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Relations between Russia and the West may be at their worst since before the collapse of the Soviet Union, but there were only smiles and bad-old-boy camaraderie on display as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán met at the Kremlin on Tuesday.
Social distancing precluded any public displays of bro-affection, so there were no hugs or backslapping at the meeting in Moscow. Instead, the two leaders opened the visit sitting awkwardly at the far ends of a very, very long conference table.
But for Putin, who is eager to show that he is not entirely isolated in his confrontation with the West over Ukraine, and for Orbán, who is up for re-election in April, the in-person meeting provided a mutually beneficial encounter, in which they emphasized their countries’ strong economic ties and celebrated their longevity — in office that is.
“This is our 12th meeting,” Orbán said. “That’s rather rare. Those who were my fellow leaders then in the Union all have already gone.” Referencing their “past 13 years” working together, Orbán said: “The two of us have the longest memory of the European Union and Russia’s relationship.”
Orbán, pointing to his upcoming election, said he had every intention of staying in office.
“I’m not planning to leave,” the prime minister said. “I will run, and I would like to still stay — I have good hopes that for many years we can work together,” he said, chuckling.
Putin, of course, has been Russia’s strongman leader since the resignation of former President Boris Yeltsin on December 31, 1999, having switched back and forth between president and prime minister, and recently overseeing constitutional changes that would allow him to remain in office until 2036.
Orbán, who has been accused of undermining democratic principles and trampling on press freedoms, showed no qualms about casting himself as a longtime friend and ally of the Russian leader who has taken even more draconian measures, jailing political opponents and labeling journalists and human rights advocates as terrorists and extremists.
“Difficult times, but we are in very good company,” Orbán said at one point, drawing laughter from Putin.
The tensions with the West over Ukraine came up briefly during a joint press conference following their meeting, with Putin accusing the U.S. of trying to bait Russia into an armed conflict, and insisting that Washington and NATO had “ignored” Russia’s main concerns in their written replies to the Kremlin’s demands for new security guarantees.
Orbán, for his part, described his visit as a “peace mission.” And, momentarily claiming the mantle of EU spokesman, he told Putin: “Not a single European Union leader wants a war and conflict.”
“We are ready for a reasonable agreement,” Orbán said.
Putin, in turn, praised Orbán’s role in developing strong relations with Russia, and trumpeted the low gas prices that Hungary pays thanks to long-term contracts. The European Commission has been urging EU member countries not to sign such long-term agreements for fear that they will hinder efforts to reduce the use of fossil fuels in the fight against climate change. But the Hungarian leader said on Tuesday that he had asked Putin to boost the volume of gas provided under the countries’ long-term deal.
Orbán stressed that it was good to meet in person despite the cumbersome social distancing measures, and he expressed special admiration for the size of Putin’s table.
“In my life I have never sat at such a long table before,” the Hungarian leader said.