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21st May 2022

Allies keep close eye on Orbán's Moscow visit

  • Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has previously criticised the EU's sanctions regime against Russia (Photo: Council of the European Union)
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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on Tuesday (1 February) is heading to Moscow for a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin as the EU and Nato seek a united response to the military threat from Russia on the borders of Ukraine.

The trip comes after the divisive Hungarian leader attended a meeting of ultranationalist European parties in Madrid. Hungary neighbours Ukraine, where there's a large ethnic Hungarian minority.

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Hungary is both an EU and Nato member, but Orbán has been labeled as Putin's Trojan horse in the EU for his close relationship with Putin.

Orbán has also drawn criticism from Hungary's domestic political opposition, which called the visit - coming three months before the national elections in April - harmful and contrary to the national interest.

Orbán in the past has criticised EU sanctions on Russia - although his government has not vetoed them - and Hungary has also been the only EU member state to use Russia's Sputnik Covid-19 vaccine despite it not yet being approved by the EU's medicines regulator.

Orbán has been relatively quiet about the recent escalation around Ukraine. Last Friday, he said in his regular radio interview that "we have an interest in maintaining peace".

His foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó told the Hungarian pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet that "nobody can request" that Hungary cools relations with Russia in the current circumstances.

Szijjártó blamed Ukraine for "depriving" ethnic Hungarians of rights and for being provocative. That, he said, makes it difficult for Budapest to help Ukraine "even in this conflict" with Russia.

Message in Moscow

However, critics are concerned that Putin will use Orbán to sow further splits within the EU and Nato.

"This trip can have an easy benefit for Putin to show the division among EU and Nato members, while it carries diplomatic risks for Orbán," Péter Krekó, analyst with the Budapest-based Political Capital thinktank told EUobserver.

"In terms of timing, Orbán does not seem to care about being portrayed as someone who is implementing Putin's will," he said.

European allies will be watching Orbán's message in Moscow closely.

An EU official recalled that EU leaders often engage with Putin - French president Emmanuel Macron had a phone call with the Russian leader last Friday - so Orbán's visit is not per se out of the ordinary.

The EU policy is to reach a solution through dialogue with Moscow. Orbán himself said he would be coordinating with EU allies before heading to Moscow.

"There is no problem, if he channels the strong EU position on EU unity in light of Russian provocation, delivers a strong warning on planned EU measures in case Russia escalated, explains to Putin how unacceptable this behaviour is, and convinces him to de-escalate," an EU official said.

"If he only goes there to talk about Russian investments in Hungary, that is a proof of non-European behaviour," the official added.

However, according to Orbán's foreign minister, this is what he plans to do in Moscow.

Gas, nuclear and space

Szijjártó said last week the agenda would include Hungarian gas purchases from Russia, production of the Sputnik vaccine in Hungary, talks on the long-delayed nuclear plant Paks II, which Russia is building, and space policy.

Controlling energy prices has been a key political campaign message for Orbán for several years, and he has blamed current high energy prices on the EU, a consistent scapegoat for Orbán.

Russia and Hungary concluded their long-term gas deal last September, but the terms remain under wraps, so any claim for victory by Orbán will be hard to check.

Paks II, the nuclear plant to be built by Russia, partly from loans with Russia, whose construction has been delayed for five years, and still faces administrative hurdles amid serious concerns over it lying on an active seismological fault line.

The issue of Russia is divisive within Fidesz and among Orbán's far-right and conservative allies as well.

In the rightwing parties' final statement on Sunday, the Polish version included a line on the Russian threat, while - in French - it did not. French far-right leader Marine Le Pen has been accused of receiving funds from Russia.

Hungary's 1956 uprising against communism, which was crushed by Soviet tanks, remains a part of the national consciousness, and makes many in the country uneasy about Orbán's support for Putin.

Orbán himself began his political career when he called for Soviet troops to leave Hungary in 1989, as a student opposition leader.

"The problem is that Viktor Orbán subordinates the relationship with Moscow solely to his own personal material and political interests," Hungary's joint opposition candidate Péter Márki-Zay said in a Facebook post.

"Viktor Orbán betrayed our historical traditions, his '48 and '56 martyrs, the country's millennial dream: Western integration," he wrote.

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