Eight months ago, only a handful of experts dared to say it out loud, although everyone feared it, and yet, we are still in shock. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, after decades of peace, war has come back to Europe, and its shockwaves are felt all around the continent, from the frontlines near the Dnieper River, through the Alps, to the stone of Gibraltar.
Because of the Russian aggression, many countries are facing moral, economic, and diplomatic challenges. New alliances are created, and old griefs are forgotten, but in some cases, historical friendships become endangered. Such is the case with Hungary and Poland. The reason is that the two countries chose a contradictory approach to this crisis. While the Poles immediately condemned the Russian aggressor to have been proactively pushing for more and more actions since the first days of the war, Hungary chose a softer approach, although Prime Minister Orbán also condemned the actions of the invader. This created a seemingly unprecedented strain within the Hungarian-Polish relations, that raised the following question: will the two historical friends find a way to overcome this crisis?
A brief history of the Polish-Hungarian relations
Pole and Hungarian brothers be, good for fight and good for party, says the old proverb about the relationship between Poland and Hungary. And for a time, it could not be more right. The two countries share many similarities in culture, society, and most importantly, in tory. And there is so much more to it than our common rulers. Both of our countries were occupied and oppressed for many centuries by foreign powers, yet our nations have always managed to survive and rebuild. These stark trials of our histories formed a strong bond between the two states, which only got stronger after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Hungary and Poland, along with Czechoslovakia, were able to conduct successful negotiations so they could advocate together for the sake of the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Comecon. This cooperation was reflected as part of the predecessor of the Visegrad Group (Gazdag, 2021), an international cooperation between Poland, Hungary, newly-formed Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, to prepare these four Central European countries to join the institutions of the Euro-Atlantic cooperation.
But the common fate of these nations did not end there. The day after the Western enthusiasm dissolved surrounding the system changes, fears appeared that instead of the end of history, the conflicts of the 20th century between the countries of Central and Eastern Europe will rise again. There were also uncertainties concerning reunited Germany, namely that its size and its economic power could upset the balance of power in Europe. Because of these factors, the region had become geopolitically critical. This importance had only become bigger after the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. These were the main reasons that, on the eve of 1994, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary, which did not even border the Alliance, became candidates for NATO membership (Jeszenszky 2005).
Although after achieving the EU and NATO memberships, the momentum of the V4 slowed (Hamberger 2004), the Euro-Atlantic integration of the four countries has been achieved, and the cooperation between the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary continued. This was especially true during the migration crisis when all four countries of the V4 rejected both the idea of the mandatory distribution of migrants by quotas and the direction of the German Wilkommenskultur. At their meeting on September 5, the leaders of the V4 countries declared that they will not accept any long-term binding quota system (Gazdag 2021).
The Dissidents of the European Union
Despite the seemingly undivided alliance between the V4 countries, the Poland-Hungary tandem still managed to stand out somehow, especially after right-wing governments came to power in both countries, in Hungary in 2010 (Fidesz) and Poland in 2015 (Law and Justice, PiS). These governments received much criticism concerning two major accusations: the dissolution of the rule of law (Dirnóczi and Bien-Kacala 2019), authoritarianism (Freedomhouse 2020a), governmental control of the judiciary system (Freedomhouse 2020b), cesarean politics (Sata and Karolweski 2019). The anti-migrant stance was what particularly came under fire. The Advocate General of the Court of Justice of the European Union even said that the two countries broke the EU law by refusing asylum seekers during the crisis of 2015 (C-715/7, C-718/17, C719/17. Opinion of AG Sharpton, 2019). Some authors even theorized that the two countries defied so many EU rules that they would withdraw from the European Union (Hillion, 2020).
It did not help to ease the criticism when both Hungary and Poland started introducing laws that their respective governments justified with supporting families or protecting their Christian traditions. Many people, mostly representing the progressive political spectrum, referred to these laws as “misogynistic” or “homophobic”. They included tightening the abortion law in Poland and introducing the “anti-LGBT law”, officially called “Act LXXIX of 2021 on taking more severe action against pedophile offenders and amending certain Acts for the protection of children”, in Hungary. The latter was met with especially harsh criticism, with sixteen EU countries, excluding most of Eastern Europe, denouncing it.
