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Why Vladimir Meets Viktor

Putin’s visit to Budapest is yet another signal of changing loyalties and orientations – once unthinkable just a few years ago. 

by Martin Ehl 1 February 2017

Vladimir Putin will arrive in Budapest on 2 February. That simple sentence written in this fast-moving and unpredictable Trumpian world actually carries a lot of weight. It is about common European values and the stance 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.


The Kremlin’s divide-and-conquer strategy within the EU – with destroying European unity as the prime goal – has been working 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.


Take Hungary. Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto was correct when he said that Barack Obama’s departure from office marked the end of an era. The behavior and actions of the Hungarian government and entrenched establishment, represented by Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his governing Fidesz party, provide a view of the new – a welcoming platform for traditional Russian geopolitical strategies. Among other things, Putin plans to talk about energy projects, such as the two new blocs of the Paks nuclear power station that Russia will build and help finance through a construction loan.  


Also a possibility on the agenda could be “correct” tactics to tackle unfriendly NGOs, as Orban and his minions have been searching for new enemies since anti-refugee and anti-Muslim passions have cooled down a bit – especially with elections around the corner in 2018 (though, it must be said, Fidesz so far has no real competition other than the far-right Jobbik party, easily managed by pumping up the nationalism).


In this black-and-white world, where the new U.S. president sets his own standards for dividing people, there is a need for a clearly pictured enemy that can be blamed for anything one can imagine.


One choice target in recent weeks have been Hungary 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. As refugees served as the main enemy and mobilizing factor in 2015 and 2016, this year it seems to be NGOs. And that’s where Putin can lend 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 Trump's victory everything seems possible in the Western world. Hungary – where Orban scored his biggest victory already back in 2010 and started his conservative-nationalistic revolution – should be seen as a trend-setter, and its developments as predictions of what could happen elsewhere.


I know that will not make my Hungarian friends happy, but their country is finally at the top of this new avant-garde of nations that are providing guidance on how to turn a hopeful liberal democracy into an authoritarian state – with a little help from Moscow friends.


Putin's trip to Budapest is not important because of any breaking news or images on TV, but because it might give another long-term signal of changing loyalties and a backtracking on devotion to the European project. Something else could emerge in its place, a frightening perspective of a new era of nation states where small countries in Central Europe might – again – be grabbed and divided among big powers.

Martin Ehl is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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