Erdogan visits Hungary facing protests over Syria

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan heads to Hungary on Thursday for talks with Prime Minister Viktor Orban — a rare EU ally — but is expected to face protests over his deadly military offensive in Syria.

The meeting comes just a week after Orban met Russian President Vladimir Putin, stoking concerns in the European Union that the self-styled “illiberal” Hungarian is cosying up to autocrats.

Thousands of demonstrators are expected to take part in rallies organised by civil society groups in Budapest over Turkey’s assault on Kurdish fighters in Syria.

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Ankara launched the military operation last month to push Syrian Kurdish forces back from its border and create a “safe zone” to take in some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.

Hungary delayed an EU resolution condemning Turkey’s action, with Orban insisting that the offensive was in “Hungary’s national interest” because it would help stop refugees coming to the EU.

If Erdogan does not enable refugees to return to Syria, he could “open the gates toward Europe” for millions of migrants, said Orban, an anti-immigration figurehead for nationalists in Europe and beyond. 

At a meeting in Kazakhstan last month, Erdogan personally thanked Orban for his “support” for Ankara’s Syrian operation. 

Orban was also one of the few European leaders to attend Erdogan’s July 2018 inauguration ceremony for his second term in office, while the Turkish leader visited Hungary in October last year.

“(Orban’s) Turkey policy fits in with his strategy toward the east, trying to give political favours for economic ones,” Daniel Bartha, director of the think tank Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy, told AFP.

– ‘Berlin-Moscow-Istanbul triangle’ –

The Hungarian army plans to buy Turkish armoured vehicles, according to media reports, while a Budapest-based Turkish business magnate is close to both Orban’s family and to Erdogan. 

Hungary’s partly state-owned energy giant MOL also bought last week a stake in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that transports crude oil to the Mediterranean through Turkey. 

Orban defends his foreign policy of “eastern opening” as pragmatic cooperation with larger regional powers. 

“We live in a Berlin-Moscow-Istanbul triangle,” he told a press conference last week in Budapest alongside Putin, also a regular visitor to the EU and NATO member state. 

Accusing his Western critics of turning a blind eye to their own countries’ trade and political engagements with eastern countries, Orban has repeatedly defended Ankara. 

“Turkey’s stability is the guarantee of our security,” he said during last year’s visit by Erdogan, referring to the role of Turkish authorities in controlling migration into Europe.

“The Hungarian government appears to perceive Turkey as an emerging, key geopolitical player, not only in Syria but also in southeastern Europe and the broader Middle East,” said Daniel Hegedus, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“It seems ready to accept significant conflicts within the EU to please Ankara, and acts according to the interests of Turkey and Russia rather than the Western alliances Budapest belongs to,” Hegedus told AFP.

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