Commentary

Putin Uses Orbán Against the EU and Trump Against the US

Putin publicly humiliated a seemingly broken American president in Helsinki. Just a day before he also humiliated Hungarian PM Orbán. Putin seems to be the only one with a plan.

The football world cup is not just the great bonfire of public money that it appears to be. It is also every spy’s dream. Under the auspices of attending the bonanza anyone can turn up in Moscow and pay a visit to Putin. Even if they really don’t want to. Such was the case with Orbán, who was ordered to report in the Kremlin – despite his desire to look like an autonomous leader.

Sports events are great ways for spies to meet in plain sight. Putin visited Orbán in Budapest (despite not being officially invited) while supposedly visiting a judo event. And Orbán’s unavoidable attraction to the football world cup was Putin’s opportunity to order Orbán in for a quick talking-to.

Things Putin used Orbán for:

  1. Putin made Orbán say that the EU sanctions against his regime are damaging – even though Orbán also voted for them repeatedly. As Sputnik has put it last year “Russia Prepares to Use Hungary as an ‘Anti-Sanctions’ Battering Ram” while Orbán claimed that EU sanctions against Russia cost Hungary 6.5 bn dollars per year – which is not quite true, because it is Russian counter-measures against Hungary that cost Hungary (and much less than that). It looks that the loudest defenders of national interests are actually the worst enemies of said national interests. Strange.
  2. Putin also made Orbán to bring forward the date of starting works on the new Russian nuclear power plant in Hungary – a breathtakingly expensive and pointless investment that only benefits Russia through the loan it gives Hungary and by making Hungary a technological vassal for decades to come. (Another thing Orbán didn’t have a choice about.) Orbán is dragging his feet about the whole thing, trying to postpone the inevitable, hence Putin’s repeated visits to Budapest, sometimes even uninvited, to keep making Orbán say that we will totally swallow whatever the Russians push down our throats, and we will swallow it promptly. So the Moscow audience last week was just another episode in a long sequence of diplomatic foot-dragging. Will Orbán be able to postpone it indefinitely, or are Putin trump cards too strong?
  3. Orbán was accompanied by Hungary’s richest businessman (to be dethroned any moment by Orbán’s business alter ego) whose business interests (for now) touch upon Russian economic expansion in Hungary.

Whatever Putin holds on Orbán, he can use him to crack into the EU. As it is customary with illiberal strongmen and autocrats, their countries’ interests don’t even come last. It simply doesn’t matter.

A friend called me and put it like this: “Putin ordered Orbán for an audience – again“. And my friend was right. Hungary’s links to Moscow are more than reminiscent of the 1950s these days. Orbán may hate being a vassal, but he appears to be under Putin’s thumb. The exact manner of dependence we don’t know, but it is likely some combination of personal business, energy, and compromat. That’s how the Kremlin rolls and what you think about it barely matters. Illiberal populists prefer to call this “sovereignty”. Others would probably go for “treason”.

Everyone knows about Trump’s inglorious meeting with Putin, after which he came out and said downright treasonous things about his own country and sucked up to Russia. The benevolent reading is that Trump is just not mentally fit and possibly too old to have made the transition from walking personal brand to statesman. The less benevolent assumptions include compromat and the word “Manchurian” keeps popping up. To be fair, Trump literally looked like he was just shown evidence of something unforgivable (even by Trump’s standards, which are really low) and was stunned. Either way, he was played at best. Owned at worst. Definitely compromised.

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Putin and Orbán before the world cup final. Orbán was allowed to sit down, but he was not allowed to keep the meeting a secret. Photo: Facebook

Orbán has suffered similar treatment by Putin the day before. Despite his desire to be seen as an autonomous leader, he was ordered into the Kremlin while he was in Moscow for football. The audience was duly chronicled by Kremlin staff and published on social media. Which is unfortunate for Orbán because the meeting was not supposed to take place – and the Hungarian party did everything in their power to keep it hushed up.

As the photo attests, Orbán was allowed to sit down – but he was not allowed to keep the audience a secret. Moscow posted photos of the meeting so the Hungarian diplomacy scrambled to pretend it was all planned. Moscow also posted in details what Orbán has said and agreed to – unlike the Hungarian party. In fact, the Hungarian government-controlled media kept silent about Orbán’s words on the sanctions and the nuclear power plant brought forward. It may be delightful news for the national interest but better not mention it.

How come these strongmen all look like bitches of Putin? The supposedly weak, liberal elites may be slow and reluctant to react and yes, they are reluctant because of all the wrong reasons, but these supposed strongmen seem even more owned and having even less room for maneuver. Some say, keeping files one everyone – allies and enemies – is how Orbán practices dictatorial power within his own party (since 1989) and in the country (since 2010). Putin seems to have a bigger playground.

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