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Russia to build nuclear power plant blocks in Hungary

January 16th, 2014

Pro-government commentators welcome the nuclear deal between Hungary and Russia, and argue that it will serve the Hungarian national interest. Left-wing columnists, on the other hand, criticize the lack of transparency and the increased dependence on the Russian energy infrastructure which the agreement will cause.

On Tuesday PM Orbán and Vladimir Putin agreed in Moscow that Russia’s Rosatom public atomic energy concern would build two new reactor blocks at the Paks nuclear power plant and finalized the agreement on the South Stream pipeline (see BudaPost December 14, 2013). The four Paks reactors (with a total capacity of 2000MWs) currently deliver 40 per cent of Hungary’s electric power and will end their extended lifespans between 2032 and 2037. The construction of the two new blocks (with a combined capacity of 2400 MWs) will be financed from a 10 billion Euro Russian loan covering 80 per cent of the total construction costs. János Lázár, the state secretary responsible for the Prime Minister’s Office said that the construction will create 10,000 jobs in Hungary, and the new blocs will provide cheaper energy. In 2011, the opposition voted in favour of a long term energy strategy which included the planned extension of the Paks nuclear plant, but they have now criticized the government for striking a deal without a public tender or a public debate about whether or not it is necessary, adding that the agreement will increase the country’s dependence on Russia. The financial details, including the interest to be paid on the Russian mega-credit, have still to be agreed upon and the project will have to be adopted by parliament before it can come into force.

In Magyar Nemzet, Gábor Stier welcomes the nuclear deal which he regards as a breakthrough in the government’s project to open to the East. The pro-government columnist contends that although Hungary belongs to Europe, it should follow a pragmatic policy line in establishing economic ties with its partners outside the EU. The agreement on the new blocs is highly beneficial for the country, since the new nuclear blocs will provide affordable electric power and thus guarantee the basic energy supply in the long run. Although Vladimir Putin’s Russia is regaining her importance as a global power, in her relations with Hungary she follows economic prudence rather than imperial power considerations, he suggests. In an aside, Stier writes that the deal should be transparent, otherwise, no matter how reasonable it is, it will inevitably be targeted by opposition criticism.

Much of Europe including Hungary is dependent on Russian energy, Gyula T. Máté writes in Magyar Hírlap. As there is no available alternative to Russian gas in the region, both the nuclear plant and the South Stream pipeline deal will increase Hungarian energy security, Máté contends. He recalls that the construction of new nuclear blocks at the Paks plant was on the agenda of the former Socialist government as well, but it could not reach an agreement with any of the possible constructors. The pro-government commentator adds that the deal will open up the possibility of further economic cooperation through which Hungary can access Russian markets. As the Paks nuclear plant was built by Soviet companies, it is reasonable that the new blocs be constructed by Russians, Máté remarks.

Népszava‘s Miklós Bonta recalls that in 2008, Viktor Orbán as the leader of the opposition accused the Socialist government of a “putsch against the Hungarian Parliament and its own people” for signing a classified agreement with Russia on the South Stream pipeline. The left-wing commentator finds it peculiar that Mr Orbán had no qualms when he signed a similar deal prepared in secret on the Paks nuclear plant. Bonta fears that the agreement was brokered hastily without a tender, and thus there is no guarantee that it will best serve Hungary’s interests.

After this deal, Hungary can no longer be called a democracy, Népszabadság comments in a front page editorial. The leading left-wing daily contends that such an important energy agreement should have been preceded by proper public and professional debates. Népszabadság suspects that the deal was decided by PM Orbán alone. Because of the lack of transparency, it cannot be ruled out that corruption could also be involved, Népszabadság suggests. As for energy security, Népszabadság contends that in future Hungary will be even more dependent on Russia as a result of the Paks and the South Stream pipeline deals.

The deal completes the Orbán government’s efforts to restore Communism, Magyar Narancs suggests. The liberal weekly believes that after what it sees as the silencing of independent media, the centralizing of decision making, the weakening of democratic institutions, the compromising of the rule of law, the large scale nationalization of private property, the introduction of ideological indoctrination through the introduction of mandatory ethics or religion classes in primary schools, the Paks nuclear agreement is a further step in reversing the past 25 years of democratic transition. “The only thing missing which has prevented us from feeling as if we were living under Communism so far, was the lack of dependence on Russia. But on January 14 it was provided as well, by Viktor Orbán,” Magyar Narancs fulminates.

In Mandiner, Ákos Gergely Balogh writes that there has been a consensus among political parties that Hungary needs nuclear energy, with the single exception of the LMP. Quoting Népszabadság, the centrist blogger notes that the Hungarian government consulted several international experts and EU politicians (including EU Commissioner for energy Günther Oettinger and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso), so the deal cannot be considered as hasty or improvised. Nonetheless, it cannot be taken for granted that the deal will be beneficial for Hungary in the long run, since it is impossible to predict future energy prices, Balogh remarks. He finds it inevitable that the deal will further expose Hungary to Russian influence by increasing the country’s dependence on Russian energy. Commenting on the dispute over the secrecy of the deal, Balogh notes that there is little consistency on either side: while in opposition in the past, PM Orbán was highly critical of secretive deals, while the left-wing opposition parties now calling for transparency supported confidential arrangements when they were in government.

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