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World

Hungary And Poland Work To Improve Ties

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is a critical time for the European Union. And for Poland and Hungary, it might be a time to revisit an old alliance. Leaders of those countries say they want to team up to push back against what they see as meddling from Brussels, while the rest of Europe is asking, how committed are Poland and Hungary, really, to democracy? NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: There's long been a fascination with all things Polish here in the Hungarian capital. Before he was prime minister, Viktor Orban, for example, wrote a much touted master's thesis about the solidarity movement in the Polish port city of Gdansk. These days, a tiny Budapest establishment called Gdansk gets high marks from Hungarian locals, who packed the bar slash Polish-language library on a recent evening. The owners are a Polish woman and her Hungarian husband, Akos Szepessy.

AKOS SZEPESSY: (Speaking Hungarian).

SARHADDI NELSON: He says Hungarians may be fascinated by Poland, but it is the Poles who have historically been more committed to their mutual relationship. Analysts NPR interviewed echo that sentiment, pointing to a January visit by the new Polish prime minister to Budapest. It was his first foreign trip.

TOMAS VALASEK: At this point, Poland would appear to need Hungary more than the other way around.

SARHADDI NELSON: Tomas Valasek is the director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels.

VALASEK: It's ironic and counter-intuitive. Poland is, of course, a much bigger country which carries a lot more influence, or, used to carry a lot more influence in Brussels and around the globe than Hungary ever has.

SARHADDI NELSON: But Valasek says Poland is eager to learn from the Hungarian prime minister, who has proven rather adept at enforcing his controversial domestic political agenda despite European concerns about its stifling Hungarian democracy.

VALASEK: Orban has been good at cultivating his allies in the center right political family, the so-called European People's Party. They have given him cover and backing in crucial votes in a parliament, and have kept him from being isolated and finding himself in the sort of trouble that Warsaw has found himself in.

SARHADDI NELSON: That trouble escalated after Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party increased government control of the country's judiciary and media, which the EU charged violated the rule of law. Brussels recently took the unprecedented step of initiating Article 7 proceedings against Poland that if agreed to by all other EU members would lead to Warsaw losing its voting rights. Hungary will not let that happen, says government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs.

ZOLTAN KOVACS: Yes, indeed, we see that Poland is being picked upon like Hungary was, you know, pointed out or sorted out back seven, eight years ago, for no reason.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

VIKTOR ORBAN: (Speaking Hungarian).

SARHADDI NELSON: At a recent news conference with the Polish prime minister, Orban described his country's relationship with Poland as a cornerstone of his country's Europe policy. The two countries have already shown their joint strength in influencing EU refugee policy, which has become much more restrictive as a result. But Hungarian analysts say there's a major obstacle to the Polish-Hungarian friendship, and that's Russia. Simply put, Poland sees Moscow as a major security threat, while Orban is seeking closer relations with Russia.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Budapest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.