Europe

Putin heads to Hungary, his 1st trip to EU since US election

  • This photo taken on Jan. 30, 2017 shows the bronze statue of Lenin at Memento Park in Budapest, Hungary, a museum exhibiting dozens of Socialist-era statues and monuments removed from the streets of Budapest after the fall of the communist regime. For Hungary, a pro-Russian leader in the White House offers hope the Western world might end the sanctions imposed over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its role in eastern Ukraine. Many Poles, instead, fear a U.S-Russian rapprochement under Trump could threaten their own security interests. To most Poles, NATO represents the best guarantee for an enduring independent state in a difficult geographical neighborhood. (AP Photo/Pablo Gorondi)

    This photo taken on Jan. 30, 2017 shows the bronze statue of Lenin at Memento Park in Budapest, Hungary, a museum exhibiting dozens of Socialist-era statues and monuments removed from the streets of Budapest after the fall of the communist regime. For Hungary, a pro-Russian leader in the White House offers hope the Western world might end the sanctions imposed over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its role in eastern Ukraine. Many Poles, instead, fear a U.S-Russian rapprochement under Trump could threaten their own security interests. To most Poles, NATO represents the best guarantee for an enduring independent state in a difficult geographical neighborhood. (AP Photo/Pablo Gorondi)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this photo taken Friday, Nov. 7, 2014, a mural depicting Communist icons, from left, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin hangs on a wall of a bomb assembly and repair facility in an abandoned ex-Soviet military base near Nagyvazsony, Hungary. For Hungary, a pro-Russian leader in the White House offers hope the Western world might end the sanctions imposed over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its role in eastern Ukraine. Many Poles, instead, fear a U.S-Russian rapprochement under Trump could threaten their own security interests. To most Poles, NATO represents the best guarantee for an enduring independent state in a difficult geographical neighborhood. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

    In this photo taken Friday, Nov. 7, 2014, a mural depicting Communist icons, from left, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin hangs on a wall of a bomb assembly and repair facility in an abandoned ex-Soviet military base near Nagyvazsony, Hungary. For Hungary, a pro-Russian leader in the White House offers hope the Western world might end the sanctions imposed over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its role in eastern Ukraine. Many Poles, instead, fear a U.S-Russian rapprochement under Trump could threaten their own security interests. To most Poles, NATO represents the best guarantee for an enduring independent state in a difficult geographical neighborhood. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)  (The Associated Press)

  • FILE - In this Oct. 24, 1956 file photo, people gather around a fallen statue of Soviet leader Josef Stalin in front of the National Theater in Budapest, Hungary. The uprising in Hungary began on Oct. 23, 1956 with demonstrations against the Stalinist regime in Budapest and was crushed eleven days later by Soviet tanks amid bitter fighting. For Hungary, a pro-Russian leader in the White House offers hope the Western world might end the sanctions imposed over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its role in eastern Ukraine. Many Poles, instead, fear a U.S-Russian rapprochement under Trump could threaten their own security interests. To most Poles, NATO represents the best guarantee for an enduring independent state in a difficult geographical neighborhood. (AP Photo/Arpad Hazafi, file)

    FILE - In this Oct. 24, 1956 file photo, people gather around a fallen statue of Soviet leader Josef Stalin in front of the National Theater in Budapest, Hungary. The uprising in Hungary began on Oct. 23, 1956 with demonstrations against the Stalinist regime in Budapest and was crushed eleven days later by Soviet tanks amid bitter fighting. For Hungary, a pro-Russian leader in the White House offers hope the Western world might end the sanctions imposed over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its role in eastern Ukraine. Many Poles, instead, fear a U.S-Russian rapprochement under Trump could threaten their own security interests. To most Poles, NATO represents the best guarantee for an enduring independent state in a difficult geographical neighborhood. (AP Photo/Arpad Hazafi, file)  (The Associated Press)

On his first trip to the European Union since the U.S. presidential election, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday is heading to Hungary, the nation whose leader has cozied up to Moscow despite Russia-West tensions.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a populist dubbed "little Putin" by his opponents, has been critical of the U.S. and of EU sanctions imposed on Russia for its action in Ukraine.

Speaking ahead of Putin's visit, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said the EU sanctions against Russia have failed to achieve their objectives and cost Hungary some $6.7 billion in export opportunities. He also pointed at what he described as the previous U.S. administration's pressure on Hungary to prevent it from warming up to Moscow.

"The whole world is noticeably holding its breath while waiting to see if there will be rapprochement ... in American-Russian relations and if so, to what depth and dimension," Szijjarto said.

U.S. President Donald Trump has promised to mend ties with Russia, which have sunk to post-Cold War lows over the Ukrainian crisis, the war in Syria and the allegations of Russia's meddling in the U.S. elections. For the first time since his inauguration, Trump on Saturday had a phone call with Putin, which both the White House and the Kremlin described in strongly positive terms.

"If American pressure has been taken off European countries in terms of the sanctions, and there seems to be a good chance for this, I believe all of those who emphasized pragmatic relations and talked about the need to reevaluate the sanctions will be more courageous and that will be a new basis for debate," Szijjarto said Wednesday.

Hungary has also voiced hope for better ties with Washington under Trump. Orban has criticized the past administration for what he described as attempts to influence Hungary's domestic policies, such as a ban on entering the U.S. for six Hungarians, including the then-head of the Hungarian tax office, because of corruption allegations.

Orban, who has faced EU criticism for building a barbed-wire fence along its borders with Serbia and Croatia to stop migrants, has a sympathetic interlocutor in Putin, who has warned that flows of migrants could destabilize Europe.

Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov hailed what he described as "good personal ties" between the Russian and Hungarian leaders.

Putin last visited Hungary in February 2015, and Orban traveled to Moscow a year ago. Discussions focused on long-term supplies of Russian natural gas to Hungary and a deal to expand Hungary's Soviet-built nuclear power plant with a 10 billion-euro loan provided by Russia.

Ushakov said during this visit the parties will discuss the possibility of extending prospective Russian pipelines to Hungary, as well as the Paks nuclear plant deal.

The plant, launched in the 1980s, now accounts for about 40 percent of Hungary's energy consumption, and building two new reactors there will double its output, Ushakov said. The project is still awaiting permission from the European Commission, which Ushakov said has stymied it with "quibbles."

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Pablo Gorondi in Budapest contributed to this report.