On July 12, during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) summit in Brussels, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó stated that his country would not support Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership, because “Kyiv has not changed its policies toward national minorities.” He added, “Hungarian authorities are vexed with anti-Hungarian tendencies in Ukrainian policies.” The minister also accused Ukraine of “nationalism and extremism […] not suited for a country that aspires to become a member of the European Union and NATO” (Realist.online, July 12).
The notorious “language question” has been spoiling political relations between Kyiv and Budapest since at least 2017, when the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada) approved the Law on Education. Importantly, this educational reform legislation includes the much-debated Article 7, which decreases the maximum age to which minorities can be educated in their native language. The law has engendered anger among several EU states—notably, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia (Kyiv Post, September 14, 2017; Prawy.pl, September 17, 2017)—as well as Russia (Sputnik News, October 13, 2017). Specifically, Budapest called the law “a stab in the back” and threatened to block further Ukrainian Euro-Atlantic integration until it is modified or repealed (Eurointegration.com.ua, September 8, 2017). Approximately 150,000 ethnic Hungarians live in Ukraine; and of those, at least 100,000 hold Hungarian passports (Nv.ua, July 15, 2018). Incidentally, having itself reviewed the law, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission did not support Hungary’s claim about the “oppression of ethnic minorities” inside Ukraine (Interfax, March 29).
Curiously, the Hungarian government’s critical remarks during the Brussels Summit contradicted its declarations from a month earlier. On June 22, Ukraine and Hungary held their first “grand encounter” inter-governmental meeting, in the western Ukrainian city of Uzhhorod—a major center for the country’s Hungarian minority (Politua.org, July 2). In addition to pledging to “discontinue vetoing Ukraine from taking part in the [upcoming Brussels] NATO summit,” Budapest also notably softened its position on Article 7 and embraced the decision of the Venice Commission. Moreover, during the meeting, the Hungarian government implied “there is a chance that Budapest will uphold Ukraine and its bid during the upcoming NATO summit” (Sprotyv.info, June 22).
The next several days, therefore, brought genuine shock to Ukrainian politicians and diplomats. In particular, Budapest dispatched a letter to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stating that the meeting in Uzhhorod had no practical results, adding that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán “will block any summit decision regarding Ukraine” (Eurointegration.com.ua, July 2, 2018). Furthermore, on June 26, Hungary voted against the European Union allocating a 1 billion euro ($1.17 billion) credit line to Ukraine, although it failed to actually block the measure in the Council.
Hungary’s behavior prior and during the NATO summit triggered sharp discontent from Ukrainian officials. President Petro Poroshenko claimed that Ukraine “will be protecting its national interests” and that “no one will be able to block Ukrainian integration in NATO. Not from the outside—I mean, Russia. Not from within—we will not tolerate a fifth column” (Censor.net.ua, July 13). Though naming Russia as the main external spoiler, there is little doubt that, implicitly, Poroshenko’s comments were not confined solely to this country. Indeed, in his statement a few days earlier, Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko reminded that “on several occasions, Hungary has been told by NATO officials that language-related issues are bilateral affairs” (Censor.net.ua, July 8).
At least three possible motivations may help explain the extreme importance Budapest ascribes to the Ukrainian “language question,” including in international forums:
– Foreign policy leverage. Some analysts have argued Budapest may be hardening its position on “language” and “minority” issues to increase Hungary’s diplomatic weight within the EU as well as attract the United States’ attention to the brewing conflict with Ukraine (Eurointegration.com.ua, June 21). Additionally, if Ukraine succumbs to Hungarian demands on the matter, Budapest’s next claims might include recognition of dual citizenship, greater language/cultural autonomy and self-governance, and perhaps even a demand to be able to increase Hungary’s say in Ukrainian internal issues, at least in the region where ethnic Hungarians reside (mainly Transcarpathia, in western Ukraine).
– Internal matters. Orbán’s domestic and electoral support benefits from raising and championing language- and ethnic minority-related issues in Hungary’s neighborhood (Szon.hu, December 5, 2015; Politico, August 22, 2017). Thus, Hungarian officials may also be using the present situation to bolster social cohesion and internal support for the government by playing up “stab in the back” and “concern for the rights of the ethnic-Hungarian population abroad” type rhetoric.
– Traces of Russian influence. It is an open secret that a sizable part of the Hungarian political elite is fascinated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his way of “handling Ukraine.” Similarly, one cannot deny the existence of Hungarian vested economic interests in cooperating with Moscow (Sprotyv.info, May 17, 2018). Little overt evidence exists, however, that Russia is driving the current Ukrainian-Hungarian confrontation—though it may certainly be exploiting and exacerbating it (RT, October 28, 2017; Sputnik News, October 29, 2017). Rather, judging by Orbán’s overall behavior and broader ambitions, his actions here likely stem mostly from a desire to bolster his own popularity/ego and increase Hungary’s political weight on the European stage.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Ukrainian analysts are split on how Kyiv should respond to the foreign criticism of its legislation on the language of educational institutions. Yet, aware of both the internal and external difficulties in addressing the issue, many domestic observers (while rebuking Hungary for what they regard as meddling in Ukrainian internal affairs) advocate “the necessity to comply and implement all the recommendations prescribed by the Venice Commission” in their entirety (Eurointegration.com.ua, July 8, 2018). This approach seems rather unlikely under Ukraine’s present political-security realities, particularly as the Law on Education was passed in part as a measure to boost social cohesion in the face of Russian armed intervention and sponsored separatism in the southeast.
At the same time, the Hungarian government’s behavior toward an economically wrecked, politically unstable and war-torn neighbor facing “hybrid” (New Type) threats from a superior adversary has negative security implications for the broader region. Specifically, by so forcefully raising its dispute with Kyiv at to the Euro-Atlantic level, Budapest is (inadvertently or otherwise) promoting Moscow’s strategic interests in Europe: further weakening Ukraine, creating divisions within the transatlantic alliance, as well as widening rifts between NATO/EU and their regional partners (Cidob.org, June 2017). Left unchecked and unaddressed, the consequences for long-term European solidarity and Central-Eastern European security could be profound.