As Russia's flag flew from the Hungarian parliament in Budapest on Tuesday evening, Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán signed energy pacts that will pull the Eastern European country further into the Kremlin's orbit.
With the rift between Moscow and the rest of the Europe Union growing, this was Putin's first trip to a EU country since June, when he visited Austria — and since he made an early exit from the G20 summit in November after he was shunned by Western leaders over his role in the Ukraine crisis.
Here, he received a considerably warmer welcome. The EU has repeatedly warned Hungary's self-proclaimed "illiberal" prime minister over his country's democratic backslide. Orbán has reacted to the criticism with dismissive remarks that Europe is in decline and that an "eastern wind" is blowing. As Europe attempts to maintain a united front on sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Crimea, the EU will surely see Orbán's meeting with Putin as the Hungarian PM breaking rank once again.
Hungarian Democratic Coalition leader and former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, who received Putin on his last visit to Budapest in 2006, called on Orbán to end "his peacock dance between Moscow, Brussels and Berlin … because Hungary has committed itself to its alliances within the European Union."
"The only interests served by the visit were Putin's, because it demonstrated a breaking of the boycott against him," Gyurcsány said.
At a press conference after the talks, Orbán said Hungary is "fighting to find the solutions" to improve relations between the EU and Putin. "I am confident that our good relations are good for Hungary and the whole of Europe," he added. "The isolation of Russia from Europe is not feasible."
Putin, for his part, hailed a Ukraine peace plan agreed last week that is to address the constitutional status of the country's east. He said that "autonomy, devolution, centralization, or whatever you call it" would be "a new chapter in the history of Ukrainian statehood."
Putin and Orbán signed a total of five agreements. These included the training of Hungarian nuclear scientists in Russia, setting up a Hungarian high consulate in Kazan — the capital of the Tatarstan autonomous republic of the Russian Federation — as well as pacts on healthcare, higher education and regional cooperation. Orbán also secured an extension to an energy contract originally signed in 1996, reaching an agreement that Hungary will not be charged for unused gas. However, when asked for details, Orbán admitted the deal had only been made "in principle."
They also spoke of their intent to work out a successor to the South Stream project, a planned pipeline to bring Russian gas to southern Europe which has been dropped after EU resistance. One possibility eyed by the pair was an extension to a proposed Russian pipeline into Turkey, to pump the gas through Greece and the Balkans to Hungary.
Orbán's cocksure demeanor was much different than it had been two weeks earlier, when German Prime Minister Angela Merkel had visited Budapest and questioned his rejection of Western liberal democracy. He had cited Russia as a desirable model for building an "illiberal" democracy.
"Not all democracies have to be liberal," Orban had said. "Those who say that democracy is necessarily liberal are trying to put one school of thought above the rest and we're not going to grant that privilege."
Merkel responded in her press conference that the two leaders had spoken about "the issue of democracy and its attributes," adding that "honestly, I can't put the words 'illiberal' and 'democracy' together."
She had also addressed Orbán's targeting of NGOs perceived to be critical or politically opposed, underlining that "this form of civil engagement is (the West's) strength and the reason for our success."
Days after Merkel and Orbán's talks, the German leader paid a hastily scheduled trip to Moscow on February 6, where she met Putin alongside French Prime Minister Francois Hollande in an attempt to broker a ceasefire in Ukraine. An agreement was eventually reached six days later, in Minsk, although forces on the ground have continued fierce fighting, especially in the town of Debaltseve where battles raged beyond the February 15 deadline until Ukrainian forces withdrew on Wednesday.
Nevertheless on Tuesday evening Orbán once again openly opposed the EU sanctions against Russia, imposed after the invasion of Crimea, in the latest of a series of positions he has taken against the EU's official line on Russia.
Orbán claims the new energy deals he has signed with Russia are merely addressing geopolitical realities. However there is widespread disapproval at home and abroad over the €10 billion ($11.4bn) loan from Russia which Budapest has taken out to pay for a Russian company, Rosatom, to expand Hungary's only nuclear power generator. Orbán signed the deal with Putin in a shock move last January. There has been criticism about the lack of transparency regarding the agreement; last and Hungarian MPs were on Wednesday asked by the government to debate making all documents related to Paks Stage II secret for 15 years.
'Viktor, are you not ashamed of yourself? With tomorrow's handshake you are going to become one with those who exhumed Imre Nagy's corpse in 1961 and buried it face down and tied up in an unmarked grave.'
After landing in Budapest, where streets across 11 districts had been shut down, Putin made for Heroes Square, where he honored the memory of Russian soldiers. Such an event was once unthinkable. In 1956, Soviet troops brutally repressed a popular uprising in occupied Hungary, killing up to 3,000. Once the Soviet Union lost control of Hungary's government in 1989, it was at Heroes Square that the nation collectively mourned their dead in public for the first time, and reburied former Prime Minister Imre Nagy who had been executed by the Soviets for treason in the wake of the uprising.
Orbán, then a 26-year-old liberal activist, gave an impassioned speech to the 100,000-strong crowd at the reburial, denouncing Communism and demanded that Soviet troops leave the country.
However according to a recent interview with the historian Gyula Kozák, the US ambassador at the time had been told that Russia had agreed to withdraw Soviet troops the day before — and this historic moment of defiance could also be considered the first opportunistic masterstroke of Orbán's career.
