The war in Ukraine drives a wedge between Poland and Hungary

March 30. 2022. – 10:11 AM


The war in Ukraine drives a wedge between Poland and Hungary
Poland's President Andrzej Duda (R) talks with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban on the sidelines of a Visegrad Group (V4) meeting in Warsaw on July 3, 2020. – Photo: Janek Skartynski / AFP


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While Poland vehemently supports Ukraine’s bid to join NATO, Hungary is interested in Ukraine being a broad buffer zone between it and Russia. The Russian question has long been a political taboo in Hungarian-Polish relations. Translation by Charles Hebbert

Polish-Hungarian Friendship Day wasn’t celebrated in Poland this year because of the Russian invasion of neighbouring Ukraine. The presidential office of Andrzej Duda called off the planned visit to Bochnia by Hungarian President János Áder with reference to the war. Even though Warsaw emphasised that they would make up for the cancelled friendly meeting at the first available opportunity, the cancellation of the event — not in itself a hugely significant one — was symbolic: the traditionally strong relations between the two Central European countries have been shaken.

Warsaw has consistently backed tough action against Russia. Poland has become the centre for the distribution of western military shipments and is itself assisting Ukraine with weapons. US President Joe Biden’s visit to Warsaw at the end of last week is a clear indication of the key role Poland is playing.

Budapest, meanwhile, is cautiously pursuing a two-faced approach. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán may have condemned the Russian invasion, but Hungary is the only country in the region refusing to help Ukraine with arms — it will not even allow shipments of weapons from other countries to cross its territory.

The cancellation of the Hungarian president’s visit is not the only recent casualty. In past years the stridently right-wing Polish newspaper Gazeta Polska has organised an annual pilgrimage to Budapest. Orbán’s Polish fans have come on a specially commissioned train to attend the “Peace March” in the Hungarian capital. The Peace March is the huge demonstration which is organised every year to show the huge popular support for Orbán and his party, Fidesz.

This year, the march was held on 15 March, a national holiday in Hungary, and as usual several hundred thousand people took part in this right-wing show of strength. For once, however, the Poles didn’t show up. The money put aside for their trip was instead given to Ukrainian families. The fact that the pro-Russian Orbán is a less than desirable figure in Poland may have played a role in this decision.

The name of the march this year, in a time of war, has assumed extra meaning. The Russian invasion in late February came in the run-up to the general election on April 3, so that the Hungarian prime minister had to quickly change tack in the Fidesz campaign. He said his party stands for peace, while the Hungarian opposition is full of “warmongering troublemakers” who “want to send Hungarian solders and Hungarian arms to Ukraine”.

“We will not allow the left wing to drag Hungary into this war,” Orbán said in his speech on 15 March, and he proclaimed Hungary’s complete neutrality in the matter. “Hungarians know very well who usually profits from these kinds of wars,” he declared, and he said that Hungary must keep out of geopolitical games.

“Central Europe is just a chess board for the world’s superpowers, and Hungary is merely a piece on that board. If it serves their aims, they will sacrifice us. Russia is watching Russian interests, and Ukraine Ukrainian interests. Nor will the US and Brussels think with a Hungarian mind or feel with a Hungarian heart.”

While Orbán has played the independence fighter in recent years, to the point of claiming a role in world politics, now he has suddenly changed into a cautious, thoughtful statesman. He emphasises that Hungary must mind its own interests — it is too small to interfere in the big boys’ affairs. He doesn’t name who is responsible and doesn’t really talk about Russian aggression. He refers to war rhetorically, as if it was a flood or some other natural calamity that just happens. But who the aggressor is and who the victim, he doesn’t say.

Fidesz MPs gloss over the party’s pro-Russian stance of recent years with embarrassment. Government commentators stress the responsibility of the Americans and the Ukrainians — from the way they talk, you might think that the US had invaded. This is completely in line with Russian propaganda.

Orbán is in part appealing to people’s natural concern and in part using his propaganda machine and national media to portray his opponents as warmongering hyenas. In reality, the Hungarian opposition does not want to send soldiers to Ukraine.

Péter Márki-Zay, the joint opposition’s prime ministerial candidate, merely said that as a NATO member, Hungary should help Ukraine in line with NATO’s joint decisions. However, the Fidesz message seems to be having its mobilising effect. With the general election only days away, the right-wing coalition parties are looking comfortable.

