February 1, 2017 / 4:03 PM / a year ago

Hungary tests EU nerves frayed by Russia as Putin visits Budapest

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Soviet war memorials have typically been pulled down in Eastern Europe since the collapse of communism, so when one was erected in Hungary last month ahead of a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin, it caught attention.

The low-key, 5-metre (15-foot) memorial stands in Esztergom, an historic town on the Danube river upstream of Budapest. It depicts an angel with inscriptions at its pedestal praising Russian soldiers who fought in both World Wars there.

Hungarian media quoted Russia’s ambassador, Vladimir Sergeev, as saying the monument demonstrated the strength of Hungarian-Russian cooperation.

“It is very symbolic,” Sergeev said.

Hungary’s overtures to Russia are unsettling to fellow European Union member states and Brussels just as they grapple with the implications of a thawing of relations between Moscow and Washington under U.S. President Donald Trump.

There is real concern in Europe at Trump’s support for Britain’s looming exit from the EU and Putin is a vocal backer of anti-EU parties, with Orban one of the most euroskeptic leaders in the bloc.

With Trump in the White House and the EU scrambling to halt a wave of populism sweeping the continent, Orban’s government anticipates better relations with Washington and is calling for a new relationship between the EU and Russia.

Thursday’s meeting is Putin’s seventh with Orban in total, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov told a press briefing in Moscow, and the pair have met three times in the past two years.

Ushakov said the two countries maintained “a very intense political dialogue.”

Inside the EU, Hungary promotes Russian interests such as the scrapping of economic sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Trade ties include a gas supply agreement with Russia’s Gazprom, and a deal for Russia to finance and build a nuclear power plant. Both sides want to boost bilateral trade.

Orban has also followed parts of the Kremlin’s playbook, cracking down on critical non-governmental bodies that he accuses of using foreign funding to subvert the political order.

There was scope for still-deeper ties between Hungary and Russia, and if the EU grumbled Orban would likely point to Trump, said Peter Kreko, a lecturer at Indiana University.

“All Orban has to do is point to America,” Kreko said. “If Russia is good for them why should we exercise restraint?”

ASTRAY FROM MAINSTREAM EUROPE

Hungary has endorsed Trump’s criticism of NATO’s strategy towards Russia and denounced the sanctions against Russia over Ukraine as “useless”.

Orban clashed with the Barack Obama administration over what critics said was an erosion of democratic values by his government.

With Trump in the White House, Budapest expects it will have more wriggle room. Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told Reuters he expected a “massive improvement” in U.S.-Hungarian relations following Trump’s pledge to tone down the “export of democracy”.

He said Europe and Russia “need a new type of relationship”.

Hungary’s alignment is in sharp contrast with the rest of the European Union, where Russia’s alleged interference is taken with such alarm that several countries, such as Finland, have moved to set up agencies to counter it.

The Czech government too has a dedicated unit to deal with an “information war” waged by Russian hackers. On Tuesday it said it had registered hacker attacks similar to the ones Russia was suspected of leveling at the U.S.

Germany has also said it has detected an increase in subversive Russian propaganda.

Yet, even given its friendly ties with Russia, Hungary remained firmly rooted in the Euro-Atlantic world, said Andras Racz, a Russia expert at the Peter Pazmany University.

Two recent opinion polls showed that a large majority of Hungarians did not want closer ties with Russia, with only 6 percent viewing their country as eastern.

“Theirs is not a friendship,” Racz said of Orban and Putin. “There are no common values to base a long-term alliance on. It is cooperation based on currently similar interests.”

Additional reporting by Denis Dyomkin in Moscow; Editing by Richard Lough

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