by Daniel Hardaker
Friday, 18
November 2022
Explainer
17:00

Why Viktor Orbán won’t help Ukraine

It's not just a lack of EU funds that has angered the Hungarian leader
by Daniel Hardaker
Viktor Orbán in Prague for a European summit last month. Credit: Getty.

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.


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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.

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Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
19 days ago

So, the E.U. believes that Russian oil should not be sanctioned until the E.U. (i.e. Germany) is ready to do without it; but that Hungary should go along with whatever the E.U. wants, irrespective of what is in Hungary’s interest. How, very, …Germanic

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
19 days ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

Whilst my politics align more closely with Orban than most EU politicians, I have little sympathy for him. He sits there with his hand out expecting the EU to fund his political party and country, yet doesn’t want to abide by any of the rules of being part of the bloc. If he’s that against the EU then he should take Hungary out of it, but he’ll never do that as that would be the end of his gravy train

B Emery
B Emery
19 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Hungary is as reliant on Russia though for fuel as it is on the EU for trade. I think it has one of the highest dependancies on Russian oil. He needs them both, Hungary can’t afford not to take the Russian fuel at the moment. They have also taken many refugees to help Europe out.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
19 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

“He sits there with his hand out expecting the EU to fund his political party and country, yet doesn’t want to abide by any of the rules ”
Pretty good description of Zelensky there, except that his begging bowl extends to the US as well, on top of which he is trying to pull Europe into a direct war with Russia with blatant, shameless lies such as the Russian “missile attack” on Poland, and he also expects poorer third world countries like India to collapse with high energy prices by refusing Russian oil.

Last edited 19 days ago by Samir Iker
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
19 days ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

There’s a big difference between asking for assistance to repel a murderous foreign invader, and expecting other countries to fund the day to day running of your nation in peacetime, of which I’m sure you’re well aware

B Emery
B Emery
19 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Ok but the murderous foreign invader was sticking up for ethnic and Russian speaking people in the Donbas and Luhansk also being subjected to this aggressive ‘Ukrainisation’, so their kids were banned from speaking Russian at school, they got rid of all the Russian text books. Creepy extreme nationalism going on in Ukraine.

B Emery
B Emery
17 days ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Good points, totally agree, talking of India struggling, I read this about Pakistan last week:
https://www.google.com/amp/s/oilprice.com/Energy/Natural-Gas/Pakistan-Has-No-Option-But-To-Ration-Natural-Gas-Supply-This-Winter.amp.html
This gas business is causing carnage.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
19 days ago

So what exactly is the difference between Hungary being willing to protect the rights of ethnic Hungarians that are stuck inside Ukraine since the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Russia’s desire to protect ethnic Russians stuck living in Ukraine since the breakup of the USSR?

I get that Hungary hasn’t invaded and Russia has. But these sorts of “my people are living in your country” problems are direct assaults on the Westphalian state system. Maybe Westphalia has outlived it usefulness, but before we scrap it, we might want to study what the world was like before it. (Short answer: violent and unpleasant for the vast majority of people.)

Edit Szegedi
Edit Szegedi
19 days ago

The Westphalian system was not a system of nationstates and every country had “my people are living in your country”. This system functioned because it was premodern and prenational.
There is a Romanian minority in the Ukraine which has the same problems as the Hungarian, due to the Ukrainian linguistic policy (mainly after 2004). Before the outbreak of the war Romania’s relations with Ukraine were frozen.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
19 days ago
Reply to  Edit Szegedi

My point is that Westphalia (in theory) sets the boundaries of a nation’s concerns at its geographic borders. It also leaves each nation essentially free to run its internal affairs its own way. In theory, this should eliminate the “my people are trapped in your country” argument, since if “your people” end up on the wrong side of the border, they’re not “your people” anymore.
You’re correct about Eastern Europe in general though. It’s a mess. Between the slicing up of Austria-Hungary and the breakup of the USSR, most of the borders don’t make any logical sense. Americans don’t understand this sort of historical grievance. Most of us don’t even know what the Treaty of Versailles was, yet nearly every Hungarian knows what the Trianon Treaty is and most still resent it.

Last edited 19 days ago by Brian Villanueva
Laurian Boer
Laurian Boer
17 days ago
Reply to  Edit Szegedi

Indeed, the Romanian minority in the Cernivtsi area, has had the same problems. Many of them think that the war with Russia is not “their” war and you can’t blame them.
By intensifying its push to “ukrainize” them, especially since 2014, the Ukrainian government has antagonized them, same as they have been doing with the Hungarian minority in Transkarpatia.
Romania’s support to Ukraine is only due to its desire to please NATO (read: US) and to its ancestral fear of the “Russians”.

