Paks, the European Union, and the Russian threat

It looks to me as if Viktor Orbán has managed to maneuver his country into an untenable position between Russia and the European Union. It has taken five years, but he has succeeded in making Hungary the target of both Moscow and Brussels.

First, he tested the patience of the European Union, which under José Manuel Barroso’s presidency seemed infinite. After a while, drunken with success, he imagined himself to be a statesman who could be an equal player on the world stage with the leaders of the dominant EU countries.

At first, he was satisfied with waging verbal battles with unsuspecting western diplomats unaccustomed to Viktor Orbán’s way of dealing with those who stand in his way. Later, he decided to solicit “an ally” who would add weight to his words. The desired Hungarian “sovereignty,” in his myopic worldview, could be achieved by balancing Russia against the European Union.

Viktor Orbán did not realize that the world around him had changed in some fundamental ways. Vladimir Putin had over the years acquired the unsavory reputation of being a reactionary autocrat, one of the many his country managed to produce over the centuries. As far as the West was concerned, doing business with Russia was fine, but having cozy relations with the lord of the Kremlin was definitely not. And Orbán in his usual fashion went out of his way to ingratiate himself with Vladimir Putin, just as he did with the leaders of China while the West watched warily. Their concern only grew when Putin annexed the Crimea and incited a rebellion in the mostly Russian-inhabited areas of Ukraine. But it was too late for the EU. Orbán had already committed his country to having Rosatom build two new nuclear reactors with the help of a Russian loan. And it was also too late for Viktor Orbán. His quest for an “independent” Hungarian foreign policy was doomed as soon as it became apparent that the West would not take the Russian aggression against Ukraine lying down.

It wasn’t only the Russian-Ukraianian conflict that changed the political landscape. There was something else that Orbán didn’t take into consideration. Last November Barroso’s presidency came to an end and with it perhaps Brussels’ lackadaisical attitude toward Viktor Orbán’s antics. The front runner, Jean-Claude Juncker, was the worst possible choice as far as the Hungarian prime minister was concerned. Orbán, following David Cameron of Great Britain, voted against him in the European Council, but the two of them remained in the minority. The reason for Orbán’s opposition was that it was known that Juncker supports a stronger,  more unified European Union, the last thing Orbán wants. What was even more worrisome was that Junker named Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands to be his first deputy, and Timmermans was known to be an outspoken critic of Viktor Orbán’s illiberal views. Orbán found himself in a very uncomfortable position because there were signs that the European Union, with an entirely new leadership, would at last crack down on Hungary’s repeated infringements of EU laws.

This change in attitude on the part of the EU might finally have arrived. Those familiar with Viktor Orbán’s political tactics might consider his references to the death penalty no more than a PR move to boost his flagging popularity and steal votes from the neo-Nazi Jobbik party, but I think it was one of the issues that made the European leaders have second thoughts about giving Orbán so much leeway. In addition to withholding billions of euros from Hungary, this is the first time that an official of the European Commission talked about Article 7 as a real option in connection with Hungary for “solving crises and in the interest of holding on to the values of the European Union.”

Vladimir Putin and Sergey Kiriyenko, May 5, 2015 TAA / Photo Alexey Nikolsky

Vladimir Putin and Sergey Kiriyenko, May 5, 2015
TASS / Photo Alexey Nikolsky

And now comes Vladimir Putin’s bizarre conversation with Sergey Kiriyenko, head of Rosatom. First of all, although this conversation took place in Putin’s office and looks like a private conversation, it was shown on Russia’s state television. Surely, it was meant to be a message for a wider audience. The conversation was about the Paks nuclear power plant. According to Putin, “we offer good terms and advanced technology, so, if the partner is forced to refuse [to cooperate], which they could have done, it would be damaging to Hungary’s national interests.” Kiriyenko assures Putin that “we have received confirmation from the government of Hungary that all the agreements are in force on a wide range of projects…. Everything has been confirmed and coordinated and the contract is coming into effect.”

Practically all the Hungarian media interpreted Putin’s words as a threat to Hungary. One exception was the official “Híradó” (News), which provides news to Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió. There the headline read:”Putin is worried about Hungarian national interests.” The other exception was “Pesti srácok” (Kids of Pest), a far-right Fidesz Internet site, which claimed that “Putin is satisfied with the Hungarian government’s stand against the European Union,” a blatant misinterpretation of the conversation between the two men.

