Orbán’s Kyiv visit was more style than substance, analysts say

Viktor Orbán’s visit to Kyiv this week took everyone by surprise, given his repeated efforts to block EU aid to Ukraine. But people on the ground weren’t convinced that he had changed his spots – a caution that analysts say is warranted.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomes Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Kyiv on 2 July.

By Fredrik Fahlman

Fredrik Fahlman is a freelance journalist, focusing on defence and security politics in Eastern Europe.

04 Jul 2024

Mykola, a soldier in his 40s, is on Kyiv’s Maidan Square on Tuesday. He’s off duty and came to spend time with his son. He’s definitely not here to see Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who arrived for a surprise visit just a day after his government took over the presidency of the EU Council.

“To me, it does not matter that Orbán is here. European leaders need to make straight decisions about aid to Ukraine. A visit changes nothing,” he tells The Parliament.

For EU officials trying to negotiate aid to Ukraine, Orbán is frequently a source of frustration. He has routinely blocked EU aid to Kyiv, opposes Ukraine’s accession process to the Union, and maintains a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Orbán has called the war in Ukraine “unwinnable” for Kyiv. In October last year he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in China, where he reaffirmed the close ties between the two countries. In March, he was the only EU leader to congratulate Putin on his rigged election win.

Mykola, a soldier currently off duty, on Kyiv’s Maidan Square on Tuesday. 

In a joint press conference on Tuesday, Orbán urged his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy to consider hastening a ceasefire to end the war with Russia. Zelenskyy did not respond, instead highlighting the potential of a broad bilateral cooperation agreement with Hungary – something Orbán welcomed.

The different messages show that Orbán is far from aligning with other EU leaders and throwing his support behind Ukraine’s war effort and its ambition to join the bloc, said Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, a senior lecturer of European Studies at Lund University who focuses on Hungarian affairs.

“He wants to appear powerful and important, both in front of his colleagues in Brussels but also to his home audience,” she told The Parliament.

Orbán’s home front

The visit comes after a setback for Orbán in the EU elections: While far-right parties made significant gains across much of Europe, Hungary’s governing Fidesz received just over 45 percent of the vote, down seven points from the previous election in 2019.

Additionally, nearly 30 percent of the voters opted for former Fidesz member Péter Magyar and his newly formed anti-corruption party Tisza. Unlike his former ally, Magyar is broadly positive towards the EU and condemns Russia's war in Ukraine.

A central part of Hungary’s foreign policy revolves around its minorities abroad. After the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which drastically reduced the country's territory, a significant number of ethnic Hungarians were left outside its borders, leading to irredentist ideas – which persist today – about restoring a “Greater Hungary”.

Orbán has never expressed any territorial claims to other countries. But his stance on promoting Hungarian identity abroad has stirred up tensions, most notably in November 2022, when he wore a football scarf showing a map of “Greater Hungary”.

To me, it does not matter that Orbán is here. European leaders need to make straight decisions about aid to Ukraine. A visit changes nothing.

Hungary has repeatedly accused Ukraine of mistreating its diaspora. Ukraine argues that it treats ethnic Hungarians well, but rejects certain Hungarian demands such as guaranteeing the minority a permanent presence in parliament.

The Hungarian accusation is not without merit, said Dmytro Tuzhanskyi, director of the Ukrainian think tank Institute for Central European Strategy: “In Ukraine, there is still a post-Soviet and imperial perception of minorities as a source of threat and separatism, all of which was cultivated by the Soviet Union for decades,” he said.

Orbán is likely to have raised the issue in his private talks with Zelenskyy this week, he said – but that doesn’t mean a deal to unblock EU aid is imminent. Rather, Orbán is likely to be using the issue as a “bargaining chip”.

Tuzhanskyi said he was surprised by Orbán’s demeanour during the press conference. In place of the usual no-compromise attitude, he saw a Hungarian prime minister trying to be seen as friendly, constructive, and full of empathy, describing it as an attempt to brand a “new Orbán”.

Concretely, though, “there is absolutely nothing indicating a change of stance from Hungary’s side,” he told The Parliament. “It is important not to give in to him. In earlier negotiations, Ukraine agreed to every demand that Hungary put forward. Then suddenly eleven new demands appeared.”

Tuzhanskyi noted that while Orbán was meeting Zelenskyy on Tuesday, his foreign minister Péter Szijjártó was on the phone to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.

EU relations

Ukraine applied for EU membership immediately after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. The country was granted candidate status in June, Hungary has repeatedly applied the brakes, citing "insufficient progress made by Ukraine on national minorities.” It was only after assurances on this topic that Budapest lifted its veto.

A long road lies ahead, Tuzhanskyi said. Orbán is a “skilled politician” who will delay the process and extract concessions for as long as possible. “It is not only up to Brussels or Kyiv, but this needs to be a team effort. The key to limiting Orbán is to make him act predictably,” he said.

The EU could respond to Hungary’s demands by offering more support for Ukraine to develop its minority rights legislation, going beyond the criteria required under EU candidate status, he said. This could also involve building Ukrainian infrastructure, educating the public, and promoting the idea that national minorities and multiethnicity strengthen democracy.

Back in Kyiv, the war is ever-present. Yet another air raid alert rings out just hours after Orbán left the city. But Mykola, the soldier at the Maidan square, is used to them. As is his son.

The future is looking increasingly uncertain for Ukraine. With a new mobilisation law in effect, mounting casualty numbers and several Russian advances on the frontline, many in the capital are now facing the reality that the war may last for years to come.

Mykola points to a sea of flags behind him, each representing a fallen soldier in the war. “This is what matters to us,” he says. “And I do not think Orbán cares about it.”

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