“I can’t remember when the stars stood so well so close to an election,” Orbán said to his followers. The most recent opinion polls showed Fidesz extending its lead over the opposition. Many thought that the war might prove a challenge for the ruling party, but so far it has proved a bonus.

In the long term, Russian aggression could bring down one of the key parts of Fidesz’s recent foreign policy, but here and now, in the approaching elections, Orbán may win support for promising stability and peace and for protecting the country’s interests.

He faces greater challenges in his foreign policy, however. Vladimir Putin is basically demanding that NATO withdraw from East-Central Europe. This demand, which the Russian press is presenting as a “new Yalta”, may be politically unrealistic but the very fact that it has been raised is threatening for the region. Nevertheless, Orbán did not comment when Putin mentioned this at their press conference in Moscow in early February. The Hungarian leader merely talked about the details of the long-term Russian gas contract, saying nothing about what they had discussed during their five-hour one-to-one talks.

Orbán described his trip as a “peace mission” and stressed his respect for Russia.

His policy towards Russia is unique in the region. While he proclaims his effective neutrality, the other East-Central Europe countries have all directly condemned Russia’s aggression. The Poles, Czechs and the Baltic states in particular have called for stronger sanctions and for military aid for Ukraine.

This was typified by the visit of the prime ministers of Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic to Kyiv, where they met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and confirmed the EU’s support. Joe Biden’s visit to Warsaw this week and the recent signing of an agreement over the shipment of more American weapons, including tanks and Patriot defence systems, confirm Poland’s rising value.

Donald Tusk and Péter Márki-Zay at the commemorative rally held by the united opposition, (Egységben Magyarországért) in Budapest, on 15 March 2022 – Photo: Melegh Noémi Napsugár / Telex
Donald Tusk and Péter Márki-Zay at the commemorative rally held by the united opposition, (Egységben Magyarországért) in Budapest, on 15 March 2022 – Photo: Melegh Noémi Napsugár / Telex

This stands in stark contrast with the Hungarian government’s declaration that it would not allow the shipments of arms from other countries to Ukraine on its territory — not that there would be much demand for this, given the transport logistics in the country — on the basis that such shipments represent a threat if they are targeted.

While the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland has proved a staunch ally for Fidesz in its challenges to Brussels, there have been clear differences between the two parties in certain foreign policy issues, especially in dealings with Russia. Orbán has used historical causes and social-psychological factors to explain this: “There are some countries that feel truly threatened, feeling that their security is at risk every single day. Such countries include the Baltic states and Poland. They are justified in feeling so both for both historical and geographical reasons. At the same time, it is completely clear that Hungary feels no such a threat,” he said in 2018.

The Hungarian prime minister has for years referred to a special “Hungarian model” in dealings with Russia. He admits that he has invested considerable energy in the past 13 years into ensuring that while Hungary is a member of the western alliance, it also maintains excellent relations with Moscow. The fostering of relations with the economies in the East and rhetoric opposing EU sanctions have been basic blocks in Orbán’s foreign policy.

The Hungarian government has in practice never vetoed EU sanctions, but it has managed to achieve a favourable bargaining position over energy policy. This is most apparent in the long-term gas contract it signed in 2021. As a result, Hungary probably gets the cheapest gas in the EU, but on the condition that it receives this from the south, avoiding Ukraine.

“We are happy for the Ukrainians to fight for their own interests, but they should leave us out of that struggle,” Orbán said, when asked whether Hungary’s gas agreement wasn’t increasingly throwing Kyiv at Moscow’s mercy. Orbán isn’t the only one who likes to mention that the Hungarian government’s popular cuts in household utility bills depend on Russian gas —Putin also raised this point in Moscow.

The Russian question has long been a political taboo in Hungarian-Polish relations. As a result of the war, however, the basic framework of their agreement has changed.

“We have common interests in relation to the EU… but this is a tactical alliance,” said Marcin Przydacz, the Polish deputy foreign minister about Hungarian-Polish relations after Orbán’s Moscow visit, which marked a change of tune. The Hungarian leader also recognised this difference. “The V4 cooperation was kept separate from military matters since we knew that there were differences of opinion,” he said in an interview, referring to the Visegrad alliance between Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. “Now that the Russians have attacked Ukraine, we can no longer keep this matter separate as it is the most important question.” He was referring to difference in geopolitical visions:

while Poland vehemently supports Ukraine’s bid to join NATO, Hungary is interested in Ukraine being a broad buffer-zone between it and Russia.

