Monday

17th Feb 2020

Orban-Putin summit to test meaning of EU sanctions

  • Orban has said Europe 'shot itself in the foot' with Russia sanctions (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

Hungary’s Viktor Orban will host Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Budapest next month despite an EU decision to “not hold bilateral regular summits”.

The Hungarian foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, announced the visit, to take place on 17 February, on Hungarian radio on Wednesday (21 January).

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  • Putin in Austria: What is a 'bilateral regular' summit anyway? (Photo: kremlin.ru)

"We will have bilateral and geopolitical issues on the agenda, including the energy security of central Europe. Energy issues have become more urgent with the shelving of the South Stream pipeline”, he said.

“Ukraine will be on the agenda too”, he added.

"It’s clear that the European sanctions and the Russian measures in response have hampered trade and economic ties between the EU and Russia, and it's true for Hungary and Russia as well.”

A 'working visit'

The event is being billed as a “working visit” rather than a fully-fledged state visit, meaning less elaborate protocol.

But it is proving controversial, with at least one Facebook page launched the same day calling for anti-Putin protests when he arrives.

For their part, EU leaders, including Orban, at a summit last March said in their conclusions that “member states will not hold bilateral regular summits [with Russia] for the time being”.

The diplomatic sanction came after Russia annexed Crimea.

But the crisis quickly got worse with Russia’s covert invasion of east Ukraine.

It got worse again on the eve of Szijjarto’s announcement, with the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, telling the BBC on Tuesday that “Russian [military] equipment” in the past 48 hours is being massed in south-east Ukraine in what he called a “significant escalation”.

Pariah status

Hungarian diplomatic sources downplayed the severity of the EU ban in comments to EUobserver.

They noted that EU leaders keep meeting with Putin despite his pariah status.

The Austrian chancellor invited him to Vienna last June and the Finnish president met him in Sochi, in south-west Russia, in August.

British, Italian, and German leaders also met him in the margins of international events in France, Italy, and Australia, or, as in the case of French president Francois Hollande, in a stop-over at a Moscow airport.

Hungarian diplomats said the 17 February event is not a “regular” summit on Hungary-Russia ties, but a “special” event based on Hungary’s proximity to the Ukraine conflict.

They added that Orban is co-ordinating diplomacy with fellow EU leaders: German chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Budapest on 2 February, while Orban will go to Warsaw and Kiev before meeting Putin.

The EU institutions also showed sympathy.

“The main target of the diplomatic sanction at the time [last March] were the regular EU-Russia summits, which have been suspended”, an EU source said.

The contact added there is “no definition” of what is a “bilateral regular” summit: “We have to consider, on a case by case basis, whether any given meeting is in the spirit of the diplomatic sanctions”.

Sanctions to expire

Orban has publicly criticised EU sanctions on Russia.

He also tried to defy EU legal objections to building South Stream, a Russian gas pipeline bypassing Ukraine, before Putin abruptly cancelled the project in December.

EU sanctions on Russia will begin to expire from March onward unless there is a consensus to extend them.

EU diplomatic sources earlier told this website that Russia is targeting Hungary, Cyprus, and Italy as potential veto-wielders.

But Szijjarto, at a foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels on Monday, toed the German line, telling press “there can be no positive change” unless Russia abides by the so-called Minsk ceasefire accords.

He added on Tuesday: “It’s in Hungary's interest to have a strong and stable neighbour, and for the conflict to be resolved through negotiations as soon as possible. For that to happen, all sides must respect the Minsk agreement”.

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