Hungarian minority in Ukraine

Russia, Hungary, and the Hungarian minority in Ukraine

A few days ago an article appeared in Foreign Affairs with the somewhat sensational title “The Hungarian Putin? Viktor Orban and the Kremlin’s Playbook,” written by Mitchell A. Orenstein, Péter Krekó, and Attila Juhász. Orenstein is a professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. Krekó and Juhász are associates of the Hungarian think tank Political Capital. The question the article poses is whether Hungary entertains any irredentist plans as far as her neighbors are concerned, similar to the way in which Russia behaved earlier in Abkhazia and now in Ukraine. After all, the Russian attacks on those territories were preceded by a grant of Russian citizenship to Ukrainians and Abkhazians. To this question the answer is negative. Viktor Orbán may sound bellicose at times, but he is interested in the Hungarians living in the neighboring countries only as a source of extra votes and perhaps a reservoir of immigrants to a country with dismal demographic figures.

The authors claim, however, that there is “a delicate balance [which] could easily topple.” What created this delicate balance? Although “Hungary’s radical right-wing, fascist, and irredentist party, Jobbik, has virtually no support among Hungarians abroad,” it is still possible that “aggressive separatist political movements, especially those with external political support, could … act as though they have a majority beyond them, as in eastern Ukraine.”  I must say that the exact meaning of this claim is unclear to me, but the authors’ argument is that the “nationalist political use of Hungarians abroad in Hungary could set the stage for such extremism and instability in neighboring countries.” In Ukraine such a danger is real “where Orban has taken advantage of political chaos to press Hungarian minority issues … in the sub-Carpathian region of western Ukraine, adjacent to Hungary.” There are far too many “ifs” here, but it is true that Orbán did announce his claim to autonomy for the Hungarian minority at the most inappropriate moment, during the first Russian attacks on eastern Ukraine.

It is unlikely that Hungary could convince Ukraine’s western friends to force Kiev to grant autonomy to the Hungarians of Sub-Carpathian Ukraine (Zakarpattia Oblast) who constitute 12.1% of the total population of the province. In 2001 they numbered 151,500, but since then it is possible that many of them either left for Hungary or with the help of a Hungarian passport migrated farther west. On the other hand, one occasionally hears Russian voices outlining ambitious plans for Ukraine and its minorities. For example, in March 2014 Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the nationalist Liberal Democratic party that backs Vladimir Putin, suggested that Poland, Hungary, and Romania might wish to take back regions which were their territories in the past. Romania might want Chrnivtsi; Hungary, the Zaparpattia region; and Poland, the Volyn, Lviv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Rovensky regions. Thus Ukraine would be free of “unnecesssary tensions” and “bring prosperity and tranquility to the Ukrainian native land.”

Or, there is the Russian nationalist ideologue, Aleksandr Dugin, the promoter of a Russian-led “Eurasian Empire” that would incorporate Austria as well as Hungary, Romania, Serbia, and Slovakia. Although Dugin’s specific recommendations were first reported on a far-right Hungarian site called Alfahir.hu, the news spread rapidly beyond the borders of Hungary. Dugin is an enemy of nation states and would like to see the return of empires. “If, let’s say, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, or perhaps even Volhynia and Austria would unite, all Hungarians would be within one country. Everything would return to the state that existed before Trianon.” Of course, Dugin’s argument is specious. Surely, a United Europe offers exactly the same advantages to the Hungarian minorities that Dugin recommends, but without the overlordship of Putin’s Russia.

One could discount these suggestions as fantasies, but something is in the air in Russia. The country’s foreign minister considers the fate of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine to be of such importance that at the Munich Security Conference a couple of days ago he spent a considerable amount of time on the minority’s grievances.

Mind you, Sergei Lavrov’s speech was met with derision by those present. As the reporter of Bloomberg described the scene, the “crowd laughed at and booed him.” Apparently, during his 45-minute speech he “rewrote the history of the Cold War, accused the West of fomenting a coup in Ukraine, and declared himself to be a champion of the United Nations Charter.” From our point of view, the most interesting part of the speech was the time he spent on the Hungarian minority in the Zakarpattia Oblast.

