Orbán won’t make Hungarians pay war price

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

The deadlock with Hungary over the proposed European Union ban on Russian oil is proving more difficult to break than many in Brussels thought. 

But the clash over the EU’s proposal to cut out Russian oil has been months in the making and was easily foreseeable. 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 — along with other Central European countries — more time to phase out oil, but Budapest has set out a sweeping list of additional demands. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s rhetoric is also notably different than other Central European leaders who, despite similar dependency on Russian oil, are ready to help tighten the screws on Moscow.  

But Hungary has been fatalistic about energy dependency from the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine. When I raised the energy issue 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 Hungary. 

Speaking on national radio last week, Orbán described the proposed oil sanctions as an “atomic bomb” for the Hungarian economy. A less-remarked on – but more revealing — part of the interview, however, saw him question the strategic utility of a slower transition. 

“It’s worth thinking about whether there’s any sense in a costly transformation that can only start to work four to five years from now, when the cause of it all is a war happening right now,” he mused.   

If the aim of the embargo were solely 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 urged for the sake of long-term energy security, as well as European solidarity with Ukraine — and on these matters, Hungary’s wider politics exert a negative influence.   

Unlike Poland, which has found it remarkably easy to pivot from EU rebel to devoted backer of European solidarity, Hungary refuses to subordinate national interests to a collective international effort for Ukraine, with Orbán warning, “the interests of America, Germany, or any other European country” in the war might run “contrary to Hungary’s interest.”  

Oil sanctions, he believes, are the breaking point at which international efforts start to detrimentally impact Hungary, and a complete severing of energy ties with Moscow would leave the country’s long-term economic strategy in tatters. A deal to keep Russian oil pumping to Hungary for the next 15 years was signed last September, and Russian state company Rosatom is due to build two nuclear units supplying its grid.  

Orbán thinks rowing back on this strategic economic cooperation would be a flagrant betrayal of his electoral promise not to make Hungarians pay the price of the war — it was this promise that won him a landslide election victory in April. 

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

One of those lost regions was Transcarpathia, now part of Ukraine and still home to a large Hungarian community. And when Hungary first expressed opposition to the EU’s proposed oil sanctions, the head of Ukraine’s National Security Council implied Hungary had been eager to reappropriate Transcarpathia in the aftermath of an expected Russian victory. 

The statement raised eyebrows of course, but the political significance of Transcarpathia shouldn’t be underestimated. Possessing some of Hungary’s most precious cultural sites, it’s been a major stumbling block in Hungarian-Ukrainian relations for years.  

Orbán has previously portrayed Ukrainian laws limiting the use of minority languages in public life as discriminating against Hungarians in Transcarpathia, and speaking last week, he boasted: “Hungarians have put aside the way in which Ukrainians have treated us . . . we don’t need to discuss why they’ve taken away the possibility of education in Hungarians’ mother tongue, and why they’ve been abusing Hungarians simply because they’re Hungarians.”   

Hungary didn’t share its allies’ fear of Russia prior to the war, and now, it’s skeptical about their wholehearted enthusiasm for the Ukrainian cause. And as the Commission tries to persuade Orbán to change his tune, it’s handicapped by its own sour relations with Budapest. 

Brussels chose just 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 for withholding funds from Hungary. So it’s no surprise Orbán may now scoff at invocations of “solidarity” as the bloc scrambles to get him on side.  

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