Ukraine’s Troubled Relations with Hungary and Slovakia: What at the Core?

February 16, 2024
Ukraine’s neighbours Hungary and Slovakia have taken on an ambiguous attitude toward Ukraine. But what is at the heart of the “troubled neigbourhood”?
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Hungary has an ambiguous position on the Russian aggression against Ukraine, opting not to support Ukrainian integration into NATO and the EU, however, there are also problematic issues on the bilateral level to address.

Another neighbour of Ukraine, Slovakia, took a vague stance on Ukraine after Robert Fico's cabinet took office. The Slovakian Prime Minister's statements about Ukraine, as well as his stance on weapons supplies to Ukraine, represent a significant departure from the previous government's friendly policy.

So, how can the positions of Hungary and Slovakia towards Ukraine be explained? UkraineWorld asked Sergiy Gerasymchuk, Deputy Executive Director, Regional Initiatives and Neighborhood Program Director at the Foreign Policy Council "Ukrainian Prism".

Hungary

Problems in Hungary-Ukraine relations trace back to 2017, when Ukraine passed legislation requiring an increase in the number of subjects taught in Ukrainian for ethnic minorities in high schools. It was explained as the need for students to prepare for enrollment in Ukrainian universities.

Hungary claimed that the law violated the rights of Ukraine's Hungarian minority by limiting access to Hungarian-language education. This issue remains a major stumbling block in bilateral relations for Hungary, despite Ukraine's efforts to reach a compromise and align legislation with EU standards.

Ukraine has offered Hungary the formula it used to resolve its national minority language dispute with Romania.

It implies that Ukrainian laws on education, higher education, and the protection of the Ukrainian language as the state language are framework laws, while issues concerning ethnic minorities' languages can be regulated by governmental subprograms, government decisions, or Ministry of Education decisions.

Moreover, Ukraine has adopted the law on national minorities (communities) based on the Venice Commission's recommendations. The law provides the “Unity in Diversity” program, which will ensure institutional conditions for meeting the needs of national minorities and effectively exercising their rights and opportunities.

However, Hungary continues to press the issue of national minorities, issuing ultimatums and threatening to stymie Ukraine's NATO and EU integration processes.

The Hungarian government has demonstrated some pro-Russian tendencies. It promotes Russian narratives and encourages the improvement of relations with Russia.

Cooperation among states is growing. For example, Russian "Rosatom" fulfills the contract for the construction of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant.

The country's Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, is the only European leader who has maintained contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin since the start of the full-scale invasion.

Some of Hungary's actions to meet its demands undermine European unity in the face of Russia's threat.

Hungary, for example, withdrew financial support from Ukraine in exchange for the removal of the OTP bank from the sanctions list for its cooperation with Russia. After which, Orban requested guarantees for the bank's permanent exclusion from the sanctions list. Such actions benefit Russia.

Nevertheless, Hungary supports Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty. It also never hindered the signing of the Bucharest Nine Declaration, of which Hungary is a member.

Therefore, Hungarian leaders' positions are driven by a complex mix of domestic political interests and games with the EU to gain more benefits, despite violations of EU rule of law principles.

Hungary is attempting to bargain for additional aid from Brussels, including aid from the Cohesion and Recovery Funds, which are currently blocked for Hungary. And by trading the Ukrainian issue, Hungary hopes to unblock these funds.

Slovakia

The current Prime Minister of Slovakia's election campaign was partly based on anti-Ukrainian rhetoric. He promised not to give "a single bullet" to Ukraine, implying that Slovakia would suspend state-level weapons supplies.

Fico's ambiguous statements about the need for territorial compromises, his claims that Ukraine is completely under US control, and a denial that there is no war in Kyiv add little to the current state of relations between the two states.

However, regarding weapons supplies to Ukraine, several factors are worth one's attention.

First, even without Fico's determination not to provide weapons to Ukraine, the state's warehouses are nearly empty because the previous administration gave Ukraine almost everything it had. Thus, it would be difficult to maintain the level of such supplies.

Second, Ukraine has commercial contracts with Slovakian weapon producers. After the meeting with the Prime Minister of Ukraine, Fico stated that the government will not impede the implementation of these contracts.

Commercial cooperation involves at least four projects: 1) Zuzana 2 self-propelled howitzers; 2) ammunition from Slovakian ZVS Holding; 3) cooperation with the hub of the German defense company KMV for the repair of Ukrainian Armed Forces weapons; and 4) joint modernization of Ukrainian howitzers "Bohdana."

Slovakia will not refuse to deliver the "Bozena" demining systems to Ukraine because it is all humanitarian aid. The contracts are vital to the Slovakian economy. Furthermore, the commercial projects are funded by Western EU members.

Slovakia supports Ukraine's European integration but opposes its NATO membership. As Robert Fico claims, it would result in the outbreak of the Third World War, a ploy to sway his electorate.

Despite the high level of tension in Ukraine’s current relations with Hungary and Slovakia, Ukraine is seeking ways to build constructive, pragmatic dialogue with its neighbours.

The meeting between Ukrainian and Slovakian Prime Ministers on January 24, and between Ukrainian and Hungarian Foreign Ministers prove this point.

Sergiy Gerasymchuk, Deputy Executive Director, Regional Initiatives and Neighborhood Program Director at the Foreign Policy Council, "Ukrainian Prism"
INTERVIEWED BY ANASTASIIA HERASYMCHUK, DEPUTY EDITOR-IN-CHIEF AT UKRAINEWORLD

The World Through a Ukrainian Lens is a series of analytical materials that allows you to look at key international events with the eyes of Ukrainian experts. Experts express their own opinions, which do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial.