Relations of Central European countries with other states are nowadays mainly determined by their belonging to the collective West. Central European countries’ membership in the EU and NATO which resulted from the complex social transformation and geopolitical turnover after the fall of the communist regimes has set the framework for their bilateral relations with any other country in the world.
Russia and Central Europe
Relationship with Russia is not any exception. Moreover, the considerations about possible developments eastward from the Western boundaries of Poland, Slovakia and Hungary served at certain time as one of the strongest arguments in favor of these countries‘ participation in the process of Euro-Atlantic integration and in early 90s as a justification for their closer cooperation in format of Visegrad group. It turned out that decision to join the EU and NATO had strategic importance for the V4 countries. It provided them something what many other nations in the world may today only dream about – life in a free and democratic society, social rise and technological progress, peace and political stability, benefits of the common European market, security guarantees against possible aggression from outside.
Situation in the East in the last decade created more reasons for concerns. Since late 90s in Russia the authoritarian anti-Western regime was formed which today does not hide its revisionist intentions. This regime initiated two military conflicts with Russia’s neighbors in order to avoid their movement to the West – with Georgia (in 2008) and Ukraine (in 2014).
For almost three years the relations between NATO, EU, its individual member states and Russia are affected by Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Due to Kremlin policies the end of this conflict is not foreseeable. In spring 2014, the West imposed personal and economic sanctions on Russia (later they were extended and strengthened several times). Since then, everything related to diplomatic, political and economic activities of Russia in NATO and EU member states is assessed in this context, particularly when these activities take place at the highest level.
Putin in Budapest
The recent visit of Russian president Vladimir Putin in Hungary was such an event. This year It was the first and so far only one visit of Russian President to the member state of EU and NATO. It is worth noting that Hungary since 2015 has become regular destination for Russian leader.
Given the relative rarity of Putin’s foreign trips in this part of the world it is quite understandable the interest of media to the circumstances of Putin’s recent visit to Budapest, its content, course and results.
Let’s look on how media in Russia informed about the visit.
How Russian media see Hungary
Russian media emphasized the special importance of Putin’s trip to Budapest when they began reporting about it several days in advance. They announced negotiations on many issues of Russian-Hungarian economic cooperation – nuclear energy, gas supply, reconstruction of the Budapest metro, mutual trade, investments, and cultural cooperation too. One of the main lines in interpretation of the broader contexts of Putin’s visit was the claim that Hungary led by prime minister Viktor Orbán is a country that has a special position in the EU with regard to relations with Russia. According to this interpretation, Hungary is enforcing in the EU its independent – from Brussels – line, it is fighting against the sanctions imposed on Russia, which strongly damage the Hungarian economy. Russian media presented Hungary as loud dissident inside the EU, which wants to preserve its independence and refuses to accept migrants from outside despite the pressure from the EU. Russian media reprinted (or widely quoted) the comments that Western media published (Politico, Financial Times, Newsweek), in which Viktor Orbán was portrayed as an autocratic leader who builds Hungarian state on other grounds than liberal democracy, who concentrates power in his hands – all that caused criticism from the EU institutions on many issues, who opposes to Brussels and plays the role of Russia’s “Trojan horse” in Central Europe and in EU, and who, like president Putin, also welcomed the election of Donald Trump as a president of the United States. What in these articles could sound for Western recipients rather critically, for Russian audience, by contrast, sounded as something that deserved praise and admiration.
Harmony and consensus? ...
The state news-reporting (in reality propagandist) television channel RT (Russia Today) on the eve of Putin’s visit to Budapest broadcasted (and published on its website) an extensive interview with minister of foreign affairs Péter Szíjjártó. Editor of RT put to minister such questions that should induce the impression that Hungary is an exceptional country in the EU, that it is a state which by its views on some issues of European policies is approaching to Russia. For Russian viewers whom the state-owned media massaged for years by allegations of bad West intervening into Russia’s internal affairs in order to undermine it from inside, some considerations expressed by Hungarian minister had to sound pleasantly, for example that interference into internal affairs of Hungary had place from external forces such as American financier George Soros who through his NGOs wanted to sweep down the legitimate Hungarian government and NGOs supported by Soros allegedly stood behind the refugee wave in Europe when they were helping migrants to illegally infiltrate the territory of the union’s member states. Before, Russian viewers could hear similarly worded arguments from Russian commentators.
While in Russian viewers and readers such interpretations of facts and contexts could lead to emergence of feeling of strong internal harmony between two countries, the news and commentaries of the results of talks between Putin and Orbán in popular Russian media (Pravda, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Argumenty i fakty, REN TV) could only confirm the belief in the undisputed success of the visit of high guest from Moscow – in issue of construction of the nuclear power plant in Paks, in supply of Russian gas, even in the announced continuation of Hungarian prime minister’s efforts to lift the sanctions imposed on Russia.
... or déjà vu?
Surprisingly different tone in assessment of the contexts and results of Putin’s visit to Budapest was employed by commentators of Russian agency Eurasia Daily (EADaily) publishing on its website the expert articles about foreign policy issues. It is a media supporting hard and even revisionist line in Russian foreign policy.
In editorial comment called “Vladimir Putin’s visit to Hungary: complex of déjà vu” the agency stated that “it is not difficult to notice that the topics of talks remain each year the same. There is a complex of déjà vu. It creates the feeling that Russian-Hungarian cooperation does not go forward, but it moves in a circle”.
Furthermore, the article notes that favorable perspectives and benefits of mutual cooperation portrayed by both sides do not correspond to nowadays reality. Commenting on the construction of new nuclear power plant in Paks that should be financed by Moscow, it says that it is a risky project: a reliable scenario for early lifting of sanctions imposed on Russia does not exist and under these conditions (not mentioning possibilities of strengthening the sanctions), Russia is faced with the risks of losing the invested funds.
According to Eurasia Daily there is no reason for Russia to “trust to Viktor Orbán’s regime” which opposes the EU sanctions only verbally, at the same time providing reverse flow of Russian gas to Ukraine. The agency puts in doubt the amount of losses in mutual trade caused by sanctions mentioned by Hungarian prime minister (6.5 billion euros). It claims that these numbers are fictional and underlines that the real decrease in statistics was mainly a result of falling world prices for oil and gas. Commentary notes that Orbán on the joint press conference with Putin did not use a word “partner” in relation to Russia and ironically wrote that Hungarian prime minister will probably continue to perform his “slow dance of the peacock in front of Moscow before he will be warned by the West”.
The conclusion made by the agency is uncomplimentary: „Any illusions regarding positions of Budapest would have to go away in Russia. For Moscow the moderate stances of Hungary may play a role in propaganda, but self-deception regarding the “pro-Russianness” of Hungary should not exist. It is not a country friendly toward Russia and in case of external pressure Orbán regime will easily give up the Russian component of its external trade policy”.
This article was written by Grigorij Mesežnikov and was also published in Slovak media SME.
The views expressed in the article are private opinions of the author and do not reflect the policy of the GLOBSEC Policy Institute.