Jhe invades Ukraine February 24, 2022 will go down in the annals of European history. Russia’s undeclared war cast an almost apocalyptic shadow. And it radically altered the relations that had prevailed between East and West since the collapse of the USSR. Whatever the end of this armed conflict, it will undoubtedly take a long time for a new balance to be established that guarantees peace. At the very least, the European Union and NATO must now reckon with a hostile power on their borders and prepare for a new phase of the cold war.
Hungarians voted in the general elections just weeks after the invasion, in April, and it seems reasonable to assume that the war next door had an influence on the outcome. Given the climate of fear created by the devastating “special military operation”, the Hungarians voted to maintain Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in power rather than risk an inexperienced six-party coalition. This assumption also underlies Orbán’s response, which is to stay out of the conflict to the point of being “exempted”, a position that has been condemned as treason by Hungary’s western allies. Hungary refuses to allow arms shipments destined for Kyiv to pass through Hungarian territory and blocks the extension of EU sanctions against Russia to the energy sector. This last position aims to allow an already controversial Russian-Hungarian project to build a nuclear power plant on the Danube (Packages II) to continue without modification.
The exemption clearly goes too far, even if Hungary has special interests that deserve consideration. It has a 136 km (84 mile) border with Ukraine and there are around 150,000 ethnic Hungarians living in the Transcarpathian Oblast in southwestern Ukraine, many of whom are married to Ukrainians.
It should be remembered that, if from a purely geographical point of view, Hungary remained the same after 1989: the former Hungarian People’s Republic now borders five countries which owe their statehood to the end of the USSR and to the dissolution of larger multi-ethnic entities. To the south, the collapse of the former Yugoslavia led to the creation of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. Its northern border is no longer with the former Czechoslovak Socialist Republic but with the Republic of Slovakia and independent Ukraine. What now binds most of these new political entities to Hungary, and even to its former neighbors Romania and Austria, is EU membership. Serbia is on the waiting list, Ukraine has been candidate status obtained.
But in the 1990s, all of these countries transitioned to parliamentary democracy, during which rivalries between different political groups were played out openly and, quite often, violently. Every twist and every internal conflict in these republics continues to affect Hungary’s interests because of the Hungarian minorities living there: 1.5 million in Romania, 500,000 in Slovakia, 300,000 in Serbia, 16,000 in Croatia, 15 000 in Slovenia and 150,000 in Ukraine.
These minorities are a legacy of two agreements, that of 1920 Treaty of Trianon and the 1947 Paris Peace Treaties, which resulted in significant territorial losses for Hungary. Current issues facing Hungarians abroad, whether related to language rights or educational institutions, inevitably feed into domestic politics as well. Age-old animosities resurface again and again and are easily instrumentalized. Admittedly, some of Hungary’s neighbors cannot always resist such temptations either, but so far these conflicts have been contained within peaceful limits and have only had an indirect impact on its security interests. The Yugoslav wars of 1991-2001, however, revealed the fragile stability of the region as a whole and what happens when superpowers get involved in internal conflicts.
Politically too, the war in Ukraine raises delicate questions: Hungary’s relations with the two adversaries are far from being equally balanced. In 1995, the Hungarian government led by József Antall signed a treaty of friendship with the independent republic of Ukraine which, among other things, guaranteed visa-free travel. However, relations between the two countries have cooled, largely due to restrictions imposed by Kyiv. language policies, which harmed both the Hungarian minority and the huge Russian minority in Ukraine. At the same time, during the time of Orbán, relations with Putin’s Russia positively blossomed, helped by the similarities between the two leaders: authoritarian postures and illiberalism underlying their respective conceptions of the state.
Orbán’s closeness to Putin, shown during his visit to Moscow at the end of January 2022, presented as a “peace mission”, is not mere coquetry but rather an integral part of the “special path” he seeks. to borrow between East and West. The repeated lip service to fundamental “European values” and the signing of joint declarations against the Russian invasion do little to challenge the impression that in Orbán’s time Hungary was increasingly drifting towards a symbolic accession to the EU.
While the horrific images of war continue to shock, the Hungarian Prime Minister advocates “strategic calm”. Whatever citizens think of this rather nebulous concept, it may hide the discomfort of Fidesz elites. In the 13th year of the Orbán era, the system faces increasing difficulties stemming from its own economic and social policies. The national currency is losing value day by day (1 euro currently costs 414 forints; in 2010 it was only 285) and food prices are soaring.
The government imposed a temporary price freeze, a measure that hits small and micro businesses and which, in the case of oil prices, has forced many gas stations into bankruptcy due to falling revenues. Orbán attempts to explain the skyrocketing rate of inflation, currently running at 20.7%, in monocausal terms: “We were able to stay out of the war, but we will not be spared. Prices are driven up partly by the war, but also partly by the sanctions imposed by the West.
Orbán is clearly creating a “strategic calm” by blaming the financial crisis on the “west”. It remains to be seen how long a small country poor in energy and raw materials can remain inactive.
György Dalos is a Hungarian historian and author whose novels and prose works have been translated into 10 languages. He co-founded the Hungarian democratic opposition movement in 1977.
This test is part of a seriespublished in collaboration with Voxeurop, presenting perspectives on the invasion of Ukraine from the former Soviet bloc and neighboring countries. It was translated by Paula Kirby.