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14th Aug 2020

Hungary's Orban defends close ties with Russia

  • Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin have met for the fifth time since 2016 (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban defended his close ties with Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday (30 October) after the two discussed trade and gas deals in Budapest.

"Hungary is a member of EU and Nato, will remain so, but that does not exclude political cooperation on certain issues," Orban said after the meeting with Putin.

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While Putin's influence in Hungary has unsettled some western countries, Orban argued that Hungary's geographical position forces it to cooperate with large neighbouring powers.

"The basis of our political cooperation is a very simple geographical fact, that no country can change its house number," Orban said.

"We live in a Berlin-Moscow-Istanbul triangle," he added.

Orban welcomed that trade turnover between the two countries has grown in 2019, the first time since EU introduced sanctions on Russia over the annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014.

Orban has often criticised the EU sanctions - although Budapest has always agreed with fellow EU countries to the rollover of those measures.

Putin said they "exchanged our opinion on normalisation of relations between Russia and EU".

The two also discussed gas deals, with Hungary aiming to join the TurkStream, a pipeline planned by Russian state-owned Gazprom. The pipeline would carry gas from Turkey through Bulgaria and Serbia.

It would make Hungary a major transit country, and decrease Ukraine's role as a supply route for Russian gas to Europe.

Nevertheless, Orban also said that he wants to diversify sources for Hungary, which now heavily relies on Russia for its own energy needs.

"Now we source from Russia a lot, but we would like to source from elsewhere too," Orban said, adding that Hungary does not want to rely on one single transit country, referring to Ukraine.

Ukraine block

Nato efforts to build closer relations with Ukraine have been hampered by Budapest, which since 2017 has blocked meetings between Nato and Ukrainian ministers.

Hungary's foreign minister Peter Szijjarto said on Wednesday that Hungary has vetoed a joint Nato declaration on Ukraine.

Hungary wanted the document to include a reference to its neighbour's obligation to fully respect the rights of ethnic Hungarians living there.

Budapest has repeatedly clashed with Ukraine over the rights of roughly 150,000 ethnic Hungarians to use their native tongue, especially in education. Orban said Hungary will not give up on the rights of these Hungarian minorities.

But Hungary's tense ties with Ukraine cast shadows over plans by incoming commission president Urusla von der Leyen to give the enlargement portfolio to Hungary's commissioner.

Illiberal summits

It is the fifth time since 2016 that Orban and Putin, who both criticise western liberal values and crack down on critics at home, have met, making Hungary one of Russia's closest allies within the EU.

Russia's state-owned Rosatom is also building a nuclear plant at Paks, in return for a €10bn credit line from the Russian state.

Orban has also facilitated the relocation of the International Investment Bank from Moscow to Budapest in September, granting wide-ranging diplomatic immunity for most of its staff.

The bank is suspected for being a vehicle for Russian intelligeece-gathereing, and has raised concerns in the US congress as well.

Next week Budapest is hosting another 'illiberal' leader, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after he praised the Hungarian prime minister for his "support" for Ankara's military operation in Syria recently.

Hungary held up a joint EU statement condemning Turkey's incursion earlier in the month.

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