Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a self-proclaimed proponent of “illiberal democracy”, is often characterised by his aggressive stance toward the West and was expected to use the talks to boost bilateral ties with Eastern partners.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán received the leaders of Turkey, Serbia, Qatar and a host of Central Asian nations on Sunday in a sign of the European country's continuing drift toward the Eastern sphere of influence.
The nationalist leader arranged numerous bilateral meetings with his eastern counterparts against a backdrop of St. Stephen's Day celebrations (Hungary's National Day commemorating the foundation of the state more than 1,000 years ago) and the world track championships.
Budapest is playing host to the 2023 athletics tournament and will also provide a forum for talks with business leaders from China over the nine-day event.
“If there's a big world event, then the given country invites its friends,” Orbán said in an interview on state radio on Friday, adding that such events are “a more or less covert series of diplomatic meetings.”
The lineup of guests, 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.
In a closed-door meeting, Orban and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reportedly discussed bilateral cooperation, the war in Ukraine and Sweden's accession to NATO however energy security was supposedly the primary focus of talks between leaders, according to Hungary's Foreign Ministry.
Hungary's foreign minister Péter Szijjártó told the press on Friday that the flow of gas from Serbia to Hungary will have to be increased if Ukraine terminates its gas transit contract with Russia. Budapest will also be looking to secure natural gas supplies from Qatar and Azerbaijan.
Hungary has maintained close ties with Moscow since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, increasing shipments of Russian gas and oil and refusing to support Ukraine with weapons or allow their transfer across its shared border.
Additionally, years of alleged rule-of-law abuses and democratic backsliding have largely isolated Budapest among its European and American partners.
Hungary's interests in these talks aside, Tarik Demirkan, an economist and the editor-in-chief of Turkish news outlet Türkinfo, told Euronews that Budapest is the bridge between Ankara and the EU economy: "It is very important for Turkey to repair its relations with the West.
"Turkey has a very good relationship with Russia, China and the Middle East, but its foreign trade and its trade, in general, is biased towards the West" he added.
Meanwhile, Sweden’s bid to join NATO is still pending ratification by the Hungarian and Turkish parliaments but both are expected to approve the move this autumn. Erdoğan finally gave Stockholm the greenlight after months of deadlock during the NATO summit in Vilnius in July.
Analysts have also speculated that Erdoğan, who has not visited any EU country since his re-election in May, has used the opportunity to thank Orbán for backing him in NATO.