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.