Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary since 2010
Anti- or pro-Western, Hungarians look at Ukraine through the lens of their troubled history
There is a similarity between Hungary’s grievances about the 1920 Treaty of Trianon and Putin’s views of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics
Vladimir Putin has single-handedly achieved something that no other politician has done in the past few years: united the West and shown why NATO should remain intact.
The past few years have been plagued with divisions. Brexit, Donald Trump, NATO spending, climate emergency, the pandemic, the rule of law, Afghanistan, Iraq, China, Russia, Belarus – each and every of these represents a deep rift in the West.
Now all of this is gone. Some seem to be gone for good, like venomous skirmishes between France and the US, UK and Australia over AUKUS (the UK’s and US’s submarine pact with Australia), while others – such as the EU’s spat with Poland over the rule of law – have been put to one side while the West faces a common enemy.
Yet, one anomaly survived. Despite sharing a border with Ukraine, and being, like many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, part of USSR’s Warsaw Pact during the Cold War, one nation remained largely sympathetic to Putin’s Russia. The country in question is Hungary, since 2010 ruled by a right-wing strongman, Viktor Orbán.
Hungary, nowadays a member of both NATO and the European Union, has taken a very different path from the rest of the West, which have implemented severe sanctions on Moscow and sent military aid to Ukraine. Not only has Hungary decided to stay out of the conflict, but on February 28th, the minister of foreign affairs Péter Szijjártó said Hungary would not allow lethal weapons to be transported through its territory to Ukraine, citing the “security of Hungary”.
Unlike in 2015, when Syrian refugees were treated ruthlessly, Budapest now is doing its part in supporting refugees coming from the Ukrainian war zone. Over 150,000 Hungarians living in Ukraine may, however, contribute to the explanation of this suddenly rediscovered hospitality.
Apart from that, Orbán clearly does not plan to join the West in its increasingly assertive response to Russia – answering a question from a BBC correspondent, Victor Orbán suggested that this lukewarm results from the fact that Budapest offers to facilitate talks between Kyiv and Moscow.
The war in Ukraine is yet another example of how distant Hungary is from Western social and democratic ideas, with Budapest being a part of the western blocks largely because Orbán finds it economically beneficial.
Below the surface, things are much more complicated. Arguably, when Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov compared the US to Napoleon and Hitler, stating that “Americans are dictating to the Germans what is good for European energy security”, he managed to put in words how many Hungarians view the US.
Budapest was the first EU member state capital to buy and use the Russian Sputnik vaccine against COVID-19, and signed off on a large contract for a nuclear plant to be built by the Russians. Both these instances are a vivid testimony to the extent of the Hungarian public’s trust for Russia.
As Budapest is now the next best Moscow has to an ally in both NATO and the EU, prime minister Orbán enjoys a strong but by no means unequivocal support for this stance.
The origins of Hungary’s anti-Western inclinations take us a century into the past. Still to this day, many Hungarians rage about the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which was a part of the wider Versailles Treaty after World War 1.
The treaty reduced Hungarian territory by almost two thirds, with much of the land given to Romania and many other countries benefiting from it as well – the above mentioned 150,000 ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine resulted in frequent clashes between Budapest and Kyiv over Ukraine’s alleged disregard for “minority rights”.
Still today, a significant number of Hungarians feel as though the 1920 treaty was unjust, viewing much of neighbouring land as stolen from Hungary – something stunningly similar to Putin’s views of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. From this historic grievance stems both Hungary’s lack of unity with the West and its unique ability to tune into Moscow’s claims about unfair treatment in history.
Neither Hungary nor Hungarians could be accused of a shortage of sympathy for Ukraine. Definitely there is no support for the war or cruelty. That being said, Hungary’s anti-Western sentiment combined with an understanding for the longings on the part of the Kremlin results in the fact that if it would be at all imaginable for Moscow to have an ally for its plans to redraw borders in Central Europe, Viktor Orban would be the person to probe – to the horror of a strong pro-Western minority and the majority of Hungary’s youth.
Six days ago, the war started. Ukraine and Russia, the two of my homelands
Orbán has exploited the nationalism sentiment in Hungary. He has self-titled himself as an “illiberal” defender of Hungary and its Christian values, supported with a conspiracy theory under which George Soros is trying to destroy Hungary with an influx of migrants. By wielding his control over the media and using an extensive leeway through his exploitation of the resentment towards Trianon, Orbán has successfully convinced many Hungarians that they should blame the West – and further support him and his Fidesz party.
In reality, Orbán is an opportunist who wants to make gains anywhere he could, improving his personal position being the ultimate goal. He rose to prominence before 1989, as an anti-communist dissident demanding democracy for Hungary. Over thirty years later, he is more than willing to accept financial support offered by the EU, yet calls out the “jihad” when Brussels tries to uphold the rule of law, as this threatens the concentration of power in his hands – since 2010 he has largely dismantled Hungarian democratic institutions.
Furthermore, Orbán sees Putin as a fellow strongman – with Moscow it is more than business, it is a collective struggle against the West, defending Christian and nationalist values.
Many Hungarians buy into this. This is no personal attack, and of course this is largely just the population who supports Orbán’s Fidesz party. I know many people with whom I cannot discuss politics due to astronomical disparity in views – they believe I only consume “Western, liberal propaganda”. I attribute this to a combination of still strong feelings towards the Trianon treaty, which is often passed down through generations, and aggravated by state propaganda.
Not all Hungarians, however. Many still vividly remember the time when Hungary was part of the Warsaw Pact and see through Putin with ease.
Ironically, Hungary had one of the most significant rebellions against the USSR during the Cold War. For many Hungarians the 1956 Hungarian Revolution is a staple which shows the dangers of Russia’s expansion and war in Ukraine.
This sentiment is not prevalent, though, except in the capital city of Budapest, which is a completely western, European city, with English being taught from the beginning of school, a wide variety of restaurants and bars, and people watching Premier League football along with western films and TV shows.
As Orbán’s fallout with Brussels progressed over the past several years, so did Budapest’s turning away from the prime minister - in 2019 Gergely Karácsony, a joint candidate put forward by a coalition of opposition parties, defeated the incumbent mayor from Fidesz.
Young people are at the heart of the call for change. For them, it is not that they do not know about the Trianon treaty and Hungary’s time as a satellite state of the USSR – it is rather that through the internet, and the world getting smaller, they want Hungary to become more of an open, liberal democratic society they see elsewhere.
According to recent polls by Zavecz Research, support for Fidesz, and thus Orbán’s rhetoric amongst the 18-29 demographic is at 33.1%, by far the lowest amongst any age group.
Hungary is looking at Ukraine through Russia’s point of view, which echoes its own history. This is where the feeling of sympathy and apathy towards the West comes from. The small demographic of young people is the exception, looking at Ukraine from a Western perspective. It remains to be seen whether the upcoming election will change this narrative, or if Hungary continues down its nationalistic path.