Vladimir Putin Checks-in With Viktor Orbán

Int’l Relations

Back in September 2004, I was driving on a motorway through the Hungarian countryside when I came up behind a police convoy escorting a vehicle with diplomatic plates. I knew it must be a “high value principal”, as they say, from the way the half a dozen or so police escort vehicles kept swapping position. They did not look like they would appreciate the idea of me overtaking, so I dropped my speed to match theirs and simply held station.  

Quite soon after, another car came up at pace behind me and did try to pass the convoy. One of the police cars simply moved further out into the fast lane, blocking the way, and the driver backed off and left at the next junction. A little while later, the police convoy pulled off and, to my surprise, the driver of the last car waved his thanks to me. 

It was only when I got to my destination I realized the convoy must have been that of German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who was making a two-day visit to the country meeting, among others the German-Hungarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce (then led by Elek Straub, CEO of what was then still called Matáv, rather than Magyar Telekom), the outgoing Socialist-backed Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy, who announced his resignation earlier that August (following a government coalition crisis prompted in part by the revelation of his past as a spy for the Hungarian secret services), as well as his nominated Socialist successor, Ferenc Gyurcsány. Those name makes it all seem a very long time ago.

But what struck me was how discreet this was; a small convoy moving through Hungary with little fanfare. I am writing this on Wednesday afternoon (October 30), just ahead of our print deadline. On my way in along the M3 motorway this morning, I passed a massive police convoy heading in the opposite direction, presumably taking the welcoming committee out to Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport to greet President Vladimir Putin. The convoy was huge, the biggest I have yet seen in Hungary, though given that I also had to concentrate on driving, I soon lost count.

Since the M0 to the M3 were linked up, by far the quickest route into Budapest from the airport is along that northeastern corridor. You can always tell when a foreign dignitary is visiting; from where the two motorways meet (midway between Fót and Rákospalota) all the way into Budapest, every junction has at least one police vehicle, every bridge is patrolled by at least two policemen on foot. Official visits consume a small fortune in policing costs alone nowadays.

Hungary and Russia have a complex relationship, marked by (depending on whose language you find more appropriate) liberation, occupation, revolution and repression. But Hungary lacks the size of Poland, say, which has a shared history, and has to be mindful of its large eastern neighbor.

Russian Minister of Health Veronika Skvortsova said recently that Moscow considers Hungary an important partner in Central Europe, and noted that annual bilateral trade between the two countries had risen by 30% in the past two years to USD 7 billion, according to nepszava.hu.

Hungary would certainly like to do more business, but is being frustrated in that aim. At the recent Inspiring Hungary conference organized by the Hungarian Investment Promotion Agency, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó complained of EU hypocrisy that had seen trade between the Visegrád Four states and Russia held back by sanctions introduced following Russia’s actions in Ukraine, while he said France and Germany had actually increased their share.  

Diplomatic sources say there isn’t actually much to discuss on this visit, one describing it more as an exercise in checking in with one another. Clearly, Russia matters to Hungary. Given its place in Central Europe, the EU and NATO, Hungary holds more strategic significance for Russia than its size might otherwise indicate.  

Robin Marshall


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