No retreat: Viktor Orbán socks it to Ukraine

Once Viktor Orbán is on a roll there is no way of stopping him. It matters not what politicians of the countries in the European Union think of his belligerent remarks concerning the Hungarian minority in the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine, he will never admit that it may have been unfortunate to take Russia’s side in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Because this is exactly what Viktor Orbán did. The Russian newspapers uniformly welcomed the Hungarian prime minister’s remarks on minority rights, which in Ukraine’s case might mean the loss of sizable Ukrainian territories to Putin’s Russia. In his speech last Saturday Orbán talked about Hungarians as a chivalrous nation. I must say that he has odd ideas about the meaning of chivalry. Let’s kick somebody when he is down. A real gentleman.

Although Foreign Minister János Martonyi tried to salvage the situation after the outburst of indignation from Ukraine and disapproval from Poland, Orbán is not the kind of man who is ready to admit a mistake or misstep. Today at the meeting of the prime ministers of the Visegrád 4 (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary) held in Bratislava, Orbán not only repeated his earlier demands but added more fuel to the fire. He accused the western countries of hypocrisy when it comes to Ukraine because it is not only Russia that poses problems for the EU but Ukraine as well. Orbán expressed his doubts that democracy will ever take hold in Ukraine.

As far as his demands toward Ukraine are concerned, he told his audience point blank that since EU financial assistance is necessary, to which Hungary also contributes, he expects that Ukraine will do whatever is necessary to rectify the situation of Hungarians in Ukraine. Interestingly enough, in Hungary’s case that kind of argument doesn’t cut it for him. He takes the EU’s money and does whatever he wants. Brussels should not demand anything from Hungary.

So, what is the situation of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine? Since Orbán talks about 200,000 Hungarians in the region, the Hungarian media repeats this inflated number. According to the last Ukrainian census (2001), Hungarians numbered 150,000. Given the shrinking numbers of all minorities in the region, that number today, thirteen years later, is most likely smaller still.

Hungarians have cultural autonomy in Ukraine, as they do in Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia. After listening to Orbán, one might think that the Hungarian minority’s lot in the neighboring countries is intolerable. This is not the case. In fact, in the last twenty years or so their status has greatly improved. There are always some complaints but, on the whole, a state of peaceful coexistence seems to exist between the majority and the minorities. Orbán is simply using the crisis to his own advantage.

Of the four prime ministers who met in Bratislava, Donald Tusk is the one who most resolutely opposes Russia and supports Ukraine. Hungarians might complain about Russia’s military help to Vienna during the War of Independence in 1849 and, of course, Hungary was in the Soviet sphere of influence for forty years, but no one can discount Polish grievances when it comes to Russian imperialism. Polish concerns are both deeply felt and understandable.

Donald Tusk and Viktor Orbán, May 15, 2014, Bratislava Source: Hungarian Prime Minister's Office, Photo Barna Burger, MTI

Tense moments: Donald Tusk and Viktor Orbán, May 15, 2014, Bratislava
Source: Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office, Photo Barna Burger, MTI

I myself sympathize with the Polish position and fear that Viktor Orbán and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who seemed to support Orbán wholeheartedly, are short-sighted. Moreover, if I were Fico, I would be worried about Orbán’s intentions. When is he going to demand autonomy for the Hungarian minority in Slovakia? When he is going to attack the Slovak law that forbids dual citizenship for its citizens?

As usual, Orbán got international coverage for his latest bombastic idea, the formation of a regional army. He is demanding “military guarantees for Central Europe. He talked about a Central European military unit (harccsoport) that could be set up by 2016. He also mentioned a longstanding idea of his, the creation of a north-south infrastructure that would facilitate the movement of goods in the Central European countries. And he pitched the idea of nuclear energy, which in his opinion is the key to European competitiveness.

I’m certain that Orbán’s followers will welcome their leader’s resolute defense of the Hungarian minority. But critics think that Orbán’s belligerence actually makes the lives of the Hungarian minorities more difficult. Here is one example from Romania. The Romanian government steadfastly stands by Ukraine and condemns Russian provocations. And lately, especially since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis, they worry about the Hungarian government’s demand for autonomy. They look at Ukraine and fear for the integrity of their own country.

