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As fighting continues in eastern Ukraine, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has reinforced his relationship with Moscow and provided Putin with a platform. In doing so he is weakening the EU, says Robert Schwartz.
It seems as if German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to Budapest two weeks ago failed to make much of an impression. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban obviously cares little for the liberal values of Europe's democracies and is maintaining his course.
Welcoming Russian President Vladimir Putin in the current geopolitical context is in itself a highly debatable decision. But to provide Putin with a platform to call for the Ukrainian army to surrender in eastern Ukraine is cynical. Especially when pro-Russian separatists have continued with their offensive against the Ukrainian army in Debaltseve, despite the recent ceasefire agreement.
Orban is playing tough, and that can't turn out well for him in the long run. His little games are increasingly turning into a high wire act that is threatening to put Brussels off balance. At times Orban makes half-hearted promises to uphold the EU's policy toward Russia; at other times, he allows himself to be flattered by Putin, his self-declared political role model. Or, when it comes to economic interests, like on Tuesday, he even allows himself to be put under pressure - responding with the terse statement that he was simply negotiating the best natural gas contracts for his country.
Driving a wedge into the EU
In politically quieter times, Orban's actions would be quite acceptable as Hungary depends heavily on Russian energy supplies. But against the backdrop of the war in eastern Ukraine, every time a member state chooses to go its own way is a further step toward a weaker European Union. That plays right into Putin's hands. After his clear win in the last round of negotiations in Minsk, which so far have not led to de-escalation in eastern Ukraine, the Russian president has now driven a further wedge deep into the European community.
Brussels must no longer look on as Putin dictates the rules of the game. Reining in Orban would be a start. Much more important, however, would be to at last develop a common European energy policy in order to reduce the EU's dependence on Russia, and soon. And that brings us to the actual problems.
When it comes to the issue of energy security, the EU is facing a debacle. And financially, things aren't looking so good, either - just look at Greece, which appears to charting its own course. In terms of foreign and defense policy, the EU is also letting itself be pushed around by Russia - one only has to look to the crisis in Ukraine. Considering the circumstances, the EU would have been wise to have suggested that Orban postpone the Putin visit.
Orban has the support of Hungarians
But for now, Brussels continues to look angrily toward Budapest, and Orban is allowed to continue dreaming of his "illiberal" democracy. He'll get his cheap gas and oil from Russia - along with favorable financing from Moscow for two new Russian nuclear reactors worth 10 billion euros ($11.4 billion).
Orban can count on the support of a large majority of Hungarians. Ahead of Putin's visit, just over 2,000 people took to the streets in protest. A stronger opposition to Orban's policies would have looked much different.