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Orbán breaks ranks with the EU and congratulates Putin on 'his re-election'

Orbán breaks ranks with the EU and congratulates Putin on 'his re-election'

Brussels earlier this week condemned the Russian presidential poll held over the weekend for taking place in an "ever-shrinking political space" amid an "alarming increase of violations of civil and political rights" that has strangled opposition voices and restricted access to accurate information.

The bloc also denounced the Kremlin for organising "elections" in the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine, decried as a "manifest violation" of international law.

"The shocking death of opposition politician Alexei Navalny in the run-up to the elections is yet another sign of the accelerating and systematic repression," Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, said then.

But in a new display of disregard, the Hungarian prime minister personally congratulated Vladimir Putin on what analysts have called a self-proclamation, rather than a democratic election, as the authoritarian leader easily took over 87% of all votes, the highest margin registered in the country's post-Soviet era.

The celebratory message doubled down on Budapest's intention to maintain close relations with Moscow despite the raft of sanctions that Western allies have slapped on the Kremlin with the aim of crippling its ability to wage war on Ukraine.

Viktor Orbán "congratulated Vladimir Putin on his re-election, noting that the cooperation between Hungary and Russia, based on mutual respect, enables important discussions even in challenging geopolitical contexts," Zoltan Kovacs, the government's international spokesperson, said on Thursday afternoon in a short message on social media.

"PM Orbán affirmed Hungary's commitment to peace and readiness to intensify cooperation in sectors not restricted by international law, underlining the importance of dialogue in fostering peaceful relations."

The announcement came with particular timing as it coincided with a meeting of EU leaders in Brussels that had as the main item on the agenda the need to ramp up military supplies to Kyiv and reinforce the bloc's defence capabilities to stave off a potential Russian attack, a scenario once remote that has become a credible possibility.

After addressing heads of state and government, Roberta Metsola, the president of the European Parliament, was asked about Orbán's show of support.

"Well, I would not share in the congratulations," Metsola replied.

"We are talking about a country that has illegally invaded another. A country whose leader did not stop in 2008, did not stop in 2014 and definitely does not show any signs to stop now, that has just emerged from an election that was neither free nor fair."

Heading to the meeting, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas delivered a mordant take on the latest events in Russia.

"I refuse to call it elections. I call it a 'special nomination operation' because it's not an election," Kallas told reporters, in a reference to the euphemism that the Kremlin employs to describe its brutal invasion of Ukraine.

"Why (do) they play this game to show they are having elections? They don't believe it themselves. It is to actually undermine our elections, our democracies, to say: 'You know, it's all the same.' And that's why we shouldn't call them elections," she went on.

"I don't think that these elections, because they are not elections, could deliver a result that we could say he's the president. He's just Putin."

Thursday's discussions between leaders also touched upon a novel proposal to use the windfall revenues of the Russian Central Bank's assets that have been immobilised by the West. Initially thought to pay for Ukraine's costly reconstruction, the project has been redesigned to provide the war-torn nation with weapons and artillery shells.

The idea is gaining traction but remains dependent on unanimity, meaning Orbán could single-handedly stop it in its tracks should he wish. The Hungarian premier has earned a reputation for exploiting his veto power to extract concessions and derail collective decisions, a pattern that diplomats in Brussels have compared to "Russian dolls" because once a demand is satisfied, a new one pops up.

Last year, Orbán prompted outrage after he was photographed shaking hands with Putin at a high-level conference in Beijing. More recently, the premier infuriated his allies when he delayed the approval of a €50-billion special fund for Ukraine and the ratification of Sweden's bid to join the NATO alliance.