Leila Chkhetiani, Tbilisi State University
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to fundamental political shifts in the international system, including a rift in the long-standing cooperation between Poland and Hungary.
The friendship between the two countries has a solid historical basis. After being freed from a common Soviet yoke, both integrated into the European Union and NATO. In addition to their historical proximity, they are also political allies and converge around right-wing populist ideology. After the arrival of “Fidesz” in Hungary and “the Law and Justice Party” in Poland, a democratic setback began. Judicial independence and media freedom are severely suppressed in Poland, while in Hungary, along with high levels of corruption, the Rule of Law is weakened and minority rights are being violated, so much so that the term “Orbanization” is gradually becoming synonymous with authoritarianism.
The breakdown of the EU’s fundamental values in these countries poses a challenge to the Union, as “the Central European illiberal duo” continues to undermine democratic institutions while receiving EU financial assistance, calling into question the EU’s credibility. Besides the value factor, the alliance of Poland and Hungary has repeatedly brought upon the organization tangible challenges. For example, the “Europe Reconstruction Plan” developed during the Covid pandemic, which focused on the Rule of Law, was vetoed by the representatives of Hungary and Poland. One of the levers of the Rule of Law is Article VII of the Treaty on the European Union, which can deprive specific rights to a country, and only the full consent of the members can set it into motion. Hungary prevented this article from being enacted against Poland in 2017, and the following year, Poland saved Hungary in the same way. The agreed-upon mutual support between the states prevents the enactment of Article VII and encourages a syndrome of impunity in the Union.
Despite cooperating on many issues, the Allies have always differed in their relations with Russia. Poland has a particularly rigid attitude towards Russia, and it tried to draw Europe’s attention to the Kremlin well before the start of the war. Hungary, however, has always been loyal to Russia. In recent years, Hungary’s “policy of opening the East” has sought to deepen economic relations with non-Western countries, especially with Russia and China. Moreover, Prime Minister Victor Orban has been said to be inspired by Putin’s illiberal authoritarian rule.
During the war, Poland became an important supporter of Ukraine. Senior officials have visited Kiev several times and reaffirmed their support. In addition, the Polish side has supplied Ukraine with arms and is providing shelter to several million migrants. The Hungarian government, although it initially criticized Russian aggression, joined some of the sanctions imposed on it, and accepted thousands of Ukrainian migrants, has refused to provide military assistance to Ukraine or allow the transfer of weapons through its territory. Some confrontation between the states began a few years ago, with the Hungarian authorities accusing Ukraine of harassing the Hungarian minority living there. During the war, the state media compared Zelensky to Hitler, and Orban referred to Zelensky as his opponent after winning the election.
Before the war, Fidesz tried to maintain a middle ground between the EU and Russia, but with the war in Ukraine it became difficult to uphold such a position. Hungary does not want to entirely rupture ties with the EU, which is why it has joined sanctions against Russia, while at the same time refusing to help Ukraine. Against the background of the Western world unanimously condemning Russian aggression, the Hungarian policy is perceived not as a diplomatic maneuver, but as support for Russia.
Hungary is the only country in the European Union that has not refused to buy Russian gas in rubles, because in that case “the Hungarian people would have to bear the costs of the war.” Hungary is heavily dependent on Russian energy resources, with 80% of its imported gas coming from Russia. Energy dependence on the Kremlin has grown especially since Fidesz came to power: The Russian-funded Paks nuclear power plant and a renewed 15-year contract with Gazprom are cases in point.
Unlike Hungary, Poland is trying to improve its energy diversity. After Gazprom cut off natural gas supply to Poland due to the latter’s refusal to deliver payments in rubles, Poland began to look for alternative energy sources. Poland has also refused to buy Russian coal.
The difference on the Russian issue was clear even before the conflict, but during the war, the steps taken by Fidesz, and their pro-Russian statements, led to the alienation of Hungary from Poland. Top officials of the Polish government negatively assess the position of Hungary. The leader of the ruling party, Jaroslav Kaczynski, criticized the Hungarian government, saying that if Orban cannot see Russian crimes in Ukraine, he “needs an eye doctor.”
At the same time, the defense ministers of Poland and the Czech Republic refused to meet with the representatives of Hungary within the framework of the Visegrad Summit. According to Kaczynski, “if [Hungary’s pro-Russian policy] continues, we will not be able to cooperate as before,” yet, with Fidesz winning the parliamentary election by a landslide and Orban citing Zelensky as an opponent in his election speech, a change in the rhetoric towards Russia is unlikely.
As noted above, cooperation between the two countries has often hindered the implementation of liberal initiatives in the Union and encouraged a sense of impunity. Consequently, the latest rift between the duo has not gone unnoticed by the EU, and it can be said that the latter is using this development to its advantage.
Poland, which until now was the subject of criticism for the weakening of democracy, since the war began has become a strong figure in Europe. The EU is trying to bring Poland as close as possible, while distancing Hungary. The organization positively assesses Poland’s assistance to Ukraine and its role in European security. “We all respect what is happening in Poland,” said Elisa Ferreira, a member of the European Commission.
In addition to the rhetorical support, the European Commission has also promised financial assistance to Poland for shelter and food for migrants. At the same time, the EU is stepping up pressure on Hungary and pointing to its democratic problems. After Orban’s victory in the elections, von der Leyen announced that the European Union would cut off financial aid to Hungary due to the dire state of the Rule of Law there. While democratic disintegration is as noticeable in Poland as it is in Hungary, Poland’s principledness is forcing the EU to turn a blind eye to it, at least temporarily. At the same time, any form of punishment or criticism of Poland as an important supporter of Ukraine will negatively affect Ukraine’s victory in the conflict.
Prior to the war, the EU sought to halt the democratic setbacks of Hungary and Poland in a variety of ways, including with sharp criticism. Since fall 2021, an initiative has been voiced that these members will no longer be able to receive EU financial assistance without improvements to the Rule of Law. In response, Euroscepticism and the view that the EU is a bureaucratic elitist union that limits their sovereignty have sharpened among the ruling political elites of Hungary and Poland.
Nevertheless, today, Poland has become a leading actor not only in the European Union, but also in NATO, thus making the previous remarks and democratic backlash irrelevant. Where, until now, Poland was the target of criticism of other liberal democracies and was marginalized for its illiberal policies, after the beginning of the war, Poland became a major actor on the Eastern Front, strengthening Ukraine with its material and moral support. The US also recognized the transformation of Poland into an important player. Recently, Poland was visited by top US officials, including President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Secretary of State Blinken. According to president of the Washington-based think tank Polyakova, “Poland is an integral part of European security… We need Poland. It does not mean that everything is forgiven, but it is obvious where the priorities lie.”
Still, the Rule of Law and minority rights in Poland remain a challenge, and ultimately it is unlikely that the EU will turn a blind eye to such misconduct. It is possible that after the renewal of the critical tone, the Hungarian-Polish union will be re-established, especially since the cooperation between the two countries has not been hindered by the different strategies adopted in the past: Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany during the World War II, while Poland suffered a severe blow from Nazism.
At this stage, it can be said with certainty that the rift between Hungary and Poland gives the EU a chance to deal with the challenges the duo created.