“Veto game”, “foreign policy low point”, “ramming spree” – these are just a few of the words that independent Hungarian media are using these days to comment on Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s veto of EU financial aid for Ukraine. The weekly HVG wonders: “What is the Orban government’s problem with the Ukraine loan?”
The question of whether Hungary would veto the EU’s EUR 18 billion loan for Ukraine had long been in the air. Until the very end, many European politicians had hoped that the Hungarian prime minister would only be bluffing. But on Tuesday (December 6, 2022) Orban carried out his threat – and had the financial package blocked in Brussels. Shortly thereafter, he claimed in a tweet that there was no Hungarian veto: “This is fake news. No veto, no blackmail.” According to Orban, Hungary is ready to support Ukraine on a bilateral basis.
With a genuine veto or not, Hungary’s blocking of EU financial aid to Ukraine is the latest low in a long-troubled relationship between Hungary and its neighbor. Especially since the beginning of the Russian attack on Ukraine, there have been such low points again and again: After February 24, Orban and his government hesitated to condemn the Russian aggression and to describe it as contrary to international law. To this day Orban speaks of a “Russian-Ukrainian war”. “This is not our war,” Orban emphasizes again and again, saying it is about a “dispute that the parties concerned should resolve with one another.”
campaign against the EU
He recently said that Hungary is interested in “there being a sovereign state between Russia and Central Europe, which for the sake of simplicity we now call Ukraine”. Shortly thereafter, he showed up at a football game of the Hungarian national team with a scarf showing the outlines of the former Greater Hungary – which until 1918 also included areas of today’s Ukraine.
Hungarian Prime Minister Orban with a scarf showing the outline of Greater Hungary. Image from his Facebook account
So far, Hungary has largely supported the EU sanctions against Russia – Budapest only successfully vetoed a planned sanction of the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Cyril, who is a notorious warmonger. However, Orban negotiated far-reaching exceptions for his country, such as the boycott of Russian oil. He has also repeatedly sharply condemned the sanctions – an official campaign is currently underway in Hungary in which the Budapest government accuses the EU of destroying Hungary’s economy with anti-Russian sanctions. Orban rejects arms deliveries to Ukraine anyway, and he has had Hungarian territory blocked for arms transports to Ukraine.
Once supporter of Ukraine
In light of all this, the question arises: What is Orban’s Ukraine problem? All the more so since Hungary’s prime minister was once an emphatic supporter of a democratic Ukraine with Euro-Atlantic aspirations. After the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008, he said – at that time still as an opposition politician and under the impression of the Russian war against Georgia – that it was a bad decision not to admit Ukraine and Georgia to the western military alliance.
Dinner during the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest with Vladimir Putin (above, 2nd from left), then US President George W. Bush (above, 3rd from right) and Angela Merkel (from left)
After Orban became Hungary’s prime minister in 2010, his positions soon sounded different. There was disagreement between Hungary and Ukraine because of the Hungarian minority in the western Ukrainian region of Transcarpathia – there lived almost 200,000 Hungarians at the time, today there are probably around 130,000. Budapest, for example, was dissatisfied with a planned Ukrainian language law, which was primarily intended to curb the influence of Russian but, according to the Orban government, was also aimed at the country’s Hungarian minority.
The welfare of the Hungarian minorities in Hungary’s neighboring countries has always been a concern of post-communist Budapest governments. But Orban’s stance after 2010 soon went beyond the usual scope of such politics. Just a few weeks after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Orban called for self-government and collective rights as well as the right to dual citizenship for the Hungarian minority in Ukraine in a programmatic speech – with a choice of words that left room for accusations of separatism.
Because of the Ukrainian minority policy, Hungary has repeatedly vetoed NATO cooperation with Ukraine since 2017, most recently in early February 2022. In September 2018, the issue of dual citizenship led to a serious diplomatic conflict between Hungary and Ukraine: At the time, a leaked video showed how Ukrainian citizens secretly obtained Hungarian citizenship in the Hungarian consulate in Berehove (Beregszasz) in western Ukraine – in violation of Ukrainian law.
Voters who dream of Greater Hungary
Since then, there has been a diplomatic ice age between Hungary and Ukraine. The visit of Hungarian President Katalin Novak to Kiev at the end of November should not change that. Novak is considered a loyal Orban party member with no profile of her own. Orban probably sent them to Kiev because it has become untenable that since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, no high-ranking Budapest government politician has shown up in the Ukrainian capital.
All in all, however, the Hungarian head of government’s Ukraine policy is probably not primarily about the country itself, but about other domestic and foreign policy accents. With his ambivalent choice of words when it comes to autonomy demands for the Hungarian minority in Ukraine or the statehood and sovereignty of the neighboring country, Orban wants to appeal primarily to far-right voters in Hungary who still dream of a Greater Hungary with the borders of 1918.
Blackmail the EU
In terms of foreign policy, Hungary’s good relations with Russia are more important to Orban than good relations with Ukraine – because Hungary is dependent on Russian energy supplies. Every anti-Ukrainian signal from Budapest is also an indirect declaration of loyalty to Moscow. This includes Orban’s repeated insinuations of Western “guilt” in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Hungary’s head of government seems to be increasingly convinced that “the West” and in particular the USA pushed Russia into the war against Ukraine and are now waging a proxy war there.
Last but not least, Orban is also concerned with having leverage in the long-standing rule of law dispute with the EU. In the next few days, the EU must decide whether to withdraw billions of dollars in funding from Hungary because of corruption and a lack of rule of law. Even if Orban denies it, few UE politicians doubt that Hungary is blackmailing the EU by vetoing financial aid to Ukraine.
In sum, Ukraine has long been held hostage by Orban’s domestic and foreign policies. However, the person who benefits most from this is not Hungary’s prime minister himself, but someone else: Russian President Vladimir Putin.