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Playing with Fire

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban picks a bad time to call for autonomy for ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine. 

by Martin Ehl 20 May 2014

Last week, leaders of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland competed at a security conference in Bratislava in the political categories of cynicism and hypocrisy. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban proved himself the master. He defended his call, several days old, for the 200,000-strong Hungarian minority in Ukraine to be granted autonomy. At a time when some of that country’s eastern regions are attempting to secede, such comments were considered, to say the least, inappropriate and playing to Russian efforts to make Ukraine as chaotic as possible before the presidential elections there on 25 May.


Transcarpathian Ukraine, where the Hungarian minority lives, is ethnically, linguistically and religiously, a diverse region. National boundaries there have changed so often that the region’s residents lived in nine countries during the 20th century. They are, therefore, used to anything. But Orban, as a traditional defender of Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries, now has apparently gone too far.


During the debate in Bratislava he said Ukraine does not have a vision to survive and that Brussels is leaning hard only on Moscow and not on Kyiv, whose collapse will cost its neighbors a lot of money.


On 16 May, Orban added a few more things during a television interview. He said in the European Union there are many types of autonomy, from which Hungarians living in Ukraine can simply choose. And any government in Ukraine must be aware that the Hungarian state will support the request of the Hungarian minority. Now is a good time for such a request, he said, when a new Ukraine is being built. Only at the end did Orban say, in so far as Russian actions are considered, that of course Hungary supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity.


In Bratislava Orban called on his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, to be equally hard on Ukraine. Tusk nearly blew up right then and there, in public. The Polish approach to its troubled neighbor has been the exact opposite, because the Poles are not playing with fire like the Hungarians. Even if they could, the Polish government is well aware of the direct threat flowing from an unstable Ukraine. Warsaw is thus trying to help the Ukrainians on the European scene – without opening up old wounds. Officially 150,000 members of the Polish minority live in Ukraine and historians are still analyzing the details of their mutual massacres, which are only 70 years old.


On the sidelines of the conference, Hungarian government officials tried to defend the prime minister by saying that his words were meant primarily for a domestic audience. But it did not occur to them that this is exactly the danger threatening Europe as the European Parliament elections approach: the extent to which politicians concentrate more on the domestic audience and omit, intentionally or not, the broader context – the importance of the stability and prosperity of neighboring countries and, accordingly, of the entire continent.


Yes, those in the EU who have external borders with unstable countries and region, such as Hungary with Ukraine or Greece with Turkey, or Spain with the Maghreb, are in a worse position, but for that reason their politicians should express themselves more responsibly – whether to a domestic or foreign audience.


Orban is only feeding suspicions that he agreed on something at the beginning of this year with Russian President Vladimir Putin besides a $10 billion loan for the construction of two new blocs at a nuclear power plant – perhaps a plan for sustaining chaos and uncertainty in Ukraine.

Martin Ehl
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily 
Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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