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Fresh off a hearty Putin handshake, Orban heads into an EU summit on Ukraine



Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban will be the center of attention at an EU summit on Thursday following his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week

BRUSSELS -- Not so long ago, a European Union leader could heartily call Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban a “dictator” in public and it’d be chuckles all around.

Already the recalcitrant EU outsider in 2015, Orban got a ribbing from EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, not only for running a self-professed “illiberal democracy” but also for setting the tone at EU summits where the need for unanimity gives any single leader massive power on a slew of issues.

There are very few laughs now. Orban's handshake last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, just about the EU’s public enemy No. 1 after invading Ukraine, made sure of that.

And as the 27 EU leaders meet for their traditional fall summit in Brussels on Thursday, the participation of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who will join by video link, will only increase the focus on Orban.

With unity supposedly the EU’s watchword on Ukraine, no picture could have better belied 1,000 diplomatic words.

“Some leaders will directly address the very negative effects,” said a diplomat, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. “Some will say it very directly."

Another senior diplomat from a member state said that “he (Orban) was sitting there very cozily — that was remarkable. Apart from that, let’s get to the point. Hungary is a complicating factor in any discussion on (Ukraine) support and aid. It is there for all to see. We don’t have to be diplomatic about it,” he said, also seeking anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Not that Orban is easily embarrassed, since he often thrives in the face of overwhelming opposition from within the bloc.

And he poured on the aggravation early this week when he compared the EU, which has lavished billions of euros on Hungary since it emerged from Soviet domination, with Moscow's former communist leaders themselves.

“Things pop up that remind us of the Soviet times," he said early this week. "Fortunately, Brussels is not Moscow. Moscow was a tragedy. Brussels is just a bad contemporary parody.”

There was no laughter from EU headquarters in Brussels. But on Thursday, Orban might have a new ally around the summit table, when left-wing populist Robert Fico makes a comeback as Slovakia’s prime minister, following his election victory last month.

Like Orban, Fico has had warm words for Russia. He upped the ante during the campaign when, in clear contradiction of EU policy and promises, Fico vowed to withdraw Slovakia’s Military support for Ukraine in Russia’s war.

“People in Slovakia have bigger problems than Ukraine,” he has said.

On the eve of the summit, as his government was being sworn in, he made clear he would not bend his political ideas to fit the EU mold.

“You will hear a sovereign Slovak voice from the Slovak government," he said. “You will see the implementation of a sovereign Slovak foreign policy."

Those are welcome words for Orban, just as he is poised to lose his biggest ally in the bloc, the nationalist government of Poland. The opposition led by former EU Council President Donald Tusk won the election on Oct. 15 and now seeks to lead the nation back to the center of EU policy-making, undoing much of the political existing alliance with Orban.

On the EU table at the moment for Zelenskyy, issues ranging from financial support, to arms deliveries to the potential membership of Ukraine in the bloc, could all be held up by Orban making use of the unanimity clause.

So far, though, European diplomats said that Orban's bluster outside the summit center rarely translates into intransigence behind closed doors. Since the war started in February 2022, the 27 nations have stuck together, even if some sanctions packages were slowed down by extra demands from Orban.

“Whenever a dark mood strikes me about this issue, we have to say that in spite of Hungary, we have been able as a union to take massive steps,” said the senior diplomat from an EU country.

“But it remains hard work and sometimes the atmosphere gets nasty,” he said.