The Future of Hungarian-Polish Relations
Although many foreign observers predominantly associate Hungary-Poland relations with the nations’ stark and complementary opposition to Brussels’ far-reaching incursions into member states’ internal affairs, the truth is that the two countries that joined the European Union in 2004 share a much longer history of amity.
Political and cultural ties between Hungary and Poland date back to the first millennium, when both nations adopted Christianity at around the same time. The founding dynasties of the Árpád House and the Piasts began a centuries-long history of cordial connections spanning personal unions and military alliances.
The first time one king ruled jointly over Poland and Hungary was in the 14th century under Louis the Great. His daughter, Jadwiga, became the first queen of Poland and began a new dynasty after marrying Władysław II Jagiełło.
In the same century, both nations fought shoulder to shoulder against the Tatars and the Teutonic Knights, in a sense giving birth to the modern-day European Quartet (“V4”) when they twice met at the Congress of Visegrád in 1335 and 1339.
The second time Poland and Hungary shared a ruler was in the 15th century during the reign of king Władysław III of Varna. The next was in the 16th century, when Stephen Báthory ruled over Poland and Transylvania. Under his watch military, economic and cultural ties flourished.
Hungarian-Polish relations reached new heights in the 19th century during the Spring of Nations. After an unsuccessful rebellion against Russia in 1830, General Józef Bem joined the Magyars in their fight against the Habsburgs during the 1848 Hungarian Uprising and became famous for his heroic leadership on the battlefield. His heroism serves as the core of the two countries’ mutual friendship, as it symbolizes their common desire for freedom. Today, a statue dedicated to “Grandpa Bem” (“Bem Apó”) stands in Budapest, right across the Danube river vis-à-vis the majestic building of the Hungarian Parliament.
The following century further cemented ties between the two nations, as Hungary was the only country willing to help Poles during their fight with the Red Army in 1920, offering arms and ammunition and ultimately receiving over one hundred thousand refugees after Poland’s collapse in 1939. When the 1956 Revolution broke out, the Polish side expressed solidarity with the Hungarians by donating blood, munitions, and supplies to return the favor.
It’s worth noting that the nations’ friendship withstood Hungary’s alliance with Hitler, since Hungary refused to allow German Nazis to attack Poland from its soil and didn’t cooperate against its centuries-old friend.
“We are not willing to take part either directly or indirectly in armed action against Poland. By ‘indirectly’ I mean here that we will reject any demand which would lead to the possibility of German troops being transported on foot, by motor vehicles or by rail through Hungarian territory for an attack against Poland,” wrote the Hungarian foreign minister at the time.
To mark “the many centuries of common history, friendship and co-operation between
the two peoples,” the parliaments of both countries in 2007 declared March 23 as the Day of the Polish and Hungarian Friendship.
This year, the celebrations were supposed to take place on March 18 and 19 in Bochnia, Poland. However, they were postponed due to President Andrzej Duda’s unwillingness to be seen in public with his Hungarian counterpart János Áder, as Azonnali.hu reported, citing diplomatic sources. Instead, the two politicians met online, while Polish Sejm was illuminated with the Hungarian national colors, and the Polish flag was displayed on the facade of the Hungarian Parliament.
So what is the reason behind this sudden cooling of relations between the two countries?
It’s no secret that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has known President Vladimir Putin for 13 years, and, as Orbán himself said, “we two have the longest memories regarding relations between the E.U. and Russia.”
The Hungarian leader was able to keep his country’s economy resilient during the pandemic by increasing bilateral trade with Russia 30 percent last year. He also secured two long-term contracts with Gazprom in September providing for the delivery of 4.5 billion cubic meters of gas at a price five times cheaper than the market price in Europe. These 15-year agreements provide gas via the Balkan Stream pipeline and pipelines in South-Eastern Europe, and there is a chance Hungary could increase its supply by 1 billion cubic meters after Orbán requested as much during his meeting with Putin earlier this year.
Europe’s energy crisis predates the Russian intervention in Ukraine. And as Jason Bardoff explained in February in Foreign Policy, Putin can’t be blamed for the continent’s own policies. It’s therefore understandable that Orbán wants to stick to the concept of “rezsicsökkentés” (introduced by Fidesz in 2013 and the key pillar of its popularity), which seeks to keep household utility costs relatively low—especially given the fact that “85 per cent of Hungarian households are heated with gas, and 64 per cent of crude oil imports come from Russia.”
