The Hungarian government has been quietly pushing for the lifting of asset freezes and travel bans against nine high-profile individuals, including two well-known Jewish oligarchs, ahead of the expected renewal of the European Union’s Russia sanctions this March.
According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Budapest is demanding sanctions relief for both Alfa-Bank co-founder Mikhail Fridman and Viatcheslav Moshe Kantor, a major shareholder in Russian fertilizer firm Acron.
Both men are well-known for their pro-Jewish activism. Fridman co-founded the Russian Jewish Congress and the Genesis Philanthropy Group, while Kantor served as the longtime president of the European Jewish Congress until last April.
The Hungarians have expressed opposition to sanctioning Kantor from the beginning, with an envoy questioning the move during a meeting of EU diplomats last spring.
When announcing its ninth package of sanctions against Russia in December, the European Commission did appear to provide at least partial relief for Kantor: It announced that member states would be authorized to unfreeze assets belonging to individuals “who held a prominent significant role in international trade in agricultural and food products, including wheat and fertilizers, prior to their listing.”
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However, despite Kantor’s connection to Acron, and Hungary’s ever-increasing need for mineral fertilizers, “there doesn't appear to be a specific special link between any of these oligarchs and Hungary to justify such requests,” Tomasz Włostowski, managing partner of the Brussels-based consultancy EU Sanctions, told Haaretz on Monday. He noted that imports of Russian fertilizers to the EU have “significantly increased” over the past year.
According to Włostowski, Budapest’s campaign is more likely connected to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s ongoing efforts to strengthen his country’s ties with Moscow and the ongoing “cat-and-mouse struggle with the European Commission over the release of various EU funds withheld from Hungary.”
Hungary has been at loggerheads with the EU over both sanctions – which Orbán has said should be scrapped – and over the erosion of the rule of law. In November, the European Commission approved a post-pandemic recovery plan for Hungary worth 5.8 billion euros ($6.3 billion), but said that Budapest would not receive any payments until it implements reforms to bolster judicial independence and tackle corruption.
“Putting all of this together, the most likely explanation is that Victor Orbán isn't engaged in a genuine attempt to delist these oligarchs, but instead he’s using them in his attempt to pressure the EU to release Hungary’s EU funds while scoring political points in Moscow,” Włostowski said.
“Orbán needs to develop pressure points on the Commission to force a settlement,” he added.
Kantor has used his fortune – estimated by Forbes to be $12.7 billion – to fund Jewish organizations across Europe and Israel. After being sanctioned, he resigned as head of the European Jewish Congress and moved to Israel. Yet despite his resignation, Kantor initially failed to fully sever himself from the European Jewish Fund – a Luxembourg-based charity that disburses more than $2 million a year to support Jewish groups, including the EJC.
A Haaretz investigation last year found that while Kantor had stepped down as chairman of the fund, he remained one of four members who controlled it, alongside his son Vladimir, his daughter Ekaterina and an Israeli NGO run by several of his close associates.
Within days of the publication of Haaretz’s report, Kantor stepped down as a controlling member of the fund.
And while several prominent Ukrainian-Jewish leaders lobbied for lifting the sanctions against Kantor last year, none of the other communities he has funded over the years has advocated on his behalf.
“I've no idea why the Hungarian government pushed to lift the sanctions on the oligarchs,” said Andras Heisler, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, which is a beneficiary of Kantor funding.
“They haven't published any information to support their demand. This is a very sensitive topic for us, because some of these people were great and selfless supporters of Jewish causes and organizations. [But] without any supporting arguments, this is only a political action, which isn't likely to help resolve this complicated situation.”
Reuters contributed to this report.