Yesterday the Russian ambassador to Hungary, Vladimir Sergeyev, when asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Hungary, basically repeated what Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been telling the Hungarians in the last few days. Putin’s visit to Budapest is nothing out of the ordinary. The main topic of the talks will be “the extension of a long-term contract” that will ensure the uninterrupted flow of natural gas from Russia to Hungary. The contract is due to expire this year, hence the urgency of the negotiations. Sergeyev emphasized that Putin’s visit has nothing whatsoever to do with “the overall situation in the world and the tension we now observe.” In addition to energy questions, the two leaders will discuss “cooperation in tourism and culture.” All this sounds utterly innocent until we get to the last sentence: that the talks are designed “to give a strategic impetus” to the future development of relations.
Viktor Orbán, although he is usually quite tight-mouthed, also indicated, perhaps unwittingly, that “over and above the question of energy, we must strive for a truly balanced relation. That’s why we invited and welcome President Putin.” These sentences indicate that the conversations will go beyond economic relations. Suspicion is growing in Budapest that the “urgent issue of the gas supply from Russia” is only an excuse for a visit by the Russian president. The real reason is what Ambassador Sergeyev called a “strategic impetus” for closer relations between the two countries. And that is a political, not an economic issue.
Let’s return briefly to Lajos Simicska, the oligarch to whom Viktor Orbán owes his rise to power but who is no longer Orbán’s friend. In his interview with Magyar Narancs Simicska told the reporter that after the April elections he had a long conversation with Viktor Orbán, during which the prime minister outlined his “plans,” which Simicska did not like. Among other things, Orbán shared his views of Russian-Hungarian relations, which Simicska found odious. He expressed his disapproval of Orbán’s scheme, saying: “No, I don’t like it at all. I grew up at the time when the Soviet Union was still here and I don’t have pleasant memories of the activities of the Russians in Hungary. I can’t really see any difference between the behavior of the former Soviets and the political behavior of today’s Russians.” I am sure that Simicska’s anti-Russian feelings are genuine. He was known for his intense dislike of the Soviets even as a high school student. This antipathy most likely had something to do with his father’s involvement in the Revolution of 1956 and the reprisals the family suffered as a result. If his old friend Viktor had talked to him only about economic ties and a secure supply of gas, surely Simicska wouldn’t have reacted so negatively.
No, it is becoming clear that the urgent negotiations about a long-term gas contract are only a smokescreen. Although it is true that the current agreement will expire at the end of June, the flow of gas will not stop. According to the present contract, Gazprom is obliged to supply gas to Hungary for at least two more years. Perhaps three. Fifteen years ago, when the contract was signed, energy consumption was higher than it is now. The contract specified a certain amount of natural gas between 2000 and 2015, but that amount hasn’t been used up. So why is this deal suddenly so important to Orbán? Why does he think that he will be able to get the best deal from Gazprom thanks to Putin’s good offices? What did Orbán promise to Putin in exchange for cheap gas? Will he get cheap gas and, if so, at what price? Will Rossatom’s building of the two new reactors at Paks be enough for Putin in return? Or will Orbán be ready to sell or rent the storage facilities he purchased earlier from the German firm E-On to Gazprom? Most important, why is Orbán so keen on a special deal with Gazprom when by now Russia’s monopoly on the gas supply to Europe is broken?
Some observers even claim that it is not to Hungary’s advantage to sign a long-term contract with Russia because the current market price of natural gas is actually lower than what Hungary is paying for Russian gas. Hungary is paying between $350 and $400 for 1,000m³ of gas; on the open market it sells for $300. Moreover, as I already noted, Russia’s gas monopoly is a thing of the past. By now there are alternate pipelines through which western gas can reach Hungary. Although it is true that the completion of the pipeline between Slovakia and Hungary has been delayed due to technical problems on the Hungarian side, it should be ready very soon. Meanwhile gas has been steadily coming into the country from Austria and Croatia.
The Orbán government in the last five years or so was not too eager to work either on alternative pipelines or on reducing the amount of gas used by Hungarian households, which is twice that of Austrian households. The reason is inadequate insulation. European Union directives oblige energy suppliers to improve the insulation of buildings, but for some strange reason the Orbán government is in no hurry to change the Hungarian law to allow such a solution. According to experts, people could save 30 to 50% on their gas bills if this essential repair work on windows and doors were done. Definitely more than the much touted 10% decrease in utility bills legislated by the government.
Orbán has exaggerated the danger of running short of gas. He even indicated that if he is unsuccessful in his negotiations with Putin, Hungarians will freeze to death because there will be no gas to heat their houses and apartments. Of course, this is not only an outright lie but a stupid business tactic. If the situation is so desperate, the negotiating partner will have the upper hand in the negotiations, as several people pointed out.
And with that I return to Russian Ambassador Sergeyev’s mysterious “strategic impetus” for future relations between the two countries. Suspicion is growing in Hungary that Orbán is making some kind of a political deal with Putin which may commit Hungary to a closer relationship in the future. Miklós Hargitai of Népszabadság goes so far as to speculate that “it is not the decrease in our utilities bills that will depend on Putin but Orbán’s hold on power.” For whatever reason, the Russian card seems to be of the utmost importance to Hungary’s gambling mini-Putin.