I think it is worth quoting Lavrov’s answer to a question that addresses this issue:

[The Ukrainians] are probably embarrassed to say it here, but now Ukraine is undergoing mobilization, which is running into serious difficulties. Representatives of the Hungarian, Romanian minorities feel “positive” discrimination, because they are called up in much larger proportions than ethnic Ukrainians. Why not talk about it? Or that in Ukraine reside not only Ukrainians and Russians, but there are other nationalities which by fate ended up in this country and want to live in it. Why not provide them with equal rights and take into account their interests? During the elections to the Verkhovnaya Rada the Hungarian minority asked to organize constituencies in such a way that at least one ethnic Hungarian would make it to the Rada. The constituencies were “sliced” so that none of the Hungarians made it. All this suggests that there is something to discuss.

Perhaps the most “amusing” part of the paragraph Lavrov devoted to the Hungarian and Romanian minorities in Ukraine is his claim that fate was responsible for these ethnic groups’ incorporation into the Soviet Union. I remember otherwise. The Soviet government kept the old Trianon borders without any adjustments based on ethnic considerations. The ethnic map of Zakarpattia Oblast shows that such an adjustment shouldn’t have been too difficult a task.

Ethnic map of Zakarpattia Obast  / Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zakarpattia_Oblast

Ethnic map of Zakarpattia Obast / Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zakarpattia_Oblast

The small Hungarian minority is obviously being used by the Russians to further their own claims, which in turn might encourage Viktor Orbán to pursue his quest for autonomous status for the largely Hungarian-inhabited regions of the oblast. The Orbán government supports autonomy for the Szeklers of central Transylvania despite the Romanian-Hungarian basic treaty of September 1996 that set aside the issue of territorial autonomy, to which Romania strenuously objected. The treaty had to be signed because NATO and EU membership depended on it. The Ukrainian situation is different because Ukraine is not part of the EU. Whether Orbán will accept the tacit or even open assistance of Russia for the sake of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine remains to be seen. In any case, to everybody’s surprise Viktor Orbán will pay a visit to Kiev where he will meet with President Petro Poroshenko.

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Hungary stops supplying gas to Ukraine and makes its own gas deal with Russia

The news of the day is Hungary’s decision to stop the supply of gas to Ukraine despite its pledge to assist its beleaguered neighbor. Although the AFP news service assumes that the decision came after “threats from Moscow,” I have a different take on the matter. To make my case I have to go back a few weeks in time.

It is true that Russia was playing games with its gas supply to Poland and Romania, but Hungary was in no way affected by these Russian measures, most likely because of the cozy relationship that exists between Putin and Orbán. On the contrary, in the last few months large amounts of gas arrived in the country from Russia. Currently, the storage facilities are 60% full, and even larger amounts of natural gas will come from Russia in the next few months. Poland indeed had to temporarily stop its supply of gas to Ukraine on September 10, only to resume its operations two days later when Russia assured Poland that it would send an adequate supply of gas to the country in the future. Romania began receiving less than the usual amount of gas on September 15.

Instead of worrying about natural gas from Russia, on September 18 a very upbeat article appeared in Magyar Nemzet telling its readers that “we can be the gas center of Europe.” The article reported that two days earlier Miklós Seszták, minister of national development, conducted negotiations with Anatoly Yanovsky, Russian deputy minister for energy affairs, concerning the storage of 500 million cubic meters of Russian gas in Hungary “to facilitate the supply of Europe with gas in case of irregular transit shipments through Ukraine.” These plans are not new.  They were apparently first discussed in October 2012 when Aleksey Miller, CEO of Gazprom, had a meeting with Viktor Orbán in Budapest. However, the precondition for such a deal was the nationalization of the storage facilities. The Hungarian government subsequently purchased them from the German company, E.ON, at an incredibly high price. Although auditors warned the government about the pitfalls of the deal, Orbán insisted. It looked as if he did not care about the price. Now we know why.

