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For Ukraine, Hungary’s Orban is another problematic strongman next door

An authoritarian leader, known for suppressing political opposition and using his national press as his own mouthpiece, insists that Ukrainians who speak his language need protection and financial assistance, and he allows his government to issue passports, illegally, to Ukrainian citizens.

Residents of border towns get their news from foreign TV, feel no closer to Kyiv than they do to the neighboring national capital, and seethe over monuments to their heritage being taken down by Ukrainian authorities. Sounds like Russian influence in east Ukraine? In fact, it is Hungary’s role in Ukraine’s west.

Tensions between Ukraine and Hungary, which share an 85-mile border, are hardly of the magnitude of Ukraine’s conflict with Russia, now in its 10th month of deadly, destructive war.

But Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is yet another deeply problematic neighbor for Kyiv: maintaining warm ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, repeatedly obstructing European Union sanctions against Moscow and insisting Ukraine should be pressured to negotiate a peace deal.

Though Hungary is part of NATO, Orban has refused to allow Western weapons to be transported through Hungarian territory. He is arguably the weakest link in the effort to preserve international support for Ukraine, giving him leverage in Kyiv, Brussels and Washington.

Andras Racz, an expert on Hungary and Russia at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said the reason was simple: Landlocked Hungary depends on cheap Russian oil and gas, which in turn allows Orban to keep energy prices low and win votes.

“What we have seen from Viktor Orban since February has been motivated by domestic political considerations,” Racz said. “If you want to sum it up: It’s not to irritate the Russians, not to give them any pretext to cut the flow of gas or oil.” If they did, Racz said, “it would be an economic disaster for Hungary.”

As the war has progressed, Orban’s relationship with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has grown frostier. The two have clashed publicly, with Zelensky accusing the Hungarian of callous indifference to the suffering of Ukrainians — a charge Orban denies.

Hungary has given refuge to more than a million Ukrainian war refugees, and delivered hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Ukraine. But Orban, a proponent of “illiberal Christian democracy” and hero of far-right populists, cultivates his own brand of revanchist Hungarian nationalism, and has even raised suspicion that he might one day attempt to reclaim Hungarian lands in Ukraine.

Last month, Orban was photographed at a soccer match wearing a scarf with an imprint of a historical map of Hungary that included parts of Ukraine and other neighboring countries. Ukrainian officials summoned Hungary’s ambassador in Kyiv to explain and issued a statement complaining that Orban’s actions did “not contribute to the development of good neighborly relations.”

In March, one month into the war, tensions burst into the open when Zelensky scolded Orban for his reluctance to impose sanctions even as Russia destroyed the city of Mariupol.

In a video address to E.U. leaders, Zelensky said: “Listen, Viktor, do you know what’s going on in Mariupol? And you hesitate whether to impose sanctions or not? And you hesitate whether to trade with Russia or not? There is no time to hesitate. It’s time to decide already.”

In national elections in April, after running on a platform of nonintervention in the war — and winning reelection by a wide margin — Orban cited Zelensky as an “opponent” along with “Brussels bureaucrats,” “the Soros empire” and “the international mainstream media.”

In November, Hungarian President Katalin Novak, a member of Orban’s party, Fidesz, visited Kyiv as a show of support. But this month, Hungary temporarily blocked an E.U. effort to approve about $19 million in emergency loans for Ukraine. Budapest similarly stalled an E.U. boycott of Russian oil.

On Twitter, Orban said it was “fake news” that he didn’t want to help Ukraine but that the loans should be given by each country bilaterally, not by the E.U.
In an end of the year news conference on Wednesday, Orban said “most of Europe” had been “dragged into” the war and repeated his calls for Ukraine to negotiate with Russia. Countries supplying weapons were “up to their ankles,” and those who “fully finance” were “in the war up to their necks,” he said. “This is not our war,” he added.

Budapest lost nearly two-thirds of its land after World War I. Today, more than 2 million Hungarians live abroad, about 130,000 of them in Ukraine.

Most live in Transcarpathia, a poor, mostly rural area on the western side of the Carpathian Mountains, which once belonged to Hungary, making them a small minority of the region’s 1.3 million residents — and a tiny number compared with the 4 million or more ethnic Russians living in eastern Ukraine before 2014.

Still, despite the small numbers, the region has become a focus of tensions between Kyiv and Budapest. Defending and supporting Hungarian communities has been central to Orban’s grip on power.

About 40 percent of Ukrainians consider Hungary to be an “enemy nation,” third after Russia and Belarus, according to an October survey by the Ukrainian polling company Rating.

In Transcarpathia, this displeasure can be blunt. In October, officials in Mukachevo — a half-hour drive from the Hungarian border and known as Munkacs in Hungarian — dismantled a large statue of a turul, a falcon-like bird from Hungarian mythology.

