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MOSCOW – 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."
Pablo Gorondi in Budapest contributed to this report.