The Putin visit a day after

Yesterday, shortly after the Putin-Orbán press conference ended, I summarized the events of the day and gave a brief account of what the two politicians had to say about their meeting. My immediate impression was that the winner of this encounter was Vladimir Putin. He received an invitation to a member state of the European Union where he has been a pariah ever since June 2014 and was treated well.

After forming his government in 2010, Viktor Orbán made no secret of his desire to have not only good economic relations with Russia but also close political ties. No country in the western alliance ever objected to trade relations with Russia, but Orbán’s political friendship with Russia has been watched with growing suspicion, especially after the events in Ukraine. During the last year or so Viktor Orbán has been busy trying to appease the European Union while hoping to get added benefits from Russia.

To his domestic critics Orbán’s performance yesterday was embarrassingly subservient. Attila Ara-Kovács, the foreign policy adviser to the Demokratikus Koalíció, described Putin as “a landlord” who came to look around his estate while Orbán the bailiff stood by, awaiting the master’s orders.

Putin’s visit to the cemetery has been drawing very strong criticism. Hungary seems to be in such a subordinate position to Russia that the government is unable to make the Russians change the objectionable word “counterrevolution.”  What happened yesterday was the humiliation of the nation, critics say. Barring the Hungarian media from the cemetery was also troubling.  Did the Russians insist on this? And if so, how could the Hungarian prime minister agree to such an arrangement?

The most substantive criticism of Orbán’s performance yesterday was his complete silence on Russian aggression against Ukraine. Two days after he visited Kiev he stood motionless next to Putin, who was “just rewriting the Minsk Agreement,” as István Szent-Iványi, former ambassador to Slovenia, aptly put it on ATV this morning.  Orbán’s message to the world was clear: “Hungary needs Russia.” That’s all he cares about.

Throughout the press conference he steadfastly supported the Russian position. Today’s editorial in Népszabadság on the Orbán-Putin encounter was titled “Shame.” What did the editorial board of the paper find shameful? The list is quite long. The “strong man of Europe” and “the living statue of bravery” listened while Putin accused the Ukrainians of starting the war and while he called the separatists “aided by Russian regulars armed to the teeth” simple miners and tractor drivers. Orbán didn’t move a muscle when Putin called on the Ukrainian soldiers encircled by Russian and separatist forces in Debaltseve to surrender. He didn’t mention the inviolability of territorial integrity and the sovereignty of a neighboring country. He said nothing about the concerns of the European Union or about the victims of the fighting. In brief, he behaved shamefully. Orbán chose Russia. The die is cast, says Népszabadság. 

What did Viktor Orbán get in exchange? Not much. Gas, which he would have gotten without all this humiliation from Russia, and scorn from the West. Since yesterday we learned that Hungary is paying $260 for 1,000m³, which is apparently higher than the open market price. At least he avoided signing a long-term contract which, given recent price volatility, would have been a particularly bad deal.

Unfortunately, we know almost nothing about what the two men discussed for two solid hours. It couldn’t have been the continued supply of Russian gas to Hungary because that was a done deal before yesterday’s meeting. Viktor Orbán himself admitted today when he talked to a group of journalists that what the deal needed was only the final nod from “the Indian chief.” It also looks as if negotiations about a new pipeline from Turkey to Hungary through Macedonia and Serbia are already underway. Orbán and Putin were completely alone without any of their aides. What did these two men talk about for that long?

Smiles all around

Smiles all around

Fellow politicians are suspicious. Especially since the Hungarian prime minister cannot be relied upon for an accurate account. Here is a case in point. Grzegorz Schetyna, the Polish foreign minister, gave an interview to a Polish radio station yesterday from which we learned that the week before Orbán went on and on about the absolute necessity of meeting Putin in person because of the extremely unfavorable terms of the present gas agreement. Well, today we know that not a word of Orbán’s lament to Schetyna was true. The meeting had nothing to do with a new gas contract.

