Ukrainian-Hungarian relations are better than they seem, says former ambassador

Ukrainian-Hungarian relations are better than they seem, says former ambassador

Istvan Ijgyarto was appointed to head the Hungarian embassy in Kyiv in a tense situation in 2018: war was raging in the eastern part of Ukraine and bilateral relations deteriorated due to laws that violate the rights of the ethnic Hungarian community. The diplomat was well aware of both challenges, as he was previously ambassador in Moscow and he comes from Transcarpathia. He came to face even more difficult circumstances when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. How did he experience the outbreak of the war? Was fleeing the country an option that was considered? What is the Ukrainians' problem with ethnic Hungarians? Will there be a meeting between Viktor Orban and Volodymyr Zelensky?

POLITICS MAY 20. 2023 17:29

Everyday life amidst shelling and air raids

It was not unexpected, the former Hungarian ambassador to Kyiv, Istvan Ijgyarto, recalled the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the Hungarian daily Magyar Nemzet. By then various intelligence agencies had been warning for weeks that an attack was imminent, he continued. In the first hours, however, it seemed completely unbelievable that the war had in fact broken out, he added. First of all, he ordered his colleagues to stockpile food and fuel, Mr Ijgyarto said, speaking about the first hours. This proved to be necessary because they moved into the embassy building.

This had to be done because for a long time it was not possible to see how the events would evolve, much more serious bombings or even street fighting could not be ruled out. Secondly, people panicking and fleeing is the initial reaction to any act of war. Therefore, it was also necessary to make sure that the embassy was a safe haven where anyone could seek help and shelter,

he explained, recalling that the uncertainty whether or not the Russians would surround Kyiv made the task more difficult.

The former ambassador openly spoke about what they went through during the unceasing bombings and air raids.

„These had primarily a psychological effect. The sirens could go off at any time of the day, which is, of course, rather nerve-wracking. Otherwise, especially in the first phase, the Russians shelled the outer districts. Despite this, I myself witnessed an airstrike hitting the centre of Kiev, a terrible sight, shocking to experience. The power and water outages caused only inconvenience, but we tried to get through these periods with the help of the water supplies in stock and generators,”

he said.

Hungarian-Ukrainian relations are not as bad as they seem

During the interview, he touched on the issue that the war did not help souring Ukrainian-Hungarian relations. He said he had been summoned to Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry for discussions many times. „I arrived in Kyiv less than a week earlier when I was already summoned. Summoning is a powerful diplomatic gesture that essentially aims to inform the head of a foreign mission in person about an objectionable case. In Ukraine, this happened perhaps more often than usual, which has also something to do with Ukrainian diplomacy shifting gears. However, it is basically a dialogue where one party states their objections and the other tries to provide answers to them. I must say, the atmosphere during these discussions was often far more peaceful that the way the press presented it. It sometimes happened that I had hardly left the building before a statement on the case was issued in a tone that was harsher than the tone used with me. But this is the specifics of the Ukrainian situation,” added Istvan Ijgyarto, who was appointed to head Hungary’s embassy in Kyiv in 2018 when the first waves of the tension caused by the minority issue were already palpable. The infamous education law and the law on the state language created a „net” and ethnic minorities living in Ukraine getting entangled in its meshes was something predictable. There are three key issues in the life of an ethnic minority in the former ambassador’s view.

