Orbán’s Move Towards Putin 

For the seventh time since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

 

 

Hungary’s national conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is one of the most vocal critics of Western sanctions against Russia. The relationship between the two countries has a strong economic foundation, especially in the form of a gas supply contract. On the 30th of October Hungary and Russia signed several agreements on social security, sport and the economy during a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Budapest. According to Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, the consultations with Moscow did not jeopardise Hungary’s loyalty to its NATO and EU partners. How is the EU dealing with these split tendencies?

 

The main topics of Vladimir Putin’s visit to Budapest are expected to be Russian gas imports from 2021 and the conflict in Syria. Under Viktor Orbán, Hungary has experience of supporting Russian energy projects, both nuclear and fossil. The country has long been dependent on Russia for its energy policy. This dependence will increase further as soon as the Russian natural gas giant Gazprom completes the “Turkish Stream Pipeline”, which will bring Russian natural gas through the Black Sea and Turkey to the EU border. A branch of the pipeline is to supply Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary and Slovakia with gas.

The new pipeline, which will transport Russian natural gas to Central Europe bypassing Ukraine, is politically attractive for both Orbán and Putin. With it, transit fees amounting to billions to be paid to Ukraine would no longer apply. Even with the expansion of the Hungarian Paks nuclear power plant financed by the Kremlin, Hungary will become increasingly dependent on Moscow.

Both heads of government are suspicious of Ukraine and are said to have influenced US President Donald Trump’s attitude towards the country. During his visit to the Oval Office in May, it is said from well-informed circles that Hungary’s Prime Minister deliberately put Ukraine in a bad light with the US President.

Orbán has repeatedly criticised EU sanctions against Russia in the past. At the EU summit at the end of 2018, however, he did not veto the extension of sanctions. This could change in the future if, for example, the German federal government were to weaken its previously firm position on this issue.

 

Orbán Praises Turkish Offensive in Syria

Viktor Orbán has repeatedly expressed understanding for the Turkish military operation in northern Syria. It will help prevent another “flood of refugees” who would otherwise flee to Europe. Orbán is vehemently opposed to immigration, has barbed wire fences built against refugees and is stepping up action against non-governmental organisations providing support for refugees. A few days ago, he called on the EU to provide Turkey with financial support for the development of infrastructure in the Turkish-occupied territories of northern Syria.

Hungary under Viktor Orbán is thus the only EU member state to support the Turkish invasion of northern Syria. Orbán, who has been in power for almost a decade, has already often come into conflict with Brussels – for example because of his refusal to admit migrants within the framework of an EU quota system or his efforts to tighten state control over the media and academic institutions in the country.

Russia’s course is clear: Putin uses every difference of opinion between the EU Member States to weaken the European Union. Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is a grateful target here. Orbán, for his part, uses the threat of a deeper rapprochement with Russia to persuade EU partners to give in again and again – according to the motto: “Treat me well, otherwise I’ll take another step towards Moscow.”

Orbán has already met the Russian head of state seven times since the Ukrainian crisis began. The more Orbán foments the conflict with the EU, the greater the chance for Russia under Vladimir Putin to influence the diplomatic balance within the EU in his favour.

However, neither head of state can change the geographical situation: Hungary is and remains a central state in Central Europe and thus in the EU: strategically, culturally and economically. A change in policy must come from Hungary itself, through its voters and its population. Last week’s local elections give hope that the country is on the move. The fresh political forces victorious in the big cities should be encouraged by the other Member States at all levels. The European Parliament has a major role to play here. And the EU itself should use the “Article 7 procedure” opened against Hungary to defend the Hungarian constitutional state and to put an end to the reduction of pluralistic diversity forced upon it by Orbán. The European community of states owes this to itself, but also to those Hungarians who continue to actively stand up for an open society, democracy and the rule of law.

 

Toni Skorić
Project Manager Central Europe & the Baltic States