Orbán's popularity has plummeted in the polls since the fall, and civil opposition against him is growing. The evening before the Russian leader's visit, up to 3,000 people had marched against the perceived "Putinization" of Hungary under Orbán in an event entitled "Putin Nyet, Europe Yes". The protesters symbolically walked from Budapest's Keleti (Eastern) station to a stage at the Nyugati (Western) station, behind a truck blaring out The Beatles' Back in the USSR and Kraftwerk's Radioactivity. The protesters carried signs with such slogans as "Who wants Paks II? No One" and "Stop Putin".
Anti-Putin protesters waved the EU flag. (Photo via Reuters)
Margaryta Rymarenko, one of several Ukrainians from Crimea who joined the march, spoke to the crowd from the podium.
"The price we pay for this is inconceivable to a European state, more than five thousand dead and more than a million homeless," Rymarenko said. "It's a great shame that we only started understanding our rights when they were being taken away from us."
Hungarian activist Márton Gulyás, himself a victim of the NGO crackdown that began in 2014, addressed Orbán directly. "Viktor, are you not ashamed of yourself? With tomorrow's handshake you are going to become one with those who exhumed Imre Nagy's corpse in 1961 and buried it face down and tied up in an unmarked grave."
Sandor Megyaszai, a 36-year-old IT professional at the protest, told VICE News that he was there "because our leader is a friend of Putin and wants to make the country a friend to Russia. We don't think this is good for us, and we want to belong to Europe."
He added that Orbán's friendship with Putin can be as perplexing to Hungarians as to outsiders. "Maybe he wants to tell Europe that he has the possibility of moving between the forces of power, or maybe it's about good business deals for his friends," he said.
Aside from the beneficiaries of state business, Megyaszai claimed, the only remaining supporters of Orbán's conservative Fidesz party are "people who think of politics as more like a religion."
VICE News spoke to another marcher, 66-year-old Gyöngyi, who said she has already lived in one dictatorship, and believes the current Hungarian regime is returning to the bad old days. "Orbán and Fidesz are halfway to dictatorship, and this halfway is the theme of the Putin Nyet, Europe Yes demonstration."
She said the former prime minister , Gyurcsány, is partly to blame for Hungary's current lack of options.
"Many people were very hopeful about him when he became prime minister in 2004," she said. "He made too many mistakes: he said communications are not important, but communications is the most important, and Fidesz are so good at it."
Passing Blaha Luzja Square, where many of the city's homeless congregate, Gyöngyi added that "there is great poverty here, and the gap between rich and poor is growing every day."
She recalled: "In 2010 the people wanted a strong hand, not a dictator, but a strong man. But within weeks we already knew it would be terrible. We have to wait three years till the election, that is the only way for us, we have no other choice."
However, that other choice may be even more pro-Russian than Fidesz, as MPs from the radical right-wing Jobbik are currently Hungary's second most popular party with 20 percent support. Their leaders have made regular trips to Moscow and even acted as observers at the "elections" in the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Lugansk back in November.
'The new 'Eastern winds' doctrine was soon renamed, reportedly after the Prime Minister's Office realized (that) if eastern winds are blowing, ships usually sail westward.'
A Jobbik MP, Marton Gyöngyösi, told VICE News that his party fully endorses Orbán tying Hungary's energy future to Russia. He also heartily embraces the Eurasian doctrine of Kremlin ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, describing him as a "good friend."
Dugin is also known as "Putin's Brain", and repeatedly pushed for the invasion of Ukraine.
Gyöngyösi argued that Putin was not the aggressor in Ukraine. "It was not Putin who started this war," he said. "The West started it when Victor Yanukovych refused to sign the EU association agreement. The forces in Ukraine are pursuing ethnic cleansing in that country with the backing of the West."
"The CIA, George Soros (the US-Hungarian financier) and other Western interests were all backing the rioters," he claimed.
Karoly Füzessi, a member of the Human Platform umbrella NGO, which organized the demonstration, remains hopeful about rebuilding a democratic opposition in Hungary.
"I hope with the Human Platform we will create a toolkit for educating activists in organizing demos, civil disobedience, anything, and to have a well defined knowledge base for this, so that it can be self sustainable and can go on its way," he told VICE News.
"If I go outside a techno party to smoke a cigarette, people come over to me to talk about politics, and this is a development. If you go to New York, within five minutes you might be in a conversation about Obama's new policy or whatever, and this should be normal," Füzessi added. "If you want to change something then somebody has to be in power, so this is the question of the next five years."
There is also opposition forming within Fidesz foreign policy circles. Last year Orbán fired 200 foreign office employees and recalled scores of ambassadors, placing inexperienced party members into senior posts, not least his former personal spokesman Péter Szijjártó, 36, who is now foreign minister.
VICE News has obtained a document in which several of the experienced, sidelined former diplomats slate the Orbán government's Eastern Opening policy — a planned move to reduce trade ties with the West — as an exercise in incompetence, starting with the name itself. The document states: "The new 'Eastern winds' doctrine was soon renamed, reportedly after the Prime Minister's Office realized [that] if eastern winds are blowing, ships usually sail westward, or north or south, but definitely not to the east, i.e. against the wind."
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