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3rd Dec 2016

Hungary: EU sanctions on Russia unlikely to be renewed

  • Orban (l): "Russia is not an enemy of Hungary. It’s our partner" (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Hungary has predicted that EU economic sanctions on Russia won’t be renewed after they expire in mid-2016.

Speaking alongside Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Wednesday (17 February), Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban said: “This year, by the middle of the year, there will be no easy way to prolong sanctions. More and more countries share this opinion.”

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He noted that he is a “loyal member of the EU.”

He added: “I’m now stating the Hungarian position. But others are also contemplating the issue of sanctions. They believe there’s a need for cooperation [with Russia] and I believe there’s a need for cooperation.”

“Russia is not an enemy of Hungary. It’s our partner,” he said.

Putin also on Wednesday said he believed that “sooner or later this will happen - we will normalise relations between Russia and the EU.”

The EU sanctions are linked to fulfilment of the so-called Minsk ceasefire accords.

The accords, endorsed by France and Germany, say Ukraine must devolve more power to its regions via constitutional change and hold local elections in war-torn east Ukraine.

They also say Ukraine must get back control of its Russia border and that all “foreign” troops must leave.

The latter provisions are aimed at Russia amid widespread evidence of its involvement. But Russia attended the Minsk talks as an observer because it doesn’t admit to being a party to the conflict.

Picking up on the point, Putin said it’s Ukraine’s fault that Minsk isn’t being fulfilled because Kiev hasn’t passed the devolution and local election laws yet.

“To link the lifting of sanctions with the final resolution of the [Minsk] process is useless because the ball today isn’t in Russia’s court," he said.

EU states extended the economic measures for six months in late January. But they will require consensus to be extended again in July.

EU diplomats are currently in talks to also extend for six months a separate blacklist on 149 Russians and Ukrainians and 37 entities designated for undermining Ukrainian sovereignty.

For his part, French PM Manuel Valls at a congress in Munich last week also told Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev that France is ready to restore ties.

“I would like our economic relations to have a new boost. We used to hold regular inter-governmental meetings at the prime ministerial level, and I think they should be resumed,” he said.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, told a meeting of her centre-right CDU party on Tuesday that she would like “rather today than tomorrow” to lift the economic measures, CDU officials told the Reuters news agency.

She added that conditions on the ground are not yet ripe, however.

An EU diplomat told EUobserver on Wednesday that Orban is right in saying more and more capitals want to return to business as usual with Russia.

“It remains to be seen how long Merkel can keep to her line before the narrative of the SPD takes over,” he said, referring to the centre-left and Russia-friendly Social Democratic Party (SPD) party in the German ruling coalition.

The diplomat, who comes from a pro-sanctions EU state, noted that EU foreign relations chief, Federica Mogherini, whose native country, Italy, also advocates better Russia relations, has been “very disappointing” on Russia.

He said a "possible compromise" would be to keep the economic measures but to take some of Putin's associates off the EU visa ban and asset freeze list.

He added that political infighting in Kiev, which nearly saw its PM step down this week, “doesn’t make it any easier to be a friend of Ukraine in the [EU] Council.”

The close relations between Hungary and Russia are based, to an extent, on economic ties.

Putin noted on Wednesday that the two states are building joint gas storage facilities and that Russia is to loan Hungary 80 percent of the €12 billion cost of constructing a nuclear power plant.

Putin and Orban also see eye to eye on refugees, which they describe as a threat to European civilisation.

Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria has prompted tens of thousands of people to flee towards the EU in what some European diplomats see as a deliberate attempt to weaken EU leaders.

But Orban said on Wednesday: “Hungary also suffers from the refugee crisis and we highly value the efforts of Russia to help solve this crisis.”

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