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

Corvin Alley, with its monuments and plaques honouring Hungarians who defied Moscow’s military strength, may appear to be an obvious place to empathise with Ukraine.

The circular passageway in central Budapest – now a bustling conduit to a nearby shopping mall – was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting during the 1956 uprising, when local teenagers 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 futile attempt to overthrow Soviet-imposed communism.

Yet As he passed past a monument representing a young revolutionary, Ata, 39, a hotel worker and ardent supporter of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, felt no connection to Ukraine’s situation. “There is no such thing as a link between the two. Ukrainians are impolite, and Putin gave them exactly what they deserved,” he stated.

“The Ukrainians are licking our arses and pleading for our assistance, but we should stay out of it.”

This opinion, however crudely articulated, conjures a fundamental issue as Hungarians prepare to vote in a general election on Sunday in which Viktor Orbán, the country’s self-proclaimed illiberal prime leader, is seeking a fourth consecutive term. Faced with him is a cohesive six-party opposition coalition that he has persistently – and incorrectly – depicted as warmongers advocating the deployment of Hungarian military to Ukraine.

While there is widespread support for Ukraine, it is sporadic — and in other cases altogether missing.

“I would estimate that between 30% and 40% of Fidesz supporters are extremely pro-Russian,” said Daniel Hegedus, a German Marshall Fund specialist for central Europe. The sentiments are the result of years of indoctrination, with Orbán portraying the EU and Hungarian-born benefactor George Soros as adversaries while cultivating good connections with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he has met 12 times.

The results are obvious on the streets of Budapest, where election advertising is plastered on buildings and lampposts and the Ukrainian national flag is virtually non-existent, in stark contrast to several other central European towns. For example, in Prague – which suffered its own Moscow-led invasion by Warsaw Pact forces in 1968 to put a stop to the Czechoslovakian Prague Spring – the yellow-and-blue insignia has been prominently displayed on public buildings, trams, and several individual residences in solidarity with Ukraine.

Hungary’s wariness has been fueled by prewar animosities sparked by a law enacted in Ukraine under former President Petro Poroshenko designating Ukrainian as the sole official language, which nationalists claim discriminates against the estimated 150,000 ethnic Hungarians living in the country’s Transcarpathia region.

Ata’s anti-Ukrainian sentiments were echoed in a recent piece on pestisracok.hu, a pro-Fidesz website named for 1956 heroes, in which Ukraine’s leaders were accused of abusing youths by encouraging them to take up weapons against Russia’s invasion. It aroused eyebrows even in a government-friendly media environment dominated by pro-Russian – and anti-Ukrainian – war narratives.

“The irony is that Fidesz spent years constructing an official narrative portraying the Lads of Pest as the true heroes of 1956 for waging a fruitless, sad struggle against the massively strong Soviet army,” said András Mink, a historian at Budapest’s Blinken Open Society archives. “Now, we had a news website named after those same heroes criticising Ukrainian politicians as irresponsible nationalist fascists for again enticing their youth into a fruitless fight against Russian invaders.”

Against this backdrop, Orbán has run an election campaign on a self-styled “peace” platform, pledging to keep Hungary out of a conflict in which he believes it has no stake.

This has meant refusing to allow military assistance – even non-lethal – to travel through Hungarian territory en route to Ukraine, a position at contrast with those of other former communist republics in the area. Orbán has also threatened to veto measures aimed at reducing Russia’s energy supply, which he claims will devastate Hungary’s economy.

His stance has enraged Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who last week singled out Orbán as unsupportive during a speech to the EU council, before criticising Hungary once more by telling Danish lawmakers that “Europe must stop listening to any explanations from Budapest.”

Allies’ patience has also run out. A meeting of the Visegrád group of central European nations’ defence ministers set for Wednesday in Budapest was postponed after the Polish and Czech delegations declined to participate.

However, the plan looks to be succeeding on a domestic political level. Fidesz routinely leads by between three and seven points in opinion polls. If true, that puts it on track to gain a strong majority in the 199-seat house, though it will fall short of the two-thirds supermajority it now enjoys, which enables it to impose constitutional and voting-rule changes at will.

According to analysts, the six-party coalition attempting to elect Péter Márki-Zay, the victor of the 2021 opposition primary, need a 3-5 percent popular vote lead to achieve a parliamentary majority owing to purposefully gerrymandered seats created under Fidesz’s tenure.

Complicating the opposition’s work is the fact that the election is taking place concurrently with a government-sponsored vote on a so-called child protection bill, which critics regard as an attempt to prohibit the teaching of LGBT rights in schools. It is illegal to “promote or represent” homosexuality or gender-change treatments to youngsters under the legislation. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which will deploy an unusually large monitoring team, has criticised the polls being held concurrently.

More immediately concerning for Márki-Zay are concerns that his message of increased enthusiasm for NATO and EU membership will fall flat with voters in a media environment where every regional newspaper is owned by a pro-Fidesz foundation and the opposition is limited to five minutes of public television campaigning.

“The election is not taking place in an entirely democratic environment, but in a hybrid regime in which the government enjoys a sizable media advantage, very high communication spending, and an ownership structure skewed toward Fidesz,” said Péter Krekó, director of Political Capital, a Budapest-based think tank. “Additionally, the opposition has failed to maintain the momentum gained during last year’s primaries, which served as a tremendous mobilisation opportunity for them.”

Orbán’s non-interventionist posture toward Ukraine was based on a limited vision of national interest that disregarded moral concerns, according to Zoltán Kovács, his government’s foreign spokesperson. “Severing energy links with Russia will quickly devastate this country. It makes no difference whether is moral or good in that environment,” he explained.

He dismissed comparisons between the Ukraine war and Hungary’s 1956 catastrophe as “misleading,” saying, “The historical lesson we have is rather straightforward. When there is a conflict in the neighbourhood that has nothing to do with Hungary, as there is in this instance, we would like to avoid engagement… Because if it benefits one [party], it is detrimental to the other.”

Several Hungarian historians, like János Rainer, a founder member and former director of the 1956 Institute, which was established to commemorate the rebellion but was subsequently abolished by Orbán’s administration, are appalled by this stance.

“There are distinctions but also parallels, the most notable of which being the moral significance of the two incidents,” he explained. “Just like in 1956, it is clear who is the aggressor and who is the victim now. Regrettably, Hungary’s current administration is attempting to avoid taking sides in this struggle by cloaking itself in ‘neutral’ rhetoric.”

Krisztián Ungváry, another historian of the 1956 uprising, added: “Orban asserts that for us Hungarians, Hungarian interests are paramount and everything else is incidental. Numerous individuals agree with this viewpoint.”

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