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Mixed Messages Continue in Hungary-Ukraine Relations

Ukraine Crisis

Gábor Écsy, center, national director of Katolikus Karitász (Catholic Charities), presents gift packages to young people from Ukraine at the organization’s camp in Balatonakali (135 km southwest of Budapest, on the northern shore of Lake Balaton) on August 30. Around 4,000 children’s summer camps have been organized by Catholic Charities nationwide this year, with almost 10,000 students receiving school-year gift packs.

Photo by Tibor Katona / MTI

President Katalin Novák paid an official visit to Ukraine last month, celebrating Hungary’s national holiday with ethnic Hungarians there, visiting a center for children’s rights, and working with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky towards greater cooperation between Hungary and its beleaguered neighbor.

On the first public stop on her trip on August 22, Novák attended an ecumenical service marking Saint Stephen’s Day at a Catholic church in Berehove, just across the Hungarian border in Ukraine, where ethnic Hungarians make up roughly half the population. In her address to the congregation, the Hungarian president said it was good to celebrate with the Transcarpathian Hungarians despite all the difficulties and prayed for peace.

The next day, Novák went to Kyiv and met with the Ukrainian parliament’s commissioner for human rights, Dmytro Lubinets, at the Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights. Later, she visited a kindergarten and school being rebuilt with a contribution from the Hungarian government under the coordination of»Hungarian Interchurch Aid in nearby Zahaltsy.

Lubinets thanked Hungary for its aid and being among the first countries to shelter and provide for Ukrainian refugees. Their discussion also touched upon the issue of the educational and linguistic rights of the Transcarpathian Hungarian minority, during which Lubinets acknowledged that “everyone has to take care of the rights of their citizens.”

Cross-border cooperation and joint initiatives in the Transcarpathian region were the focal points of talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whom Novák met on August 24 as part of the third Crimea Platform Summit. In a statement issued on his website, Zelensky thanked Novák for her participation at the meeting, adding that Hungary’s “support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine is very important to [Ukraine].”

A New Chapter?

Following their meeting, President Novák detailed their talks in an interview with Index.hu published on August 28.

“We agreed to open a new chapter and take meaningful and concrete steps in the interest of the Hungarians in Transcarpathia,” Novák said. “The Ukrainian president said Ukraine is prepared to give the members of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine the same [rights] that the members of the Ukrainian minority get in Hungary. That’s not a bad starting point,” she added.

Yet, despite the apparent greater cooperation outlined at this meeting, lingering disagreements between the two countries persist. For instance, Hungary, along with Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Bulgaria, remains adamant about extending the European Union ban on imports of wheat, maize, rapeseed and sunflower seed from Ukraine to neighboring member states, which is set to expire on September 15.

“We support a ban on imports into our countries until the end of the year,” Polish Minister of Agriculture Robert Telus told a news conference on August 25. “I want to say that even if it [the EU ban] fails, some countries will introduce their own restrictions,” he added.

The following day, at the Tranzit festival in Tihany (130 km southwest of Budapest), Minister of Agriculture István Nagy said that Hungary would do just that, re-introducing a national ban on imports of several Ukrainian farm products if the current EU restrictions are not extended. He added that the ban would apply to a broader range of agricultural products, some 24 items included in the original Hungarian prohibition rolled out earlier in the spring.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of September 8, 2023.

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