Hungary’s reception of Putin earlier this week – however publically understated – demonstrates fractures in the EU’s posture towards Putin. Though sharing not only a border with Ukraine but also a deep-seated distrust of things Russian, Hungary can’t afford the language of political lambast that comes so cheaply to those further West.
In what was his first visit to an EU leader since June 2014, Putin arrived in Hungary Tuesday afternoon with plans to strengthen ties between Budapest and Moscow. Though historically their relations have been “psychologically” strained – if not outright violent – Putin seems increasingly eager not only to align with Prime Minister Victor Orban but to invest more deeply in Orban’s self-proclaimed “illiberal state,” via the energy sector.
As Hungary’s largest trading partner outside the European Union, Russia currently provides an estimated 85% of Hungarian gas. With its 1996 agreement on gas supplies to expire this year, Hungary is seeking simultaneously to balance its economic interests (i.e. stable supply of natural gas) and its political commitments to the European Union. In the eyes of many in Hungary, it’s starting to look a bit like “a peacock dance between Moscow, Brussels, and Berlin.” Not only did Orban just host German Chancellor Angela Merkel two weeks prior to Putin’s arrival to discuss the Ukraine crisis, he first established himself in politics as both virulently anti-communist and anti-Russian.
For this reason, Victor Orban has tried to downplay his relations with Moscow. Unlike Belgrade which organized a 3,500 person military parade on Putin’s behalf last year, Orban’s endeavored to depict Putin’s visit as an almost non-event. That said, subtleties don’t exactly work when Putin is involved. Nearly 2,000 protestors crowded the streets of Budapest Monday evening shouting “Putin no! Europe yes!” and many have chastised Orban’s Fidesz party for forgetting Hungary’s history. Nonetheless, Orban has proceeded with plans to borrow $10 billion from Russia’s Rosatom to update Hungary’s outdated nuclear power plant, Paks, as well continued to negotiate a series of new energy deals.
While Orban has defied other EU members with his strategic ambivalence and frustrated many Hungarians, “Putinization” is certainly not unique to Hungary. The Czech Republic, Serbia, and Slovakia alike have had to reconcile their interest in being aligned politically with the West with their de-facto dependence on the Russian economy/energy market. For some, being a Russia critic is expensive. That said, the bigger question is just how much Russia will be willing to pay for its point of view. While it might be able to buy influence in the short term through more favorable energy contracts, it is arguably not a sustainable or universal strategy.
In the infamous words of Russian President Vladimir Putin, “Sometimes it is necessary to be lonely in order to prove that you are right.” Though a memorable maxim, when understood in the context of Eastern Ukraine it seems largely nonsensical. Russian efforts to cajole support from others in Eastern Europe – most recently Budapest – illustrate Russia is unprepared to effectively go it alone in face of the European condemnation. Furthermore, Hungary – despite its superficial condemnation of Russian aggression in the Ukraine and its official support for EU sanctions – has demonstrated that Russia’s being in the “right” might not matter all that much, either.