Foreign Policy

Kyiv vs Budapest: What`s going on in Ukrainian-Hungarian relations?

ICPS Press

The relations between Ukraine and Hungary are a textbook example of the crisis, in which neither party considers actions to be acceptable, while both overestimate their capabilities and underestimate the risks and losses associated with the conflict. For more than a year there are sharp controversies, the trigger for which was the new Law on Education, which was adopted by the Ukrainian parliament on September 5, 2017.

The Hungarian reaction, which initially concerned the protection of the rights of the minority and the territory of Ukraine to receive education in the Hungarian language, quickly spread to the questions of Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine, citizenship and political cooperation. The conflict has reached a high level, it has acquired signs of scandal and, seems, it has the potential for further deepening. It is precisely to be said that both countries should prepare for a long cooling period and mutual distrust.

What's gone wrong? “Collision of Identities” or “Modus vivendi”

The relations between Hungary and Ukraine had much better time. Neighbors, united by common issues and challenges in the area of security, geography and history, have long remained friends. Hungary was one of the first to recognize Ukraine's independence, and subsequently became one of the key regional partners. Political cooperation deepened after Hungary joined NATO and the EU, and Ukraine made European and Euro-Atlantic vectors a priority in its foreign policy.

However, at some point the situation began to change. Hungarians began to concentrate additional attention on the rights of ethnic minorities in neighboring states; Ukrainians began to develop a national identity against the backdrop of Crimean occupation and armed conflict in the eastern part of the country. In both states, speculation on the historical and national themes began to be used high demand; while in the region of Eastern Europe the right political ideas and forces have intensified. The low level of economic interdependence and trade was due to: the benefits of hostility dominated the existing benefits from cooperation. Hungary as a member of NATO and the EU received additional levers of pressure on Ukraine, which made membership in both organizations a priority of their foreign policy. Even without any “Kremlin hand” there were enough motives for both sides to raising rates.

Escalation occurred quickly and predictably. Following the adoption of the Law on Education in new edition by the Verkhovna Rada, which narrowed the right of ethnic minorities to acquire education in their native language, Budapest promised to block Ukraine's further rapprochement with NATO and the EU. A practical step in this direction was the obstruction of the work of the NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC) at the highest level. Subsequently, the Hungarian government scheduled the appointment of “an authorized minister responsible for the development of Transcarpathia and develop kindergartens in the Carpathian basin”, which provoked strong protests from the official Kyiv.

However, the loudest scandal for today was the distribution of Hungarian passports in the Consulate of Hungary in Berehovo, which got on the video. After this incident, which was described by Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine V. Bondar as “that Hungary behaves like Transcarpathia is its territory”, Ukraine sent out a Hungarian consul, and Hungary replied symmetrically. The distribution of Hungarian passports in Transcarpathia lasts at least since 2011, but it is the peculiarities of the current perception of the parties that exacerbate the situation.

Of course, the reactions of both parties are conditioned by the logic of the already existing confrontation, and each step is perceived to be extremely hostile, while the actions and intentions of the other party cause the maximum suspicion. In this atmosphere of mutual distrust, the next crisis moment remains a matter of time.

Today, relations between Hungary and Ukraine are in a state of crisis, and in the near future this crisis will deepen rather than be resolved. Budapest reaction was resolute, demonstrative and well thought out to Ukraine's adoption of the new edition of the Law on Education. Ukraine's response to the rhetoric did not slow down, and very quickly the parties came to a standstill of mutual accusations and threats. Can Kyiv and Budapest afford the luxury of a long-lasting conflict in the current geopolitical situation?

It looks like they can. You can even benefit from it if you have certain skills. Confrontation with neighbors is a powerful and cheap factor for internal mobilization, which will be pleased to use by Hungarian and Ukrainian politicians who are prone to populism. However, the weakening of the international positions of both states will be a price. For Ukraine, such a relaxation looks more undesirable, as in general, Ukraine's position in the conflict with Hungary seems weaker. We are certainly bigger, but Hungary can effectively use its membership in the EU and NATO as a tool of pressure.

If things are going to continue, then further deployment of events can be conventionally called “collision of identities”. It will be less scale than in the clash of civilizations, but in all other parallels will be justified. Identities will be based on symbolic elements, opposition to neighbors, mythologization and heroism of their own history. As a result, it will expand cultural divides, reducing the chances of a future dialogue. Ukrainians and Hungarians are at risk of speaking shortly in different languages - not only in linguistic but also in meaningful terms.

To a certain extent, both countries have become hostage to regional processes, in particular the growing influence of nationalism as a political ideology. The region of Eastern Europe was in the center of mood and emotion, inherent in the period of a century ago. Then the collapse of the empires and the emergence of new states provoked the race for identity: the countries of the region created national myths and overcome the severe consequences of the First World War. This then formed new identities in Eastern Europe, mainly by ethnosymbolism with a rate on language, history, and symbols, which eventually led to the boundary between rational civil nationalism in the west and mystical irrational and ethnic nationalism in eastern Europe.

Today, the challenge is to find ways to avoid identity collisions and to implement a more optimistic scenario under the so-called “modus vivendi”. Such a scenario would provide for the possibility of coexistence with differences, dialogue from different positions and a joint search for mechanisms to protect each other's interests.

Battle of syndromes

As it often happens, the situation is complicated by historical factors. Both Ukraine and Hungary have a difficult past, full of dramas and injuries, and the past has a strong influence on the ways of forming and developing national identities and perceptions of relations with neighbors. Briefly, this effect can be called a “battle of syndromes”.

