Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a controversial visit to Budapest on Tuesday, showing the world he still has a friend in Europe in Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban despite East-West tension over Ukraine.
After holding talks in the Hungarian capital, the two leaders announced they had reached a “political agreement” on a new flexible long-term contract for Russian gas to reach Hungary, to replace a deal that expires this year.
“We value our reputation as a reliable supplier of energy resources in Europe and in Hungary,” said Putin, who has been shunned by other European leaders in recent months due to events in Ukraine and rights issues in Russia.
The gas deal discussions topped the agenda during Putin’s one-day visit to Budapest, which also saw the Russian leader lay a wreath for fallen Soviet soldiers, including those killed during the crushing of Hungary’s uprising against the Soviet Union in 1956.
Orban, whose country is heavily reliant on Russian gas, said attempts to achieve energy security without economic cooperation and energy from Russia were akin to “chasing illusions”.
Though Putin can count on some support in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Greece and Italy, Orban is unquestionably his closest ally despite gaining prominence as a strong anti-Russian and anti-communist leader in the last days of communism in the 80s.
Fears that tough-talking Orban is increasingly cosying up to Putin threw some 2,000 people into the streets Monday evening to protest against the Russian leader’s first visit to Budapest since 2006.
“We resent Orban making a fool of Hungary by inviting Putin here to do secret deals while there is a war next door in Ukraine,” Marton Gulyas, one of the organisers, told AFP.
“This trip is clearly more important for Putin than for Orban,” analyst Andras Racz of the Finish Institute for International Affairs told AFP.
“Putin can demonstrate to other Western countries that he has an ally who is an EU and NATO member, that EU unity is not that strong after all,” he added.
The analyst said Hungary’s allies are worried that as a NATO member it is strengthening its alliance with Russia in spite of the conflict in neighbouring Ukraine.
Hungary supported EU sanctions against Russia over Ukraine in the past year, but has been vocal about their negative impact.
Orban reiterated his criticism on Tuesday.
“We are convinced that the exclusion of Russia from Europe is not a reasonable thing,” Orban said at a joint press conference with Putin.
“Security can not be created without Russia, only together with Russia. So we need to negotiate, negotiate, negotiate.”
Putin’s Budapest visit took place amid a massive security operation by Hungarian police who sealed off much of the downtown area to traffic.
Before Putin arrived for his meeting with Orban at the parliament, a bare-breasted activist from feminist group Femen was detained by police after screaming “Putin go home”.
Police said later the woman was a 26-year-old French national.