November 18, 2022 - 5:00pm

European Union ministers met today in Brussels for the General Affairs Council, which will see Hungary scrutinised for its disregard of EU norms and failures to cooperate with the bloc. Most pressingly, the Union is angered by Hungary’s decision to block an €18bn aid package to Ukraine in light of the Russian invasion. Last week, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock warned Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to not “play poker” in an attempt to put pressure on Brussels in a separate rule-of-law dispute.

Hungary has thus far spent a little under €70m on its humanitarian programme, as well as a further €21.1m in EU funds. Yet the Union’s threat to suspend about €7.5 billion in funds to the country may not be the only reason for Orbán’s reluctance to send further aid. There are approximately 150,000 ethnic Hungarians living in the Zakarpattia region of Ukraine in the Carpathian Mountains. Though many have fled since the Russian invasion, a significant number have remained.

From the Hungarian perspective, its minorities here have been threatened not just by the potential for a Russian takeover, but also by the ‘Ukrainisation’ drive of Kyiv authorities. At the beginning of October a statue in the city of Mukachevo depicting the Turul bird, a Hungarian national symbol, was replaced by the Ukrainian coat of arms in a move which angered Budapest officials. In addition, the use of the Hungarian language in schools has been restricted and, in December 2020, the SBU (the Ukrainian Secret Service) raided a charity when videos circulated online of councillors singing the Hungarian national anthem.

Ukrainians, however, will note Orbán’s cordial relations with Putin and the bombastic anti-sanctions poster campaign run by the Fidesz government, which has seen Hungary covered in depictions of a Brussels ‘sanctions bomb’ said to be ruining the country’s economy. Earlier this year Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the European Council, “Everyone knows exactly who in the EU is against humanity and common sense, who does nothing for the peace of Ukraine. This must end, and Europe can no longer listen to Budapest’s excuses.”

The situation in this region has caused a big push for rearmament in Hungary, the plans for which were outlined by Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczk, the country’s Minister for Defence. Asked just how far Hungary was prepared to go to protect the interests of its minorities in Ukraine, Szalay-Bobrovniczky said, “Very far […] Protecting their interests is part of our defence doctrine. But we respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

It is unlikely that Hungary, a NATO member since 1999, would be drawn directly into the conflict. However, with rapid rearmament in a region with high tensions over issues surrounding culture, language and identity, it is not unthinkable. With blackouts in Ukrainian cities and a harsh winter looming due to Russian targeting of Ukraine’s energy network, though, Hungarians are expecting a fresh wave of refugees over the coming months, having reportedly approved 28,000 asylum applications from the war-torn country since the invasion.

Should Ukraine thus require further Hungarian assistance, as looks likely, the minority issue will be an increasingly tempting bargaining tool for Budapest and for Orbán’s government.

Daniel Hardaker is a writer and translator.