In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office,...

In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, right, welcomes Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, July 2, 2024. Credit: AP

KYIV, Ukraine —

During his first visit to neighboring Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán told President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Tuesday that the war was Europe's “most important issue,” and recommended an immediate cease-fire.

Orban is widely seen as having the warmest relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin among European Union leaders, and his visit was a rare gesture in a tumultuous relationship with Ukraine as Budapest has repeatedly leaned toward Moscow.

The Hungarian prime minister has routinely blocked, delayed or watered down EU efforts to extend assistance to Ukraine and to sanction Moscow over its war, frustrating both Zelenskyy and other EU leaders.

But following talks in Kyiv on Tuesday, Orbán appeared to open the door to a new phase of bilateral relations, saying “the time had come” for such an official visit.

“We are trying to leave the disputes of the past behind us and focus on the period ahead,” Orbán said in brief comments to journalists following the talks. “We would like relations between our two countries to be much better.”

Ukraine and Hungary have had a tense relationship since the war began, with Orbán portraying himself as a champion for peace and calling for an immediate cease-fire and peace talks without expanding on what that would mean for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. He reiterated that call Tuesday, saying it would “provide an opportunity to speed up peace negotiations.”

In this photo, taken from video released by the Russian...

In this photo, taken from video released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Monday, July 1, 2024, Russian soldiers shoot toward an Ukrainian positions in an undisclosed location in Ukraine. Credit: AP

But Zelenskyy on Tuesday said he was “grateful” for the humanitarian support Hungary had provided to Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war. He also said Hungary could play a role in organizing a second iteration of a peace summit that was held in Switzerland last month, which brought together dozens of world leaders.

“Today, we discussed in detail how Hungary can show further leadership in preparing the second summit," Zelenskyy said, adding that he would like for the event to take place this year.

Orbán's visit comes the day after Hungary took over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, a position that has little real power but can be used to set the tone of the bloc’s agenda. Hungarian officials have indicated that they will act as “honest brokers” in the role despite worries from some EU lawmakers that Hungary’s democratic track record makes it unfit to lead the bloc.

During the visit, the Hungarian prime minister acknowledged Russia's invasion, and said his aim in traveling to Kyiv was "to understand how we could be helpful to Ukraine in the forthcoming six months.”

In this photo, taken from video released by the Russian...

In this photo, taken from video released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Monday, July 1, 2024, Russian soldiers ride a quad bike changing their positions at the frontline in an undisclosed location in Ukraine. Credit: AP

“The issue of peace is not only important for Ukraine, it is important for the whole of Europe,” Orbán said. “This war, which you are now suffering, has a profound effect on European security.”

The war is “the most important issue for Europe," he said.

The Hungarian premier, a self-described adherent of “illiberal democracy,” has long been accused by his European partners of dismantling democratic institutions at home and acting as an obstinate spoiler of key EU policy priorities. The bloc has frozen more than $20 billion in funding to Budapest over alleged rule-of-law and corruption violations, and Orbán has conducted numerous anti-EU campaigns depicting it as an overcentralized, repressive organization.

Orbán has also long accused Kyiv of mistreating an ethnic Hungarian minority in Ukraine’s western region of Zakarpattia, a community he has used to justify his refusal to provide weapons to Ukraine or allow their transfer across the two countries’ shared border.

But on Tuesday, Orbán said he sees a “good chance” of achieving progress in the minority community's affairs, and agreed to a proposal by Zelenskyy to set up a Ukrainian school in Hungary for refugees.

“These families need to be taken care of. They need jobs, they need a livelihood, they need security, they need a good school for their children, they need good teachers,” Orbán said.

His visit comes as he seeks to recruit members into a new nationalist alliance that he hopes will soon become the largest right-wing group in the European Parliament. On Sunday, Orbán met in Vienna with the leaders of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party and the main Czech opposition party, announcing the formation of the new group, “Patriots for Europe."

The trio would need to attract lawmakers from at least four more EU countries to successfully form a group in Europe's new parliament, which held elections in June. Right-wing nationalist parties across Europe strengthened their position in the elections, but ideological differences over the war in Ukraine and cooperation with Russia have often prevented deeper alliances among some of the parties.

___

Spike reported from Budapest, Hungary.

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