The first one is the preservation of identity and passing it on to the next generation. The most important instrument for this is education in the minority language. The second one is closely related to the first: what is the „use value” of the language. By this I mean the status of the minority tongue, whether it has the same power as the language of the majority; whether ethnic minorities can speak in their mother tongue, place signs written in the ethnic community’s language, or use it in official communication. The third one concerns how decisions pertaining to ethnic minorities are made, which also shows the level of a country’s democracy. Is the community involved in bringing decisions or are they made above their heads? As I see it, the restrictive measures adopted in Ukraine have seriously violated these three fundamental issues. It does not matter what intention lay behind these laws when they were adopted, because these laws determine the fate of ethnic Hungarians living in Transcarpathia. The disappearance of the Hungarian minority is their consequence in the long term. Obviously, Hungary cannot let this happen,”

said the former ambassador to Kyiv and went on to point out that

„The approach to the issue assumed by the Ukrainian state has been politically motivated from the beginning. They have no answers to our legal arguments. The minority policy pursued by Ukraine since the 1990s was not exemplary but it was forward-looking, and why a drastic change has taken place since 2014 is incomprehensible. I am surprised that our Western partners fail to take the matter seriously enough. After all, if such a serious step can be taken in the field of minority legislation, then I have serious doubts about what can be expected in other areas important from the point of view of democracy. I had many discussions about this with our Ukrainian partners, and it was shocking to realise what a paternalistic attitude – rooted in the Soviet heritage, I dare say – prevails in society. The Ukrainian state relates to its citizens, including ethnic minorities, with a sense of ownership. All along, this was manifested in their argument that they only want to facilitate better integration for minorities. In fact, Ukraine made no attempt to create multiculturalism in order to make people aware that Hungarians have lived in Transcarpathia for more than a thousand years. At the same time, the ethnic community was expected to show special respect towards the majority Ukrainians. In my view, this is seriously disproportional. Their political goal is not the preservation of ethnic minorities but their elimination.”

According to Mr Ijgyarto, these are factitious views following the logic that Crimea seceded from Ukraine, and from that point on, areas where ethnic minorities live are potential sources of danger. In addition, the political elite in Kyiv is completely unaware of the demographic conditions in Transcarpathia. Accusing Transcarpathian Hungarians or Hungary of wanting to tear away the area is completely absurd and in fact, this calls into question the loyalty of the majority living there. At the same time, the accusation of separatism was a good excuse for evading discussions about minority rights. It is a perfect distraction instead of dialogue and real debates, the former Hungarian ambassador explained.

He noted that he had been to many places in Ukraine, but had never experienced any hostility towards Hungarians. Anti-Hungarian sentiments are unfortunately fueled by the propaganda media.

In many instances, the tension towards Hungary and Hungarians is artificially induced and the possibility cannot be ruled out that the aim of this is to serve certain foreign interests. Fortunately, however, this does not reach a wide section of society. The wartime tension intensified this to the extent that it became much more important who supports Ukraine and how they support the country. The Ukrainian propaganda often presented this as if Hungary was working to destroy Ukraine in alliance with Russia. The Ukrainian press widely covered every small move in Hungarian politics that would be met with disapproval and remained silent about the enormous help the country provided. We made numerous attempts to effect a change in this regard, but we were generally made aware that everything depended on a central will. Nevertheless, I am convinced that Hungarian-Ukrainian relations are not as bad as they seem,”

the former ambassador highlighted, adding that bilateral relations could be greatly improved with little effort. However, intention must exist on both sides to this end. Hungary has made a number of gestures, and now Hungarians would expect a reciprocal move.

Is an Orban-Zelensky meeting a possibility?

In response to the question whether a long-awaited meeting between Viktor Orban and Volodymyr Zelensky was a possibility for improving the situation, Istvan Ijgyarto pointed out that over the last thirty years, a number of communication channels have been created between the two countries, which could have helped in resolving issues that have emerged in recent years. For example, a joint committee for minority issues has existed since 1989, which could have been an excellent platform for clarifying controversial laws through dialogue.

„We have not managed to convene this committee so far, and I can say that it is not the fault of the Hungarian side. Similarly, the Ukrainian side cancelled the session of the joint economic committee at the last minute. So we have a lot of instruments at our disposal which we have not fully drawn on, and yet a top-level meeting is seen as worth having. On the other hand, such a meeting could undoubtedly give a big boost to relations,”

he concluded.



Hungary, ukraine, viktor orban, volodimir zelensky