Although the available translations are rather poor and the subordinate clause “which they could have done” is not at all clear, I believe that Putin either suspects or knows that the European Union has already put pressure on Hungary and that Hungary might have to abandon the project. János Lázár has repeatedly assured the country that all is well and that work will begin on time, but these assurances were probably not grounded in reality. Although Euratom eventually approved the plan to have Russia supply fuel rods for the new reactors, there are still serious hurdles for Hungary to overcome. Negotiations are in progress and, judging from Putin’s unusual “conversation” with Kiriyenko, they might not be going well.

Not surprisingly, the Orbán government didn’t respond to Putin’s warning to Hungary and the European Union. Most likely the spin doctors are planning an appropriate response and perhaps tomorrow János Lázár, in his usual Thursday morning press conference, will say that all is well with Paks, the European Union, and Rosatom and that he doesn’t know what all the fuss is about.

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May 6, 2015 11:06 pm

Thank you, Eva, for the footage from Russian TV. Let me try to translate Putin´s key sentence (verbatim):
Had they (the EU) forced the partner (Hungary) to decline (the Russian offer), that is quite possible (for the EU) to do, but it would be to the detriment of the national interests of (that same) Hungary.
No threat to Hungary whatsoever. Slight disappointment, déjà vu feeling, skepticism caused by EU pressure.
You still understand Russian, don´t you…

May 7, 2015 12:21 am

You know I have to say Mr. Putin’s relationship with Hungary is sort of like a masterful and shrewd Russian carpenter building a Trojan Horse right in Central Europe.

We can note in this instance ‘pragmatism’ looks like it’s working in both ways. But for the sake of Magyarorszag and Europe I hope it’s a horse that never runs. But from the Russian perspective, I’m sure that a race indubitably will be in the cards. They always play to win.

I’d say Magyarorszag will have to pay a bit down the line for this portentous relationship. Like Ringo Starr said, ‘It Don’t Come Easy’. Come to think of it was anything ‘easy’ for the country throughout its history?

May 7, 2015 12:30 am

Watched the film: didn’t understand a word. But they looked like two, calm, figures ready to roll up their sleeves before the disection…

May 7, 2015 3:48 am

Let’s brainwash kids and adults too.

“Paks 2 must be part of the elementary and adult education”.

May 7, 2015 8:59 am

Eva I have to say I have a very negative perspective on the EU in relationship to Ukraine. If it were not for the Baltic states, Poland, and the USA I believe the sanctions would have never been imposed to begin with. The Scandinavian nations which have a well known reputation for pushing diplomatic solutions between the great powers have become more hostile to Russian aggression than either Germany or France due to Russia’s repeated violations of their territories by military probes. Orban’s deal making with Putin has some friends in the EU whose central concern is the profit to be made in trade with Russia.

May 7, 2015 11:20 am

Re: ‘Orban’s deal-making’..

I’d think Orban and some of his friends in the EU don’t want to pass up ‘riches’ from that Eurasian Union coming out of Putin’s head.

One thing about Vlad he always wants Europeans to be always cognizant of having choices to make in both the eco and political spheres. He always wants them to do something.

Janos Bukarester
Janos Bukarester
May 7, 2015 11:29 am

The Baltic states, Poland and Romania to be accurate.

May 7, 2015 10:00 am

The staging of the ‘discussion’ involving Vladimir Putin and Rosatom’s Sergey Kiriyenko reminds me of the staging of the ‘interview’ of Viktor Orbán by Zsolt Bayer.

Certain details are missing for me. What is the basis for the EU opposition to the Paks project as it is currently envisaged?

If everything else were the same (the financing, the nuclear-reactor design, other details) would the EU accept Paks if Canada, for example, were doing it. In other words, is this about ‘anybody else but Russia’?


May 7, 2015 12:21 pm

Paks 2 makes no financial or indeed any sense whatsoever (we don’t need the extra energy etc., etc.).


(A) Hungary indebts itself financially directly toward the Russian government, whose reputation for acquiring political influence in the region is by now clear.

(B) Hungary chains itself to Russia not only financially but as regards energy matters too.

What is this if not treason??

Will Paks 2 hurt EU’s long-term political interests if Hungary will be a Russian agent within the EU and NATO for the next 6-7 decades? I guess this is what the bureaucrats in Brussels must figure out.

May 7, 2015 1:23 pm

“Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said he was ready to consider financial help for debt-stricken Greece, so long as Athens signs up to a project to bring more Russian gas to Europe.”

May 7, 2015 3:25 pm

The head of the MSZP in Tapolca becomes a Jobbik-supporter. The Left is so finished in rural towns.

May 7, 2015 4:41 pm

Horribly OT
Latin lesson
Teacher: What does panis et circenses mean in Hungarian?
Pupil: Starvation and football