Russian sanctions

In a tight spot: Orbán’s Hungary between Russia and the European Union

The last time I talked about the Hungarian government’s attitude toward the the Ukrainian crisis was at the beginning of March when, most likely as a result of Polish urging, Hungarian foreign minister János Martonyi joined his Visegrád 4 colleagues and condemned Russian action in the Crimea. Soon enough, Zsolt Németh, undersecretary in the ministry, called in the Russian ambassador to express Hungary’s disapproval of Russian aggression. By that point I thought that Hungary would remain resolute in defense of Ukraine. But something happened between March 4 and 18, when Hungary retreated from its earlier position.

The Council of the European Union released a statement in which it stated that “the EU does not recognize the illegal ‘referendum’ and its outcome.” The EU and the U.S. agreed to impose sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials considered responsible for the referendum. Sanctioning would proceed in three stages, with the final stage including economic sanctions.

In an interview with CNN on March 18 János Martonyi indicated that Hungary would be a very reluctant participant in any action against Putin’s Russia. If an economic conflict were to develop between the EU and Russia, “one of the EU national economies hit most would be Hungary due to its vulnerability to energy supplies.” A few days later Viktor Orbán claimed that they checked all the numbers and indeed Hungary would be a huge loser if economic sanctions were leveled against Russia.

In fact, it seems that Hungary is one of the three most reluctant EU members when it comes to taking a stance against Russian aggression. The other two countries are Greece and Cyprus. Both Greece and Hungary depend on Russia for about 50% of their energy needs while Cyprus, though it doesn’t need Russian gas, does want its oligarchs’ money. As Judy Dempsey, the well-known journalist, remarked, “Cyprus’s reluctance is linked to its status as a lucrative parking place for Russian money.” In the same article she stated that “East Europeans aren’t united either. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who recently signed a major nuclear energy contract with Russia, has played down the entire Ukraine crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In contrast, the Baltic states are so afraid of their giant neighbor’s appetite that they are taking a tough line despite a total dependence on Russian gas.” (For a complete list of the EU member states and their respective attitudes toward Russian sanctions, take a look at the chart in Judy Dempsey’s article.)

Well, there is playing down and playing down. At the outbreak of the crisis Viktor Orbán announced that “Hungary is not part of the conflict.” Just before the March 6 summit Orbán released a statement in which he made no reference to Russia at all. He announced that the topic in Brussels will naturally be Ukraine but added that “for us the most important consideration is the security of Hungarians in Subcarpathia.” It is “from this viewpoint that we look at the events. By sending the foreign minister to Subcarpathia we wanted to make sure that the Hungarians there know that they can count on us.”

Last Thursday Orbán had a chance to talk with Angela Merkel before the start of the summit. The meeting, in the presence of Péter Szijjártó, lasted half an hour during which, I’m certain, Orbán wanted to convince Merkel to refrain from additional sanctions. Originally 21 Russian and Ukrainian individuals were barred from entering the EU and their bank accounts were frozen. It seems that Orbán wasn’t persuasive enough because Merkel, who was keen on adding 11 more persons to the list, managed to convince her colleagues to embark on the second stage of sanctions against Russia. After the meetings Orbán announced to Hungarian journalists that the issue of Paks didn’t come up. In his usual cocky manner he announced that “there is nothing to discuss in this connection. It is a closed issue.”

In the end Orbán, representing Hungary, signed the agreement that cites Ukraine’s desire to become part of the European Union sometime in the future. The Hungarian prime minister made it clear, however, that minority rights in Ukraine are his primary concern. If the language law that would have curtailed the free use of Hungarian in Subcarpathia had been enacted, he wouldn’t have signed the document. He added that the Ukrainians must conduct a meticulous nationality policy and that at the same time the Ukrainian government must restrain the nationalistic far-right elements within the country.

He then turned to his ideas about the most desirable source of energy, which in his opinion is nuclear power. In this respect, he is following the lead of Great Britain. And that takes me to a newly published article on CNBC’s website by Javier E. David. The author argues that “the new Cold War brewing between Russia and the U.S. has the potential to go nuclear–just not in the conventional sense.” As a result of the Ukrainian crisis, a debate developed as to whether the United States can use natural gas to counter Russia’s global ambitions. But “some experts say the real front in the global energy battle lies not in oil and gas, but in the arena of nuclear technology.” According to the World Nuclear Association, Rosatom is building 37 percent of the new atomic facilities currently under construction worldwide.


The article cites Barbara Judge, former chairperson of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, who describes the situation as follows: “The Russians view nuclear as an excellent export product. . . . They are using it as part of their plan to establish themselves as a geopolitical power.”  How do they achieve this? By lending poorer countries money. “Countries that need nuclear often do not have the funds to pay for it.” By financially helping these countries purchase nuclear technology, Russia “is using that money as a lever to open the door.”

It is because of these considerations that Viktor Orbán might be mistaken and that, after all, the case of Paks might not be closed.