Russian President Vladimir Putin has arrived in Hungary for his second visit in two years, a development that has many in the European Union looking on with concern.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s February 2 meeting with Putin comes at a time of heightened worries within the bloc about the views of new U.S. President Donald Trump, who has expressed disdain for the European Union and a desire for closer relations with Moscow.
"We are concerned [about the trip], there is no doubt about it," an EU official requesting anonymity told RFE/RL on February 1. "It is Putin’s year. He's looking at a divided Europe, which the Visegrad Four (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia), especially Hungary, are making more divided due to actions like [inviting Putin to Budapest], and a United States that for the first time is providing no counterbalance to [Putin].”
Putin's visit -- his second to Budapest in two years and his third official meeting with Orban in that time -- is primarily to discuss economic issues, including the controversial Paks nuclear-power plant that Russia is contracted to build and further agreements on natural-gas purchases.
Putin has received few invitations to EU countries since Moscow’s illegal 2014 takeover of Ukraine's Crimea region and the introduction of EU sanctions against Moscow over its interference in Ukraine.
Analysts see the visit as an opportunity for Putin to encourage Hungary in its efforts to get the EU sanctions against Russia lifted.
"I’m not surprised that President Putin visits Hungary so frequently, and his upcoming visit to Hungary is just one illustration that Putin is interested in keeping pressure on the EU," Lithuanian European Parliament member Petras Austrevicius told RFE/RL. "And I’m sure [it is an effort to] destroy our solidarity."
"Timing [for the Putin visit] is, let's say, perfect," says Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto. "The visit has great significance since there's a great expectation all around the world about the improvement of the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship."
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto railed against the EU sanctions in Budapest on January 27, saying they had failed to change Russian involvement in Ukraine and had severely affected the Hungarian economy.
"I don't think we should celebrate that we hit the Russian economy because it's bad news for Europe as well," Szijjarto said, claiming that Hungary had lost $6.5 billion in exports to Russia because of the sanctions and countersanctions imposed by Moscow in retaliation. "If the sanctions were truly effective, they should have had some impact by now."
Analyst Peter Kreko, director of Budapest’s Political Capital Institute, told The Moscow Times that the government figures on economic woes due to the sanctions spat are "simply false" and intentionally inflated.
Russia, for its part, said Russian-Hungarian bilateral trade has decreased by 50 percent over the past three years, to $3.9 billion.
Russian presidential aide Yury Ushakov said the fall in trade is due to "anti-Russian sanctions and the volatile global economic environment," adding that Hungarian investment in Russia had decreased from $2 billion in 2015 to $1 billion last year.
Szijjarto's assertions have been echoed by Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and Czech President Milos Zeman, who in August called for EU sanctions against Russia to be lifted.
Such sentiments are music to the ears of the Kremlin, which is hoping to expand such official views into Western Europe with victories by Russia-leaning candidates in crucial March parliamentary elections in the Netherlands and the April-May presidential election in France.
"What a wonderful world," exclaimed Orban after Trump’s surprising U.S. election win in November.
Reportedly one of the first foreign leaders to call the entrepreneur and former reality star after his triumph, the populist Orban and his government are reveling in the change in U.S. leadership from Barack Obama to Trump.
"Timing [for the Putin visit] is, let's say, perfect. The visit has great significance since there's a great expectation all around the world about the improvement of the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship," said Szijjarto.
He added that when Budapest tried to improve relations with Moscow in the past, "we had to face American pressure not to do it."
The Obama administration followed the previous Putin visit to Budapest, in 2015, by sanctioning six Hungarian officials for corruption.
"Now there will be no more American pressure," said Szijjarto.
Orban, who rose to popularity in the early 1990s as an anti-Soviet "freedom fighter," defends his efforts to improve ties with Moscow by pointing to the need for cheap energy from Russia and his obligation to put the "interests of the Hungarian nation" first.
Russian presidential aide Ushakov said on the eve of Putin's visit to Budapest that several political topics -- including the intensified fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas in recent days -- will be on the agenda.