Ukraine needs to join the European Union and become a buffer state between Hungary and Russia, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, said in an interview with Handelsblatt.
The comment came as Hungary is taking fire for building closer relations with Russia at a time when the European Union and United States are imposing sanctions over Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin’s military incursions into Ukraine.
Mr. Orbán said that while he has an “open minded” relationship with Mr. Putin, he wants Ukraine to remain independent and buffer Hungary and Russia.
“We have had a common border with the Soviet Union, and it took a long time to get rid of it. We do not want to see it reappear,” Mr. Orbán said.
The Hungarian prime minister said he supported the idea of Ukraine eventually joining the European Union, but said the country “must be politically and economically stable and able to control its borders.”
Hungary has infuriated the European Union and the United States over its relationship with Russia. It has awarded nuclear power contracts to the Russian state atomic conglomerate and agreed to allow Russia to lay the South Stream gas pipeline through Hungary, in the face of fierce criticism from Brussels.
The pipeline would allow Russia’s Gazprom to transport gas under the Black Sea through the Balkans into Europe, bypassing Ukraine.
Mr. Orbán told Handelsblatt that his main priority had been securing Hungary’s energy independence.
“The Hungarian gas supply is now back under our control,” he said. “Before, there had been a contract between Gazprom and a large German company. They decided the price of gas and we had no say in the matter.”
He also added that the nuclear contract had been put out to an open tender. The Russians were the ones who bid successfully, with a deal in which Hungary’s nuclear power plant will be financed by Russia but remain under the control of the Hungarian government.
The United States has begun to show its irritation with Mr. Orbán’s regime. In October it issued travel bans for six Hungarian officials amid allegations of corruption, a first for a country that belongs to both the European Union and to NATO. Mr. Orban said his government was implementing a “zero tolerance” attitude to corruption and said he hoped “our allies and friends,” would help the country fight it.
In the final hours of the Cold War Mr. Orbán was once seen as a dissident – he organized protests in Hungary five months before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, calling for Soviet troops to leave the country. When he became prime minister in 1998 he steered Hungary towards NATO membership in the face of Russian opposition. By the time Hungary joined the EU in 2004, the country was seen as one of Eastern Europe’s success stories.
But when Mr. Orbán returned to power in 2010 after an eight year gap, he came in with a two thirds majority and his style of governance began to change. He began straight away to centralize power and exert pressure on the media, and has continued to do so after winning again at this year’s general election.
He has been criticized for eroding media freedoms, harassing non-governmental organizations and suppressing dissent. The country has also been heavily criticized for the way it treats its Roma community.
In a speech in July, he praised Russia, China and Turkey and the concept of an “illiberal democracy” and said that while he remained committed to democracy, he would adopt a “different, special, national approach” to rights and freedoms.
He told Handelsblatt: “We Europeans think we have the continent with the greatest prosperity, the greatest freedom. But we are slower to see we are losing ground internationally.”
He argues that China, India and Turkey are more competitive than Europe.
“The success of China is a mental trauma for Europe,” he said.
Hungary too has been hit by a series of recessions and falling living standards.
All this has led to widespread protests.
Last week, 10,000 people gathered outside the parliament buildings in the capital Budapest to protest against Mr. Orbán’s government, and there were several other demonstrations across the country.
But Mr. Orbán insists his government still has legitimacy. “My party has a two thirds majority in parliament, and around 47 percent of the population voted for us in elections this April.”
He also argues that the protests are about a wider dissatisfaction with the political elite. “On the streets of Budapest, the demands are not just that I should step down. I am flattered you think I am that important. ” he said. “They want the elite from the past 25 years to go to hell.”
He said he hoped that the young protestors found what he refers to as its “political voice.”
“If this movement finds the right tone, we will be happy to talk.”
Meera Selva is an editor for Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin, covering business and politics. Jan Mallien and Hans-Peter Siebenhaar report for Handelsblatt from Düsseldorf and Vienna. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.