Disputing with Orbán: why Ukraine’s arguments are challenged?

Disputing with Orbán: why Ukraine's arguments are challenged?

On 2 August 2018, the Foreign Ministry of Ukraine issued a comment on “anti-Ukrainian expressions of the Hungarian authorities”. This was another episode of the dispute between Kyiv and Budapest, that has been developed after the adoption of the new Ukraine’s law on education in September 2017. Despite all possible controversies, the actions of the Hungarian government are consistent with the long-term political goals of Viktor Orbán towards ethnic Hungarians in adjacent countries. Conversely, it is more important to focus on the position of Ukraine and its logic in countering Hungarian policies. Our expert Dr. Kiryl Kascian discusses why the strength of Ukraine’s arguments is limited in its dispute with Orbán’s Hungary.

In his speech in Tusnádfürdő / Băile Tuşnad on 28 June 2018, Orbán argued that the level of Russia’s actual threat for individual EU countries significantly varies. Poland and the Baltic States are constantly threatened, and their reaction is justified by their historical experiences and geographical location. On the contrary, he believes that Czechia, Hungary, Slovakia and Western European countries are not in jeopardy directly. Hence, Orbán called for a more “multi-faceted and adaptive” EU policy towards Russia, provided that Poland and the Baltic States receive “extra, heightened security guarantees” by the EU and NATO.

He further underlined that he didn’t see any NATO membership options for Ukraine, while the perspectives for its EU accession are nearly zero. Meanwhile, he stressed that “Russia sees itself as a country that is not safe unless it is surrounded by buffer zones”. Hence, in Orbán’s view, Ukraine became a victim of this policy. As for the current situation in Ukraine, he emphasized that the country’s economy is “increasingly drifting towards debt slavery”, which makes Russia’s “goal to tip Ukraine back to its former situation […] not unrealistic”.

A comment of Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry suggested that Orbán’s statements regarding Ukraine’s European integration and Euro-Atlantic aspirations were essentially inconsistent with the EU policies and significantly resembled “the approaches of the aggressor country” (i.e. Russia). Hungarian authorities were requested to provide official clarifications about the decision of the Government of Hungary to create the post of an authorized minister responsible for the development of Transcarpathia, and to establish a program for the development of kindergartens in the Carpathian Basin, as these cross-border measures apply to the sovereign territory of Ukraine. In terms of problems in bilateral relations with Hungary, the Ukrainian MFA classifies its own approach as “constructive”, while Hungary is criticized for choosing confrontation and direct intervention in Ukraine’s domestic affairs.

The response of Ukraine’s authorities can roughly be divided into three parts, i.e. Ukraine’s pro-European geopolitical choice, its bilateral relations with Hungary, and domestic minority policies.

Ukraine’s geopolitical choice and Euro-Atlantic integration

Debates on Ukraine’s political alliances after 2014 are linked with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilizing involvement in the Donbas war. This is primarily reflected in the comment of the Ukrainian MFA which compares Orbán’s rhetoric to that of the Kremlin. However, Orbán’s speech rather confirms the problematic nature of Ukraine’s geopolitical position in the context of Russia’s foreign policy, as he names Ukraine a victim of it.

On the one hand, the Ukrainian domestic legislation is quite clear in the formulations pertinent to the country’s foreign policy goals. Thus, the Law on the Foundations of Internal and Foreign Policy names gaining of the EU and NATO memberships among the main principles of the country’s foreign policy (Art. 11 part 2). Similarly, the newly adopted Law on National Security lists the membership of Ukraine in the EU and NATO among the fundamental national interests (Art. 3.3).

On the other hand, the entire legal framework of Ukraine’s relations with the EU and NATO provides a somewhat different picture. The Ukraine-EU Association Agreement “[doesn’t] prejudice and leaves open future developments in EU-Ukraine relations”. This does not imply any clearly guaranteed membership perspective for Ukraine. Instead, it “promote[s] gradual rapprochement between the Parties” and “increas[es] Ukraine’s association with EU policies and participation in programmes and agencies.” One may also refer to a number of political statements and resolutions which acknowledge the right of Ukraine to apply for the EU membership. For instance, the European Parliament resolution of 13 March 2014 on the invasion of Ukraine by Russia (2014/2627(RSP) suggests that Ukraine “has a European perspective and may apply to become a member of the Union, provided that it adheres to the principles of democracy, respects fundamental freedoms and human and minority rights, and ensures the rule of law”. However, there are significant qualitative differences between filing an EU membership application and eventual membership perspectives. In other words, the current stance of the EU towards Ukraine’s potential membership in the Union could be described as “neither yes, nor no.” Meanwhile, Ukraine remains a part of the Eastern Partnership track of the EU Neighbourhood Policy and strives to alter this framework “into a link towards EU enlargement policy”.

As for NATO, its officials acknowledge “Ukraine’s long-term goal to join the Alliance” and suggest Ukrainian authorities to focus on the progress of the reforms which bring the country closer to the NATO. The issue of territorial conflicts caused by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in the Donbas atrocities shouldn’t be underestimated in this context. In any case, despite NATO’s “open-door policy” this implies no clear NATO membership perspective for Ukraine in the mid-term period.

