Hungary’s Rapprochement to Russia and the Importance of the Ukrainian crisis for Europe

The Russian-Ukrainian crisis was a game changer, garnering huge international attention and sparking debates as to the consequences and importance of the events in Ukraine for Europe. Many European and neighboring countries clearly demonstrated their position and were quick to comment on the events. Hungary, however, was more reticent, displaying initial reluctance to state their official position on the matter.

By Teona Surmava.

* This article, along with the in-text image, was originally published by Project for Democratic Union

 

Before 3rd March, 2014, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his government remained silent on the Ukrainian situation. Upon breaking his silence, Orban stated that “Hungary is not part of the conflict”. This pragmatic approach to foreign policy can be contrasted with Orban’s approach at the beginning of his political career, which saw his frequent and unhesitant criticism of Russia and her actions. The Hungarian rapprochement to Russia under Orban’s government thus represents a marked shift in approach.

 What are Hungary’s main concerns in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis?

Victor_Orban_in_Moscow_(3)

A primary concern for Hungary was for the significant Hungarian minority living in Ukraine, which includes 156 thousand living in the area of Transcarpathia. A potential consequence for Hungary was thus a significant influx of refugees and the repatriation of the Hungarian minority as the Ukrainian situation became ever more complicated. Furthermore, Hungarian political leaders were concerned about a new law proposed by the Ukrainian parliament, which aimed to abolish the 2012 law “On state Language Policy” in order to ban the minority languages and prevent further separatist attempts from the Russian minorities. The proposal became one of the main issues for the Hungarian political elite, which was articulated at the meeting of the foreign ministers of the Visegrad countries plus Romania, Bulgaria and Greece in Budapest on 24th February, 2014.

On the 1st March 2014, the Hungarian foreign minister János Martonyi expressed his concern about the situation of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine. His speech highlighted the attitude of the Hungarian government towards the Hungarian minorities residing abroad and the policy can be translated into the slogan established four years ago: “Don’t hurt the Hungarians.”

Later, the Prime Minister made his first comment on the Russian-Ukrainian crisis stating that “Hungary is not part of the conflict.”

Thus the primary concern of Orban was about the safety of Hungarian minorities in Ukraine. This anxiety was echoed by parties on all sides of the political spectrum. However, it was clear that, while the situation may have been dangerous for the Hungarian minority in Ukraine, there existed the potential to renegotiate their status for the better. As Jobbik announced on their official web site on February 3rd , 2014, “It is particularly important that the Fidesz introduces the strongest national advocacy because the Ukrainian crisis easily creates a historic opportunity to finally reconcile and even solve the situation of Hungarians in Transcarpathia.”

 

Nuclear Deal

There are important reasons behind Hungary’s reluctance to weigh in on the condemnation of Russian aggression in Ukraine. One of the reasons why Hungary feels a responsibility to be careful about criticizing Russia is the strong economic links between the two countries, including the Nuclear Deal which was signed on January 14th, 2014. The 3 trillion forint-loan ($13.33 billion) Moscow offered to finance the construction might be behind Oran’s silence.

The two new nuclear reactors at Paks, born of the “marriage” between the Great Russian Bear and Viktor Orbán are the largest and most costly construction projects of the century for Hungary. The agreement, an outcome of Hungary’s policy of opening towards the East, encompasses just about every aspect of Hungarian energy policy for the next half century, the costs of which will be borne by succeeding generations.

The estimated full cost of the project, EUR 12.5 billion, is over half of the entire funds transfer received by Hungary from the European Union between 2007 and 2013.

Raising such a huge loan has its price. In the first seven years, Hungary will have to repay 25 percent of its debt, then 35 percent and finally 40 percent. When the Hungarian–Russian nuclear agreement was signed, the Hungarian government justified it by claiming that only half of the present capacity of Paks will remain operational until 2030 but it failed to offer a professional explanation of why it is necessary to make up for the gap from a nuclear source.

The new reactors to be built in Paks will not reduce Hungary’s dependence on the Russian energy resources because the Hungarian–Russian nuclear energy accord foresees that Russia will supply Hungary with fuel rods in the coming 20 years and perhaps beyond that.

The agreement for the expansion of the Paksi nuclear power plant was part of Orban’s policy of opening up to the East to reinforce trade, business, and education ties with various countries in Asia and the Far East. Following the deal, a Hungarian official said Budapest is enjoying “an increasingly enjoyable” business relationship with Moscow.

