Budapest, Hungary – On October 4, the Ukrainian government expelled the Hungarian consul of Beherove, located in Ukraine’s western Transcarpathian region, accused of illegally delivering passports to Ukrainian citizens. In a tit-for-tat diplomatic response, Hungarian authorities decided to expel a Ukrainian diplomat from the country. “Ukraine’s ambassador to Budapest was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade on Thursday and told that one of the consuls working at the Ukrainian embassy in Budapest must leave Hungary within 72 hours”, Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told reporters during a press conference.
What triggered the most recent spat?
The diplomatic spat between Budapest and Kiev has been long in the making. Tensions suddenly rose when a video, released in September, showed ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine reciting an oath to Hungary while being delivered passports in Beherove by Hungarian diplomats. A Hungarian diplomat can also be heard telling the audience not to tell Ukrainian authorities about their new citizenship.
Double citizenship is illegal under Ukrainian law. “In the future, we expect Hungary to refrain from any unfriendly steps towards Ukraine and its officials from violating Ukrainian legislation”, authorities in Kiev declared in a statement after the video was released.
While Ukrainian authorities launched an investigation to determine whether those actions could amount to “high treason”, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry declared that this video was “acquired within the framework of a secret service operation, which goes against all the written and unwritten rules of diplomacy”.
When did the conflict start?
Relations between Hungary and Ukraine have taken a turn for the worse since Ukraine passed a law, in September 2017, banning the teaching of minority languages beyond primary school level. The Hungarian government said the law could cause “a significant proportion” of the approximately 150.000 ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine to “lose their right to use their native language”, and has effectively blocked Ukraine’s efforts to join both the EU and NATO ever since.
While the law was designed to make sure all Ukrainian citizens, including members of ethnic minorities, had a sufficient level in Ukrainian language, officials in Budapest saw it as a direct threat to ethnic Hungarians living across the border.
How did tensions escalate?
Last July, Hungary appointed a ministerial commissioner for the development of Transcarpathia – incidentally part of Ukraine’s territory – sparking outrage in Kiev. Although Budapest finally backed down and changed the name of the position, this only increased concerns among Ukrainian officials about Hungary’s hidden intentions and territorial ambitions.
Earlier this year, amid growing concerns over secessionist feelings in Transcarpathia, Ukraine’s government announced it would reopen an abandoned army base in Beherove, a move Budapest promptly called “disgusting”.
The conflict has also been fueled by far-right movements on both sides of the border, including Hungary’s far-right Jobbick party which openly calls for the annexation of Ukraine’s Western region.
Ukraine has a lot to lose from a conflict triggered over the rights of roughly 0.2% of its population, that may block its accession to the EU and NATO, and feels increasingly besieged, by Russia in the East and Hungary in the West. Many consider that Viktor Orbán’s government, by choosing this course of action, is just doing Putin’s betting. “Bashing Ukraine is the best thing you can do to win points with Vladimir Putin”, director of Political Capital Institute Peter Kreko pointed out.
Ethnic Hungarians abroad: a cornerstone of Orbán’s policy
The issue of protecting the rights of ethnic Hungarians abroad has been one of the main pillars of Viktor Orbán’s approach to dealing with its neighbours.
Consistently vowing to right the “historical wrongs” of the 1920 Trianon Treaty, through which Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory and many ethnic Hungarians were left behind in neighbouring countries, “M. Orbán now risks reopening Europe’s most dangerous Pandora box”, wrote the New York Times: “the grievances of ethnic groups caught outside their homelands”.
Around 2.4 million ethnic Hungarians are estimated to live abroad, including half of them in Romania, but also in Slovakia, Serbia and Ukraine. Fighting the “injustice” of that century-old dismemberment has been one of the recurrent themes of Orbán’s discourse… and a cunning electoral scheme as well: his government has given 1 million Hungarians outside the country passports and the right to vote, thus creating a large reservoir of faithful supporters of the Fidesz’ nationalistic agenda that will do doubt prove handy to cling to power.
M. Orbán assures that he has no intention of rebuilding “Greater Hungary” and of seizing neighboring territories in Slovakia, Serbia, Ukraine or Romania. However, leading the charge against multiculturalism in his own country, Viktor Orbán’s aggressive actions to protect the rights of Hungarians minorities living abroad is a grave cause for concern, in Ukraine of course, but also among EU and NATO allies, increasingly weary of Hungary’s antagonistic and adversarial approach.