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German Chancellor Will Face Difficult Talks On Visit To Hungary This Month

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives in Budapest shortly – and further visits by foreign dignitaries will give Hungary unusual prominence this month.

Russian President Vladimir Putin follows on 17 February, the Turkish, Georgian and Nato leaders soon after.

“That’s just the way life here is,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban told the BBC. Hungary has long had to balance East with West.

Critics hope Ms Merkel will chide Mr Orban for his authoritarian policies.

But he will be hoping for praise from a fellow conservative leader.

The cover of the HVG weekly shows Hungary as a seesaw with Mrs Merkel on one end and Mr Putin on the other. “Playground” reads the headline.

It’s not a new story. Endre Ady, one of Hungary’s best modern poets, depicted his motherland in 1905 as a “ferry-country”, constantly travelling from East to West, “though preferring the return journey”.

Concern About Rights

At the top of the agenda with the German chancellor are:

  • EU sanctions against Russia over Ukraine (which Mr Orban opposes)
  • Heavy Hungarian taxes on German companies in Hungary (which Mr Orban supports, but may give ground on)
  • Migration into the EU (on which he hopes to find common ground)

Several thousand opponents of Mr Orban rallied in Budapest on Sunday, and smaller numbers in many provincial towns.

Amnesty International accuses Mr Orban’s government of an “unprecedented crackdown” on civil society groups (NGOs), “including public smearing, criminal investigations, office raids and the seizure of equipment and a politically motivated audit”.

A statement from the human rights group on Monday said the German chancellor should call on Mr Orban to stop “practices coined in Russia [that] are gaining currency in an EU member state”.

Julia Lakatos, an analyst at the Centre for Fair Political Analysis in Budapest, says Hungary currently has “a much greater voice than its size or power would indicate”. “There is a conscious wish from the prime minister’s side to be a greater player in this game than he would otherwise be.”

Russian Connection

Viktor Orban’s ambitions, as well as some of his domestic policies, are bringing him into conflict with his EU and Nato allies.

The German government is reportedly furious that Mr Putin’s visit follows so soon after Angela Merkel, and that it will take place in defiance of an EU decision last March, following the Russian annexation of Crimea, not to hold regular bilateral meetings with the Russian president.

Viktor Orban is likely to tell her that the long-term contract to supply Russian gas will run out this year, and that those talks will form the centrepiece of the Putin visit.

Mrs Merkel will spend only a few hours in Hungary, in another sign of German displeasure. One prize she may take home is an easing of taxes on German businesses, including the TV company RTL.