 

Russian-Hungarian symphony

In the context of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Orban has been keen to exploit the full range of benefits which result from Russia’s particular interest in developing co-operation with those EU and NATO member states with which it has close relations.

Hungary seeks to establish warmer relations with Russia and, as Viktor Orban stated in August 25, 2014, by imposing sanctions on Russia in punishment for Ukrainian events, Europe had “shot itself in foot”.

If we look at Hungarian-Russian relations briefly throughout history, we can see that it began with a period of mutual turning away, a policy of denial and a dramatic contraction of contacts in 1990-91. The following years saw the growing stabilisation of relations, leading to a situation that can be characterised as a kind of peaceful coexistence. By the end of the term of Hungary’s first democratic government (1994), the relationship with Russia had acquired an increasingly pragmatic character. Finally, the Hungarian government which came to power in 1994, while acknowledging the importance of Russia’s role, did not place priority on developing it, so communications evolved in the direction of standard interstate relations.

However, the foreign policy program of the Hungarian government that took office in mid-2002, identical with that of the Socialist Party in opposition during the pre-election campaign, accorded top priority to the need to develop relations between Hungary and Russia. Since then the Hungarian government has taken a soft line on issues relevant to both countries and its Russia policy has so far consisted of more pageant than substance. In this context the new Hungarian government has done little more than arrange a visit for Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy to Moscow. There has been a continued decline in Hungary’s exports to Russia and no substantive progress has been made on the hoped-for return of Hungarian works of art.

Hungarian-Russian relations after the regime changes were mostly centered on the question of how to develop business and trade between the two countries.

Despite this superficial approach to Hungarian-Russian relations, it is clear that parallels can be drawn between Putin’s political philosophy and the approaches of the Orban government.  It is obvious that there is a lot of Russian sympathy with Orban’s anti-Muslim and anti-minority mentality, along with an acceptance of the criticism that liberal democratic values drive deficits and hurt production. Similarities to Russian political ideology might also include taking control over media, breaking down of civil society, and implementing tough immigration policies.

This is highlighted in looking at Hungary’s media system, which falls under one of the most stringent state controls in Europe, and which has become a disturbing example of how a political elite can roll back democracy. Regarding the implementation of tough immigration policies, it is clear that Orban has promised to take a hard line on immigration. In a speech on the 25th of August, 2014 Orban openly spoke about further improved relations with Moscow. Furthermore, Orban’s demands that ethnic Hungarians should be given more rights in Ukraine have been given a lot of publicity in the Russian press and fit in with the Russian government’s narrative, in which they accuse the Ukrainian government of discriminating against national minorities.

 

Russia is Winning

Relations with Russia may become an important line of division between countries in the region, particularly in the shadow of the Ukrainian crisis. As mentioned in the beginning, the Ukrainian crisis can be a crucial turning point for the European countries and can change the geopolitical balance, not only for Europe, but for the International community as well. It is important to recognise and understand the challenge levelled at Europe by Russian political strategy.

Why is it ever more important for European countries to act together?

Russia seeks to rewrite the rules in three ways. First, it does not believe that its neighbors should make their own decisions about their geopolitical futures. Russia’s security, in short, depends on these countries’ insecurity. Russia particularly begrudges the former captive nations of the Soviet empire their freedom, their prosperity, and their independence. These pose an existential challenge to the stagnant and autocratic model of government pioneered by the Putin regime.

Furthermore, Russia also wants to end role of the European Union as a rule-setter, especially in energy policy.

Russia has not only challenged the European security order and seized another country’s territory, Crimea, but is  now in the process of seizing more land, creating a puppet state called Novorossiya (New Russia). It has already crippled the Ukrainian economy and threatens to turn Ukraine into a failed state. The response from the West has been weak, late, and disunited.

Sadly, many European countries, like Hungary, have no appetite for confrontation with Russia and they take an essentially pacifist stance. Consequently, Russia is successfully using the dubious political state of those countries to its advantage, posing an increasingly serious challenge to European security, with its possible future sights on Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia or Moldova, and most likely in the Baltic states.

 

 

*This article is published in Partnership with

PDU Logo Image

 

 

In-text image: Image courtesy of Kremlin.ru via Wikimedia Commons, released under Creative Commons 3.0. 

Cover Image: ‘EC13‘ by Európa Pont

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