Yanovsky had barely left Hungary when Aleksey Miller arrived in Budapest. The meeting of Miller and Orbán was kept secret from the Hungarian people, who read about it on Gazprom’s website. This is not the first time that we learn about important meetings and bilateral negotiations from the media of countries for whom close relations with Hungary, a member of the European Union, are important but who are not exactly friends of the West. The Hungarian government would rather not inform the world about its dealings with such countries as Iran, Belorussia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. According to Gazprom, “the talks were focused on the issues of reliable and uninterrupted gas supplies in the coming winter period. The parties paid special attention to the implementation of the South Stream project and noted that it was progressing on schedule.”

Source: Gazprom.com

Source: Gazprom.com

This morning, three days after the Miller-Orbán meeting, Viktor Orbán announced that Hungary would indefinitely suspend supplying Ukraine with natural gas. According to Itar-Tass “the decision was made to meet the growing domestic demand for gas,” FGSZ, the Hungarian company operating the pipeline, said. Yet MTI reported today that even Serbia might be able to receive gas from the Hungarian storage facilities. So, surely, there is no shortage of gas in Hungary. The European Union is anything but happy about the suspension. Helen Kearns, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, in an answer to a reporter’s question on Hungary’s unilateral suspension of the gas supply to Ukraine, said that “the message from the Commission is very clear: we expect all member states to facilitate reverse flows as agreed by the European Council.” Naturally, Naftogaz, the Ukrainian gas company, also urged its “Hungarian partners to respect their contractual obligations” and said the Hungarian decision “goes against the core principles of the European Union single energy market.”

After delivering his usual Friday morning radio interview Viktor Orbán left for Berehove (Beregszász), in the area of Ukraine south of the Carpathian Mountains officially called Zakarpattia Oblast, to deliver a speech at the Hungarian-language college situated in the town where about half of the population is Hungarian speaking. Altogether there are three smaller territorial units within the oblast where there are significant Hungarian populations: in the uzhhorodskyi raion (33.4%), in vynohradiv raion (26.2%), and in the area around Berehove where they are actually in the majority (76.1%). Altogether there are about 120,00 Hungarians out of a total population of 1,254,614. The distribution of Hungarians in the oblast can be seen here.

Orbán indicated in his early morning interview today that Hungary will support Hungarians in the neighboring countries who demand autonomy. Although he did not specifically mention the Hungarian diaspora in Ukraine, he was obviously also talking about them. This was not the first reference to possible autonomy for Hungarians in this region of Ukraine. At the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian crisis Orbán already mentioned such a demand. He made it clear, again not for the first time, that his main concern in this very serious international crisis is the fate of the Hungarian minority. He promised his audience that Hungary will not do anything that would harm his Hungarian brethren, which I found interesting in light of the decision to cut the flow of gas from Hungary to Ukraine.

While Viktor Orbán was in Berehove, representatives of the European Union, Russia, and Ukraine got together to come up with an energy deal that would ensure the supply of Russian gas to EU members and Ukraine over the winter. In return, Ukraine would repay $3.1 billion of its debt to Russia.  The first installment, $2 billion, would be due by the end of October and the rest by the end of December. If Russia agrees to this deal, it would avert an immediate crisis, although it would not resolve the deeper dispute over what price Kiev should pay for past and future deliveries. The Ukrainian government earlier filed suit with the Stockholm Arbitration Court against Russia for making it overpay for gas since 2010. A decision may be reached by next year.

On the one hand, Ukraine seems to be happy that, after so many unsuccessful attempts, there is hope of an agreement but, on the other hand, it is unhappy that the price of Russian gas “is dependent on the decisions of the Russian government.” According to Kyiv Post, “Ukraine will under no circumstances recall its suit from the Stockholm Arbitration Court.”

If this deal goes through, as it seems that it will, perhaps it was unnecessary for Hungary to unilaterally and abruptly stop the flow of gas to Ukraine. By this decision Orbán further emphasized his pro-Russian sympathies and undoubtedly further alienated himself from Western governments.