Yesterday Bálint Magyar and Attila Ara-Kovács, in a piece that appeared in Népszabadság, called attention to an article that was published in Adevarul, the largest Romanian newspaper. It dealt with the fear that because of the Hungarian demand for autonomy Romania might succumb to the fate of Ukraine. Of course, one could say that these fears are baseless, but Orbán’s ruthless exploitation of the Ukrainian crisis intensified Romanian paranoia. And if the Romanian government worries about its own security, it may decide to withdraw some of the privileges granted to the Hungarian minority in Romania.

I have the feeling that this particular incident will not blow over anytime soon. After all, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict will be with us for a while. If a country by inciting ethnic conflict wants to redraw borders, its actions can easily give rise to a full-fledged war and perhaps the demise of a state. Just think of  the former Yugoslavia.


  1. Not on the IMF Eva, we can agree to disagree. I thought Ferenc Kumin’s response to this discussion merited being posted. Below is what he wrote, apparently we were promoting a form of hysteria when we discussed Orban’s thoughts on the Ukraine and the Hungarian minority:

    Getting It Straight On Minority Rights and Autonomy for Hungarians

    Prime Minister Orbán has made several references recently to ethnic Hungarian communities living outside Hungary. Some of the coverage, particularly related to Ukraine, has been a bit sensational (here’s a less hysterical, but still misleading report). Let’s take a look at the message, unfiltered.

    The prime minister – in a speech, which by the way, did not focus on this topic as the main message – said that dual citizenship, community rights and autonomy are rights that every Hungarian community should enjoy simply because it is the right of every ethnic minority in the European Union.

    It was one part of a speech on his vision for the next four years of government, delivered on the occasion of his swearing-in ceremony, after being formally re-elected prime minister by the Hungarian parliament. He spoke about fighting unemployment, improving Hungary’s competitiveness, lowering energy prices and a number of other details central to the country’s renewal. Here’s what Prime Minister Orbán said about Hungarian communities outside Hungary.

    It should be, the prime minister explained later at the GLOBSEC forum in Bratislava, up to the community itself to decide what kind of autonomy they need – related to education and culture, language or other. Prime Minister Orbán simply said that ethnic, historic Hungarian communities should be able to decide on their own fate.

    Prime Minister Orbán has made it clear that it is in Hungary’s interest to have a stable and democratic Ukraine, which cannot be realised without providing the minorities who live there, including the Hungarian community, what they are entitled to, namely: dual citizenship, community rights and autonomy. Europe has a number of examples where the legal institution of autonomy exists. As the prime minister has said, since the new Ukraine is being established now, this is the time to voice expectations. However, he also made it clear that with regard to Russian action that violates the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine, “we must support Ukraine.”

    This position on Hungarians abroad has been a feature of Hungarian foreign policy for years and, though it went unreported, is supported by other leading figures in Hungarian politics. András Schiffer, leader of the left-green LMP, has also expressed support for this position.

    When Prime Minister talks of “autonomy,” he’s referring to the right of communities to decide what they want – completely in line with the EU principles of subsidiarity and the Copenhagen criteria of ethnic minority rights.

  2. Istvan
    May 19, 2014 at 4:13 pm
    When Prime Minister talks of “autonomy,” he’s referring to the right of communities to decide what they want – completely in line with the EU principles of subsidiarity and the Copenhagen criteria of ethnic minority rights.

    That would be all nice, if he wouldn’t built his whole EU election program on protecting Hungarians from the EU. “Respect for Hungarians” says every poster by Fidesz while he removed the EU flags from the parliament. He says he wants the community decide about its education when actually he denies the same right inside Hungary.
    Orban speech needs to be looked at in context of current events, and in the context of his ongoing peacock dance. Long he danced a solo but now he has Ferenc Kumin as his partner. When Orban steps two steps to the right, Kumin steps two steps to the left….

  3. István, don’t be duped! Kumin is the greatest spin doctor. I know from people who were in Bratislava. The audience was horrified at Orbán’s behavior. Especially the Americans were upset. So was Tusk. I’m with the Poles, sorry. Orbán is playing with fire.

  4. I am sorry but Orban’s politic style looks like Erdoğan.They both are always talking about people who are coming from another countries / ethnics. Once they say something about them and later they behave as if they never say something. As Eva Balogh says Orban is always playing with fire. I do not think that they are enacting laws as thinking all ethnic groups or all kind of people. But Hungary needs laws which contains all people and they should stop to be getting angry to people for nothing.

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