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Sweden’s Leader Says He Will Meet With Orban to Advance NATO Bid


Bowing to a Hungarian demand for negotiations over the expansion of NATO, the prime minister of Sweden on Thursday agreed to hold talks with Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orban, the last obstacle blocking the Nordic nation’s admission to the military alliance.

The decision by the Swedish leader, Ulf Kristersson, to accept an invitation from Mr. Orban to visit Budapest for talks reversed an earlier position that the future of the United States-led alliance — a bloc whose 31 member states have a total population of nearly a billion — was not something to be negotiated with Hungary, a military lightweight with only 10 million people.

A vote by Turkey’s parliament on Tuesday to accept Sweden as a member of the alliance, however, left Hungary as the only holdout and strengthened Mr. Orban’s leverage. It also intensified accusations abroad that he was effectively holding Sweden’s membership for ransom.

In a sign that Mr. Orban intended to use his leverage, Laszlo Kover, a close ally of the Hungarian prime minister and the speaker of Parliament, indicated Thursday that he was in no hurry to put the matter to a vote. Parliament is in recess and is not scheduled to return until Feb. 15.

“I don’t feel that anything is urgent for us; in fact, I don’t think an extraordinary situation has arisen,” Mr. Kover said in an interview with a pro-government news portal, Index.

The portal, like many other Hungarian media outlets, used to be independent but aligned itself firmly with the government after being taken over by a businessman loyal to Mr. Orban.

Mr. Kover, a hard-line longtime member of the nationalist governing party, Fidesz, said he personally opposed Sweden’s NATO membership because “they refuse to show the slightest respect” and had accused Hungary of democratic backsliding “simply because we want to protect our children from L.G.B.T.Q. brainwashing at all costs.”

In the past, Sweden, like most members of the European Union, accused Hungary of violating minority rights and undermining democracy, but an election last year brought to power a right-leaning government that, backed by a far-right party that shares many of Mr. Orban’s views, has retreated from criticism of Hungarian domestic policy.

After Turkey voted to admit Sweden, Mr. Orban on Wednesday said he would push Hungary’s Parliament to follow suit but gave no timeline and repeated a longstanding assertion that legislators make their own decisions. That assertion is despite the fact that Fidesz has a large majority of seats and invariably follows the prime minister’s instructions.

Mr. Kover said he could change his mind and vote to accept Sweden into the alliance if it showed more respect.

Admission of a new member to NATO requires the unanimous support of the alliance’s members, and all but Hungary and Turkey granted approvals more than a year ago. The admission of Finland last April delivered a strategic defeat for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. But the blow to Russia was softened by Hungary and Turkey scuppering plans that Sweden and Finland would join “hand in hand.”

That Hungary would block Sweden, which has a highly developed weapons industry and a modern navy and air force, vital for the defense of the Baltic Sea, has caused widespread dismay and even led to calls in some quarters, particularly in Baltic nations, for Hungary’s expulsion from NATO.

Mr. Kover dismissed criticism of Hungary’s go-it-alone stand as the work of “bored politicians” who want to treat his country like a “cheap toy.”

Hungary repeatedly promised that it would not be the last country to accept Sweden and has advanced a wide range of different reasons for its foot-dragging. These include gripes about teaching materials in Swedish schools, complaints about years-old comments made by Mr. Kristersson and members of his cabinet, and scheduling difficulties.

Mr. Kristersson has apparently decided that accepting Mr. Orban’s request to visit Budapest for negotiations is a small price to pay. His announcement Thursday came just a day after his foreign minister, Tobias Billstrom, said he “saw no reason to negotiate” with Hungary.

“I agree with you that a more intensive political dialogue between our countries would be beneficial,” Mr. Kristersson said on Thursday in a letter to Mr. Orban, a copy of which was viewed by The Times.

Citing Hungary’s use of Swedish-made fighter jets and their shared membership of the European Union, Mr. Kristersson expressed hope that the Hungarian Parliament would ratify Sweden’s NATO membership and “create a solid foundation to move ahead in our bilateral relations and to reinforce mutual understanding and trust.”

Christina Anderson contributed reporting from Stockholm.

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