A month ago the Hungarian public learned that Viktor Orbán would pay a visit to Moscow sometime in February. Rumors began to fly about the reason for this visit, especially since government sources emphasized that the invitation came from Vladimir Putin. Later this story was modified: a year ago, when the Russian president visited Budapest, the decision was made to hold personal meetings at least once a year.
Most observers suspected that this meeting had something to do with the Paks II nuclear reactor project, which will be financed by a Russian loan of €12 billion and built by Rossatom, a Russian state company. What the commentators were unable to decide was whether it was Russia’s desire to scrap the whole project, given Russia’s exceedingly difficult financial situation, or to speed it up. It’s been stalled because the European Commission keeps coming up with objections. In fact, final EU approval of the project is still up in the air.
A few days later Hungarian papers began talking about another important reason, from Putin’s point of view, for such a meeting. The Russian president is looking for “allies”, whom Orbán’s critics would call Trojan horses, in the European Union, countries that would champion lifting the economic sanctions currently in force against Russia.
Then, on January 22, sputniknews.com announced that “Hungary plans to buy about 30 Russian helicopters with the value of the contract expected to reach $450 million.” The announcement was made by the spokesperson for Russia’s Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade. Putin is a tough negotiator, and it has been clear for some time that Russia wants something in return for that €12 billion loan. That’s why Budapest’s M3 metro line, which would badly need a total remake, including new cars, will have the old Soviet cars restored by a Russian company. The price of the job keeps going up and already exceeds the price of brand new western-built subway cars.
Although Hungarian papers kept bringing up the subject of Russian helicopters, by now the idea has been dropped, probably as a result of a warning from the United States. Népszabadság learned a few days ago that in the last couple of weeks the United States “through diplomatic channels called the attention of the Hungarian government to the fact that the purchase, for both security and political reasons, would be unfortunate.” After all, Hungary is a member of NATO, and it is customary for a NATO country to buy weapons and military vehicles from other NATO countries. It seems that Orbán got the message.
Hungarian government sources, as usual, said nothing about the topics to be discussed in Moscow today. Again, the Hungarian public learned only from Russian sources that “the parties intend to discuss the possibility of increasing bilateral cooperation which will include the prospects of development of economic and trade relations, promotion of joint projects in energy and high technology, as well as cooperation in the cultural and humanitarian spheres.”
Ahead of the meeting the well-informed government propaganda paper Magyar Idők pretty well “predicted” what the talks would be about. The economic influence of Russia in the region of former communist countries has declined considerably in the last year. A few years ago Russia was among the most important trading partners of these countries. Russia has lost about €7 billion in trade with the region. All of these countries realize the dangers of depending on Russian energy sources and are trying to lessen any negative impact. This is dangerous both economically and politically for Russia. In brief, Putin needs Orbán. Therefore, it is unlikely that the Paks II project is in danger.
No earthshaking announcements were made after the Putin-Orbán meeting, and I don’t think that much more was discussed during their talk than what we learned during the press conference. Before the meeting there were a few polite introductory words by both Orbán and Putin. Orbán as usual went too far with his remarks. He uttered only a couple of sentences, but the message was not the best. After emphasizing Russian-Hungarian friendship he added: “It may sound immodest, but we can say that all that is good in our relationship is our doing and what is not, is not [our fault].” Turning against the European Union so openly is despicable. One could also question the wisdom of Orbán’s saying that “without good Russian-Hungarian relations the Hungarian economy and Hungarian industry would be unable to function.” Emphasizing Hungary’s dependence on Moscow is not the best strategy. Despite all his bravado, Orbán’s inexperience is occasionally confounding.
During the press conference Orbán said that Russia is a useful partner of Hungary and expressed his delight at the yearly high-level meetings planned between President Putin and himself. He finds it a miracle that in these difficult times Russian-Hungarian friendship is becoming ever better. Orbán seems to have promised to intervene on Putin’s behalf when it comes to the renewal of the sanctions this summer. At least one could surmise this from his remarks at the press conference. In fact, this may have been the primary reason for the meeting: asking Orbán to raise his voice against the sanctions. Putin told the reporters that he and Orbán discussed “the possibilities of the revival of a full-fledged dialogue between Russia and the European Union.” And Putin said that he greatly “appreciates the efforts of the Hungarian leadership and Viktor Orbán himself.”
With the exception of Jobbik, all opposition parties condemned Orbán’s pilgrimage to Moscow. Attila Ara-Kovács, DK’s foreign policy advisor, charged Orbán with denying all European values and cooperation and accused him of “throwing the country’s energy independence” to the wind by making a secret agreement with Russia. Együtt considered the meeting not only superfluous but also troubling in the current international situation, a day before the summit in Brussels. LMP, as a green party, naturally concentrated on the issue of Paks II which, in the party’s opinion, should be scrapped altogether. According to MSZP, Orbán should have made clear at the press conference that Hungary is a trustworthy member of NATO and the European Union. The MSZP spokesman hopes that Orbán didn’t receive “party instructions from Moscow a day before the summit.”
From the Hungarian point of view this meeting was unnecessary and most likely injurious as far as the country’s relations with her allies are concerned. Suspicions about Viktor Orbán, which are already abundant in western political circles, will most likely intensify. But Orbán probably had no choice but to show up in Moscow. This is what happens when one is in the embrace of the Russian bear. With his decision sometime in late 2009 to turn to Russia to expand the Paks nuclear power plant on Russian money, he became the messenger boy of Vladimir Putin.