On top of that, to secure Hungary’s energy future, the country has engaged Rusatom Corp. to modernize its only nuclear power plant, Paks, in a project worth 12.5 billion euros ($14 billion).
When it comes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Orbán’s message was clear from day one: “We must do everything we can to avoid war. Hungary must stay out of this conflict, this military conflict, because Hungary’s security is the most important interest.”
Ever since that time, he has proved to be incredibly persistent and managed to maintain a “strategic calmness”.
Orbán has laid out his geopolitical assessment of the situation in a comprehensive interview with the political weekly Mandiner:
How did the war come about? We’re caught in the crossfire between major geopolitical players: NATO has been expanding eastwards, and Russia has become less and less comfortable with that. The Russians made two demands: that Ukraine declare its neutrality, and that NATO would not admit Ukraine. These security guarantees weren’t given to the Russians, so they decided to take them by force of arms. This is the geopolitical significance of this war.
During the same conversation, asked about the possible impact of the Russian-Ukraine war on the Visegrád Group, the prime minister added that the main difference of visions remains between Hungary and Poland:
The Poles want to push the border of the Western world up to the border of the Russian world. They feel safe if this is achieved and NATO—including Poland—can deploy sufficient forces on the western side of this border. This is why they vigorously support Ukraine’s membership of NATO. But the essence of Hungarian tactical thinking is that the area between Russia and Hungary should be of adequate width and depth. Today this area is called Ukraine.
While Victor Orbán was busy rallying his supporters three weeks before the recent parliamentary elections and giving the speech on the 174th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence of 1848-49, asserting that the country’s “interest is to avoid being a pawn sacrificed in someone else’s war” and reiterated his government’s decision not to allow transit of lethal weapons to Ukraine via Hungary (something that has been expressed in a decree signed by Orbán at the beginning of March), former prime minister of Poland and president of the European Council Donald Tusk was agitating against his reelection at the parallel rally in Budapest organized by the opposition.
As much as Tusk’s open meddling in Hungary’s political processes is detestable (and in part driven by domestic politics in Poland), more disappointing is the behavior of Law and Justice party politicians. They were not only unable to show empathy to Orbán’s stance but tried to undermine his authority before this crucial election.
Notably, right after Victor Orbán rebuffed President Volodymyr Zelensky’s emotional blackmail to cross his “red lines” during a speech at the European Council on March 25, President Duda decided to join the chorus of condemnation and lashed out at Hungary for refusing to support Ukraine as Poland was and warned that “This policy will be…very costly.”
After those remarks, Hungary was forced to cancel a meeting of the Visegrad Group’s defense ministers, which was to take place in Budapest on March 29, due to Poland and Czechia’s boycott. That boycott could have been inspired by Joe Biden’s recent visit to Warsaw, as former Polish Ambassador to the US Ryszard Schnepf suggested.
“We have a problem with a common view on a very important matter, and this worries us all very, very much,” Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Łukasz Jasina said of the Polish decision to not attend the summit. “We very strongly emphasize our stance toward Ukraine. Unfortunately Prime Minister Orbán and Hungarian politicians emphasize theirs.”
Thankfully, despite many setbacks, Orbán managed to secure a historic victory by remaining in line with the E.U. majority regarding the scale of current sanctions and the official NATO response to Russia’s aggression. Most importantly, Orbán stayed true to his ideals, and put his country’s national interest above others—proving that “Hungary is first!” isn’t just an empty slogan.
As for Hungary’s future relations with Poland, to paraphrase the old saying, this remains an open question, as for now, they neither wish to battle nor to celebrate together.
Adriel Kasonta is a London-based political risk consultant and lawyer. He is former chairman of the International Affairs Committee at the oldest conservative think tank in the UK, Bow Group, and an editorial board member at the peer-reviewed Central European Journal of International and Security Studies in Prague. His work has been published in Forbes, National Review, The National Interest, The American Conservative, and Antiwar.com, to name a few. You can follow him on Twitter @Adriel_Kasonta.
Editor’s note: This post has been updated.