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Putin Tells Hungary's Orban Nuclear Plant Expansion To Start Next Year


Russian President Vladimir Putin (front right) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) attend the Suzuki World Judo Championship in Budapest, Hungary, on August 28.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says work on expanding Hungary's only nuclear power plant may begin early next year.

"Work at the [Paks] construction site may start already at the beginning of the next year," Putin told Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on August 28 during a visit to Hungary's capital, Budapest.

During a visit to Moscow in 2014, Orban signed a 10 billion-euro ($12 billion) loan deal with Russia to expand the Soviet-era plant located in Paks, some 130 kilometers south of Budapest.

After a lengthy probe, European regulators in March gave Budapest approval to expand Paks, saying that government measures within the contract would ensure its operator -- the Hungarian state -- would not be overcompensated or gain an unfair advantage over other energy providers.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto later confirmed the expansion work would begin next year, after what he said had been a 22-month delay due to the EU's examining the project's compliance with EU rules.

"The procedures regarding the European Union have taken longer than expected and they have taken longer than they should have," Szijjarto said after dining with Orban and the Russian delegation. "The real construction work will start in January and nothing will stop the investment from now on."

Szijjarto also said that Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary would modernize sections of their natural gas pipelines to permit the flow of up to 10 billion cubic meters of Russian gas to the region by the end of 2019.

Critics say the nuclear project is rife with corruption risks and increases Hungary's dependency on Moscow.

Hungarian opposition parties protested Putin's trip amid concerns that Orban has become too close to the Russian leader.

Activists from the Together party blew whistles as Putin's motorcade arrived at the Laszlo Papp Budapest Sports Arena to attend the opening ceremony of the World Judo Championships.

Protesters held up a banner in the stands reading "We won't be a Russian colony" before police escorted them out of the arena, where Putin sat in a VIP box with Orban and other officials.

Putin is a judo black belt and honorary president of the martial art's governing body, the International Judo Federation.

A few supporters of Momentum, a new centrist party that opposes the nuclear power deal, donned Putin masks and wore T-shirts with the slogan "Let's go freedom of speech, let's go Hungarians."

Momentum's leader said if his party comes to power, it will scrap the nuclear deal. "We won't let [Hungary] be chained to Russia for decades by secret deals," he said at the protest.

Putin was also to be awarded the title of civis honoris causa -- an honorary citizenship -- by the University of Debrecen in recognition of Russia’s role in modernizing Paks.

It is Putin's second trip this year to European Union and NATO member state Hungary, whose ties with Russia are warmer than those of most other EU countries.

It is Putin's second trip this year to European Union and NATO member state Hungary, whose ties with Russia are warmer than those of most other EU countries.

Orban has frequently praised Putin, and critics say both men have taken similar action to quell popular protests over wide-ranging issues such as civil rights and press freedoms.

In April, Hungary adopted an education law that critics say was intended to close down Budapest's Central European University.

The university is funded by U.S. philanthropist and businessman George Soros and has been seen by supporters of Orban as a bastion of liberal opposition.

The European Commission -- the executive arm of the European Union -- launched legal action against Hungary over the law shortly after it was passed.

Orban's government is also at odds with fellow EU member the Netherlands. Hungary recalled its ambassador to the Netherlands last week and suspended high-level diplomatic ties after critical remarks by the Dutch ambassador to Budapest about the government's campaign against and its resistance to an EU plan to relocate asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy.

The EU and Hungary’s neighbors have also expressed concern that Orban's close relationship with Putin could undermine EU unity on the sanctions the 28-member bloc has imposed on Russia over its interference in Ukraine.

Russia seized control of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and backs separatists whose war against the Kyiv government has killed more than 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine.

During Putin’s previous visit in February, Orban said that "anti-Russian" policies had become "very fashionable" in Western Europe.

Thousands of Hungarians protested Putin's February visit, calling on Orban to stop what they called the "Putinization" of Hungary.

Putin has received few invitations to visit EU countries since the occupation and takeover of Crimea.

His most recent trip to an EU country was a visit to France in May.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, AFP, and Hungary Today
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