Finally, another first can be recorded in the history of the Orbán administration. A few days ago Viktor Orbán called together the leaders of the five parliamentary delegations: Fidesz, Christian Democratic People’s Party, MSZP, Jobbik, and LMP. The meeting, of course, didn’t signify any change in the government’s attitude to the opposition, but it looked good. Today’s big news was that Viktor Orbán invited about 15 journalists who cover foreign affairs for a “background talk.” Gábor Horváth, who is the foreign editor of Népszabadság, had the distinct impression that such gatherings had been held earlier but without journalists from opposition papers.  Orbán talked for an hour and was ready to answer questions for another forty-five minutes. The prime minister called Russia “one of the most difficult partners” and claimed that “we would be worse off if we did not work with them.”

I for one wouldn’t take Orbán’s words about his difficult relations with Russia seriously. He seemed to be relaxed and happy on the same stage as Vladimir Putin. He looked as if he were basking in the limelight that he shared with the great man. Here was the president of a strong, important nation who didn’t pester him with checks and balances and democratic values.  Two weeks earlier he looked decidedly unhappy and annoyed when the chancellor of Germany somewhat undiplomatically announced that as far as she knows there is no such thing as illiberal democracy. Most likely he was humiliated and it showed. After he waved goodbye to Putin in front of the parliament building, Orbán and his close entourage looked extremely satisfied with their performance. It was a good day for Viktor Orbán. It started well and it ended well, as far as Viktor Orbán was concerned. Putin also seemed to be satisfied. Whether it was a good day for Hungary is another matter.

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13 comments

  1. If one reads the Ukrainian media about what actually took place in Debaltseve yesterday it is very tragic, Petro Poroshenko and his General staff ordered thousands of Ukrainian soldiers to defend an undefendable position and caused to pointless deaths of hundreds of poorly equipped and trained soldiers. Orban could have at least begged for their lives with Putin yesterday. These soldiers abandoned Debaltseve yesterday in mass and Petro Poroshenko covered up the mass desertion by ordering a retreat while Putin was meeting with Orban. To be honest the Russians could have killed virtually all of these escaping troops if they chose to, luckily the Russians showed some mercy on them while still slaughtering some of them. To read something close to the real story go to
    http://www.kyivpost.com/content/kyiv-post-plus/ukrainian-soldiers-retreat-from-debaltseve-381128.html

  2. A few corrections to the falsehoods and omissions:

    “Since yesterday we learned that Hungary is paying $260 for 1,000m³, which is apparently higher than the open market price.”

    The current gas contract was negotiated in 1996 under the MSZP-SZDSZ government at the time. Hungary pays what is in the contract signed by the MSZP-SZDSZ, so if it is higher it is because MSZP and SZDSZ did not negotiate a market price, but a higher than market price for the gas.

    By the way there is no such thing as “open market” for gas, as gas is not easily portable. You need huge pipelines to transport gas in an effective way.

    “Unfortunately, we know almost nothing about what the two men discussed for two solid hours. It couldn’t have been the continued supply of Russian gas to Hungary because that was a done deal before yesterday’s meeting.”

    Completely false. Not only the gas deal is not a “done deal before yesterday” it is still not completely done. Where are you getting all this false information? What progress was made is significant but not all is done still. Putin gave his OK publicly to rewrite the previous contract in a way that decreases the volume. Without Putin’s approval the previous contract states that Hungary must “take or pay” huge amounts of gas still. Either pay for the gas (20 billion cubic meters) or take the gas (for which there is not enough capacity to store anyway).

    “Here is a case in point. Grzegorz Schetyna, the Polish foreign minister, gave an interview to a Polish radio station yesterday from which we learned that the week before Orbán went on and on about the absolute necessity of meeting Putin in person because of the extremely unfavorable terms of the present gas agreement. Well, today we know that not a word of Orbán’s lament to Schetyna was true. The meeting had nothing to do with a new gas contract.”

    Once again it is completely false. The meeting had everything to do with the gas contract. If Putin does not approve the change in the contract the old contract remains in place.

    The old contract had volumes that Hungary MUST buy. A minimum amount. Take or pay. If Putin does nothing but leaves the old contact unchanged then Hungary would have had to pay for 20 billion c3 of gas by 2015. Per the demands of the current contract. So either Hungary violates the contract (which is unimaginable) or takes 20 billion cubic meters of gas it doesn’t need right now and has nowhere to store it.

