Putin is wooing Hungary with “free” Superjet 100 planes

Russia has recently offered Hungary six brand new Sukhoi Superjet 100 aircraft, as well as support to launch a new national carrier. They began negotiations last October and Evgeny Andrachnikov, an official of Sukhoi told the media that a Hungarian national carrier would provide a great opportunity for the Superjet 100 to show its worth.  He added that the two countries would be reliable partners, bearing the successes as well as the risks of launching a national carrier.

State secretary László Tasó initially said that his government supports any project that is in the interest of Hungary. Later the government backpedaled. Now they say that the talks are in preliminary phase: “The ministry is willing to examine opportunities for cooperation, but nothing definite has been discussed yet and the parties agreed that Sukhoi would present a more detailed offer first.”

National or “flag carrier” airlines are important in Europe where countries initially established state-owned airlines to cover the high capital costs, and “flag carrier” planes are the source of national pride. Germany has Lufthansa, France has Air France and Hungary has had no national airline since 2012.

Vladimir Putin offers the Superjet 100 to Hungary.  (Photo from Interjet Airlines of Mexico)

Vladimir Putin offers the Superjet 100 to Hungary. (Photo from Interjet Airlines of Mexico)

Now history repeats itself in a strange way.

In 1946 the Soviet Union and the Hungarian government formed a joint venture to create a new airline called MASZOVLET (Magyar–Szovjet Polgári Légiforgalmi Részvénytársaság). Hungary accepted the generous Russian offer; the Soviets provided the planes, manpower and know-how.

MASZOVLET started operations on March 29, 1946 with two planes: a 21 seat Lisunov Li2 and 3-seat Polikarpov PO2 used for mail dropping. First the airline established domestic links connecting cities of Hungary; in 1947 it introduced its first international service to Prague. In 1954, MASZOVLET ceased to exist and MALÉV (Magyar Légiközlekedési Vállalat) was formed. Shares held by the Soviets were sold to the Hungarian government. MALÉV was reorganized in 1956 as the national carrier, but decades later run into financial difficulties and finally went bankrupt in 2012.

Soviet Li 2 plane flown by MALÉV in the 1950s.

Soviet Li 2 plane flown by MALÉV in the 1950s.

Moscow’s plans are clear. They want to re-establish Russia’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe with loans, energy and infrastructure projects, and the strategy is working. Mr. Orbán is ready to negotiate a deal in order to re-establish Hungary’s national airline using Russian technology.

It is no secret that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is steering Hungary toward Russia. “He is the only Putinist governing in the European Union,” said Joschka Fischer, the former German foreign minister. Orbán considers Putin’s Russia a great model. He thinks that EU sanctions against Russia are an unnecessary overreaction. Mr. Orbán already signed a mega-deal with Putin to expand Hungary’s Paks nuclear power plant, a project to be financed with Russian credit worth 10 billion Euros (almost 14 billion dollars).

It is ironic that this year Hungary will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union. Thousands died in the struggle to free the country from Moscow’s grip.

In 1946, after accepting Soviet technical help the Hungarian airline had no choice but to rely on the Soviet Union and use often inferior Russian aviation technology for almost half a century. There is no such thing as a free lunch and Hungary may pay later dearly if accepts Russia’s current plane offer.

Isn’t it eerie how history repeats itself?

György Lázár


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