Thursday, May 26, 2022

‘We shouldn’t get involved’: Ukraine a key issue as Hungary heads to polls

With its statues and plaques venerating Hungarians who resisted Moscow’s military might, Corvind Alley may seem a natural setting to sympathise with Ukraine.

The circular passageway in central Budapest – nowadays a busy conduit to a nearby shopping mall – experienced some of the worst fighting of the 1956 uprising, when local teenagers since immortalised as the “Lads of Pest” (Pesti Srácok in Hungarian) and lionised by the current government fought the Red Army with primitive weapons in a doomed effort to overthrow Soviet-imposed communism.

Yet Ata, 39, a hotel worker and keen supporter of Hungary’s governing Fidesz party, felt no connection with Ukraine’s plight as he walked past a statue depicting a youthful insurgent. “There’s no correlation between the two. The Ukrainians are insolent and Putin gave them what they deserved,” he said.

“The Ukrainians are kissing our arses and waiting for help from us, but we shouldn’t get involved.”

That view, albeit crudely expressed, evokes a central theme as Hungarians prepare to vote on Sunday in a general election in which Viktor Orbán, the country’s self-proclaimed illiberal prime minister, is seeking a fourth successive term. Pitted against him is an unified six-party opposition bloc that he has relentlessly – and inaccurately – painted as warmongers who advocate sending Hungarian troops to fight in Ukraine.

Support for Ukraine, while present among many, is qualified – and in some cases entirely absent.

“I would say 30-40% of Fidesz supporters are very strongly pro-Russian,” said Daniel Hegedus, an analyst on central Europe at the German Marshall Fund. The attitudes stem from years of conditioning, with Orbán casting the EU and the Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros as enemies while fostering warm ties with President Vladimir Putin, whom he has met 12 times.

The results are visible on the streets of Budapest, where walls and lamp-posts are festooned with election advertising and the Ukrainian national flag is almost nowhere to be seen, in marked contrast to some other central European capitals. In Prague, for instance – which endured its own Moscow-led invasion by Warsaw Pact forces in 1968 to crush the Czechoslovakian Prague Spring – the yellow-and-blue emblem has been widely displayed on public buildings, trams and many private homes in solidarity with Ukraine.

Wariness in Hungary has been fueled by prewar antagonisms resulting from a law enacted in Ukraine under its former president, Petro Poroshenko, designating Ukrainian as the sole official language, which nationalists have discriminates against an estimated 150,000 ethnic Hungarians living in the country’s Transcarpathia region.

The anti-Ukrainian sentiment voiced by Ata mirrored that in an article recently on pestisracok.hu, a pro-Fidesz website named after the heroes of 1956, which accused Ukraine’s leaders of abusing teenagers by urging them to take up arms against Russia’s invasion. It raised eyebrows even in a government-friendly media landscape where pro-Russia – and anti-Ukrainian – war narratives have been widespread.

“The absurdity is that Fidesz spent years creating an official narrative of the Lads of Pest as the real heroes of ’56 for fighting a hopeless, tragic war against the overwhelmingly powerful Soviet army,” said András Mink, a historian at the Blinken Open Society archives in Budapest. “Now we had a news website named after those same heroes condemning Ukrainian leaders as irresponsible nationalist fascists for similarly urging their young people into a hopeless war against Russian invaders.”

Against this backdrop, Orbán – while not thus far obstructing EU sanctions and NATO measures in response to Russia’s invasion – has waged an election campaign on a self-styled “peace” platform, vowing to keep Hungary out of a conflict in which he insists it has no stake.

This has meant refusing to allow military aid – even non-lethal – to pass through Hungarian territory en route to Ukraine, a stance at odds with other former communist states in the region. Orbán has also pledged to veto steps that would cut Russian energy supplies, something he insists would wreck Hungary’s economy.

His posture has angered Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who last week called out Orbán in person as unsupportive while addressing the EU council, before criticizing Hungary again by telling Danish MPs that “Europe must stop listening to any excuses from Budapest”.

The patience of allies, too, has worn thin. A scheduled meeting in Budapest of the so-called Visegrád group of central European countries’ defense ministers was called off on Wednesday after the Polish and Czech delegations declined to attend.

But in domestic political terms, the strategy appears to be working. Opinion surveys show Fidesz consistently ahead by between three and seven points. If accurate, that would put it on course to win a comfortable majority in the 199-seat parliament, although short of its current two-thirds super majority, which has enabled it to enact constitutional and voting-rule changes at will.

Analysts estimate that the six-party grouping seeking to put Péter Márki-Zay, the winner of the 2021 opposition primary, in power needs a 3-5% popular vote advantage to ensure a parliamentary majority due to deliberately gerrymandered constituencies produced by boundary changes carried out during Fidesz’ rule.

Péter Márki-Zay speaks at a campaign event in Budapest.
Péter Márki-Zay speaks at a campaign event in Budapest. Photograph: Anna Szilagyi/AP

Further complicating the opposition’s task is the fact that the election is being held alongside a government-inspired referendum on a so-called child protection law that critics see as an attempt to prevent the teaching of LGBT rights in schools. The law makes it an offense to “promote or portray” homosexuality or gender-change procedures to children. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is sending an unusually large monitoring team, has criticized the simultaneous staging of the polls.

More immediately concerning for Márki-Zay are fears that his message of more enthusiastic Nato and EU participation is not cutting through with voters in a media setting in which every regional newspaper is owned by a pro-Fidesz foundation and the opposition is limited to five minutes campaigning airtime on public television.

“The election is not taking place in a totally democratic context, but in a hybrid regime where the government enjoys a huge media advantage, with very high spending in communication and an ownership structure leaning towards Fidesz,” said Péter Krekó, the director of Political Capital, a Budapest-based thinktank. “Added to this, the opposition has failed to keep the momentum it had after last year’s primaries, which was a great moment of mobilization for them.”

Orbán’s non-intervention stance on Ukraine was underpinned by a narrow view of the national interest in which moral considerations played no role, said Zoltán Kovács, his government’s international spokesperson. “Cutting energy ties with Russia would ruin this country immediately. In that context, it doesn’t matter what is right or good,” he said.

He dismissed parallels between the war in Ukraine and Hungary’s trauma of 1956 as “misleading”, adding: “The historical lesson we have is very simple. When in the neighborhood there is a war and that war has nothing to do with Hungary, as in this case, then we would like to avoid involvement… Because if it helps one [side]it would be against the other.”

That view dismays several Hungarian historians, including János Rainer, a founding member and former director of the 1956 Institute, dedicated to commemorating the uprising but later disbanded by Orbán’s government.

“There are differences but also similarities and the most significant one is the moral meaning of the two cases,” he said. “As in 1956, it is obvious today who is the aggressor and which side is the victim. Shamefully the present Hungarian government is trying to avoid taking sides in this conflict, and hides behind a ‘neutral’ rhetoric.”

Krisztián Ungváry, another chronicler of the 1956 rebellion, added: “Orban says that for us Hungarians, Hungarian interests are the most important thing and all else is secondary. Many people are all right with this concept.”

Additional reporting by Flora Garamvolgyi

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