NewsHungary-Ukraine handshake: Orbán to Ukraine amid EU financial aid saga

Hungary-Ukraine handshake: Orbán to Ukraine amid EU financial aid saga

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Images source: © Getty Images | Janos Kummer
9:48 AM EST, January 28, 2024

Leaders on key social and political issues.

Will Viktor Orbán visit Ukraine? It's theoretically possible, but it's prudent to avoid undue optimism. Last Thursday, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, Olha Stefanishyna, informed Reuters that preparations for a visit by the Hungarian Prime Minister to Ukraine were underway.

Is the proposed visit surprising? Not in the least. This is not the first hint of a potential trip by the Hungarian Prime Minister to Kiev. About a year ago, on the first anniversary of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó mentioned that "Viktor Orbán will go to Kiev when the time is right".

Unfortunately, this visit didn't materialize in the past year. Szijjártó himself failed to make it to the Ukrainian capital, although he did visit Russia and Belarus. He even passed on the opportunity to visit Kiev along with a larger group during the informal meeting of the foreign ministers of the EU member states (October 2, 2023) - Hungary was represented by a low-ranking undersecretary of state.

The meeting in Uzhhorod on Monday aims to lay the groundwork for a potential meeting between the Prime Ministers of Hungary and Ukraine. In addition to Hungary's Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó and Ukraine's Dmytro Kuleba, Andriy Yermak, the head of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's office, will also attend the talks in Uzhhorod.

Orbán's previous visit to Kiev is still relevant

Viktor Orbán's last visit to Kiev was over thirteen years ago, in November 2010. Back then, he met with President Viktor Yanukovych, and the foreign minister was János Mártonyi. Szijjártó accompanied Orbán in Kiev as his personal press spokesman, aged a mere 32 at the time.

The account of the visit that remains on Orbán's Facebook page is still pertinent: "Hungary is interested in Ukraine's European integration, and the foreign ministers of both countries are working on a joint action plan during Hungary's presidency of the EU."

This presidency extended from January 1, 2011, to June 30, 2011. Thirteen years later, we find ourselves in a similar situation. Hungary will assume the presidency of the EU Council on July 1 this year (subsequently passing it onto Poland). However, the Hungarian side is far from optimistic about Ukraine's EU integration. While the Hungarian Prime Minister hasn't blocked the start of accession talks (since he left the room when the decision was being made), he insists that he has numerous chances to veto the process.

How relations with Ukraine evolve will depend on Kiev's willingness to accommodate the demands of the Hungarian authorities. These primarily involve the rights of the Hungarian minority living in Transcarpathia. Thus, choosing this province as the meeting venue for both country's delegations can be interpreted as a goodwill gesture from Ukraine, given the historical ties between the city and Hungary.

This region was part of Hungarian territory until the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 and later, from 1939 to 1945, under the Vienna arbitration.

Hungarians contend that the situation of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine has progressively worsened since 2015, following the passage of subsequent laws on education and the state language. The diaspora's number in Hungary was previously estimated at about 150,000 people (which could be halved currently).

Recently, the Supreme Council of Ukraine, considering the alignment of Ukrainian law with EU standards, has revised these laws. The last change was made as recent as last December. Nonetheless, Hungary views these legal amendments as insufficient. As recent as December, Hungary's Deputy Foreign Minister stated that there's still a long way to restoring the minority rights of 2015. The diaspora issue will be a central topic at the meeting.

Where things stand with financial aid for Ukraine?

An extraordinary European Council summit will be held in Brussels on Thursday, February 1. The main agenda will be voting on €50 billion ($55.83 billion, rounded) in financial aid for Ukraine.

Initially, it was thought that this decision would be finalized in December 2023. However, due to the Hungarian Prime Minister's declared veto, the vote was postponed. Reuters reported last Friday that the process is made difficult by Budapest's inflexibility. From the get-go, Orbán has been against any financial assistance for Kiev.

Recent talks (January 22) on the financing of arms purchases under the European Peace Instrument (with a pot of €5 billion or $5.58 billion, rounded) were criticized strongly by the head of Hungarian diplomacy. On social media, he said: "Brussels is still suffering from war psychosis". This alludes to the supporting of further arms purchases that bring no benefits, except for escalating the death toll. However, he did affirm that Hungary would not obstruct this aid for Ukraine.

Still, it's uncertain what Orbán will do on February 1. Last Thursday, the government released the results of "national consultations", which included matters about Ukraine. I wrote about them last November.

The outcome of this plebiscite was foreseeable - participants would vote in line with the government's prompting. Hence, the questions were highly suggestive, as I tried to highlight in the November text. The consultation's turnout was disappointingly low. Out of about 8 million letters that the government sent to the public, just over 1.5 million individuals responded, even though the plebiscite's duration was extended due to poor turnout.

According to the government, the consultation results matter since "Hungary is still under substantial pressure to support Ukraine". In Brussels, Orbán might cite the consultation results. They clearly demonstrate that 99.06% of participants are against further funding of Kiev until Hungary "receives their due". The Hungarian Prime Minister might validate his resistance with a social mandate, albeit this seems questionable.

Estimating using the near 7.7 million eligible voters in Hungary, the plebiscite's turnout was approximately 19.5%. To translate this into tangible numbers - just over 3 million votes were cast for Fidesz-KDNP in the 2022 parliamentary elections. To simplify, this implies that only approximately half of Fidesz-KDNP voters participated in the consultations.

A diplomat from the European Union quoted by Reuters last Friday revealed that negotiations on financial help for Ukraine are complicated due to Hungary's rigidity. As he emphasized, frustration is ballooning among the other member states due to Hungary's stance.

In the recent weeks, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán proposed dividing the €50 billion ($55.83 billion, rounded) into tranches, connected to prior spending control. However, this proposal has no chance of gaining approval from the remaining Member States.

Is Orbán blackmailing?

Orbán may be attempting to blackmail the EU, linking the issue of payouts with aid to Ukraine. However, the maneuverability of Budapest has substantially decreased in the recent weeks. Hungary's stance was weakened by being the last NATO nation to vote in favor of Sweden's accession to the Alliance.

This week, after months of delay, Turkey swiftly gave its consent. As Politico reports, EU pressure is mounting to continue the rule of law process (under Article 7) up to the point of suspending voting rights. However, it's difficult to envision such an action being taken before the European Parliament elections, particularly in a situation where polling suggests that Eurosceptic forces are expected to make substantial gains.

Hungary's strategy of aligning with European institutions has proven ineffective, and in the NATO equation, Hungary has potentially outmaneuvered itself.

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