Sunday

23rd Jan 2022

Opinion

Putin-Orban axis assails the EU

  • Viktor Orban recently said the “age of bilateralism” is coming. (Photo: EPP)

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • The EPP should draw clear lines to rein in Orban. (Photo: EPP)

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.”

New attitudes

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.

Energy cooperation

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.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Crude World

Why Putin's union doesn't want to work with the EU

The EU should not dismiss institutional cooperation with the Russia-led economic association. But Moscow's previous behaviour with Ukraine and Moldova shows it won't let its neighbours turn too much to the West.

Macron's vision will hit EU Council veto buffers

President Emmanuel Macron's address to the European Parliament championed a bold and ambitious pro-European agenda. There is one problem though - the plans rely on a system of governance that has gridlocked the EU for over a decade.

Tomorrow MEPs can end EU animal export horror show

On Thursday, MEPs must press for a ban on all live exports outside the EU, and call for overall journey times within the EU to be limited to four hours for poultry and rabbits, and eight hours for other animals.

News in Brief

  1. 'No embargo' on meetings with Putin, EU says
  2. Austria to fine unvaccinated people €3,600
  3. MEP: Airlines should start paying for CO2 sooner
  4. Twitter forced to disclose what it does to tackle hate speech
  5. EU watchdog calls for ban on political microtargeting
  6. MEPs adopt position on Digital Service Act
  7. Blinken delivers stark warning to Russia in Berlin
  8. Hungary's Orbán to discuss nuclear project with Putin

Gas and nuclear: a lose-lose scenario for Eastern Europe

The strong advocacy of Central and Eastern European capitals for including fossil gas and nuclear power in the EU's green taxonomy only leads to another unsustainable energy lock-in for the region, leaving their grid exposed to third-country coercion.

Latest News

  1. Lawyers threaten action over new EU gas and nuclear rules
  2. MEPs urge inclusion of abortion rights in EU charter
  3. EU orders Poland to pay €70m in fines
  4. Dutch mayors protest strict lockdown measures
  5. Macron promises strong EU borders
  6. MEPs to crackdown on digital 'Wild West'
  7. Macron calls for new security order and talks with Russia
  8. Macron's vision will hit EU Council veto buffers

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us