Putin-Orban axis assails the EU
By Peter Kreko
Russian president Vladimir Putin makes an official visit to Hungary on Thursday (2 February), only two years after his last visit in 2015.
Hungary is the only EU member state that enjoys such frequent visits from the Russian leader since the annexation of Crimea.
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Putin’s last visit took place at one of the deepest points of the crisis in Ukraine. And since 2014 Orban has annual meetings with Putin - his most important diplomatic ally by far.
Orban had been reserved about his pro-Putin views when talking to European audiences, but these inhibitions have disappeared since the election of Donald Trump.
The Hungarian leader has just called for improving relations and abolishing sanctions towards Russia in Brussels.
In preparation for Putin's visit, a statue commemorating the heroic acts of the Soviet soldiers in Hungary, made by a Russian artist, was erected in Hungary.
It might seem strange for those who remember the earlier part of Orban's career, when he posed as an anti-communist hero and vocal critic of the Russian president. Ten years ago, Orban said: “Putin’s puppies have been proliferated in Europe and everybody starts to realise that this is a danger.”
Now, Hungary's foreign minister Peter Szijjarto called Putin’s visit to Hungary timely, and told Reuters news agency that sanctions against Russia were “useless”.
During a recent visit to Moscow, Szijjarto said: “So far, whenever we tried to work on improving our bilateral relationship, we had to face American pressure not to do it and European pressure not to do it.
“Now ... there will be no American pressure.”
There are a lot of serious issues that Orban should, and could, raise when he talks to Putin.
Such as a Hungarian MEP accused of being a Russian spy, ex-governmental officials with shady Russian links, Russian support for paramilitary extreme-right organisations in Hungary, and the allegations by pro-Kremlin media outlets that the 1956 Hungary anti-Soviet uprising was a “fascist coup” and “CIA plot”, to mention a few.
But Orban won’t mention any of these points - he wants to strengthen the ties instead.
Hungary’s political and economic dependence on Moscow has already increased dramatically due to business deals like the extension of the Paks nuclear facility, which has been overshadowed by lack of transparency and corruption allegations.
After agreeing to building a nuclear power plant with Russian loans in 2014, Putin and Orban now can renew the long-term gas deal between the two countries.
This is crucial for Orban, as he hopes cheap gas can help him deliver his next parliamentary victory in 2018, as it helped him in 2014.
But the “friendship”, as Orban calls it, is not limited to economic and political levels.
Hungary's chief prosecutor Peter Polt has just returned from Russia, where he discussed ways of deepening cooperation with his Russian counterpart.
It included exchanging information and practices on how to “defend the public interest” and "fighting corruption".
At the same time, Orban is conducting a witch-hunt against NGOs in Hungary, using a Russian blueprint.
Other EU countries are friendly towards Russia - Cyprus and Greece and Slovakia for example - but Hungary is the only one that uses Russia as a model in practically every field: ideological, economic and leadership, and all at the same time.
The new age of bilateralism
It is not only Orban’s uninhibited pro-Putin views that are encouraged by the victory of Trump. So is his euroscepticism.
Orban recently welcomed the end of the era of multilateral deals after the presidential election in the US, saying the “age of bilateralism” is coming.
This might sound strange from the prime minister of an EU member state, but it fits well with his scathing attitude to the EU in other areas, such as his characterisation of the Brexit vote as a rejection of “preaching and paralysis” from Brussels.
Trump has also said that Brexit is a "wonderful thing", and his team openly supports forces that want to end the European Union.
Steve Bannon, the chief strategist for Trump, promised to help France's National Front in the forthcoming presidential election, and Bannon's right-wing populist media outlet Breitbart plans to expand into France and Germany.
Orban is openly promoting the European far-right's key points in his speeches, despite his party belonging to the centre-right EPP in the European Parliament.
According to Hungarian media, Orban wanted to meet Heinz-Christian Strache, chairman of the far-right Freedom Party, when he visited Austria in October 2015, but backed down after pressure from EPP.
Orban hopes that the current crises will sweep away the old European elite, and a new Europe, characterised by “truth-teller” politicians such as Le Pen, Strache and Geert Wilders (all are his fans) will emerge.
One in which he can live out his ambitions to become an official, or non-official, leader of Europe.
Orban and far-right politicians echo the same slogan, inspired by Trump: "Make Europe Great Again".
Enemies of the European Union
While the United States is strong enough to survive the Trump presidency, the EU might not be able to withstand the multiple threats it faces.
The EPP, which has just secured the European Parliament presidency, has a special responsibility in saving the mainstream.
The first step should be defending the EPP itself from threats among its own ranks.
While commentators have suggested that the EPP should expel Orban's Fidesz party, it would do much more harm than good. Fidesz would lose all its inhibitions.
Instead, the EPP should put more pressure on Fidesz, as they did successfully when it made Orban abandon his idea of reintroducing the death penalty.
Instead of defending Orban, the EPP should draw clear lines - otherwise Orban will continue his policies, and the party's political rivals and enemies will be strengthened.
Putin’s warm welcome in Hungary, ignoring the EPP line, might be a good opportunity.
If the EPP does not act, Orban’s prophecy could come true: “In the years to come, the mainstream will follow precisely the course that Hungary has set forth.”
Peter Kreko, Visiting Professor, Indiana University; Senior Associate, Political Capital Institute.