s dependence on Russia would be if the latter country were to finance the expansion of Paks nuclear plant with a 100% loan, instead of the previously agreed 80%, as Putin said he was ready to do so. Although the European Commission has been investigating whether Hungary’s plans of using Russia as an 80% creditor is in line with EU competition law, unnamed EU sources have been cited in media reports suggesting that the EC could soon greenlight the credit line. However, a little before Putin’s visit, Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó insisted that the Russian credit would only be called down for the upgrade if it is the best offer on the market. 

Trump-Putin-Orbán Relations 

With the election as President of the United States of America of Donald J. Trump, seen as being far warmer towards Russia than the Obama administration, Hungary’s relationship with both its most powerful neighbor and its most powerful ally could well be on an upward curve. Nonetheless, no far-going conclusions should be made at this point, until the development of bilateral relations, as there are still many strategic conflicts of interest between the United States and Russia, such as the development of a missile defence system, Zgut said.

“Short-term tactical détente seems possible, partly because America wishes to place a bigger emphasis on the fight against ISIS, in which they presumably count on Russiaʼs increasing contribution,” Zgut said. However, “a worst case scenario would be if the Trump administration struck a bilateral deal with the Kremlin regarding the conflict in Ukraine, a solution openly endorsed by Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó, it would take the form of a second ‘Yalta Conference’ excluding smaller states, sidelining Hungarian interests in the region,” Zgut concluded.

In light of the overall Hungarian-U.S. relationship, Zgut is less optimistic about Trump’s presidency than the Hungarian government seems to be, though. “For Trump, international relations is a zero trade game, and if the Hungarian government wants to deal with issues in a bilateral manner, Hungary, as a small export-oriented country, could easily be ground up by stronger players,” she says. That said, as far as ideology is concerned, there are similarities, she admits. “Orbán agrees with Trump’s immigration-limiting measures and welcomes everything the president says,” she says, but notes that Trump seems to have high expectations of the EU’s dissolution, which would not be in the interests of Hungary, the analyst suggested.