The dark brass statue had a wingspan of around 15 feet, weighed close to a ton, and since 2008, had stood atop a tower at the Palanok Castle — an imposing fortress where Hungarian nobility once lived. It was a symbol of Transcarpathia’s Hungarian past and a reminder of once warm ties between Budapest and Kyiv.

Today, however, it lies in four pieces, behind a padlocked door in the castle. In its place now stands a massive “tryzub” — the trident that is Ukraine’s national symbol. Mukachevo officials assure the statue will soon be reassembled and become part of a museum exhibition on Transcarpathia’s history. But it will never again occupy a place of prominence in the city, they say.

“There should be only Ukrainian symbols,” said Mukachevo Mayor Andriy Baloha. “Transcarpathia is Ukrainian land — it was, is and will be. This is a message to the Hungarian government.”

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto called the incident an “unnecessary provocation” and summoned the head of Ukraine’s embassy to explain. Kyiv officials seemed to distance themselves.

“They just spat on the soul of every Hungarian,” said Sandor Shpenik, head of the Ukrainian Hungarian Democratic Association in Uzhgorod, Transcarpathia’s largest city.

The turul’s dismantling could still be a flash point in the future, some believe, if Hungarian officials or far-right groups decide to harp on it. For now, it highlights Kyiv and Budapest’s fragile relationship — one that can be soured by the act of a local official, or a president’s choice of scarf. It also underlines Zelensky’s challenge in maintaining unity in his ethnically, religiously and politically diverse country.

“I’m really afraid it can be used as a political issue,” said Dmytro Tuzhanskyi, director of the Institute for Central European Strategy in Uzhgorod and an expert on Ukrainian-Hungarian relations.

In the village of Rativtsi, nine miles from the Hungarian border, many of the 1,300 residents speak little or no Ukrainian or Russian, news comes mostly from Hungarian sources, and the war can seem far away.

Transcarpathia is experiencing blackouts but mostly has been spared from Russia’s airstrikes — an island of peace in the conflict, local Hungarians say. Loyalties are local — to their villages, region and ethnicity.

“We’re in Transcarpathia — the war is in Ukraine,” said Monika, who spoke on the condition that only her first name be used, given that she was discussing about politically sensitive issues.

Budapest provides extensive financial support to Hungarian communities and businesses in neighboring countries. But many Ukrainians see this as interference in their country’s internal affairs.

Others welcome the money. Mayor Zoltan Babjak in Berehove, Transcarpathia’s largest ethnic Hungarian city, says Budapest’s assistance is needed to fill out his cash-strapped budget.

It also assures that Hungarian culture will not disappear from Transcarpathia — a place where Hungarians have lived for close to a thousand years. Tens of thousands of ethnic Hungarians have left the region looking for work. “Our intention is to stay where we are,” Babjak said.

Budapest has also issued passports to more thana million ethnic Hungarians living abroad — who have proven to be a reliable voting bloc for Orban. But double citizenship is illegal in Ukraine. In 2018, Ukrainian officials expelled Hungary’s consul in Transcarpathia and launched an investigation into “high treason” after a video was leaked of the consul issuing passports in Berehove.

Budapest officials, in turn, accuse Kyiv of restricting ethnic Hungarians’ rights and forcing them to assimilate, pointing to a 2017 language law that mandated increased use of Ukrainian. Designed to combat Russia’s influence, the law also limited teaching in schools of other languages, like Hungarian.

“Hungarians are artificially being forced out of Transcarpathia,” said Janos Heder, pastor of the Hungarian Reformed Church in Uzhgorod, whose family has lived in the region for more than 500 years.

Because of the language issue, Hungary blocked Ukraine’s participation in a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Bucharest last month. Szijjarto said on Facebook that “until Ukraine gives back the rights of the Transcarpathian Hungarians,” Budapest would continue blocking such meetings with Ukraine.

Orban has said he opposes military aid for Ukraine partly out of concern for Hungarians living in Ukraine. No Hungarian, he said, should be caught “between the Ukrainian anvil and the Russian sledgehammer.”

But many Hungarian Ukrainians support the war effort. Novak, the Hungarian president, said 500 members of the community had “shed their blood at the front — lost their lives or been injured.” The Washington Post could not independently verify that figure.

Christian Shkiryak, 30, grew up in Transcarpathia speaking Hungarian. When Russia invaded, he and his family were living in Bucha, a Kyiv suburb now equated with Russian atrocities. They escaped two hours before the Russians arrived. Now back in Transcarpathia, he says he feels equally Hungarian and Ukrainian.

“I grew up in the Hungarian culture; I love the traditions; I love the history,” he said. “I love everything about Hungary. But I don’t love this Hungary, the Orban Hungary.”

Source : The Washington Post



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