Five points on the 11th (or, taking 2009 into account, the 12th) Orbán-Putin meeting
The timing of the Orbán-Putin meeting was unfortunate and its only visible benefit to the Hungarian cabinet is that the PM himself could claim that his personal relationship with Vladimir Putin is the foundation of the utility cost cuts enjoyed by Hungarians. Hungary’s diverging diplomatic path was on full display: while most EU or NATO member states, including those from the CEE region, condemn the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy one after another, the Hungarian premier lashed out against the EU’s sanctions policy concerning Russia. This – just like similar Hungarian statements diverging from those of western allies – are making Hungary the prime example in Russian state media’s narratives. For Russia, the key point of the meeting was that President Vladimir Putin could condemn the West without backlash in the presence of an EU and NATO member state’s head of government.
Political Capital’s five points on the 11th (or, taking 2009 into account, the 12th) Orbán-Putin meeting:
- Focus: Russia brings utility cost cuts to Hungarians. The Hungarian prime minister continues to position Hungary as a bridge between the East and the West, and he justifies close Russian-Hungarian relations by allegedly mutual economic benefits. Viktor Orbán especially counts on the Kremlin’s help in keeping energy prices low, using the Putin meeting as a campaign event in this regard: the foundation of the PM’s narrative is that only his relationship with President Putin can help maintain low utility prices (while, as we hear every day in pro-government media, “the pro-EU opposition would serve the interests of Brussels and raise energy prices”). Vladimir Putin helped Orbán's campaign by emphasizing how favorable a price Hungary has to pay to Russia.
- Unfortunate timing. Although the above-mentioned campaign message is important to the Hungarian ruling party and there are issues the two sides must discuss (even on the highest level), it is not truly understandable why the meeting could not be delayed until after the election and after tensions calm regarding Ukraine. The issue of Paks II is a great example: based on the article of Direkt36, the Hungarian Atomic Energy Office (OAH) will not grant the establishment permit of the two new nuclear blocs until professional concerns with them are not addressed, so Russian pressure to start the construction as soon as possible is unlikely to achieve much. Naturally, it is a question what the two leaders talked about besides those announced to the press, which could have made the meeting timelier for the sides.
- On a different diplomatic path: Hungary as an anti-sanctions battering ram. The timing of the meeting was more beneficial to President Putin due to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Some of Hungary’s western allies followed PM Orbán’s visit to Moscow with substantial concerns. A group of MEPs stated that the meeting is a threat to the European Union’s foreign policy. It is an interesting detail that NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg spoke to PM Orbán on the phone when the latter was already in Moscow, so the Kremlin is likely to have knowledge of what they discussed. All in all, Hungary’s diplomatic room for maneuver has become rather small; even its allies from the CEE region made strong statements in support of Ukraine – while Budapest’s rhetoric is not so clear. Therefore, Hungary’s role as a “bridge” is losing its meaning and the West is viewing Budapest more as a Trojan Horse of the Kremlin than an engine aiding dialogue. On the joint press conference of the two sides, the Hungarian premier did not only fail to confront Putin, who is the aggressor in the Ukraine-Russia conflict, but once again condemned the EU’s sanctions policy against Russia (which Hungary too approves regularly in the Council), saying it was a tool doomed to fail. Additionally, members of the Hungarian government described their visit to Moscow as a “peace mission” designed to help dialogue between the East and the West, but – naturally – important decision would not be made in the Russia-Hungary format. Regardless, if there is no war between Kyiv and Moscow, PM Orbán would depict himself as the peacemaker – even if Russia continued moving forces near Ukraine during the meeting.
- Hungary is the golden child of Russian state media. Hungary’s policy on Russia is even making the cabinet’s communication less and less confused. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, for instance, approved an EU statement condemning Russia for threatening Ukraine, only to proceed to condemn the EU’s Russia policy immediately afterwards. Minister of Defense Tibor Benkő made a statement supporting NATO and emphasizing Hungary’s loyalty, only moments after declaring that Hungary needs no further NATO forces in its territory and highlighting that Hungary is blocking Ukraine’s NATO membership. The Kremlin’s propaganda channels eagerly await any such statements not conforming to the western mainstream to use as proof of a lack of western unity. Dmitry Peskov talked about the simple fact that the Orbán-Putin meeting would take place along these lines, praising Hungary for its “independent” decision.
- Russia’s demands against NATO raise the question of sovereignty. Vladimir Putin got another opportunity to disseminate the Kremlin’s viewpoints uncritically in the presence of an EU and NATO member’s head of government. For example, he could state in the presence of Viktor Orbán that it seems unlikely the military alliance would take Russia’s demands into account – which, importantly, would essentially terminate Hungary’s NATO membership (backed by 85% of Hungarians in 1997). The Hungarian premier himself did not publicly condemn the Kremlin’s plan, did not argue for Hungary’s sovereignty. Putin’s statements served as proof to his domestic and international audience that there is a country in the EU and NATO whose stance is closer to Russia than to the West.