Russian president Vladimir Putin has backed closer economic co-operation between his country and Hungary, which he visited for the second time this year on Monday in a sign of his enduring ties with its populist prime minister, Viktor Orban.
Both leaders receive relatively few invitations to European Union capitals, where they are criticised on a range of issues, but they have met four times in the last two years to focus on boosting trade despite western sanctions on Russia.
Hungary recently signed a deal with Kremlin-controlled gas giant Gazprom to link it to the Turkish Stream pipeline by the end of 2019, and has a multibillion-euro contract with Russia’s state atomic agency to expand the Paks nuclear power plant.
“We are working on all our major projects, including in the energy sphere. Everything connected with the financing of the famous Paks project – $12 billion (€10 billion) is provided for that. At the start of next year work might be able to start at the site,” Mr Putin said.
Other economic projects were also being discussed, he added, saying: “We support this in every way, and will help develop the interests of business.”
A well-known fan and practitioner of judo, Mr Putin joined Mr Orban for the opening ceremony of the sport’s world championships in Budapest. “I am happy for the chance to talk about bilateral relations at a sporting event,” the Tass news agency quoted the Russian leader as saying.
“I want to note that, despite all the difficulties, our economic dynamic is improving,” he added, claiming that bilateral trade between Russia and Hungary increased by more than 20 per cent in the first half of this year.
Thanking Mr Orban for inviting him to the judo, Mr Putin said: “Of course it’s not football but it is also a good sport” – a reference either to his host’s well-known preference for soccer or to Russia’s preparations to hold next year’s World Cup.
“I will try and learn it,” Mr Orban said of the martial art. “I’ll tell you about the theory,” Mr Putin replied.
While the leaders were all bonhomie, Hungary’s opposition parties complained that a lack of transparency around the visit was typical of relations between the two countries – the Paks expansion contract, for example, was awarded without a public tender and classified as secret for 30 years.
Activists from the Momentum party put Soviet-era street names back on some Budapest walls before Mr Putin’s arrival, to protest against what they call a dangerous and growing degree of Kremlin influence in Hungary. They also marched through Budapest holding EU flags and playing the Beatles’ Back in the USSR.
For Mr Orban, who has clashed with the EU on everything from Hungary’s treatment of refugees to education reform, the Russian leader’s visit was a chance to show that he has a friend to the east if relations with the West continue to deteriorate.
For Mr Putin, the day trip was a relatively rare opportunity to be portrayed by his state media as an honoured guest in an EU country.