Domestic and foreign media react to Putin’s official visit to Budapest

February 19, 2015


In the wake of Tuesday’s bilateral talks between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (pictured), Hungary’s pro-government media points out Tuesday’s agreements bring energy stability to Hungary and other benefits arising from a “successful cooperation” with Russia.

Opposition media outlets believe there was little point to the visit other than for Putin to be seen being received by a member of the EU and NATO. Leftist Népszabadság noted that Orbán “approvingly nodded” to everything Putin had to say. Online wrote that the meeting signifies that Hungary’s economic and political exposure to Russia has reached a new zenith since the fall of communism in 1989.

In a news piece titled “Does Russia needs Hungary more than the other way around?”, public M1 television described Hungarian-Russian relations as mutually beneficial, with Hungary being an essential partner for Putin.  The segment summarized pro-Fidesz political analyst Zoltán Kiszelly’s account of the importance of the visit. Kiszelly emphasized that the main priorities of Russo-Hungarian relations are economics, trade and politics “in that order.”  According to Kiszelly, Russia is dependent on Hungarian and Austrian gas-container capacities, and their transit energy markets to cope with a difficult domestic situation as a result of sanctions against its economy. However, Kiszelly  heavily downplayed the political implications of the visit. The analyst echoed Orbán saying that “peace in Ukraine is in Hungary’s interest” but did not explain how Putin’s visit would foster such a solution.  Kiszelly said Putin’s comments  showed his “peaceful intentions” towards Ukraine.

At about the time when the Russian president finished dinner and stood in front of the microphones alongside Orbán, pro-Russian separatists started “cleansing” the Eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve of Ukrainian government troops. The gain made it possible for Donetsk and Lugansk rebels to link up, making future gains in rebel territory very difficult for the Ukrainian army.

Independent and opposition news sites believe Putin’s visit to Hungary was mostly symbolic, as most of the bilateral agreements signed on Tuesday were on questions decided beforehand. reports that, according to a Hungarian under-secretary, even the gas-shipping deal had been agreed upon well in advance.  According to oppositionist media, the purpose of the trip was for Putin to demonstrate to the Russian people and to others that, EU sanctions notwithstanding, he can still visit the EU and he can get Orbán’s seal of approval.

Independent and oppositionist media outlets focused their coverage on Putin’s visit to a newly renovated Russian military cemetery in Budapest where Soviet soldiers who died while crushing the 1956 Hungarian Uprising have been laid to rest alongside those who died during the liberation of Budapest in 1945.  Putin chose this venue to lay a wreath in the vicinity of a column referring to the 1956 Uprising “counter-revolution” in the fashion of the pre-1989 Soviet narrative of the event.  In a piece appearing in, columnist Péter Magyari writes that Putin’s gesture stands in sharp contrast to that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who honored the German victims this month, and notes that neither Orbán nor any other Fidesz politician had anything remotely critical to say despite the party’s anti-communist rhetoric.

Neither Orbán nor Fidesz mentioned the wreath-laying ceremony, even when the Russian president mentioned the “memory of the heroes” at the parliament press conference. Messages like these cause Magyari to believe that the real beneficiary of the visit was Putin himself, who could showcase his economic as well as political dominance in an EU member state.

Népszabdadság published a letter from the editor the day following the visit with the title “Shame” in which they wrote:

“The die has been cast. Orbán finally openly backed Putin, or more like got under him. The new US ambassador gave a lunch in the honor of NATO ambassadors yesterday, featuring the Ukrainian chargé d’affaires as an honorary guest. The situation is now clear: both sides have chosen. Orbán chose shame.”

Foreign echo: Hungary’s drift to the east is now complete

Even though the foreign press focused primarily on what the Russian president had to say about the situation in Ukraine, major media outlets in Germany, Russia and the Anglophone world recognized the significance of Orbán receiving the outcast Russian leader. The British Guardian offered a panorama of how Putin successfully established and stabilized his major political allies within the EU. In his article, Europe editor Ian Traynor opined that the Budapest visit, coming in the wake of the friendly reception from the new Greek government, is a major leap forward for the Russian political outreach campaign, noting that

“…  it is not only in Hungary that the Russians are back. All over Europe, and particularly in central and southern Europe, the Kremlin is making inroads at a time when relations between Russia and the west are at their most tense and brittle in the post-communist era.”

The publication featured a previously unpublished comment allegedly made by Orbán to US Senator John McCain when the latter confronted the Hungarian Prime Minister over his pro-Russian sympathies:

“I don’t care what you think.  You don’t matter. Russia matters because of energy. Germany matters because of jobs.”

Boris Kálnoky, columnist at conservative Die Welt, remarked in an opinion piece that by honoring the Soviet cemetery, the Russian message to Hungary and the world “could not have been clearer: We are back.” Kálnoky wrote that in return, “Russia is handing out free money to Hungary” as a way to buy the loyalty of its leaders.

Another German publication, Der Spiegel, published its report of the visit under the title: Putin’s visit to Budapest: Orbán is dodging the EU.” Journalist Keno Verseck wrote that Orbán – while trying to keep up good relations with Germany and the West – is actively helping Putin “drive a wedge” between EU member states.

Polish center-right Rzeczpospolita remarked that by allowing Putin to humiliate the Hungarian victims of the 1956 Uprising, “Putin buried Orbán’s political past”, and that the Hungarian prime minister gave it away in return for a new Hungarian dependence on Russia. The remark is especially significant because Orbán is scheduled to meet Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz in Warsaw on Thursday.

Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna told public Polish Radio 3 that Orbán “has to explain himself” to Kopacz as to why he received Putin, adding that in his opinion the Hungarian electorate will not tolerate such behavior and Orbán will most probably pay the price of this visit in the next general elections.”

By contrast, a day before the Russian president’s plane landed in Budapest, an article appeared in the Russian economic newspaper Kommersant according to which Orbán’s two-fold allegiance to the EU and NATO does not work. “Orbán has to finally make his choice: Russia or the West,” the article concluded. The opinion piece signified that Putin arrived in Hungary with an agenda that was more political than economic.

Russian government-funded RT (Russia Today) asked one of its regular commentators, John Laughland, about the significance of the visit. Laughland opined that Orbán is an “avant-garde” of a new, pro-Russian European politics, and the EU is “shooting the messenger” when it condemns Orbán’s opposition to Russian sanctions. The pro-Russian political commentator identified Greece and Hungary as “two Russian allies” that are both within NATO and the EU now.

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