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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary's prime minster said Wednesday after hosting a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that good relations with Russia are a necessity because of his country's geographical location.
Analysts see Prime Minister Viktor Orban as Putin's closest ally in the European Union and Hungary has long advocated for the end of sanctions against Russia for actions in Ukraine, saying they hurt the Hungarian economy. Trade between Hungary and Russia increased in 2018 for the first time since sanctions were put in place.
"It's a simple geographical fact: No country can change its address," Orban said during a news conference with Putin about Hungary's need to cooperate with Russia. "Every country is located where God created it. For Hungary, it means being in a Moscow-Berlin-Istanbul triangle."
Orban mentioned Hungary's membership in the European Union and NATO but said that it did "not rule out establishing political cooperation with Russia on certain issues."
Orban said Hungary, which depends greatly on Russian gas and oil, was trying to cooperate with Russia on issues like preventing migration to Europe, stabilizing the Middle East and aiding Christian communities around the world.
Orban also said it was a priority for his country to join the TurkStream gas pipeline to increase supply routes to Hungary for Russian gas.
Putin said that Russia expects to complete construction of the TurkStream pipeline to Turkey this year and build extensions to Bulgaria and Serbia the following year. He added that an extension to Hungary could be built quickly, and Orban welcomed the prospect.
Putin pointed to Hungary's role as a top customer for Russian natural gas and as a key transit hub.
"Russian gas supplies to Western Europe go via Hungary, and its underground depots allow serving European customers when consumption peaks," Putin said. "We view Hungary as a priority partner in the distribution of Russian natural gas in Europe," Putin said.
The Russian leader also praised Orban for organizing a meeting with representatives of Christian communities from the Middle East, saying that Russia sees the protection of Christians in Syria and other conflict areas as a top priority.
"The Middle East is the cradle of Christianity, and Christians are in peril there, facing persecution, being killed, raped and robbed. Russia will do everything to protect Christians in the Middle East. We must help them restore and preserve their holy sites, preserve their congregations," he said.
Putin added that the Russian military in Syria is also helping restore mosques and assisting Jewish communities.
Speaking later at a meeting with Christian leaders from the Middle East, Putin said, "We are concerned with a massive exodus of Christians from the Middle East."
"We are watching what's happening to the Christians in the Middle East with tears in our eyes," Putin said.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.