Vladimir Putin’s Visit to Hungary: Defying the Sanctions

The current relations between Russia and Hungary are about pragmatism and mutually beneficial approaches, not ideology. Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s commitment to building closer ties with Russia is obvious.

The two countries have converging styles, views and values, for example, conservatism. Both sides were able to get what they wanted from Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Budapest without hurting each other. Russia seeks to show that it is not isolated from the outside world, that even within the European Union there are countries willing to engage in constructive dialogue with Russia and establish normal pragmatic relations despite the challenging international environment. It should also be noted that this is only the second visit by the Russian leader to an EU country since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis.

What is Hungary looking for? Primarily, business opportunities and energy. The main objective for Hungary is to show that apart from the EU and Euro-Atlantic cooperation there are other influential countries ready to support Hungarian policies. Although Hungary is part of the EU and a NATO member, it has still been able to develop a special relationship with Moscow in recent years. It seems to me that Russia hopes to strengthen and improve these relations. Energy-related issues take center stage since the gas supply deal expires this year. The question of whether this contract will be extended is crucial for Hungary. According to the EU’s new rules, new gas supply deals are to be agreed upon with the European Commission, and, at least in my opinion, the European Commission would oppose a new contract with Russia.

Hungary is a small country facing many challenges, not least economic ones, but meetings like the one with Vladimir Putin and other leaders can help it overcome some of those challenges. Two weeks ago Angela Merkel visited Budapest, and in two weeks Turkey’s Prime Minister is expected to come here. Viktor Orban has already met twice with Serbia’s leader; in addition, last week, the Polish Foreign Minister was in Budapest. On February 19, Hungary’s Prime Minister is to meet the Prime Minister of Poland. All in all, Hungary is seeking to strike a balance between the Russian Federation and its allies within the European Union and NATO. We are trying to explain to everyone what we want, why we are engaged in dialogue with Russia, why we do not agree with the European Union in some matters, and have differences with the United States.

Hungarian diplomacy made a mistake in putting too much emphasis on neoliberalism. When Orban speaks about neoliberalism, this does not mean that we are trying to mimic Russia’s or someone else’s regime. What he means is that a neoliberal approach to overcoming the European and global economic crisis leads nowhere. Hungarian diplomacy now understands that they need to explain why the country acts in one way or another. We are navigating and trying to strike a balance, and never intended to leave the European Union or to “rock the boat.” Of course, we do have an opinion on some issues, we express it and are even ready to engage in debate when, for example, discussing sanctions against Russia. Viktor Orban said in private that he is seeking to establish good personal relations with heads of state as a way to promote ties and mutual assistance. This goes for the sanctions and other developments. We hope that the more countries understand that sanctions are inefficient and lead nowhere, the better the chances that Europe will change its stance on this issue.

One of the main outcomes of the visit by the Russian President to Hungary was the political decision to retain Hungary as a transit country for Russian gas. The visit yet again proved Hungary’s commitment to energy cooperation with Russia, its main energy supplier. Hungary supported the South Stream project until it was cancelled, and is ready to remain a transit country for Russian gas, and supports the construction of a pipeline to Turkey. Russia has now shifted its focus to the new Turkish Stream pipeline and on creating a natural gas hub on the border with Greece for southern European consumers.

I often see references to the “Eastern bloc” in Russian media. In the geopolitical sense, an eastern union is being created around Russia, which so far has had tactical objectives, but could potentially pave the way for strategic cooperation. This is not a matter of public discussion, although it is well known that relations between Russia and the United States provoked tensions within the European Union with Hungary on one side of this divide, Poland on the other, and Germany somewhere in between. Another five or six countries are on our side. Slovakia pretty much shares Hungary’s views, but it faces strong pressure from the United States.

As for Vladimir Putin’s policies, they are heavy-handed and conceived exclusively to serve Russia’s interests. What he needs to do is get out of the current crisis in Ukraine, while saving face, which is not a trivial matter. I hope that there is a chance to avoid war, and Russia has a key role to play in this respect. The European Union believes that stepping up pressure against Russia is necessary. But I think that pressure on Kiev should also be increased. Otherwise the sought after result will never be achieved.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.