European leaders expressed dismay over the Hungarian's knitwear this week
You have to hand it to him: Viktor Orbán knows how to make headlines. The world’s media are agonising over the meaning of a scarf worn by the Hungarian Prime Minister after a football match between his nation and Greece. The garment featured a map of the former Kingdom of Hungary before the loss of large portions of its territory following World War I.
Greater Hungary included parts of today’s Ukraine, Romania, Slovakia, Austria, Croatia and Serbia, and governments in those countries reacted with outrage to Orbán’s scarf. Kyiv is particularly upset, summoning the Hungarian ambassador “who will be informed of the unacceptability of Viktor Orbán’s act.”
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Ukraine’s sensitivity over perceived territorial claims is understandable, but representatives from those other countries should take a breath. Slovakia’s Foreign Minister likened the supposed sentiments of the scarf to Nazism, saying that “irredentism and revisionism have no place in our relationship. We saw where such feelings led in 1939, and we see it today in Russia’s aggression,” going on to describe Orbán’s scarf as “tasteless and dirty.” A more measured response came from Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, who simply said he doesn’t “want to deal with other people’s scarves.”
Orbán is probably thrilled that even his sartorial choices are deemed of global import. But there’s a yawning chasm between international interpretations, and what the scarf actually represents. In a Facebook post, Orbán said that “football is not politics. Don’t read into it things that aren’t there. The Hungarian national team belongs to Hungarians wherever they live.”
Proprietorial attitudes towards the lost territories of Greater Hungary are not a major feature of Orbán’s politics, either on the domestic or the international stage. After all, many of those surrounding countries are Hungary’s NATO allies; until October this year, a Hungarian general led the Kosovo Force (KFOR) mission keeping the peace in the Western Balkans.
Yet Hungary still feels a strong interest in the two million ethnic Hungarians who live in those territories, and who have preserved their linguistic and cultural identity since their separation over a century ago.
This sense of identification has been boosted over recent years by heavy-handed actions from those who are now so outraged by Orbán’s scarf. In Slovakia, decrees allowing the state confiscation of land from Germans and Hungarians after World War II continue to give Bratislava a pretext for claiming property from ethnic Hungarians whose wartime ancestors are long dead.
Relations between ethnic Hungarians and the central government have been particularly fraught in Ukraine. Restrictions on minority communities, imposed to combat Russian influence, have eroded Hungarian goodwill. Anger over the perceived rough treatment of ethnic Hungarians has been a factor in Budapest’s continued scepticism about portrayals of Ukraine’s war with Russia as a moral struggle between good and evil.
On the other hand, Orbán has hardly been whiter than white when it comes to the Hungarian community abroad. A diplomatic row with Ukraine erupted in 2018 over claims that Hungarian diplomats were illegally issuing passports to ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine. Hungary was later accused of trying to influence elections in the region. And in recent months, Hungary’s ambivalent stance on Russia has put the country’s wider commitment to the rules-based international order in doubt.
Still, Orbán’s scarf was an expression of cultural unity between Hungarians, rather than territorial ambition. Among other things, this cultural unity means supporting the Hungarian national football team, although that doesn’t change the fact that notions of unity across borders are understandably controversial in the current international context.