Hungary Continues to Push for Peace and Sanctions Debate

Ukraine Crisis

State Secretary for National Policy János Árpád Potápi of the Prime Minister’s Office greets Transcarpathian students from war-torn Ukraine at the camp of the Rákóczi Alliance in Sátoraljaújhely (260 km northeast of Hungary, near the border with Slovakia) on January 26. Next to him is Csongor Csáky, president of the Rákóczi Association.

Photo by János Vajda / MTI.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán held a three-day strategic cabinet meeting in Sopron (210 km west of Budapest) earlier this week, between February 7 and 9, Bertalan Havasi, the PM’s press chief, told news portal Origo.hu on February 3. The prime minister called the meeting to discuss the war in Ukraine and its impact on the economy, along with European Union sanctions and, consequently, Hungary’s energy strategy, with a focus on countering inflation.

However, recent events in Türkiye unexpectedly rose to the top of the agenda after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake occurred there on February 6, near the country’s border with Syria, followed by a magnitude 7.5 aftershock. In addition to the collapse of some 6,000 buildings, according to Turkish officials, the death toll in Türkiye had reached roughly 11,700 at the time of going to print on February 8. One earthquake expert, Ovgun Ahmet Ercan, told The Economist he estimates that 180,000 people or more may be trapped under the rubble.

Both Hungarian President Katalin Novák and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán expressed their condolences to the families of the victims of the earthquake and pledged immediate assistance toward relief efforts on Monday.

“We are praying for the families of the victims,” Orbán said. “I have instructed the Hungarian authorities to provide immediate assistance to Türkiye.” After a team of 55 rescue workers, along with two rescue dogs, arrived in two buses, along with four trucks, in Hatay Province on Monday evening, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó said that Hungary would send more search and rescue teams.

Coincidentally, Türkiye and Hungary are the only two countries in NATO that have yet to approve membership for Sweden and Finland, who broke with their long-standing military nonalignment by applying to join last year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although the Hungarian parliament is expected to approve the bids in February, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signaled on January 29 that Ankara might accept just Finland into NATO.

While Erdoğan’s main contention with Sweden has been its refusal to extradite dozens of people with links to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Ankara recently suspended NATO accession talks with the two countries after a protest in Stockholm on January 21, during which a far-right politician burned a copy of the Quran. Sweden’s government should “act differently” if it hoped to receive Turkish support, Szijjártó remarked after talks with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on January 31, adding that the Quran-burning incident was “unacceptable.”

Squeezed between the three-day cabinet meeting and a two-day summit in Brussels scheduled for Thursday and Friday, Orbán found time to participate in a video conference with his counterparts from Belgium, Finland, Malta, and Poland, the president of Bulgaria, and European Council President Charles Michel on February 7.

Havasi told the state news agency MTI that the parties discussed the war in Ukraine, Europe’s economic difficulties, and illegal migration ahead of a summit in Brussels, Havasi said. Orbán reiterated his stand on working towards an immediate ceasefire and peace talks and pressed for a “meaningful” policy debate on the anti-Russia sanctions. He also repeated a call for Brussels to pick up some border defense costs, noting that “fences protect all of Europe.”

Meanwhile, Brussels has rejected overtures for support from grain growers in Hungary, alongside Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, as “millions of tonnes” of grain from Ukraine, priced around EUR 70 per tonne, undercuts the locally produced crops.

Although Hungary had supported the release of this grain for its intended destinations in North Africa and the Middle East, a “significant portion” is instead flooding European markets. Consequently, Hungary will subject Ukrainian grain bound for markets in Hungary to “strict checks” to ensure compliance “with all food safety regulations,” according to Minister of Agriculture István Nagy.

He added that Hungary would offer any assistance it could to see Ukrainian grain reach its “original destination.”

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of February 10, 2023.

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