Differing approach to the Eastern neighbors
No friendship could go without disagreements. The same goes for Polish-Hungarian relations too where there are currently two problematic questions, namely the relations towards Ukraine and Russia. Although solving this dilemma has not been easy from the start either, the Russian invasion did not make it more convenient either. So, what went wrong?
To understand why this question caused a near-complete breakdown of the friendship between Poland and Hungary one must examine again the histories of these countries.
First and foremost, it must be established that both countries suffered greatly because of the imperialistic ambitions of Russia, yet it should not go without mentioning that one of us is more than the other. Although the traumas of communist rule still live on in both nations, I as a Hungarian will probably never be able to understand the centuries-long Russian oppression that the Polish had to endure. A scar like that overwrites any kind of so-called Realpolitik and will never let the distrust dissolve towards the Russian foreign policy. Because of that, it is no surprise that after the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula the historical instincts turned on in Poland. And although the Ukrainian-Polish diplomatic relations were not without issues either, these issues had not proven to be deep enough to prevent Poland from becoming the second most significant arms supplier of Ukraine after the Russian invasion, with the value of the delivered weapons exceeding 1.6 billion USD (Szopa 2022).
The attitude of the Hungarian foreign policy has been so unambiguous neither towards Russia nor towards Ukraine since the beginning of the 21st century.
The source of the disputes with Ukraine is the status of the Hungarian minority living in Transcarpathia. A former part of the Kingdom of Hungary before the Treaty of Trianon, the settlements of this part of the Carpathians still host a significant amount of Hungarian-speaking population. Although they have never been ‘actively oppressed’, their minority rights were significantly curbed with the education law of 2017 and the language law of 2019. The former regulation made Ukrainian the obligatory language of instruction in state schools from the fifth grade on and the latter made the Ukrainian language mandatory in practically all spheres of public life, restricting the use of minority languages to the private sphere and religious ceremonies. Although neither of these laws was directed against the Hungarians living in Ukraine, they negatively affected them, which worsened the already cold relationship between Hungary and Ukraine. Indeed, after the introduction of the language law of 2017, that practically forced schools in Hungarian-majority areas of Transcarpathia to stop teaching in the Hungarian language, and Minister of Foreign Policy Péter Szijjártó announced that Hungary would block all further integration of Ukraine into NATO and the European Union.
Concerning Russia, the reason for Hungary’s policy is different from Poland’s lies in the field of pragmatism or Realpolitik. Firstly, the question of energy supply has always been cardinal in Hungary since this country, unlike Poland, has virtually no natural resources. To overcome this predicament, the most convenient solution was the Russian import. It simply was the closest and cheapest option. Because of that, Hungary became heavily reliant on Russian energy imports, with around 80% of natural gas and 60% of crude oil coming from Russia. This process started before 2010, but certainly did not end after the inauguration of the second Orbán administration in that year. After 2012, Orbán announced the policy of ‘Eastern Opening’ (Keleti Nyitás), the beginning of a new era in bilateral relations with Russia. According to Orbán, Russia was to play a special role in the recovery of the Hungarian economy in the energy sphere and as a destination for Hungarian exports. In December 2013, Hungary also signed a contract with Rosatom for the construction of two new blocks at the Paks nuclear power plant. These policies have already caused divergences among the members of the Visegrad cooperation at the time of their introduction (Marušiak 2015), which certainly did not cease after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and especially after the Russian invasion in 2022.
After the war in Ukraine
As mentioned in the introduction, although there was news about Russia’s imminent invasion of Ukraine at the beginning of 2022, there was no political analyst and no politician who would be prepared for such an escalation. And for a while, the skeptics seemed to have it right: at the dawn of the “original” date for the invasion, not one Russian soldier crossed the Ukrainian border. Then, at the dawn of 24 February, the citizens of Ukraine were awakened by the noise of gunfire and explosions.