Balázs Artur, honorary Hungarian consul in Szczecin, in Poland, handed in his notice after that interview because he found the Hungarian position indefensible. According to a letter from the Hungarian embassy in Warsaw, the politician consulted with the Polish leaders beforehand, so that his resignation could be interpreted as an unofficial warning to Fidesz.

While Orbán’s party gets less and less symbolic support from its Polish partner, the Polish opposition has grown more critical. This could in turn cause problems for Jarosław Kaczyński and his PiS party. Just as Orbán is scarred by his years of Putin friendship, so the Polish opposition hope that Kaczyński will be scarred by his alliance with Orbán. The PiS’s popularity has risen 4 per cent in the polls since the war began, but its close ties with Orbán, who is portrayed as Putin’s loud Doberman, is one of its vulnerable spots.

“His successes at home have encouraged him to present himself as a serious player on the international scene, which he has managed to achieve with the help of his privileged connection with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Here is the background to this historical paradox: Orbán has turned Hungary, which was crushed by Russian tanks in 1956, into the kid brother of the Kremlin,” wrote Polish MEP Janusz Lewandowski, a member of the opposition Civic Platform party.

“As Ukraine’s neighbour, Orbán’s Hungary has washed its hands at the sight of the war crimes. Friends are known in times of adversity.”

The Polish opposition’s criticism of Orbán reached its peak with the visit to Budapest of Donald Tusk on 15 March. The head of the Polish Civic Platform and the European People’s Party has been one of those pressing most keenly to expel Fidesz from the EPP. When Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó announced that Hungary would not permit weapon shipments to cross its territory, the Polish opposition leader referred to the Order of Friendship medal Szijjártó received in Moscow in December: “Orbán and Szijjártó could do better than a couple of cheap decorations from Putin. Two seats on the Gazprom board of directors would be a fitting remuneration for their loyalty.” Szijjártó responded by calling Tusk a notorious liar.

So instead of train loads of Orbán-supporting Poles, it was one of Orbán’s biggest European foes who came to Budapest for the national holiday.

Campaigning for the opposition leader Péter Márki-Zay, Tusk said: “Whether for money, political blindness or fear, many politicians in Europe are ready to support Putin even amid his terrible aggression against Ukraine. Do not believe those politicians who think that violence and capitulating to Putin are a pledge of security and peace” — a clear reference to Orbán.

“They are so desperate that they have invited Donald Tusk here from Poland. They have invited a Pole whom his own countrymen are ashamed of, who first broke up his own party in Poland and then broke up the European People’s Party in Brussels. Donald Tusk is a black cat who only brings trouble on people,” Orbán said in response to Tusk’s speech, rather taking the national cheer out of the national holiday.

Unlike the Polish opposition, the ruling PiS party is unlikely to express much criticism of the Hungarian government before the 3 April elections. However, it is very possible that the Hungarian government will become increasingly isolated internationally, and its room for manoeuvre will narrow. The differences in approach of the Polish and Hungarian governments in the past weeks show this.

Poland will try to use its new-found importance to sort out its issues with the EU. It believes that its clear commitment in security and military matters will mean that it will be allowed off the “naughty step” to which it had been condemned together with Hungary because of its anti-Brussels policies and breaches of the rule of law.

It is not out of the question that the Hungarian government will also gain access to the EU’s post-pandemic recovery funds that have for the moment been frozen. However, with Hungary’s foreign policy subordinated to domestic politics, it faces the prospect of being left on its own.

It appears that the Fidesz leadership had not seriously expected war. Orbán, a political visionary in the eyes of his followers, is being forced unexpectedly to rethink his foreign policy orientation — far from ideal during an election campaign. The Fidesz camp has been socialised on hostility to Brussels, brought up to see Putin as a useful ally and taught to be deeply suspicious of the west. To switch it on to a new track so suddenly may not be possible.

For the moment, Hungarian foreign policy will continue on its separate path, even though the room for Hungary to continue its opportunistic foreign policy has narrowed sharply. At least until the elections, Hungarian foreign policy will have to play for time while its former major ally, Poland, becomes a big player.

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This article is part of a cooperation between Telex and Visegrad Insight.