The invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 will go down in the annals of European history. Russia’s undeclared war has cast an almost apocalyptic shadow. And it has dramatically altered the relationships that had prevailed between east and west since the collapse of the USSR. Whenever or however this armed conflict ends, it will undoubtedly take a long time for a new peace-guaranteeing equilibrium to be established. At the very least, the European Union and Nato now have to reckon with a hostile power on their borders and to prepare for a new phase of the cold war.
Hungarians voted in 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 result. Given the climate of fear that the devastating “special military operation” created, Hungarians voted to keep Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in power rather than risk an untested 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 a betrayal by Hungary’s western allies. Hungary refuses to allow arms shipments destined for Kyiv to transit Hungarian territory and blocks the extension of EU sanctions against Russia to the energy sector. This latter stance is intended to enable an already controversial Russian-Hungarian project to build a nuclear power plant on the Danube (Paks II) to go ahead unaltered.
The exemption clearly goes too far, even if Hungary does have special interests that merit consideration. It has a 136km (84-mile) border with Ukraine and there are roughly 150,000 ethnic Hungarians living in the Transcarpathian oblast in south-west Ukraine, many of them married to Ukrainians.
It should be remembered that, while in purely geographical terms, Hungary stayed the same after 1989: the former Hungarian People’s Republic now borders five countries that owe their statehood to the end of the USSR and 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 Republic of Slovakia and independent Ukraine. What now connects most of these newer political entities with Hungary, and indeed its old neighbours, Romania and Austria, is EU membership. Serbia is on the waiting list, Ukraine has been awarded candidate status.
But in the 1990s, all these countries made the transition to parliamentary democracy, during which the rivalries between the various political groups played out openly and, not infrequently, violently. Every twist and turn and every internal conflict in these republics still affects 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 accords, the 1920 treaty of Trianon and the 1947 Paris peace treaties, which entailed significant territorial losses for Hungary. Current problems faced by Hungarians abroad, be they to do with language rights or educational institutions, inevitably supply material for domestic politics too. Age-old animosities are resurrected again and again and are easily instrumentalised. Admittedly, some of Hungary’s neighbours cannot always resist such temptations either, but so far these conflicts have been kept within peaceful bounds and have only had an indirect impact on its security interests. The Yugoslav wars of 1991-2001 revealed, however, the fragile stability across the region as a whole and what happens when superpowers meddle in internal disputes.
Politically, too, the Ukraine war raises awkward questions: Hungary’s relations with the two adversaries are far from equally balanced. In 1995, the Hungarian government led by József Antall signed a treaty of friendship with the independent republic of Ukraine that, among other things, guaranteed visa-free travel. Relations between the two countries cooled, however, largely due to Kyiv’s restrictive language policies, which adversely affected both the Hungarian and the enormous Russian minority in Ukraine. At the same time, in the Orbán era, relations with Putin’s Russia have positively blossomed, helped by the similarities between the two leaders: authoritarian posturing and illiberalism underlying their respective concepts of the state.
Orbán’s closeness to Putin, manifested in his visit to Moscow at the end of January 2022, which was hyped as a “peace mission”, is no mere coquetry but rather an integral part of the “special path” he is seeking to tread between east and west. 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 the Orbán era, Hungary is increasingly drifting into token membership of the EU.
While horrific images of the war continue to shock, the Hungarian prime minister preaches “strategic calm”. Whatever individual citizens make of this rather nebulous concept, it may conceal the unease of the Fidesz elites. In the 13th year of the Orbán era, the system is facing increasing difficulties arising from its own economic and social policies. The national currency is losing value by the day (€1 currently costs 414 forints; in 2010 it was just 285) and food prices are soaring.
The government has imposed a temporary price freeze, a measure that is hitting small and micro businesses and which, in the case of petrol prices, has forced many filling stations into bankruptcy due to falling revenues. Orbán tries to explain the soaring inflation rate, currently running at 20.7%, in monocausal terms: “We have been able to stay out of the war, but we will not be spared its consequences. Prices are being driven upwards partly by the war, but partly also by the sanctions imposed by the west.”
Orbán is clearly creating “strategic calm” for himself by shifting the responsibility for the financial crisis on to “the west”. It just remains to be seen how much longer a small country that is poor in both energy and raw materials, will be able to go on sitting on the fence.
György Dalos is a Hungarian historian and author whose novels and prose works have been translated into 10 languages. He co-founded Hungary’s democratic opposition movement in 1977.
This essay is part of a series, published in collaboration with Voxeurop, featuring perspectives on the invasion of Ukraine from the former Soviet bloc and bordering countries.