Opinion | How Putin’s Visit to Hungary has Changed the Game in Europe

An unspectacular visit by Vladimir Putin is an important measure of the growing pressures on a united Europe

On February 2, Vladimir Putin arrived in Budapest. That simple sentence written in this fast-moving and unpredictable Trumpian world actually tells us a lot.

It is about common European values and an attitude toward a regime that wages wars in Europe to satisfy its power dreams. It is about old-fashioned nationalisms that have now become more attractive because they offer easy answers to complex problems of globalization. It is about energy dependency and hidden energy deals. And it is about new power games that are played out in international politics.

This was the third time Putin had met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in three years. But it was not a warm welcome; even the body language of the Hungarian host was colder than expected. Still, Putin called Hungary a “trusted, stable and solvent” partner.

He is right. There are not so many EU countries that openly welcome him on home soil and that want to make deals with Moscow – like the €10 billion for two nuclear blocs in Paks power station financed by Moscow without a public tender.

With us or against us

The Kremlin’s divide-and-conquer strategy within the EU – with destroying European unity as the prime goal – has been working all too well. This year there are many opportunities during a heavy electoral season in the Netherlands, France, Germany, and possibly Austria and Italy. But the post-communist countries in Central Europe are still the easiest targets for Russian influence, corruption attempts, and propaganda.

For many, like Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, Barack Obama’s departure marked the end of an era. The behavior and actions of the Hungarian establishment, represented by Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party, provide a view of the new – a welcoming platform for traditional Russian geopolitical strategies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, second left, leave a news conference after a signing ceremony at the parliament building in Budapest, Hungary. // © www.picturedesk.com / AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

They had expected their Russian guest to push the topic of lifting EU sanctions, at least officially. Then it was a new gas-delivery deal to begin in 2022 when the current one expires. Politically inflexible, Hungary has been unable to set up any viable alternative with the EU, so it is dependent on Gazprom, which is also using Hungarian storage capacity as a backup. A contract for the Budapest subway was also on the table.

Putin himself, used the opportunity to attack the Ukrainian government, while Orban held back on the issue of sanctions, saying only that Hungary has lost €6.5 billion. Solving political issues by economic means, he said, was not working.

What he really intends we will see at the EU summit in March where the sanctions are on the agenda. So far, Budapest has held to the EU line.

At the press conference, neither leader spoke about the one topic that united them: how to handle the troublesome NGOs. With elections around the corner in 2018, Orban has in fact been searching for new enemies, as anti-refugee and anti-Muslim passions have cooled down a bit.

No news is good news

In this black-and-white world, in which the U.S. president is setting new standards for dividing people, there is a need for a defined enemy that can be blamed for anything that goes wrong.

One choice target has been the NGOs funded by Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, now apparently considered by Fidesz as a major enemy of the state and his Open Society Foundation as an important political player.

And that’s where Putin can give some real advice, as the Russian government is experienced in crushing local NGOs and cutting them off from their foreign partners.

A Hungarian-Russian alliance is one of those things that seemed improbable only a few years ago. But after the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s victory, anything seems possible in the West. Hungary should be seen as a trendsetter, and its developments as predictions of what could happen elsewhere.

On Putin’s trip to Budapest there was no breaking news, no images on TV. In the end, it was all pretty much as expected. But it was another signal of changing loyalties, and of backtracking on the European project. In its place is a frightening, new era of nation states where small countries in Central Europe might – again – be grabbed and divided among big powers.

In this sense, Russia is playing its Hungarian card very well.

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Martin Ehl
Chief International Editor of the Czech economic daily Hospodářské noviny and a syndicated columnist writing on Central European issues.

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