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Orbán will not make Hungarians pay the price of war – POLITICO

William Nattrass is a Prague-based freelance journalist and commentator.

The standoff with Hungary over the European Union’s plan to ban Russian oil is proving harder to break than many in Brussels thought.

But the dispute over the EU’s proposal to cut Russian oil took months and was easily predictable. Resolving it will take much more than an emergency visit to Budapest by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, as happened earlier this week.

The Commission has already watered down the proposed ban, giving Hungary – as well as other central European countries – more time to phase out the oil, but Budapest has drawn up a long list of additional demands. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s rhetoric is also very different from that of other central European leaders who, despite a similar dependence on Russian oil, are willing to help tighten the screws on Moscow.

But Hungary has been fatalistic about its energy dependence since the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine. When I raised the issue of energy with Balázs Orbán, the Prime Minister’s political director, on the day Russian troops entered Ukraine in February, he said without hesitation: energy sanctions are a red line for the Hungary.

Speaking on state radio last week, Orbán described the proposed oil sanctions as an “atom bomb” for Hungary’s economy. A less noticed – but more revealing – part of the interview, however, made him question the strategic utility of a slower transition.

“It’s worth asking if there’s any sense in an expensive transformation that can only start working four to five years from now, when the cause of all this is a war that’s going on right now,” he reflected.

If the purpose of the embargo was only to cause short-term damage to the Russian economy and shorten the war, Orbán’s point would be worth considering. But sanctions are also being called for in the name of long-term energy security, as well as European solidarity with Ukraine – and on these issues Hungary’s broader policy exerts a negative influence.

Unlike Poland, which has found it remarkably easy to go from being an EU rebel to a staunch supporter of European solidarity, Hungary refuses to subordinate national interests to a collective international effort for Ukraine, with the Orbán’s warning that “the interests of America, Germany or any other European country” in the war could go “against the interests of Hungary”.

According to him, the oil sanctions are the breaking point at which international efforts begin to have a negative impact on Hungary, and a complete severance of energy ties with Moscow would tear the country’s long-term economic strategy to shreds. An agreement to keep pumping Russian oil into Hungary for the next 15 years was signed last September, and Russian state-owned Rosatom is expected to build two nuclear units to power its grid.

Orbán believes that reneging on this strategic economic cooperation would be a blatant betrayal of his election promise not to make Hungarians pay the price of war – it was this promise that won him a landslide election victory in April.

Hungary also has a long and complicated history with Ukraine, which has its roots in the Treaty of Trianon, which saw the former Kingdom of Hungary lose large parts of its territory in the aftermath of World War I.

One such lost region was Transcarpathia, now part of Ukraine and still home to a large Hungarian community. And when Hungary first voiced its opposition to proposed EU oil sanctions, the head of Ukraine’s National Security Council hinted that Hungary was eager to reclaim Transcarpathia in the aftermath of an expected Russian victory .

The statement raised eyebrows of course, but the political importance of Transcarpathia should not be underestimated. Possessing some of Hungary’s most valuable cultural sites, it has been a major stumbling block in Hungarian-Ukrainian relations for years.

Orbán has previously described Ukrainian laws limiting the use of minority languages ​​in public life as discriminatory against Hungarians in Transcarpathia, and speaking last week he boasted: “Hungarians have set aside the way the Ukrainians treated us. . . we don’t need to discuss why they took away the possibility of education in the mother tongue of Hungarians, and why they abused Hungarians just because they are Hungarians.

Hungary did not share Russia’s fear of its allies before the war, and now it is skeptical of their wholehearted enthusiasm for the Ukrainian cause. And while the Commission tries to persuade Orbán to change its tune, it is handicapped by its own sour relationship with Budapest.

Brussels chose last month – a time when temporary unity born of pragmatism should have trumped all other considerations – to formally launch its rule of law conditionality mechanism to withhold funds from Hungary. It’s no surprise, then, that Orbán can now scoff at invocations of “solidarity” as the bloc scrambles to get him on his side.