U.S. Readies Anti-Orban Sanctions If Charm Drive Fails, WSJ Reports

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. drew up a list of associates of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban who could be targeted with sanctions, the Wall Street Journal reported, in what would amount to a fallback option if engagement fails to sway the illiberal leader to meet his NATO commitments.

The sanctions threat emerged just a day after President Donald Trump praised Orban as a “tough” and “respected” leader at a White House meeting that capped a turnaround in American policy. The U.S. had focused for almost a decade on isolating the four-term premier over his erosion of democracy and deepening ties with Russia and, more recently, China.

The Wall Street Journal, in a report late Tuesday, cited unidentified people talking about the list of targets who could be sanctioned for corruption. They include tycoon Lorinc Meszaros, who’s considered Orban’s closest business ally, Istvan Tiborcz, Orban’s son-in-law who has wide-ranging real estate holdings, and Antal Rogan, Orban’s chief of staff.

“We don’t respond to unfounded, fake news,” Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said in an email. The U.S. embassy in Budapest didn’t comment.

Orban has been a thorn in the side of U.S. efforts to shore up NATO’s eastern flank to counter the growing influence of Russia and China. He’s built a close relationship with President Vladimir Putin and handed Russia a $12 billion contract to expand Hungary’s sole nuclear power plant.

Orban has also opposed U.S. efforts to draw Ukraine closer to NATO, citing disagreements over the treatment of ethnic Hungarians there. He’s rejected U.S. requests to cut business ties with Huawei Technologies Co., instead joining China’s global infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative.

The U.S. had already blacklisted unidentified Hungarian officials in 2014, barring them from entry because of alleged corruption.

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