Voices

How Hungary Became a Tool of Kremlin Foreign Policy

At one moment a few months ago, the very tense relationship between Hungary and Ukraine seemed to improve slightly when the Hungarian Foreign Ministry’s State Secretary for Parliament Relations Magyar Levente said, after meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart, that “I see a serious chance to leave this difficult period behind.”

The optimism only lasted for a day. He was contradicted by his boss, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó just 24 hours later, when he reiterated that Hungary would stand in the way of Ukrainian Euro-Atlantic integration efforts until Ukraine remedies a problematic new education law. Mr Szijjártó called news hailing progress in bilateral relations between the two countries lies and fake news. A bit awkward given that the “lies” came from his subordinate only one day before.

Not only did Hungarian diplomacy manage to contradict itself, but also the Hungarian ethnic minority groups it claimed to represent. The Hungarian Cultural Association’s (MKSZ) central office in Uzhorod, a city in western Ukraine, has been attacked twice over the past few weeks. The suspects of the first incident are far-right Polish activists from the pro-Russian Falanga organisation, and the Polish Internal Security Agency detained three suspects in the case.

Transcarpathian Hungarian leaders claimed Russia was behind the attacks. But Hungarian diplomacy seemed to ignore the opinions of their NATO and EU allies and Transcarpathian Hungarians. After the second attack on the MKSZ office, Péter Szijjártó wasted no time summoning the Ukrainian ambassador, citing threats to Ukraine’s Hungarian community, and demanding a special OSCE monitoring  mission to be sent to Transcarpathia – which, to a certain extent, equates the situation in Eastern Ukraine to that of Transcarpathia. Hungary’s actions will once again serve as justification for Russian claims that minorities are systematically oppressed in Ukraine and attacked by nationalists.

Hungary’s row with Ukraine over the latter’s recently adopted education law is increasingly helping Russia’s geopolitical aims in its conflict with Kyiv. With both countries having significant minorities living in Ukraine, as well as Moscow and Budapest’s special relationship, it could seem that they are natural allies against the administration of Petro Poroshenko. But despite the similarities, there is a fundamental difference between Hungary and Russia: according to the Venice Commission, minorities from EU member states, including the Hungarian minority, fall under vaguer and more lax provisions than their Russian counterparts – unsurprisingly, as Ukrainian decision-makers aimed specifically at assimilating the Russian-speaking parts of the country. Also, the interesting thing is while there are approximately as many ethnic Romanians and ethnic Poles living in Ukraine as there are ethnic Hungarians (around 150,000), Romania and Poland are only interested in solving the problem bilaterally, at the negotiating table. Hungary’s strategy is completely different.

After the law was adopted, Mr Szijjártó indicated Hungary would block Ukraine’s Western integration (in EU, NATO and the UN) and started to vocally criticise the Poroshenko administration’s minority policies. The Hungarian foreign ministry also at one stage promised that they would initiate the withdrawal of Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the European Union – the very cause for which people were dying on the Maidan back to 2014.

Hungary’s actions were music to Moscow’s ears. First, Russian Presidential Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov used and quoted vocal Hungarian criticism to justify the Russian assessment of the education law as “ill-conceived.”

Russian propaganda also interpreted Hungary’s alleged veto of a NATO-Ukraine ministerial-level summit as a failure of Mr Poroshenko’s foreign policy – which implies that Ukraine’s fight for a place in the West was pointless. However, the Hungarian veto was not really a veto: the topic of holding a Ukraine-NATO summit came up, but Budapest informally indicated that it cannot support it, so NATO foreign ministers met their Georgian counterparts in December 2017 instead.

The Hungarian government’s vocal criticism of the Ukrainian law has led to some results: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Kyiv to comply with the recommendations of the Venice Committee on its education law. The European Union included some of the Hungarian recommendations in a document released by the Ukrainian-European Association Council. The United States also tried to reconcile Hungary and Ukraine, and consequently Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin promised Budapest that Kyiv would consult with the Transcarpathian Hungarians.

But there are also signs that Hungary’s aggression against Ukraine is merely adding to its diplomatic isolation. Hungary’s heated reactions were condemned by Germany’s ambassador to Ukraine. Thirty-seven Lithuanian members of parliament called the Hungarian government’s behaviour “unacceptable.” Eleven NATO member countries (the United States was not among them) complained about Hungary’s obsession with Ukraine. Recently, a member of CDU, Fidesz’s German ally party in the EP criticised Orbán harshly for what he does against Ukraine.

