Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orban's special relationship

Russia's Vladimir Putin and Hungary's Viktor Orban are to meet on Tuesday. They both are nationalistic strongmen with a dislike for western liberalism. But the ties between the two are both deeper and more complicated.

"To be considered a good European, you have to disparage Putin like he is the devil," Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban told the Italian La Republica in January 2018.

According to Orban, who boasts a close relationship with the Russian president, the EU officials depict Vladimir Putin "with hooves and horns," and ignore the fact that he "rules a great and ancient empire."

"In the past, we Hungarians have suffered a lot under Russia," he told the paper. "Nevertheless, it needs to be recognized that Putin has made his country great again and that Russia is once again a player on the world stage."

The same EU officials who dislike Putin are usually less than thrilled by Orban himself. Since returning to power in 2010, the Hungarian strongman has transformed his country in a way reminiscent of Russia, claiming control of all major media outlets and forming a clique of loyal oligarchs around his conservative Fidesz party. Internationally, Orban has strongly criticized EU sanctions against Russia, but stopped short of vetoing them in Brussels.

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Even more jarringly for the EU diplomats, Orban repeatedly broke Russia's diplomatic isolation by welcoming Putin in Budapest after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

And yet, despite these friendly signals towards Moscow, Hungary has stayed a committed member of NATO and even joined a UK-led diplomatic offensive by expelling Russian embassy officials in the wake of the Sergei Skripal poisoning.

On opposite sides

This discrepancy might stem from the fact that Putin and Orban, despite their similarities, started their careers from the opposite sides of fence during the Cold War. While Putin worked for the KGB in Germany's Dresden, Orban was a student dissident who made his name by demanding the withdrawal of Soviet troops in a fiery 1989 speech in Budapest.

Orban helped found the Fidesz party during his time at the university, backed by George Soros, the same Hungarian-American billionaire who the party came to portray as their main ideological opponent decades later. In 1989, Orban received a scholarship from the Soros foundation to spend six months at the Oxford University.

In July 1998, just weeks before Vladimir Putin was appointed head of the FSB intelligence agency, Orban claimed the office of prime minister in Hungary. However, while Putin took the reins of the Kremlin in 2000 and managed to hold on to power until present day, Orban was pushed out by Hungary's Socialist Party in 2002. While in opposition, Orban criticized the Socialists' support for Russia's South Stream gas project as "treasonous."

Nuclear billions from Russia

Orban's course on Russia changed sharply after he reclaimed the seat in 2010. In 2011, Budapest declared its "Eastern Opening" strategy to find new markets for its products in Russia, China, Turkey, and other countries. Orban also became a proponent of the South Stream pipeline and angrily accused Brussels of sabotaging the project when it was scrapped in 2014.

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However, the South Stream dispute served only as a sideshow to a much larger feud between Budapest and Brussels. In January 2014, Budapest awarded a €12.5 billion ($14.5 billion) project to renovate Hungary's sole nuclear power plant, Paks, to Russia's state corporation Rosatom. Russia is also set to lend €10 billion to implement the project. The EU has blocked the project for several years, arguing that it was awarded without an international tender and that the Kremlin's Vnesheconombank was under sanctions, but Brussels eventually relented in early 2017.

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Austria's Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache has repeatedly called for EU sanctions against Russia to be lifted. Strache, who is also the leader of the populist FPÖ party, criticized NATO expansion to the east. "It wasn't Russia who was the aggressor in recent decades, who was trying to spread its zone of military influence towards the border of the European Union," he said in 2015.

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Jean-Marie Le Pen, Russia, and the 'white world'

Far-right veteran Jean-Marie Le Pen got into trouble in 2015, when, in addition to saying gas chambers were a "detail" of history, he claimed that France should get along with Russia to save the "white world." These statements prompted his daughter Marine to push him ouf of the Front National party.

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Marine Le Pen denies claims of Putin influence

French nationalist leader Marine Le Pen has described sanctions against Russia as "completely stupid." She also claimed Crimea "has always been Russian." Her party admits to taking loans from Russian banks, but Le Pen rejected claims of Moscow's influence as outrageous and harmful. The photo shows her meeting with Vladmir Putin in the Kremlin in 2017.

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Germany's anti-migrant AFD party is relatively popular among German voters with Russian background. Senior members of the party, including then-leader Frauke Petry, meet Putin's ruling party lawmakers in Moscow in 2017. The AFD also believes the EU sanctions are a "farce." However, party co-leader Alexander Gauland denies that the party supports Putin and "his authoritarian regime."

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Viktor Orban and the special relationship with Putin

Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban often hosts Russia's Vladimir Putin in Budapest and the two leaders share many similarities in their ruling style. Orban has complained that politicians in Brussels must "demonize" Putin in order to be considered good Europeans. However, Hungary also joined the UK-led diplomatic offensive by expelling Russian diplomats over the poisoning of Sergei Skripal.

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Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders slammed Russia after flight MH17 was shot down in 2014 and backed sanctions against the country In 2018, however, he sparked outrage from relatives of MH17 victims by decrying "russophobia" during a Moscow visit. Wilders describes himself as a "a big fan of NATO and of the Americans" but says Russia could be an ally against migration and Islamic terrorism.

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Matteo Salvini and the new rulers in Rome

Italy's populist League and the Five Star Movement form a ruling coalition in Italy. Both parties oppose sanctions on Russia and NATO's "aggressive" buildup in Eastern Europe. Following the elections, the League's leader Matteo Salvini said he wanted "to work for peace, not for war. I do not want to assemble little tanks like the game of Risk.”

Currently, Hungary's economy is deeply integrated in the EU bloc and over 80 percent of its total exports go into other EU countries. However, the central European state is strongly dependent on Moscow when it comes to energy, importing around 57 percent of its natural gas needs and 89 percent of its oil from Russia.

Nothing personal

Ideologically, Orban listed Russia among positive examples of successful "illiberal" societies while launching his theory of "illiberal democracy" in 2014. Similar to Putin, Orban offered traditional, "Christian" values in contrast to modern liberalism and focused heavily on restoring national pride in his country. Both Russia and Hungary claim to be under attack by sinister forces from the West and both have moved against foreign-funded activists.

Do these parallels mean the two men are also personal friends? Not according to Orban, who told Politico in 2015 that Putin had "no personal feelings" for fellow world leaders. While western leaders tend to form personal relationships and address each other by first names, this would be unthinkable for the Russians, Orban added.

"Is there anybody who has seen the personality of Putin?" Orban asked in an interview.

"So therefore, the personal issue does not play a role at all — neither in my mind, nor the mind of Putin."

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