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OPINION

Straddling the pipeline: How Slovakia and Hungary are forging a pro-Putin alliance in the EU

A fresh alliance is taking shape within the European Union, with Slovakia and Hungary finding common ground despite not being traditional allies. This newfound alignment comes in the wake of changes in the Slovak government. Factors such as populism, nationalism, a shared aversion towards Ukraine, and an affinity for Putin's Russia are driving this alliance. And the pipelines, of course. Despite the European sanctions against Russia, both countries continue to receive Russian gas and oil, as an exception from these sanctions. Even amidst full-scale military operations, these resources traverse Ukrainian territory. The oil pipeline that draws Viktor Orban closer to Robert Fico is, quite symbolically, named “Druzhba” [Friendship].

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Close enemies

The first thing to note is that the notion of a Slovak-Hungarian axis as a two-state alliance is implausible. The numerous conflicts between these two nations, particularly regarding the Hungarian minority in Slovakia, are so profound that, were it not for their shared membership in the EU and NATO, the situation could have potentially escalated to a state of war.

Were it not for Slovakia's and Hungary's shared membership in the EU and NATO, the situation could have potentially escalated to a state of war

Consider, for instance, Robert Fico, whose career started with a strong aversion towards Hungarians. During his initial premiership in 2009, Slovakia barred Hungarian President László Sólyom from entering the country. Sólyom had intended to unveil a monument to Hungarian King Saint Stephen, constructed by the Hungarian community in the Slovak town of Komárno.

On the other hand, Viktor Orbán, back when he was a relatively young deputy, drove around with a map of 'Greater Hungary' displayed on the rear window of his car. Presently, he hasn't let go of this idea. Throughout his leadership, Hungarian passports were handed out generously. In 2022, Orbán intentionally stirred controversy by parading in a fan scarf depicting the silhouette of Hungary's “lost glory.” In return, he received a scarf with the map of Slovakia as a gift from his Slovak counterpart.

Hence, it's evident that the term “Bratislava – Budapest axis” is merely a metaphor. Friendship, particularly in the public eye, seems implausible between these two national populists. Nevertheless, they share striking similarities in their interests, both in terms of objective economic matters and within the sphere of corruption. This is at least according to their numerous critics.

Pipeline “consortium” against the sanctions

In the discussions around the EU's 6th package of sanctions, Hungary notably opposed the ban on Russian oil deliveries through the “Druzhba” pipeline. Consequently, an exception was granted, and the oil pipelines were exempted from the overall prohibition. Russian oil continued to flow not only into Hungary but also into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Initially, these shipments extended to Poland and Germany, but gradually, these countries opted out. Following a similar trajectory, the Czech Republic is evaluating its refineries to determine their capability to process alternative oil types from 2025 onwards, moving away from reliance on Russian Urals. For now, it continues to purchase Russian oil, even more than before the full-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine began. However, it is poised to discontinue these purchases when the throughput capacity of the Transalpine pipeline expands.

The Czech Republic continues to purchase Russian oil, even more than before the full-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine began

Slovakia presents a different scenario, having exclusively relied on Russian oil transiting through Ukraine until 2022. In the near future, Slovakia lacks the option to fully break free from this reliance. This similarity aligns it with Hungary, which is not eager to sever its pipeline connections with Russia. On the contrary, the Orbán government not only plans to continue being a purchaser of Russian oil but also aims to act as a transit provider, supplying it to Serbia—a country that, like Hungary, refrains from providing military aid to Ukraine and abstains from joining sanctions against Russia.

This shared economic interest is expected to significantly impact the policies of both Hungary and Slovakia within the EU in the years to come. Additionally, allegations of corruption against both Prime Ministers, Orbán and Fico, are likely to be thrown into the mix. Russia, being among the record holders in such matters, easily finds common ground with leaders exhibiting similar tendencies.

Other points of contention include Hungary's construction of the Paks-2 Nuclear Power Plant. The countries agreed at the end of August 2023 to commence construction, financed through Russian loans that Hungary will some time repay—although the repayment guarantee is subject to change given the evolving situation and the ongoing war.

Meanwhile, Slovakia straddles the gas pipeline from Ukraine. Reversing the flow through its territory allowed Ukrainian company Naftogaz to gradually reduce its formal dependence on Russian gas supplies after 2014. However, Slovakia currently shows no intention of deviating from this arrangement. On the contrary, local press reports suggest that Robert Fico's government perceives the current situation as a threat to the country's energy balance and is determined to exert every effort to maintain the supply of Russian pipeline gas. This issue is anticipated to be one of the focal points in 2024, as the existing Russian-Ukrainian contract remains in effect until the end of that year.

Slovakia's new government is determined to exert every effort to maintain the supply of Russian pipeline gas

So far Ukraine has adhered to the gas contract even after the onset of full-scale Russian aggression, prioritizing the interests of European consumers, although these efforts are not highly appreciated. However, there is a significant likelihood that the contract will not be extended beyond 2025. Recently, the head of Naftogaz Ukraine, Oleksiy Chernyshov, made statements in this regard. In such a case, Ukrainian authorities would be easily understandable.

To be more specific, the position of Ukrainian authorities might find understanding among the German authorities, who have opted against procuring Russian pipeline gas. However, it remains uncertain whether Slovak voters, particularly those with lower incomes whose votes propelled Robert Fico to the prime minister's position, would share this same comprehension. Although the Slovak company SPP, a monopoly fully owned by the state for the past five years, reports multiple contracts with external suppliers in 2023 and new agreements for 2024, it also maintains a contract with Gazprom until 2034. Despite statements indicating a significant reduction in Russian gas supplies, precise figures are not disclosed by Czech gas operators.

Much ado about nothing

The influence of Vladimir Putin on the policies of Hungary and Slovakia should not be overestimated. They make decisions based on their own priorities. For instance, Robert Fico wasted no time in traveling to Brussels to meet EU leaders shortly after becoming prime minister. Both he and Viktor Orbán, who emphatically declared that not a cent from their countries' budgets would go toward arming Ukraine, voted in unity with other EU colleagues to support a declaration for providing long-term and stable assistance to Kyiv, including military aid. The recent meeting between Putin and Orbán in China, where they shook hands and the Hungarian premier avoided using the word “war,” did not hinder this alignment. Russia is undoubtedly a friend, but Germany remains Hungary's primary trade and economic partner.

In Brussels, both Fico and Orbán voted in unity with other EU colleagues to support a declaration for providing long-term and stable assistance to Kyiv

Similarly, Hungary consistently supports anti-Russian sanctions, with a few economically beneficial exceptions. There is no doubt that Robert Fico will align with Viktor Orbán on this stance. Both vociferously express their reluctance to extend sanctions or assist Ukraine and, where possible, disrupt pan-European policies – but only to negotiate the price for lifting their veto on certain decisions.

For the EU, they are undoubtedly obstacles, but not insurmountable ones. Their agreement always depends on the cost of other considerations. Simultaneously, for the Kremlin, they are allies only when it directly allows for earnings or other advantages.

It could be argued that Orbán and Fico are the natural successors of Silvio Berlusconi, the “Teflon” politician who allegedly introduced Vladimir Putin to the workings of European corruption and the mafia. Interestingly, the Hungarian opposition often refers to the current regime as a “mafia state”. Similarly, last time Robert Fico had to resign from his position as Prime Minister partly due to allegations of his government's direct involvement with the Italian mafia syndicate, 'Ndrangheta. These shared experiences connect all three leaders, albeit to varying degrees.

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