Hungary’s actions run counter to the country’s long-term national security interests articulated in its 2012 National Security Strategy, which declares that all of Hungary’s neighbours should gain full membership of the EU and NATO. The Hungarian government is busy attacking Ukraine while Orbán warmly congratulated Putin for his election victory- while it obviously harmed, with the participation of to Crimea, the Budapest Memorandum that aimed to guaranteed the territorial sovereignty of the post-soviet countries. At the same time, Hungarian opposition parties are afraid of attacking this policy, and also, one of the opposition parties started a chauvinistic campaign against Ukrainians who aim to abuse the Hungarian pensioner system.

No question: Hungary has a legitimate interest in protecting Hungarian minorities in neighbouring states, and ask for the implementation of the recommendations of the Venice Commission. However, when the chairman of the Hungarian Cultural Association in Transcarpathia, László Brenzovics thanks Ukrainian law enforcement agencies for their work, yet Péter Szijjártó accuses the Ukrainian authorities of not doing anything to combat extremism, one might suspect there are other motives in play for the Hungarian government. Most likely, the Viktor Orbán administration considers Ukraine’s accession to Western international organisations a secondary issue, thus assisting Russian foreign policy to reach its aims in Ukraine of winning Moscow’s favour in other areas, such as energy deals and other shady businesses.

The Hungarian policy, blocking Ukraine’s EuroAtlantic integration does not help ethnic Hungarians in Transcarpathia. It makes Hungarian foreign policy more isolated. It weakens the Euro-Atlantic alliance and Hungary’s position within. The only country it helps is Russia. While Viktor Orbán, with questionable success, tries to find the right balance between the West and Russia, made Hungary a servile supporter of Russian foreign policy goals, or, in Sputnik’s words, a “battering ram” in the hands of the Kremlin.

This opinion editorial was co-written by Patrik Szicherle, an analyst at the Political Capital Institute.

The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy.

About the author

Péter Krekó

Péter Krekó

Péter Krekó is a social psychologist and political scientist. He has been the executive director of Political Capital since 2011.

7 Comments

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  • With all due respect, this article is pure propaganda! Hungary is not a tool for anyone. It looks after the interests of Hungary and of Hungarians living as a minority in neighboring countries in the aftermath of Trianon. The fact that Western lawmakers are condemning Hungary for standing up to Ukro-Nazis and their mistreatment of historical minorities, is a moral black spot on Western record, rather than Hungary’s. Standing up for those rights is the right thing to do, no matter who does it. Backing those who oppress minorities is the wrong thing to do, no matter the reason. This is a typical argument of black is white, and white is black!

  • This article shows that Peter Kreko is ignorant on the matter. He states over and over again that Ukraine has tried to resolve the issue without naming one single example. That is the problem. Ukraine always states over and over again that it is trying to resolve issues, but never does. Whether that is corruption, promises to it’s own people, or to Hungarians living in Transcarpathia. Get a grip. Ukrainian leaders don’t resolve nothing. All they do is lie, back stab, and squander opportunities to actually resolve problems.

    The article is made by someone with a NATO self-centered world view (i.e. anything that advances NATO must be supported even if it harms Hungary). Hungary will not place NATO interests above it’s own. Hungary only has two tools at its disposal to deal with Ukraine, one of which is NATO membership and the other EU membership. Being that these are the most effective ways to curb Ukraine’s bigotry against Hungarians, why shouldn’t the government use those levers of influence to try and reverse what several governments and the Venice Commission have condemned in Ukraine?

  • Any country that doesn’t kow tow to Murika and Murkle ‘must’ be a pawn. There is no such thing as national interests.
    You’re either with ‘us’ or against ‘us’ as George Dubya stated before he illegally and wrongly attacked Iraq.

  • “Hungary’s actions run counter to the country’s long-term national security interests articulated in its 2012 National Security Strategy, which declares that all of Hungary’s neighbours should gain full membership of the EU and NATO.” [the situation, that is, the Brussels EU’s actions, its growing dictates being imposed on member states, have changed, which means Hungary’s national security strategy needs to be updated, considering the Brussels EU’s aggressiveness and attempts to intimidate Hungary’s objections over open borders. And the Ukraine needs to put its own house in order before expanding into EU membership of which a significant number of Europeans are against, considering the undemocratic instalment of Ukraine’s presidency by US covert actions. ]

    Russian propaganda also interpreted Hungary’s alleged veto of a NATO-Ukraine ministerial-level summit as a failure of Mr Poroshenko’s foreign policy. [ Propaganda??? as if EU propaganda does not exist … this is Krekco’s version of the pot calling the kettle black, This article is simply too target rich and impossible to give a response to all its disingenuous points.]

  • Political Capital Institute is a left-wing think tank, of course they push this Orbán bashing for good reasons. Biased and flawed “analysis”