    The Russian change to the contract (which is not final yet but was announced by Putin), is extremely neccessary for Hungary.

    Without the change approved by Putin, Hungary would have been in huge trouble.

    Even now the Russians can still change their minds, though that is unlikely because the public announcement. But if they wanted they could hold Hungary to the current contract, signed by MSZP and SZDSZ.

    If the Russians do nothing just demand : “We have a signed contract, you should honor it”. it would have been a disaster.

  3. Orban will build the new South Stream.

    Neither Orban nor Putin are people who give something they decided to do. The West totally mis-under-estimates these people if it thinks South Stream is over. Far from it.

    There are many legal tricks how to get around the EU regulations and with a pipeline based on a new conception they will likely work.

    Hungary’s portion will cost a few hundred billion forints (about 1 bn euros), but this is not an issue if Orban wants it and a construction company in which he holds an interest will receive most of that money. Plus he promised to Putin and he wants to deliver.

    Always remember: from the West there can be no downside to Orban because the EU cannot for all practical purposes cut of financing, while Russia can turn of the tap.

    So Russia is stronger (even if Orban wouldn’t get rich beyond belief in the process) and so Orban will serve Putin.

    “Putin is the man of the future while Europe is the old Europe, the decadent West going down under its debt. It consist only of the Nietschean Last Men.” This is really the belief of Orban.

    The other is Paks 2. The project is on schedule, actually the parties are ahead of it. It is both parties (ie Hungarian politicians’ and Russia) interest to proceed as fats as possible to commit themselves to more and more spending.

    My conclusion is also that this was a hue win-win for Orban andf Putin. For Hungary it was a gigantic loss, however.

  4. Let’s not forget that Paks 2 was to cost 10bn euros.

    With this price tag – which does not include the price of dismantling, the building of the nuclear repository and other necessary building such as one or two Danube dams – the price of electricity would have been 3-4 times (!) as today.

    Now, as we heard yesterday, the price tag is already at 12bn euros.

    How on earth will this project (whose price tag will continue to increase) operate without taxpayer’s subsidies??

    Also, those who think the EU could prevent Paks 2. Orban will NOT care about any decision of the Commission, because Orban knows that the EU cannot physically prevent him from building it, it’s not like the EU will call in the NATO to bomb Paks 2 if it turns out that Paks 2 is against EU competition laws.

    Once it’s been built (half built), even if it costs taxpayers’ money and unlawful subsidies for decades, Paks 2 will have to be operated. The EU cannot do a thing.

  5. Wolfi et al. I just put it up but unfortunately the omitted comments button will not come back. Visit the site now and see whether all is well or not. It should be.

  6. There must have been a very serious disagreement in Warsaw.

    Orban supports Putin and he told it so to the Polish.

    But Hungary is with the winner, so the Polish can get lost.

  7. Nobody’s going to respond to “tram”, the Fidesz troll? I wonder if they wait patiently for each daily post so they can be one of the first to respond to it, at least on days that are especially important for them, for whatever reason.

    Tram,

    First of all, the contract signed almost 20 years ago was probably for gas that was market value at that time. Since then, the market value has gone down.

    Second of all, of course there is a market value, since Hungary can get gas from other places (there is a new pipeline from Slovakia, for example), and Russia is charging lower amounts to other countries. If Orbán had wanted to, he could have bargained the price down. Other countries have done so.

    Thirdly, you claim that Eva is wrong, and that the deal is not completely done, yet you give no source for your claim, unlike her.

    Finally, why did Putin need to come to Hungary to do what his subordinate could easily have done, or what he could’ve done over the phone?

    None of your arguments stand up to logic, including the one about “take or pay”. Hungary would have to pay anyway, whether it takes the gas or not. There is no “or pay”, it’s “take it or leave it, but pay either way”. Besides, we could easily sell or even give the gas to another country, such as Ukraine. The only reason Orbán refused to do that is that he didn’t want to offend his patron, Putin. That’s the main point of the post. You might argue that doing so would go against the agreement in place, but that agreement is against EU rules, so is unenforceable, as the recent gas shipments to Ukraine by Hungary and others proves.

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