Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Hungary has many foreign policy analysts discussing the shifting perceptions of Russia in Europe’s capitals.
Russian President Vladimir Putin enters a hall for a signing ceremony as a journalist tries to take a picture at the parliament building in Budapest, Hungary on Feb. 17. Photo: AP
Amid expectations in the international community of a speedy end to the bloodshed in southeastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin's visit to Hungary has resulted in much commentary both in Russia and in the West. The main idea of foreign analysts is to show that Putin is trying to "split" the European Union, finding in Europe new “friends of the Kremlin” and thus show that, despite claims made by European leaders and the United States, Russia’s international isolation is a fiction.
As Newsweek’s Owen Matthews points out, Putin “takes charm, a little anti-Americanism, a dollop of conservative family-values ideology” and, “of course, money” to buy his European friends. Meanwhile, The Washington Post cites an anonymous diplomat for evidence of Russian maneuvering in Europe.
“The Russians are looking for ways to break the unity of Europe, and they are targeting the weaker states,” said a senior Western diplomat involved in policy toward Hungary. “Hungary and Bulgaria have energy needs. Greece has financial needs. It is all part of the Russian design.”
However, the majority of Western commentators perceive the Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán as a collaborator who is prepared to cooperate with the Russian against the EU’s will. Orbán is often described as “Moscow’s Trojan horse in Europe” and as a “European Hugo Chávez.”
Putin, no longer ostracized by all of Europe
The fact that Putin really is interested in overcoming the sanctions and in increasing the numbers of countries that are prepared to work with Russia is indisputable. And, it is logical that the Russian leader has greater chances of finding them amongst former Balkan allies, Greece and Eastern Europe. And there are new prospects along both the left and right part of the ideological spectrum in Europe’s capitals.
Over the last few days, numerous social media users in Russia have drawn attention to the charming Polish politician Magdalena Ogórek. Ogórek is a left wing presidential candidate and should she win the elections, intends to quickly improve relations with Russia.
It is true that her chances are quite low: It is clear that she has insufficient political experience and anti-Russia sentiment in Polish society is too widespread. Regardless of this, the Russian press has called Magdalena “the sexiest presidential candidate in the world.”
A notable trend is that in the ranks of the “Kremlin’s new friends” are representatives of the left and the extreme right-wing, leaders such as Marine Le Pen, head of the National Front in France. According to Political Capital, of the 24 right-wing populist parties, which took almost a quarter of seats in the European Parliament, 15 are loyal to Russia and its leader. Putin’s foreign policies and, in particular, Russia's actions in Ukraine might lead to ostracism, but it is probably impossible to deny its leader the right to seek new friends and use the economic advantages enjoyed by his country. The conclusion of a contract to supply Russian gas to Hungary during Putin’s visit was undoubtedly good news for both countries.
Putin’s Hungarian gambit
After Russia’s refusal to construct the South Stream, Hungary remained solely dependent on the Ukrainian pipeline. And who knows what the consequences may be of an escalation in hostilities in the southeast of Ukraine and to what extent relations between Moscow and Kiev can worsen?
In the worst-case scenario, the supply of Russian gas to Western Europe through Ukraine might be called into question, as has happened in the recent past during much less acute conflicts between the two countries. For this reason, Hungary, which is 80 percent dependent on imported energy, actively welcomes an alternative in the form of the Turkish Stream pipeline, which would help reduce dependence on only one pipeline.
The political component of Putin’s visit to Hungary was no less important than the economics. As pointed out by Russian political scientist Alexander Gushchin on the site Politcom.ru: “Putin’s visit to Budapest shows that the Russian president is shaking hands in Europe, not only as part of the peace process in Minsk, not only in the context of a peace settlement in the southeast, but also that he is accepted in a European capital which is a long way from being the worst.”
However, it is obvious that such a master of political acrobatics as Orbán, despite any possible personal dislike of Brussels, will not force the issue of withdrawing from the EU and will continue a policy of maneuvering, and possibly gaining certain preferences from the EU through a demonstrative establishment of relations with Moscow. Of course, these relations in economic terms so far remain a priority, however, to state that it is unlikely that Hungary would sacrifice its relations with Brussels in favor of a political union with Russia is hardly necessary.
New openings for Russia elsewhere in Europe
The same applies to the position of other Eastern European countries - Serbia and Bulgaria, as well as Greece. After the left-wing Syriza party came to power in the last elections, many Western experts predicted that Putin would now be happy to see how the Greeks begin to abandon the euro and European integration and begin to drift towards leaving the EU.
However, these predictions proved premature. Greece immediately sent a request to Brussels to extend the program for financing by only another four months, attempting to find a compromise with its European partners. The European Commission states that it is impossible for Greece to leave the eurozone, which is based on the Lisbon Agreement. According to this treaty, the process for joining the countries using a single currency is irrevocable.
European leaders are very worried that Greece's exit will create a domino effect, which in turn may encourage separatist sentiment in Catalonia, Scotland and other parts of the Old World. Though it is necessary to note that the leaders of these countries take a much more critical stance to Putin’s policies than the leaders of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Serbia and Greece.
Will Putin really be able to split Europe?
Talking about attempts to split the European Union, Western analysts often exaggerate the Russian president’s strategic talent. There is another factor that makes European unity against the Kremlin policy ineffective. With regard to the conflict between Russia and neighboring Ukraine, it is associated with the politically incoherent strategy of Petro Poroshenko’s leadership in Kiev. This leadership, according to European leaders, does not provide a clear answer to the EU’s demand for reforms, and has shown little enthusiasm in the fight against large-scale corruption, occupied as it is mainly with internal political squabbles.
Furthermore, Poroshenko continually takes steps that elicit surprise in Western capitals, including in the U.S. For example, Petro Poroshenko recently named former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili as head of an international advisory council. This, despite the fact that the former Georgian president is now discredited and wanted in his homeland.
As research fellow Serhiy Kudelia, based at Baylor University in Texas, wrote in connection with this: “So, if Saakashvili was so successful in reforming judiciary and law enforcement systems in Georgia, why won’t he return back to his country and face trial to prove his innocence?”
It is possible that Putin would like to “split” Europe but the main obstacles preventing European cohesion, apart from different economic interests, are the increasing numbers of political disagreements among its members. There are also the obvious flaws in the policies that the Europeans and Americans have adopted on Ukraine, which can easily turn their favorite child into an enfant terrible.