Russian President Vladimir Putin waded into an unusual controversy soon after his arrival in Budapest today, by paying tribute to a Soviet monument complex that is allegedly in violation of Hungarian law.
Shortly after landing at Budapest’s Liszt Ferenc Airport for a much-watched state visit, Putin went to the Fiuemi úti cemetery, where more than 7,000 Russian soldiers, most killed during World War II are buried.
According to an advance itinerary of Putin’s visit, he was scheduled to lay a wreath at a recently-renovated memorial to Soviet soldiers who died during the suppression of the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising, which says the soldiers gave their lives fighting the “counter-revolution of 1956”.
The renovation of the graves and monuments – including one with two black obelisks with red stars on top, which commemorate the Russian soldiers who fought and died in Hungary in 1956 – was financed by a Russian billionaire and took place between 2012 and 2014. The inscription “Eternal gratitude and glory to the Soviet heroes who sacrificed their lives for the liberty of the Hungarian people during the counter-revolution of 1956 October” remained unchanged after its renovation.
News site 444.hu pointed out that the inscription violates the Basic Law of Hungary introduced by the current Fidesz-led government, which states that “our present-day freedom blossomed out of 1956 Revolution,” and that Putin’s commemoration also violates legislation which says that anyone who “attempts to deny, doubt […] or justify the genocide and other crimes against humanity committed by the communist system is to be punished with spending up to three years in prison.”
Government officials later denied that Putin had laid a wreath at the monument in question, while pictures taken by national press agency MTI at the ceremony show Putin and other officials walking solemnly by the memorial. Only a small number of media were allowed to be present at the cemetery, with large numbers of police on standby in the area.
Putin’s visit to Hungary comes as tensions between Russia and the west are at a high-water mark, and as the Hungarian government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is similarly at loggerheads with both the European Union and the United States over its pursuit of what Orbán has dubbed “illiberal democracy.”
Following Putin’s visit, the Kettős Mérce blog claimed to have reported Putin to the authorities on grounds that he had broken the statute prohibiting the denial of communist crimes.
[Editor’s Note: The above report was modified to include official denials that Putin had paid tribute to the 1956 monument.]