Cassander Antipatru
Cassander Antipatru
18 days ago

Europe in the centuries after the Peace of Westphalia wasn’t noticeably more peaceful than Europe in the centuries before the Peace of Westphalia. Which isn’t to say that we should scrap the Westphalian system now, but nor should we imbue it with virtues it doesn’t have.

B Emery
B Emery
19 days ago

I like Orban. He does what is best for Hungary and sod everywhere else. It makes him very unpopular with the Europe group but good on him, hes one of the few that sticks to his guns and talks real world sense. That ‘Ukrainisation’ is what happened in the donbas, forcing kids that spoke Russian to only speak Ukrainian at school, only Ukrainian text books, this really didn’t help with the tensions. Scary, crazy nazi style stuff raiding a place for a video of people singing the Hungarian national anthem. Seems arming the likes of the SBU and asov was a very bad idea.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
18 days ago
Reply to  B Emery

I appreciate this comment. It bears remembering that Ukraine’s policies would be considered highly racist and human rights violations in the US or UK. Russia did have reasons for their actions. That said, whatever territory is in Russian hands when the dust settles is likely to be subject to de-Ukrainisation, which is the same thing in reverse. Honestly, Ukraine and Russia are both corrupt kleptocracies with questionable elections and viciously nationalistic regimes. The real reason the west cares about this when they were willing to ignore Russia doing the same thing in Georgia is simple. Ukraine is a large nation with a lot of arable land and resources strategically located between Russia and the west. Both sides were trying to manipulate Ukraine into their orbit long before the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

B Emery
B Emery
17 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

I get you, good points, the sod everywhere else bit was a bit strong on my part too, it’s a sorry situation really for everyone involved, especially the Ukrainian civilians, and not all Ukrainians are hardcore nationalists, by a long shot, these groups that are though will make this war very dangerous, I would think they would be resistant to negotiating, zelensky doesnt seem prepared to at the moment and he was pushing the polish missile thing last week.
I saw Patrick Lancaster on you tube the other day interviewing people in crimea after the bridge explosion, there was an elderly lady that lived in crimea, had a daughter in the Donbas and her granddaughter was studying in Kiev, she was obviously very upset, confused, there was a guy that had fought with Ukrainian army, retired in crimea, he said what was he to do if it came to fight for crimea? Take up arms against the men he fought beside before? It seems the people in these regions have strong connections to both sides, very difficult. Also good point about Georgia, the Russians have many floors as well. I’ll take that. I think what I found so frustrating was the un walked out on Sergey Lavrov at the start, I feel they could have been more even handed maybe considering this Ukrainisation business and such?

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
17 days ago
Reply to  B Emery

I agree completely. What bothers me is the massive hypocrisy of the US, and to a lesser extent most of the EU. America is hardly in any position to scold anyone for launching a pre-emptive invasion with questionable justifications, and until very recently, Russia’s actions had been largely ignored by the EU because of cheap Russian gas. Russia got away with bad behavior for the better part of two decades between Syria, Georgia, Crimea, Chechnya, etc. Yet, suddenly Ukraine’s invasion requires a massive response. The only obvious difference is that Ukraine has a lot more strategic and economic value than any of those others and the US/NATO were trying to push Russia and Ukraine apart. In 2014, there WAS a coup that overturned a (probably corrupt) election of a leader Putin supported and installed a pro-western government, which is what triggered the annexation of Crimea and started the Donbas conflict. Whether that action was a ‘popular uprising’ or an unlawful coup instigated by foreign powers is one of the major points of contention between Russia and the west. I can’t personally say Putin is wrong and that the US/NATO didn’t quietly back the 2014 coup. It’s been done often enough before and I don’t trust my government (American here) much more than I suspect the Russians trust theirs. The Ukrainian people are being run through a grinder for the sake of a conflict that they didn’t want and has very little to do with them, but that’s true of 90% of the wars ever fought

Last edited 17 days ago by Steve Jolly
B Emery
B Emery
17 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Thanks for the reply, agree with your points, I think that’s a really fair conclusion to be honest, very well put.
Can I ask – Do you think nato will get involved anyway? From the perspective do you think nato and Russia have been gearing up for this anyway and we’re just at the start of the conflict, rather than nearing the end? We seem to be sending more and more stuff out there, Poland increasing its border security now after last week, I have to say I think this seems to be headed more out of control than coming to any conclusion. Have a horrible feeling we’re a long way from done with this.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
16 days ago
Reply to  B Emery

I’m not aware of any sovereign country that teaches non-native speakers in their own language? If you are an immigrant non English-speaking child in a British school, you will be supported, often by teachers who speak your mother tongue, but you will ultimately be taught the national curriculum in English, from English textbooks.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
18 days ago

Interesting read, including the replies, and it makes one realise how tolerant a society we are.
Let’s keep it that way, and thankfully being outside of the EU, will help that greatly.