Europe

Putin visit to Hungary reveals regional divide over Putin

  • A photo taken on Jan. 30, 2017 shows the Monument To The Hungarian Socialist Republic, by Istvan Kiss 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)

    A photo taken on Jan. 30, 2017 shows the Monument To The Hungarian Socialist Republic, by Istvan Kiss 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)

  • FILE - In this Friday Nov. 4, 2016 file photo, images are projected during the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution and the invasion of Soviet troops and fight against communism and soviet rule, at St. Stephen's Basilica in Budapest, 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. (Zsolt Szigetvary/MTI via AP, File)

    FILE - In this Friday Nov. 4, 2016 file photo, images are projected during the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution and the invasion of Soviet troops and fight against communism and soviet rule, at St. Stephen's Basilica in Budapest, 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. (Zsolt Szigetvary/MTI via AP, File)  (The Associated Press)

  • A jogger runs past a monument dedicated to Soviet Army soldiers, in a park in Warsaw, Poland, Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017. 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/Alik Keplicz)

    A jogger runs past a monument dedicated to Soviet Army soldiers, in a park in Warsaw, Poland, Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017. 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/Alik Keplicz)  (The Associated Press)

A visit by President Vladimir Putin to Hungary this week reveals the vastly different reactions to Putin's Russia in countries formerly under Moscow's yoke, and highlights the very different challenges those countries will face in working with the new U.S. administration.

On one end of the spectrum is Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government is treating Putin's visit Thursday as a major event, and where a refurbished memorial to Soviet soldiers who died in World War II was unveiled ahead of his visit.

On the other is Poland, which is fearful of Russia's resurgence and welcoming in troops from the NATO western military alliance. Officials there are tearing down memorials to the Soviet soldiers, adding to Moscow's anger. And the country's most powerful politician, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, accuses Putin of being behind the 2010 plane crash that killed his twin brother, President Lech Kaczynski.

But then add to the mix a new U.S. president, Donald Trump. His political ideology is much closer to the leaders of both Hungary and Poland than his predecessor, Barack Obama, but his position on Russia — he has praised Putin and belittled NATO as "obsolete" — is causing very different reactions in each country.

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. Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said last week that Hungary has lost some $6.5 billion in export opportunities because of the sanctions. He said the "timing is perfect" for Putin's visit because for the first time, "as we try to further improve our relationship with Russia, there will be no American pressure not to do it."

Many Poles, however, fear a U.S-Russian rapprochement under Trump could threaten their security interests. To them, NATO is anything but obsolete and still represents the best guarantee for an enduring independent state in a difficult geographical neighborhood.

Trump's stance on Russia and NATO "bodes very badly" for Poland and some others in the region, including the Baltic states, with the biggest fear being that the region's interests could be traded as pawns in a bigger deal, said Lukasz Kulesa, the Warsaw-based research director for the European Leadership Network, a think tank focused on security and defense.

It's not clear what the expected rapprochement will include, but two programs that Putin strongly opposes and wants scrapped are a U.S. armored brigade of 3,500 U.S. troops that was deployed to Poland recently and a U.S. ballistic missile defense site under construction which is due to become operational in 2018.

"It's been our historical experience that whenever a deal was made above our heads by the bigger powers, we got a bad deal — and sometimes a bloody deal," said Ryszard Schnepf, Polish ambassador to the United States from 2012-2016.

"It looks like Trump wants to maintain dialogue with the biggest countries and dictate conditions to the smaller and weaker ones. From my perspective, and that of many Polish people, this is unacceptable."

The approach to Russia in the two countries hasn't always been so different. In 1989, when communism crumbled, both Orban and Kaczynski opposed Soviet control of their nations. Orban rose to prominence with a fiery speech demanding the Soviet troops leave Hungary, while Kaczynski belonged to the anti-communist Solidarity movement.

"'Russians go home' was Viktor Orban's ace card for reaching power and he expressed a strong right-wing opinion," said Maria Farkas, a resident of Esztergom, where the Hungarian memorial to the Soviet soldiers was recently refurbished and unveiled. "Times change and opinions change. With a politician, that's no surprise."

Even today, Orban and Kaczynski have much in common. Both are imposing nationalistic and authoritarian systems on their people, undermining democratic norms and finding common ground in their condemnation of the European Union, with Orban even comparing it to the Soviet Union.

Both leaders have cheered Trump, whose anti-migrant and nationalist views echo their own. Kaczynski recently voiced hope that Trump will end the U.S. "interference in Polish internal affairs" — an apparent reference to the Obama administration's criticism of his party's violations of rule of law. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski has said he has been reassured by U.S. promises that better ties with Russia won't harm Poland.

But while that may work for Hungary, it's hard to see how Trump can simultaneously benefit both Poland and Russia.

"There is a fundamental conflict of interests," said Edward Lucas, author of "The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West" and a leading Western commentator on Russia. "Do we believe that Russia's former colonies have the right to be independent countries or not? It's a clash of interests which can't be reconciled just with diplomacy."

Former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said his definition of an "acceptable" deal on removing EU sanctions would include "a repeat referendum in the Crimea under international supervision, restoring the control of the international border between Ukraine and Russia to the rightful authorities of Ukraine — and then normalization of relations including business opportunities with Russia."

Dropping sanctions without anything substantial in return would give the impression Trump has been "taken advantage of," Sikorski said.

Poland's precarious situation is made worse by strained ties with Germany, France, the EU and other Western partners.

"To have bad relations with Russia and Europe simultaneously and an American president who is sympathetic to the Russian president is not a good position to be in," Sikorski said.

Lucas said Trump's presidency should prompt Poland to cooperate much more on security with the Baltic states and particularly the Scandinavian countries.

"It can no longer rely on America to be a one-size-fits-all solution to its security problems," Lucas said.

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Pablo Gorondi in Budapest contributed to this report.