The news of the invasion came as a shock to European leaders, even those who visited President Putin before the war. But after this geopolitical surprise, a seemingly unified Western reaction followed – a general condemnation of the Russian aggression. Then again, diplomatic problems started to escalate after this declaration.
The tone of Budapest and Warsaw concerning the war in Ukraine is different in practically all aspects (excluding hosting Ukrainian refugees as both countries admitted many of them). From the beginning of the war, the Polish government has been the staunchest and most solid supporter of every action aiming to destroy the Russian war machine, believing that otherwise, Putin’s imperial ambitions would not stop at the western borders of Ukraine. In contrast, the Hungarian government announced on the first days of the invasion that the country wanted no part of this war, declaring that it would not send weapons to Ukraine, nor would it allow such supplies to go through its borders. Later, Hungary became one of the, although only rhetorical, opponents of the economic sanctions against Russia, stating that they cause too much harm to the European Union.
The difference between the approach to the war of the two countries resulted a drift in their diplomatic relations. At first, there were only minor signs of this. For example, on March 15, no Polish representative showed up in Budapest at the event of Fidesz organized to celebrate the remembrance of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. In contrast, former Polish President Donald Tusk held a speech at the event of the Hungarian United Opposition on the same day. Not long after, Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling party (Law and Justice, PiS) in Poland commented on Prime Minister Orbán’s attitude towards the war that he was “not happy” about it.
Diplomatic relations hit the rock bottom in the summer of 2022. On 29 July, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that the paths of Hungary and Poland had diverged indeed. This came as a reaction to Prime Minister Orbán’s speech at the Bálványosi Festival, where he said that the war in Ukraine shocked Polish-Hungarian alliance, and that, while the goals of the two countries remain the same, the Hungarians view the Russian invasion as a war of two Slavic nations, so the Poles “feel that they are also fighting in it”.
What does the future bring?
The invasion started more than eight months ago. The dreams of Russia’s leaders of a quick victory and the total capitulation of Ukraine collapsed. Putin may be able to present the annexation of South-Eastern regions as a success, but the Ukrainian Army has gained many advances during the fall of 2022.
Meanwhile, the West seems to be more united than ever. Arms supplies are flowing into Ukraine, and the European Union keeps introducing more and more sanctions against the Russian economy, although with mixed results.
The relationship between Poland and Hungary seems to start becoming cordial again. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz. Morawiecki said in an interview that his with is for the V4 countries to start working together again. Concerning the issues with Hungary, Morawiecki said that he was going to work out a solution. Clearly naming the discrepancies and respecting the sensitivity of the Ukrainians, cooperating within the V4, and conducting joint activities with allow Polish-Hungarian relationships to come back to their previous condition.
The cooperation between Poland and Hungary have remained unbroken is one thing, namely the question of the EU funds. As mentioned before, Hungary and Poland received many criticisms because of some decisions that some consider authoritarian. Not every criticism is without weight, however, because one of the many critics is the European Commission, which threatens both countries with the freezing of the EU funds. The reason for this is that the European Commission believes that the Fidesz in Hungary and Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland have broken down the pillars of the rule of law, so they must not receive any money until they address this issue. In contrast, both governments state that this is unacceptable since Poland and Hungary are entitled to those funds. As EU countries not far from the war in Ukraine, Poland and Hungary could definitely use that money.
In conclusion, if any reconciliation between the two countries is possible, it will start on the grounds of European policymaking. Poland and Hungary have been loyal to each other in almost every aspect, and hopefully, this cooperation will not cease, despite all the strains that the relationship suffered during the war. After all, we are talking about a friendship that lasted for centuries and overcame obstacles that were bigger than that. Hopefully, we will overcome this intermezzo, too.
István Nagy – He is a fifth year law student at Pázmány Péter Catholic University and the member of the Mathias Corvinus Collegium Law and Society Research Center. Currently, he is conducting research at the Warsaw Institute on the legal and political connections between Hungary and Poland after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Previously, he attended the EPLO Migration Summer School of 2022 and the Instytut Felczaka Summer Academy of 2021.
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