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Hungary using World Athletics Championships to boost ties but EU and NATO leaders not invited

Viktor Orban, centre, and UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, right, at the Europa League final at the Puskas Arena in Budapest in May.
Viktor Orban, centre, and UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, right, at the Europa League final at the Puskas Arena in Budapest in May. Copyright AP Photo/Denes Erdos, File
Copyright AP Photo/Denes Erdos, File
By AP
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Hungarian leader says his country will invite its "friends", but leaders from the EU and NATO are missing from the event's guest list.

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As millions of viewers focus on Hungary as it hosts a huge international sporting event, its nationalist prime minister will receive the leaders of Turkey, Serbia, Qatar and many Central Asian nations in a sign of the country's drift toward the Eastern sphere of influence.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a self-proclaimed proponent of “illiberal democracy” who is characterised by an often begrudging stance toward his Western partners, plans numerous bilateral meetings in the coming days as the capital, Budapest, hosts the 2023 World Athletics Championships.

The track and field event will be the backdrop for talks with the Emir of Qatar and the presidents of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, as well as leaders from the Balkan nations of Serbia and Bosnia.

In an interview on Friday with state radio, Orbán described the leaders — many of whom have overseen democratic decline in their countries — as Hungary's “political friends”.

He said the championships would provide a forum for the bilateral meetings as well as talks with business people from around the world, including China.

AP Photo/Denes Erdos
A view of Budapest's National Athletics Centre, which will host the event.AP Photo/Denes Erdos

“If there's a big world event, then the given country invites its friends,” Orbán said, adding that such events are “a more or less covert series of diplomatic meetings.”

The line-up, devoid of any leaders from Hungary's allies in the European Union and NATO, reflects Orbán's push to increase diplomatic and political cooperation with autocracies in the Balkans and Asia. 

In power since 2010, Orbán has implemented an “Eastern opening” diplomatic strategy, which relies heavily on partnerships and trade deals with countries like Russia and China.

Uniquely among its neighbours in central and eastern Europe, Hungary has maintained close ties with Moscow since the invasion of Ukraine, increasing shipments of Russian gas and oil and refusing to support Ukraine with weapons or allow their transfer across its shared border.

This stance — as well as years of alleged rule-of-law abuses and democratic backsliding — has largely isolated Hungary among its European and American partners, resulting in the freezing of billions in European Union funds and sanctions from Washington.

Partnerships with countries outside the EU and NATO, therefore, have received increased emphasis. 

In a news conference on Friday, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said the topic of most of Orbán's meetings would focus on securing natural gas supplies to Hungary from Qatar, Azerbaijan and several countries in Central Asia.

Ashley Landis/AP
Athletes and coaches at the National Athletics Centre, ahead of the start of the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary, Friday, Aug. 18, 2023.Ashley Landis/AP

However, Orbán's most high-profile meeting will be with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with whom he will discuss security, defence and economic cooperation, according to a statement from his office.

Turkey and Hungary remain the only NATO members not to have ratified Sweden's bid to join the military alliance as more than a year of delays have frustrated many NATO allies. Hungary's government has said it will revisit the issue during the next parliamentary session scheduled for the end of September.

Orbán will also meet with Milorad Dodik, the pro-Russian leader of Republika Srpska, a Serb entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Dodik, who has advocated for separating Bosnian Serb territories from the rest of Bosnia and joining them with neighbouring Serbia, was sanctioned by the US last year for “corrupt activities” that threaten to destabilise the region. Four other Bosnian Serb leaders were also sanctioned in July.

Speaking on Friday, Szijjarto condemned the sanctions, calling them “very serious Western efforts to negate the democratically elected leaders of the Bosnian Serb community.”

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