In terms of Ukraine’s current Euro-Atlantic perspectives, Orbán’s statement doesn’t bring anything new that hasn’t been discussed before. On the one hand, Ukraine has demonstrated various endeavors aimed at the rapprochement with the EU and NATO. On the other hand, none of the two organizations clearly indicated its readiness and timeframe to welcome Ukraine among its members.

Hungarian-Ukrainian bilateral relations

The adoption of the new Ukraine’s law on education in September 2017 marked a qualitative change in the bilateral relations between Kyiv and Budapest. As a result, Hungarian authorities started blocking the process of Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration. Despite various interpretations of the bilateral dispute, two key issues should be emphasized.

First, the Ukrainian authorities argue that Orbán’s statements are essentially inconsistent with the EU policies. With this regard, it is reasonable to refer to the results of the 20th EU-Ukraine Summit that took place in July 2018. In their Joint Statement Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Petro Poroshenko inter alia mentioned Ukraine’s law on education. They agreed to “fully implement the recommendations included in the opinion of the Venice Commission no. 902/2017, on the basis of a substantive dialogue with the representatives of persons belonging to national minorities, including legislation which extends the transition period until 2023”. Despite its importance, this Joint Statement is a political and not legally binding document. Referring to the EU-Russia relations, Orbán suggested that the “EU is unable to act selectively” while choosing a certain policy to pursue. This approach of the Hungarian Prime Minister can apply to his interpretation of the aforementioned Joint Statement. In other words, he can ignore this document as long as it is incompatible with his own political agenda. As for the opinion of the Venice Commission, it is non-binding by its legal nature. Moreover, its provisions were differently read in Kyiv and Budapest. Hence, references to these documents by the Ukrainian authorities will be insufficient to convince Hungarian leadership, who might view them as non-binding or misinterpreted by the other party.

Second, the treatment of Hungarian minorities is presumably the key criterion for Orbán’s regime in maintaining relations with Hungary’s immediate neighbors. There is a qualitative difference between EU members and other countries in this regard. In general, the current Hungarian authorities are very positive about the integration of the Hungarians of the Carpathian Basin within the EU framework. Yet, in late July 2018, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjártó expressed support to Serbia’s integration into the EU. He confirmed Hungary’s readiness to further proceed with the implementation of its economic development program in Vojvodina. According to Szijjártó, this program supported 23 major projects and 6,488 small businesses developed by ethnic Hungarians in this region of Serbia. All these endeavors altogether cost Hungarian budget HUF 22 billion (EUR 68.2 million). More importantly, Szijjártó emphasized that “Serbia’s minority policy could serve as a model for other neighboring countries aspiring to gain accession to the European Union”.

This message is directly applicable towards Ukraine, as it is the only country apart from Serbia with a significant autochthonous Hungarian minority without the EU (and NATO) membership. Since Ukraine is not a member of the EU or NATO, Ukraine’s rapprochement with these organizations also significantly relies on the relations with their individual members. This provides Hungarian leadership with additional opportunities to use minority card in pursuing its interests and affecting Ukraine’s relations with the EU and NATO. However, Orbán’s stance towards Ukraine neither makes him a Kremlin’s tool, nor a lobbyist of the Putin regime in Europe.

Ukraine’s domestic minority policies

Changes in Ukraine triggered by the Revolution of Dignity affected the country’s minority policies. The adoption of the Law on education in September 2017 produced a significant international resonance. Moreover, on 28 February 2018, the highly controversial Law on the Foundations of State Language Policy was proclaimed unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court of Ukraine.

Both these endeavors could be seen as Ukraine’s agenda to overcome the country’s Soviet past and a reaction to Russia’s aggression. Hence, both these legislative changes had the Russian language as their primary target. Yet, other minority languages were also affected by these changes. Moreover, the amendments lacked a comprehensive discussion with the relevant stakeholders and ignored specifics of some regions, including Transcarpathia. Its structural problems in the domain of education emerged as a result of the long-term lack of comprehensive state policies aimed at the inclusion of Ukraine’s Hungarian minority into the Ukrainian cultural and educational space.

Thus, Ukraine’s minority policies at the current stage face several challenges. First, long-term lack of the consequent policies in some areas populated by minorities requires new and comprehensive approaches in order to minimize their detrimental effects. Second, legitimate interests of the Ukrainian state to detach itself from the Soviet past and Russian influences, still have to take into account the specifics of the regions populated by minorities. Ukraine should not apply a one-size-fits-all approach in this regard. Third, the country needs to involve all relevant stakeholders in designing its minority-related policies. Fourth, minority factor should be more actively used in the decentralization processes in Ukraine. Transfer of real decision-making powers to local communities will not only encourage citizens’ participation but will also support the feeling of belonging to Ukraine’s society among the country’s minorities. Ukraine’s efforts to alleviate these challenges require a constructive dialogue with the relevant kin-states, including Hungary.

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