Swedish Premier Visits Hungary to Discuss Stalled NATO Bid

Swedish Premier Visits Hungary to Discuss Stalled NATO Bid
Swedish Premier Visits Hungary to Discuss Stalled NATO Bid

Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary on Friday declared an end to a monthslong spat with Sweden over the expansion of NATO, saying that a visit by his Swedish counterpart had rebuilt trust and paved the way for the Hungarian Parliament to vote on Monday to ratify the Nordic nation’s membership in the alliance.

“We are ready to fight for each other, to give our lives for each other,” Mr. Orban said at a joint news conference in Budapest, the Hungarian capital, with the visiting Swedish leader, Ulf Kristersson. Hungary had been the last holdout in endorsing Sweden’s NATO membership.

The sudden warming of relations between the two countries followed a decision by Sweden to provide Hungary with four Swedish-made Gripen fighter jets in addition to the 14 its air force already uses, and a promise that Saab, the maker of the warplanes, will open an artificial intelligence research center in Hungary.

Hungary had been stalling for 19 months on ratifying Sweden’s admission to NATO, a delay that had puzzled and exasperated the United States and other members of the military alliance.

Mr. Orban and other Hungarian officials have given differing explanations for the foot-dragging. These have included complaints over Swedish accusations of democratic backsliding in Hungary under Mr. Orban, teaching materials critical of Hungary in Swedish schools and comments that Mr. Kristersson made years before taking office.

While Mr. Orban insisted on Friday that Sweden’s offer of new fighter jets and a research institute was not part of a deal over NATO membership, media outlets controlled by his governing Fidesz party trumpeted the increased military cooperation with Sweden as a triumph for Hungarian negotiating tactics.

“Today’s meeting is a milestone in a long process,” Mr. Orban said, “This long process can also be called the process of rebuilding trust, and we can mark the end of this phase today.”

After months of complaining that Sweden had shown insufficient respect for his country, Mr. Orban praised it on Friday as a trusted partner. He noted that it had taken in many Hungarian refugees after Soviet troops crushed an anti-communist uprising in Budapest in 1956, and that it had strongly supported Hungary’s 2004 entry into the European Union.

Mr. Kristersson’s visit to Budapest reversed his earlier position that he would to travel to Budapest for talks with Mr. Orban only after the Hungarian Parliament had voted to approve his country’s NATO membership.

Swedish-made Gripen warplanes, provided under a lease agreement, form the backbone of the Hungarian air force. Pro-government news outlets in Hungary reported in recent days that Mr. Orban was pushing for a better deal on the aircraft as part of his negotiations over Sweden’s NATO membership.

As Mr. Kristersson arrived in Budapest, Saab, the maker of Gripen warplanes, announced that it had signed a contract with the Swedish state to deliver four additional fighters to Hungary.

Some diplomats and analysts saw Mr. Orban’s sudden focus on expanded military cooperation with Sweden as a face-saving way out of an impasse that critics say had damaged Hungary’s reputation as a reliable ally and secured no clear benefits in return.

Until Friday, the most tangible benefit for Hungary, or at least for Mr. Orban, from the long delay in accepting Sweden had been all the attention given to a nation that otherwise has little military, diplomatic or economic clout. It accounts for 1 percent of the European Union’s economic output and has a military with about 40,000 active-duty members, about the size of New York City’s police force.

Hungary became the final obstacle to Sweden’s NATO admission after Turkey’s Parliament voted last month to approve it. After the Turkish vote left Hungary standing alone, Mr. Orban assured the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, that the “Hungarian government supports” Sweden’s membership and would get Parliament to act “at the first possible opportunity.”

But when opposition legislators called a session of Parliament early this month to vote on Sweden’s entry, Fidesz boycotted the session.

Sweden’s membership became entangled in Mr. Orban’s frosty relations with the Biden administration, which has strongly supported Sweden’s bid to join the alliance, and with the Hungarian leader’s opposition to Washington’s policy of supporting Ukraine with weapons.

“We would very much like to see President Trump return to the White House and make peace here in the eastern half of Europe,” Mr. Orban said last Saturday in his annual state of the nation address.

A bipartisan delegation of United States senators that visited Budapest last weekend to press Hungary to swiftly ratify Sweden as a NATO member received a cold shoulder, as Hungarian ministers and legislators from Fidesz all declined to meet with them. In a message posted on social media, Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, said the country would not be swayed by foreign delegations. “It is not worth it for visiting American senators to try to exert pressure,” he said.

In a sign of growing frustration, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, this month called Mr. Orban “the least reliable member of NATO” and raised the possibility of imposing sanctions on Hungary for blocking the expansion of the alliance.

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Jonas P. Jones

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