Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Budapest, Hungary, on Tuesday for his first official visit to a Western country in more than eight months, stirring protest against the Hungarian government's warming ties with the Kremlin and fears that they will inflict division in the European Union.
Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban appeared to be expecting mutual validation from the summit -- the Kremlin leader demonstrating that he still has friends in the West in spite of the Ukraine crisis and Orban ensuring his country's energy security with new deals on gas imports and a major upgrade of its nuclear facility.
At least 2,000 Hungarians took to the streets on the eve of the Kremlin leader's visit to protest what they see as an unwelcome return to dependence on Moscow for reliable power supplies, as well as Orban's apparent disregard for the violence inflicted on neighboring Ukraine by Russia-backed separatists.
The demonstrators carried signs proclaiming "Putin, Nyet! Europe, Yes," and with the "in" in Putin's name crossed out and replaced with "out."
"With this visit, the Russian president wants to try to show that he is not in conflict with EU member states," Socialist Party leader Jozsef Tobias told the newspaper Hungary Today. He cited a poll published Monday showing 60% of Hungarian respondents opposed Orban's plan to update and expand the Paks nuclear power complex with Russian assistance.
Orban, who was one of the most visible young opponents of Soviet influence in Hungary when the country began throwing off the communist yoke in the 1980s, is now seen as one of Putin's strongest European allies and emulators.
Like the Kremlin leader, Orban stands accused by politicians outside his conservative Fidesz party of imposing curbs on a free press, interfering with the judiciary and stifling political opposition.
The 51-year-old Orban surprised and disturbed many in his country last year when he praised Putin's Russia as a model of "illiberal democracy" that Hungary should aspire to. And although Orban went along with European Union colleagues in imposing sanctions on Russia for its role in the Ukraine crisis, he has characterized the effort to punish Moscow as the Western bloc having "shot itself in the foot" by scuttling its own trade and energy supplies.
Orban has cast Putin's visit as part of a pragmatic collaboration, as Hungary relies heavily on Moscow for its natural gas supplies and wanted to renegotiate the terms of the contract that expires later this year to take account of the global drop in prices. Orban told journalists at a news conference late Tuesday that only technicalities remained before the signing of a favorable new supply deal after his talks with Putin.
The new agreement replaces a 20-year contract between Russia and Hungary that expires in December. It allows Hungary to take advantage of reduced demand for 20 billion cubic meters of gas it has already paid for but not used because of lower demand. That will allow Budapest to defer payment on previously contracted deliveries.
Orban also urged European allies to cooperate with Russia, rather than attempt to isolate the country.
"Security in the region cannot be created against Russia," Orban said. "Europe's unity can and must be created along with Russia."
Putin also met with Hungarian President Janos Ader and laid a wreath at the newly refurbished Soviet war memorial honoring those who died liberating Hungary at the end of World War II.
Putin's talks with Orban also covered "practical steps" of the Paks nuclear upgrade, Kremlin advisor Yuri Ushakov told the Tass news agency. Russia is providing 80% of the financing for the $10-billion project that will allow the aging eastern nuclear complex to continue providing 40% of Hungary's electricity needs, Ushakov told Tass.
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