“They want to return to their historic homeland”: when Putin talks about the “rights” of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine

“I never spoke about it to Viktor Orban,” declared the Russian president during the interview he gave to Tucker Carlson to whom he recounted a “road trip” he had taken in his youth in Transcarpathia, in western Ukraine.

Faced with Vladimir Putin who had asked him in the preamble if he had indeed had a background in history, the face of Tucker Carlson, former star of Fox News, expressed several times. But how, then, can we stop the Russian president, launching into a long chronological dissertation on the history of (and view of) Russia, from the adventures of Prince Rurik in 862 until his coming to power at the end of the year? 1999? had promised a “little preview” of “30 seconds or one minute”. He lasted a total of 46 minutes – out of two hours of interview – interrupted without success by the American conservative presenter who came to Moscow for an interview broadcast Thursday evening.

In the flood of dates, names of tsars, cities and regions listed by the Russian president, the word “Hungary” resonated several times in the mouth of the leader transformed for the occasion into the official historian of Great Russia. And also the name of its ally in Europe, which has been holding back since the start of the war to prevent EU member states from further supporting kyiv.

“They were Hungarians and felt Hungarian”

Vladimir Putin wanted to tell a “personal story”that of a “road trip” which he did in his youth throughout the Soviet Union. “Somewhere in the early 80s I took a car from Leningrad (St. Petersburg); I stopped in kyiv, then went to Western Ukraine. I entered the town of Beregovo, and there all the names of towns and villages were in Russian and in a language that was incomprehensible to me – in Hungarian. Not in Ukrainian”, says the man who was an intelligence agent within the KGB at the time. And to continue: “Men in three-piece suits and black top hats sat near the houses. Were they some kind of artists? No, they were Hungarians. What were they doing here? Well, this was their land, they lived here. They retained the Hungarian language, names and all national costumes. They were Hungarians and felt Hungarians”.

The anecdote is of course loaded with political meaning. Vladimir Putin then exchanges his traveler’s hat to take up that of a historian: “After the Second World War, Ukraine received part not only of the Polish territories (…) but also part of the territories taken from Romania and Hungary”. “We have every reason to say that Ukraine is an artificial state created by the will of Stalin», asserts the Russian president. And Tucker Carlson reacted: “Do you think Hungary and other nations have the right to take back these lands?”. Below “the Stalinist regime, everyone says that there were many violations of the rights of other states. In this sense, of course, it is entirely possible, if not to say that they have the right to ask for the restitution of their land. In any case, it’s understandable…”says Vladimir Putin.

The conversation then becomes much more directly political. “Did you tell Viktor Orban that he could get back part of Ukraine’s land?”, asks the American journalist. Vladimir Putin smiles broadly, while responding: “I never said it. Never, not once. He and I haven’t even had a conversation about it. But I know for sure that the Hungarians living (in Ukraine) of course want to return to their historic homeland”.

The Russian president was of course not going to say the opposite; it would have put its most precious asset at risk in the heart of a Central Europe that the scars of history naturally (but not systematically) push towards distrust of Moscow. Already, on the occasion of the Hungarian Prime Minister’s visit to Moscow at the beginning of February, the former Slovak Economy Minister Karel Hirman accused Orban and Putin of having “united in a common strategic goal: to move the borders of their countries with their neighbors in ways that eliminate the losses they suffered after the tumultuous events of the 20th century”. The subject is sensitive in , where the liberal camp lost the last legislative elections: even if it did not directly oppose European aid to Ukraine, Robert Fico, the new prime minister since last October, is he also accused of having Russian sympathies.

“Greater Hungary” and “Greater Romania”

Vladimir Putin therefore instills doubt, not only by proclaiming the non-existence of the Ukrainian nation-state – a classic story for many Russians who only see Ukraine as the march of their former empire – but also by blowing a tune nationalist between the interstices of the borders of Mitteleuropa, shaken by centuries of history. In the far west of Ukraine, there have always been – and still are – Hungarian minorities in the region of Transcarpathia and Romanian minorities in that of Bukovina.

But, contrary to what the Russian president suggests, who does not by chance mention the town of Berehove, a sort of Hungarian “capital” of this multicultural oblast, Ukrainians – in the ethnic sense – represent an overwhelming majority of the population. At the beginning of 2000, Hungarians accounted for 12% of the 1.3 million inhabitants of Transcarpathia. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, they weighed less than a third in this region, mainly inhabited by Slavic populations, notably “ruthenes”who lived for a long time as a minority within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The fact remains: Vladimir Putin’s speech fuels a Hungarian (and also Romanian) nationalism which regularly awakens on the western border of Ukraine. In 2022, Viktor Orban appeared with a scarf representing the “Greater Hungary” – as it existed before the Treaty of Trianon of 1920 -, arousing the anger of kyiv, which demanded, without receiving, an official apology from Budapest. Since well before the war, Hungary has had a generous visa policy in this Ukrainian region, so that Magyars can obtain dual nationality (although not recognized by kyiv). The movement has accelerated since February 24, 2022, with many seeking to flee to Hungary to escape the mobilization.

In the South-East, the idea of “greater Romania” also always has some emulators. , nationalist candidate in the presidential election to be held at the end of the year, comes in third position in the polls: she bluntly displays her pro-Russian positions and her wish to extend the Romanian borders to the Ukrainian regions of Bukovina and Bessarabia. “Diana Sosoaca is one of those who play Russia as a winner”recently summarized Figaro researcher Florent Parmentier, secretary-general of CEVIPOF. Faced with Tucker Carlson, Trump’s supporter, Vladimir Putin played this card of territorial division of Europe, for which Ukraine would pay the price. In recent months, the former Russian president with his maximalist positions on the war has also often called for Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania to share western Ukraine. In this scenario of dislocation, Russia would of course recover the vast majority of the country, and not just east of the Dnieper. To understand it, it was enough to listen to the long history lesson given by Vladimir Putin: it fiercely resembled the admittedly academic recitation of the unacknowledged war objectives of the“special military operation”this war which does not speak its name.

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