On March 15, the prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia, Mateusz Morawiecki, Petr Fiala and Janez Jansa, together with the leader of the ultra-conservative Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, traveled to kyiv by train in the midst of an escalation war to demonstrate its solidarity with Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. Meanwhile, the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, claimed in Budapest, in the central act of his electoral campaign, that his country should stay out of the war to protect its interests and did not once mention his ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The image reflects the crack that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has opened in the Polish-Hungarian axis after years of making pineapple with Brussels in a fight on account of the rule of law and judicial independence. United by their authoritarian and illiberal drift and by a nationalist discourse in defense of traditional values, the two countries have open files based on Article 7 of the EU Treaty, which allows the right to vote to be suspended to the country that violates the values fundamentals of the Union.
“Poland? The best country in Europe”, Orbán said last October at the EU summit about the possibility that his partner would be sanctioned for the controversial decision of its Constitutional Court, which placed the country on the verge of legal rupture with the EU. Half a year later, while Warsaw champions the hard line against Moscow and enhances its international status for its role in welcoming Ukrainian refugees, Budapest has been left alone in the EU due to its lukewarm position in the face of the war in Ukraine.
The most visible sign of the divorce (or temporary separation) has been the decision of Poland and the Czech Republic to cancel their participation in a Visegrad Group meeting of defense ministers in Budapest – a forum also called V4 in which these three countries and Slovakia cooperate within the framework of the European Union—. The Polish Defense Minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, resigned to attend due to “Orbán’s pro-Putin attitude”, according to a Polish government source quoted by the newspaper Rzeczpospolita. The first to announce her absence, the Czech oil minister, Jana Cernochova, was harsher on Twitter: “I have always supported the V4 and I am very sorry that cheap Russian oil is more important to Hungarian politicians than Ukrainian blood” . At the meeting, which until its cancellation was scheduled for this Wednesday and Thursday, Budapest’s position in the face of the Russian invasion was to be addressed.
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Hungary has also preferred the ultra-conservative Polish organization Ordo Iuris to lead a mission of observers for the elections held this Sunday, the closest since Orbán came to power for the second time in 2010. Zoltan Kovács, Secretary of State for Communication and Relations International, tweeted last Sunday that the reason is the “growing concern about the impartiality” of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which will also observe the cleanliness of the elections on Sunday. Poland and his foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau currently holds the presidency of this body.
The distancing from Poland, the sixth largest European economy, may weaken Budapest’s position in Brussels, but Kovács does not fear any kind of isolation: “The Hungarian national position can never be isolated, because we do not act according to the expectations of others, but according to to those of Hungarian citizens. The bet seems to work: Orbán has not been affected by his ties to Moscow, and he arrives at Sunday’s elections with a slight advantage over the united list of the opposition, a difference similar to the one that the polls had been reflecting for a year and a half. .
Orbán has condemned the Russian aggression and has joined the first rounds of European sanctions, but has put Russian gas and oil imports as a red line due to its high energy dependence (65% of oil and 85% of gas in Hungary). come from Russia). The ultra-conservative government in Budapest also approved the strengthening of NATO’s military presence in the west of the country, but refused to send weapons to Ukraine or that shipments from other countries cross its territory. Everything, says the leader of Fidesz, to preserve peace and security, and keep energy prices at bay.
Contrary to Orbán’s position, Poland not only sends weapons to Ukraine, but also serves as a platform for the transport of equipment sent by other states. It also depends on Russian energy, but it is willing to look for alternatives to cut those ties. He wants to stop importing coal from Russia as early as next May and oil before the end of the year, Prime Minister Morawiecki announced on Wednesday. And where the Hungarian government comes forward and says, although no one has asked it, that it will not send soldiers, the Pole proposes sending a NATO peacekeeping mission to Ukraine, a country to which both Hungary and Poland are neighbors.
“If you ask me if I am happy, I will say no, but I will wait for the elections. We will see later,” said the Polish PiS leader, Kaczynski, when asked on Polish public radio about Orbán’s position on the war in Ukraine. The country’s president, Andrzej Duda, stated last Saturday on television that he found it “difficult to understand” Budapest’s position in the face of “the death of thousands of people”, although he clarified that the Hungarian prime minister is in a “situation difficult” for being “almost totally dependent on Russia”. Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz directly described Hungary’s position as “wrong” guided by electoral “short-termism”.
“With all due respect, we accept the opinion of others, but on issues such as energy, weapons and soldiers, we cannot compromise, because it would go against the national interest of Hungary,” Kovács replied to this newspaper last Monday about the statements. of Kaczynski and Duda. “We understand the Polish position and they should understand the Hungarian one,” added the international spokesman for the Orbán government, who stressed that the position of the States against the war in Ukraine “is not a matter of emotions, but of national interests and national perspective. “There are a lot of emotions out there and very strong words, but decisions must be made with a cool head,” he said, showing his confidence in the strength of a relationship between the two countries that has centuries of common history. “It’s clear that, even before, we don’t always agree on everything, and it’s not a problem,” he concluded.
The point is that the disagreements and the different historical experiences that existed in Warsaw and Budapest on Russia have taken on a completely different dimension with the war in Ukraine. “There has always been a different approach, but it didn’t matter that much,” Aleks Szczerbiak, a professor of political science at the University of Sussex and a specialist in contemporary Polish politics, says by phone. “Now, the war has overshadowed everything else. In the short term, everything is seen through that prism. In the long term, when the fighting ends, I see it very likely that this alliance will reemerge, because the sources of disagreement with the mainstream liberal in the EU have not disappeared. They have simply ceased to be the priority,” she adds.
A few months ago it would have been unthinkable for the President of the United States, Joe Biden, to choose the Royal Castle in Warsaw to launch a speech as important as the one last Saturday. Biden had in the past criticized the ultra-nationalist Polish government, which was betting on the re-election of Donald Trump in 2020 and took weeks to recognize the victory of the Democratic candidate.
The question now is whether Warsaw will return to its old ways when the guns fall silent or will choose to take advantage of the political capital it has gained in this crisis to loosen ballast with Hungary and improve its relations with the rest of the EU. In the words of Szczerbiak, it remains to be seen if the war will “reformat [las alianzas] or is it just temporarily rearranging them.”
István Kiss, director of the Danube Institute, a think tank financed by the Hungarian government, rules out that the historical relationship between Poland and Hungary may be at a breaking point and considers that the comments made by the leaders in Warsaw “are aimed above all at the Polish population.