Pro-Western Ukrainians question Orbán’s commitment

November 25, 2016

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Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (right) and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Groysman (left), projected an image of solidarity at a joint press conference in the Hungarian parliament yesterday. But the meetings and cooperation announcements surrounding the Ukrainian prime minister’s visit to Budapest may be misleading, masking both a degree of distrust and diverging political interests.

When it comes to Hungary’s commitment to neighbouring Ukraine, some Ukrainian observers are uneasy given Hungary’s ambivalence with regard to sanctions on Russia following the latter’s unlawful invasion and annexation of Crimea. Moreover, the Orbán government has friendly political and business ties with Moscow.

“Mostly in Ukraine people are concerned about Orbán’s position on sanctions for Russia. He is viewed as pro-Putin and there are risks that countries like Hungary may block their renewal,” said Orysia Lutsevych, who manages the Ukraine Forum in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, a London-based think-tank.

As Ukraine continues to attempt to implement reforms, and as its leaders lobby European officials for more progress on integration, democratic backsliding and Euroskepticism in Hungary are also making pro-Western Ukrainians uneasy.

“Statements on ‘illiberal democracy’ are causing concern among reformers and people who try to model Ukraine’s system of governance by the European standard,” Lutsevych explained.

Among Ukrainian decision-makers, meanwhile, there is a belief that some of the Hungarian government’s views and policies can be set aside as the two countries work on issues of mutual interest.

“Hungary gives Ukraine regular support,” Volodymyr Ariev, a deputy in Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (parliament) representing Petro Poroshenko Bloc, told The Budapest Beacon.

“Understanding a center-right party is ruling Hungary we try […] to avoid sensitive matters” which could cause tension, he added. “We would appreciate the Hungarian government’s support of territorial integrity of Ukraine and keeping sanctions against Russia.”

On the surface both Orbán and Groysman appeared highly satisfied with their countries’ cooperation. In fact, this was the leaders’ second meeting this fall.

Orbán in his speech highlighted Hungary’s support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and European integration. He announced support for infrastructure projects, as well as the removal of fees for Ukrainian visa applicants.

Hungary, which is facing a significant labor shortage, benefits from the inflow of Ukrainian job seekers. In October, for example, one Samsung plant in Hungary reportedly employed between 120 and 150 Ukrainians. As Budapest struggles to reverse its outward migration flow, Ukrainians fleeing war or looking for higher wages may help to offset a shortage of skilled labor in Hungary.

Ukraine, meanwhile, needs the support of countries within the EU for its goal of achieving a closer relationship with the bloc. It is also seeking for NATO and the EU to deter further Russian aggression in the region. As Groysman met with Orbán, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was at a summit with EU representatives pushing for more progress on integration.

Following the election of Donald Trump, Ukraine’s leaders are likely even more worried about the reliability of US support, making the country even more dependent on its European allies.

However, smiles, press conferences, and declarations of cooperation notwithstanding, concerns over the Fidesz government’s allegiances and interests mean Budapest is not likely to be high on Kyiv’s list of European allies.