Visegrád4

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.