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Hungary’s relationship with Ukraine strained by prisoner exchange with Russia

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Hungary has gradually diverged from the EU’s foreign policy agenda when it comes to Ukraine, angering Kyiv and further straining their relationship.

Hungary has injected itself between Ukraine and Russia by seemingly facilitating the release of 11 Ukrainian prisoners of war. 

Captured by Moscow during its ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the POWs were transferred to Hungary earlier this month, with the help of the Russian Orthodox Church. 

They belong to Transcarpathia, a region in western Ukraine home to a large Hungarian community.

It remains unclear how the exchange took place, with some officials in Budapest completely denying any Hungarian government involvement. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said the “Hungarian state did not participate in the exchange.”

Three of them have already returned to Ukraine, while Kyiv has claimed they are unable to contact the remaining 8 POWs, accusing Hungary of blocking access. 

The European Union has demanded that authorities in Budapest clarify the circumstances of the exchange.

“We believe that Hungary did not consult with Ukraine, and that the case was handled in a way that was not agreed with them. However, this issue should have primarily belonged to Ukraine, since it is mostly about their citizens,” EU spokesperson Peter Stano said on Wednesday.

Unilateral diplomatic efforts between Hungary and Russia could be perceived as a means to undermine the collective effort by the EU to pressure Moscow into backing down from the invasion of its neighbour.

According to media reports, the POWs are Ukrainian citizens of Hungarian ethnic backgrounds from the Transcarpathian region of the country.

“There has been a cacophony of messages that have come out related to this incident, and it is hard to discern what is and what isn’t true,” Péter Krekó, the director of Political Capital Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Euronews.

“The Hungarian government has claimed they have no knowledge about this, that they weren’t even aware it was happening. But the deputy PM, Zsolt Semjén, the head of a Fidesz satellite party, boasted that he was involved in the process,” Krekó continued.

“Imagine if the whole secret service and the government are unaware of the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church and the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta were bringing over 11 POWs from Russia?” he exclaimed.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, awarded Semjén – who leads the Christian Democratic People’s Party, which is in a coalition with Orbán’s Fidesz – the Order of Glory and Honour Second Class in September of last year.

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s branch in Hungary, Metropolitan Hilarion, bestowed the order onto Semjén to “commemorate Semjén on his 60th birthday and recognise his assistance to the Diocese of Budapest-Hungary.”

‘Saviour of every Hungarian’

Ever since coming to power over a decade ago, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has fostered a romanticised idea of helping Hungarians that live in Europe outside the country’s borders.

Ethnic Hungarians are found in countries that were once part of the Kingdom of Hungary, including Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, and Ukraine. 

The Treaty of Trianon, which was drafted during the Paris Peace Conference after World War I, foresaw the independence of these countries and shrank Hungary’s borders to what they are today.

Hungarian national historiography presents Trianon as a deeply traumatic event. It is seen as an attempt by European powers to strip the kingdom of its once greater influence on the continent.

To this day, the feast of King Stephen I is commemorated on 20 August each year to mark the day the now-abolished kingdom was founded at the end of the 10th century.

Orbán and others in the country have latched on to the emotionally-laden legacy to significantly expand the country’s involvement with Hungarians abroad and capitalise on their involvement politically.

“It is part of Orbán’s foreign policy to send a message that Hungary is the most important caretaker of ethnic Hungarians abroad. He’s definitely playing the ethnic card, which benefits him in the elections,” said Krekó.

Hungarians living in neighbouring countries can apply for citizenship and vote in the elections despite not having a residency there.

This is why “bringing home” ethnic Hungarians captured by Russia is likely to resonate positively with Hungarians at home and abroad.

“Given that the government is aware of the popularity of every measure it makes, it’s hard to assume that it would not be popular. They like appearing like the people who can outsmart everyone, who miraculously brought these POWs from Russia without Ukraine even being aware of it,” continued Krekó.

Inter-religious dialogue instead of traditional diplomacy

One thing that is certain is that Hungarian Deputy PM Semjén was part of facilitating the exchange – according to his own words.

“The deputy PM boasted it was his personal move to bring these prisoners of war to Hungary,” said Krekó.

The Russian Orthodox Diocese in Budapest has received funds from the Hungarian government in the past years, including to build churches.

“Publicly, the argument is that the reason they are so involved with the Russian Orthodox Church is because they want to promote peace through interreligious dialogue,” he explained.

Orbán boycotted a set of EU sanctions presented in May 2022 because they featured Patriarch Kirill and demanded he should be removed from the list, citing protections for “religious freedom”.

Kirill has been a vocal supporter of the invasion of Ukraine and has publicly thrown its weight behind Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian Orthodox Church is the oldest operating institution in the country, predating the various iterations of the Russian state. It has a significant influence on believers in the former Soviet Union. They have also not shied away from political influence in several countries, including Ukraine.

During a recent visit by Pope Francis to Budapest, he also met with Metropolitan Hilarion. The Vatican recently launched an initiative to end the war in Ukraine and foster dialogue through its global religious connections, which is in line with the stance of the Hungarian government.

“In the meantime, the relationship between the Hungarian Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church continues to remain invisible and not transparent,” said Krekó.

Hungary and Ukraine remain estranged

While at the very beginning of the invasion, Hungary joined the EU-wide condemnation of Russia’s aggression on Ukraine, it has since resisted blockades of Russian oil and gas and agreed to pay for gas in Russian roubles.

After the parliamentary elections in April of last year, Orbán said that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was one of the “opponents” he had to overcome in order to win.

Documents leaked by a US Air National Guardsman on the Discord chat platform earlier this year allege that Zelenskyy considered bombing the Druzhba pipeline, which also runs through Hungary, in order to starve Orbán of access to Russian oil.

The incident with the POWs is only the latest in the slowly deteriorating relationship.

“I think it’s a provocation for the Ukrainian side. The bilateral relations are at a pretty low level, and I think it’s due to the Hungarian government and its behaviour towards Ukraine and Russia,” explained Krekó.

Ukraine is perceived by the Hungarian government to have joined the international chorus of critics of Orbán’s political and rule-of-law measures, which could be another reason why Budapest did not negotiate the prisoner exchange with them.

“The European Commission, Western allies and Ukraine – which enjoys huge international solidarity – are all criticising Hungary,” Krekó said.

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