Anti-Hungarian sentiments or the war of oligarchs?
When someone threw a gas can at the HQ of the Cultural Alliance of Hungarians in Sub-Carpathia (KMKSZ) in Uzhgorod, Zsolt Németh, the chairman of the Hungarian National Assembly’s foreign policy committee declared on the same day that “the reason for this situation is clearly the months-long, centrally-controlled anti-Hungarian campaign, in which Ukrainian media, including state-owned media, played a prominent role.”
The statement, as we will see, can be categorised as fake news spread by the state, but let’s see the events leading up to these words first. The KMKSZ HQ was attacked already on 4 February, causing minor financial damages. On 21-22 February, the Polish Internal Security Office (ABW) arrested three Polish citizens in relation to the attack (criminal proceedings against them are ongoing, they face 10-12 years in prison). The Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Zsolt Német, whose statement was in line with the narrative spread by the ministry, had to know this and that two of the Poles arrested on the 21st are members of the far-right Falanga organisation. At the very least, Zakkarpatia Oblast Governor Hennadiy Moskal was informed about this.
Moreover, Moskal said on 27 February that he believes Russian intelligence services had been behind the attack, and later it was revealed that the Poles – on 4 February – received instructions from a German journalist probably working for the FSB and the primary defendant was also in contact with the famously pro-Russian Mateusz Piskorski’s party.
Naturally, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó and Zsolt Német needed not to know about these facts, but they had to be aware of the Ukrainian suggestions. However, this was not in line with the government’s narrative claiming that anti-Hungarian voices have become extremely prevalent in Ukraine, and President Poroshenko, who is gearing up for the 2019 general election, knows no boundaries when it comes to inciting anti-Hungarian sentiments.
Hungarian propaganda completely ignores the fact that Ukraine is the victim of Russian hybrid war. This does not vindicate the Ukrainian elite from its political mistakes and errors, but it explains them and complicates the understanding of the Hungarian response, which completely disregards the fact that these measures are not the consequences of general Ukrainian ethno-chauvinism independent of Russian actions. Taking a look only at Zsolt Német’s statements, we find several problems: (1) Nothing proves the existence of a centrally-controlled anti-Hungarian campaign, (2) nothing proves that these efforts were led by the media and (3) the claim that it was even led by state media is simply fictitious. The statement do not only show how little Fidesz and the government knows about how Ukrainian politics work (how much it does not care about it) but also that it imagines it as a system similar to the Hungarian model, where it is very easy to organise a centralised media campaigns with ethnonationalist contents, led by state media (which is far removed from serving the benefit of the public).
The reason for this is that Ukrainian public media is basically non-existent. The audience of the Ukrainian Public Broadcaster’s channel one is below one percent. The decades-long practice is that the most watched commercial channels are owned by the largest dollar billionaire oligarchs and their clans – Ahmetov (Ukraina), Kolomojszkij (1+1), Pinchuk (ICTV), Dmitro Firtas, Ljovochkin, Horosovskyj (Inter) – and this did not change after the Euromaidan revolution either.
The border between oligarchs and the government is permeable in Ukraine. For instance, Valery Horoskhovskij has been deputy prime minister and the head of the SBU, while Ihor Kolomojskij was the governor of Dnipro until Poroshenko became convinced he was dangerous and replaced him. The oligarchs are not united on how the country’s relationship with Moscow should look like: Kolomojskij, who is financing Ukrainian forces from his not necessarily legal income, is the Kremlin’s target, while Ljovochkin is openly pro-Putin. The Ukrainian central administration and politics are the ones dependent on oligarchs, their cooperation and conflicts rather than vice versa. Actually, Poroshenko himself owns a TV channel (Channel 5), but this is not capable of influencing public opinion with its following of less than one percent of the nation’s audience.
A centrally-organised anti-Hungarian campaign is simply impossible to manage in Ukrainian media. Characteristically, a serious attack, such as claims that “Russia used Hungary for a separatist provocation in Ukraine,” was aired on ICT owned by ex-President Kuchma’s son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk, who is known for his pro-Western ideology.
Moreover, the issue of central control is problematic outside of the media as well. The secret video recording of the citizens’ oaths being taken in the consulate in Berehove and the publication of personal data of officials with Hungarian passports, which was self-admittedly done by the Myrotvorets organisation, seriously deteriorated Hungarian-Ukrainian relations. One so far unjustified rumour indicates that both were organised by a politician-businessman, Minister of Interior Arsen Avakov, who recently became a media owner as well. Avakov is the second most important man in the government and many are concerned about his unexpected political positioning. While Pinchuk seemed not to have favoured anyone in the presidential election, betting on several horses, Avakov was rumoured to have switched allegiance from Poroshenko to Timoshenko or Zeleniskij.
So, when Fidesz-affiliated MEP Andrea Bocskor talks about nationalist anti-minority Ukrainian politics, she simplified reality in two ways. First, she does not even mention that 17% of the “minorities making up 20% of the population” are Russians, the measures that affect the Hungarian minority are rooted – besides historical insensibility – in that it would be politically disadvantageous and legally impossible to explain why they would take rights away from Russians that the Hungarians are granted.
Additionally, the situation of the Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia is not explained by the “nationalist rhetoric excluding minorities” that is spread by the most popular presidential candidates, but it is affected just as well by the numerous games played by oligarchs. Thus, we have returned to the statement that Fidesz and the government does not know how Ukrainian politics work. Or do they even want to understand it? This is also a possibility, it is enough to think that the Hungarian deputy PM welcomed opposition MP Nestor Sufrich – as they used to say – “in the name of equal viewpoints,” who has little influence in Ukrainian politics now, but remains one of the main pro-Putin politicians and the right-hand man of Viktor Medvechuk, who has interests in Transcarpathia.
At this point, the cliché that “it is hard to be this naïve” would be an easy solution, but, in fact, it is not hard. From the perspective of governmental propaganda, it does not matter whether Hungarian narratives resonate with the Russian one due to ignorance or conviction, it is actually better for the Kremlin if other country’s politicians themselves cannot see further than grievance nationalism and they do not even have to be convinced. Especially if some forces in Ukraine create the perfect breeding ground for it.
János Széky is a journalist and translator, contributor to and editor of the Foreign Desk at the weekly Magazine „Élet és Irodalom” and the co-founder of Parameter.sk (Dunajská Streda).