In Hungary, this syndrome is called “Trianon”. After losing World War I, Hungary under the terms of the Treaty of Trianon of 1920 lost more than two-thirds of its territory and more than half of the population, and Hungarians ethnic minority with a total of more than three million people found themselves within the borders of neighboring states. Within Hungary, the difficult conditions of peace were perceived as a national tragedy, which greatly contributed to the formation of a revanchist foreign policy between the World Wars. After the end of the Second World War, the territory of Hungary as a whole was preserved within the framework defined by the terms of the Treaty of Trianon. And although the “Trianon syndrome” today should not be compared to what was in the 1920s-1930s, when the state flags dropped to mourn for the signed agreement, but it continues to exist in the public consciousness and, most importantly, used by political forces for easy and quick conquest of public support. Ethnic minorities of Hungarians in neighboring countries - and most of them are 1.5 million minority in Romania - are an important part of the “Trianon syndrome”. In the modern world, where the review of the state borders is an extremely expensive, ineffective, rare and dubious matter for frank and cynical revisionists, the protection of the rights of ethnic minorities becomes the main instrument of ethnocentric politics, a kind of contemporary analogue of irredentist. The concept of “great Hungary” during the period between the World Wars envisaged the gathering of territories; today, instead of it, there is the option of a state policy of active support for national minorities in neighboring states.

Ukraine has its own syndromes. They do not have such an obvious historical point of origin, but they are also related to historical memory, the struggle for statehood and the construction of national identity. Perhaps, at the moment, such syndromes as Crimea, Donbas or even Budapest, under the name of a well-known memorandum, are being formed, which in the future will affect Ukrainians' perceptions of history, neighbors and their own destinies in Europe. One way or another, these syndromes affect the decision both within the state and in relation to neighbors.

The development of national identity on the basis of ethnosimvolism - with the use of linguistic, religious markers and historical symbols - with the heroization of certain periods of history and rethinking of historical mistakes - poses additional risks of exacerbating relations with neighbors. And if these neighbors also take decisions under the influence of historical memories, then such risks are doubling.

What to do?

Both countries lose the continuation and exacerbation of the conflict. Ukraine receives absolutely unnecessary problems on its western frontiers and additional brakes in further rapprochement with NATO and the EU. Hungary also runs the risk. The sanctions against Budapest, which are discussed within the EU, are extremely unlikely, but the image of a country lacking European values will not benefit Hungary in the future. At the same time ethnic minorities - Hungarians in Ukraine and Ukrainians in Hungary - instead of the most complete protection of their interests, they receive additional risks.

To overcome the logic of confrontation, complex and non-standard decisions are required. Simple formulas, such as “to leave history for historians” from a similar Ukrainian-Polish conflict, will not work. Conflicts of this kind contain too many politics to rely on historians. It is unlikely that the hopes for interdependence will be justified, that is, the common economic interests will prevail over the motives behind the escalation of inter-ethnic confrontation. Hungary's share in Ukraine's foreign trade is about 3%, while Ukraine's share in Hungary's foreign trade is roughly halved. Therefore, the formula for a successful solution should be based on a political component.

One of the possible ways could be the creation of a wider regional context. If we realize that Ukraine and Hungary are part of a single region, establishing cooperation and maintaining a common consent in which could significantly expand the capabilities of both countries, then the level of escalation of the conflict can be kept under control. The regional level can open new horizons for both states if they can get out of captivity thinking only by today's categories.

In Ukraine, you often hear references to the “Kremlin hand” and the fact that Ukraine's conflicts with its neighbors are in the interests of Moscow. Such an argument is unlikely to be convincing for Budapest: only 6% of Hungarians consider the threat of possible escalation or expansion of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. It is best to bet on the argument that a bilateral conflict undermines the potential of Hungary and Ukraine itself.

It is also important to understand what interests are behind the stated positions of the parties. Sometimes such interests are simple enough, but they are often complex. The fact that the other party aspires, it is better not to guess or speculate, but to know. In the open dialogue on these issues, both Kyiv and Budapest are interested. Expansion of communication, explanation of own motives, timely informing of intentions can strengthen bilateral trust, even in the context of crisis in relations. In addition, understanding the interests of the opponent opens the way for mutual concessions. The discovery of nuances will turn the black-and-white conflict between “good and evil” into a half-tone full picture. This, in turn, will allow you to look at the possibilities of mutual concessions not from the positions of the game with a zero sum, but with the desire to find common solutions.

An additional useful step could be something like an informal agreement on the non-use of anti-Hungarian and anti-Ukrainian rhetoric in the internal narratives of both countries. It is obvious that national issues in both countries have become a means of mobilizing the electorate and will remain for a long time. National slogans, historical myths and ethnic symbols are much easier to apply in a political struggle than unpopular and complex reforms. Nevertheless, it makes sense to make national rhetoric as popular as possible. The boundary between patriotism and xenophobia or ethnic hostility must be pursued.

Both countries could look for opportunities to implement joint projects in areas of significant interest to them: energy, regional security, ecology, and the fight against transnational threats. If it allows elites to earn more political points than they do with aggressive rhetoric, then there will be a chance to get out of the most likely way to “collision of identities” and implement the “modus vivendi” scenario. The strategic partnership will still be far away, but the crisis phenomena in relations will be much less.


Conflicts between neighbors on the basis of ethnosimvolism - languages, minority rights, interpretation of history - the phenomenon is dangerous and difficult to regulate. In such conflicts, the logic of “zero - sum games” acts and in the end they often become a game with a negative amount, in which all lose.

Both Ukraine and Hungary are losing out of delaying the current crisis. They are losing time, opportunities, image and prospects. Probably, Ukraine loses more, but it is unlikely that it can become a satisfying pleasure in relations between potential partners. Both Kyiv and Budapest have experienced many sad and painful historical lessons that would have suggested that besides the interests of national selfishness, there are also regional security interests as well as an even broader transatlantic context. From overcoming the obstacle to cooperation, you can win much more than you have to pay for them.

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