Why Orbán came to Kyiv and what he agreed on with Zelenskyy

Wednesday, 3 July 2024 — , European Pravda
PHOTO: Orban's press service

The relationship between Ukraine and Hungary, which has been in a state of crisis for so long, now has a chance of fundamental change. Long-standing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has refused to visit Ukraine for almost 10 consecutive years, has finally changed his mind and come to Kyiv.

But it’s not just the visit itself which is significant, but also the sudden and radical change in the tone of Orbán's public statements regarding Ukraine. The Hungarian leader has even slightly adjusted his statements regarding the Russian war to please Ukraine.

The ultimate goal of the negotiations, which have been publicly backed by both Orbán and Zelenskyy in Kyiv, is to conclude a comprehensive bilateral agreement between Hungary and Ukraine that would address the bilateral issues that have piled up. Although no specific agreements have been reached yet, a creative idea emerged at the meeting in Kyiv on how to frame Ukrainian concessions in a way that would make them acceptable to Ukrainian society.

Potentially, this agreement would be beneficial for both parties. For Ukraine, it is a way to get rid of the Hungarian veto, at least temporarily. For Orbán, it offers electoral advantages and would improve Hungary's relations with other EU countries, which are putting increasing pressure on him when it comes to Ukraine.


But don’t rush to think that the "Hungarian problem" has been resolved.

Orbán has not changed and has not become a European politician.

Even before leaving Kyiv, he made it clear to his Ukrainian partners that he is not breaking ties with the Kremlin. Additionally, it turned out that a Russian propagandist was present in the Hungarian government delegation in Kyiv.

It’s also too soon to consider the deal on the Hungarian minority done and dusted. First and foremost, it is not yet known what conditions Budapest will set during the negotiations, and given the recent history of Orbán's 11 demands, which Budapest presented to Ukraine, we should be cautious about making any assessments.

So it’s possible that the current Hungarian-Ukrainian "truce" will turn out to be temporary and will last only as long as Orbán feels an urgent need to change his image.

Nevertheless, the chance to conclude a real agreement with Hungary is greater than ever, and Ukraine must seize this opportunity.

A visit without the toxic minister

Viktor Orbán is a politician who operates outside the common European matrix of rules and values. Even his visit to Kyiv broke with established traditions.

Given the constant visits by foreign leaders over the two and a half years of the full-scale war, the Ukrainian government has built infrastructure for their trips to Kyiv. This includes special train carriages or even a dedicated special train, enabling leaders to rest on their journey, take a shower before talks with the Ukrainian leadership, etc.

All of this was offered to Orbán… and he refused.

Against all logic and at the expense of his own comfort, the Hungarian prime minister insisted that he and the entire delegation travel to Kyiv by road, in Hungarian armoured vehicles.

Orbán's convoy crossed the Ukrainian border late in the evening, traversing the Carpathian Pass after midnight. Even with a police escort and closed roads, it was morning before he arrived in Kyiv. So Orbán had to rest for 2-3 hours at the embassy before meeting Zelenskyy. In the afternoon, he headed back to Hungary, crossing the pass around midnight again, and reaching Budapest by morning.

The reasons behind this decision remain unknown, and it simply has no reasonable explanation.

However, another aspect of the visit does make sense. 

The Hungarian delegation did not include Foreign Minister Peter Szijjártó, who had been the chief negotiator with Ukraine in the Hungarian government for many years.

This omission was a signal that Orbán was indeed willing to negotiate with Zelenskyy.

Peter Szijjártó has acquired a highly toxic image in Kyiv over the years, and it is no exaggeration to say that his actions have been systematically aimed at deepening the Hungarian-Ukrainian conflict.

Szijjártó’s highly controversial remarks have affected Kyiv-Budapest relations, causing outrage in Ukraine, even among the general public. And this hasn’t just been during the full-scale war. In 2017, after the education law was passed, Szijjártó announced that Hungary would block Ukraine's path to the EU and NATO. He was also the one vetoing decisions in Brussels.

Additionally, Szijjártó is Hungary's main liaison with the Russian and Belarusian regimes. He frequently travels to Minsk and Moscow, personally saving Russia from international isolation, and is even willing to endure humiliation from the Russians to meet with them.

Szijjártó is also known for not keeping his word and breaking agreements reached at the working level with the aim of resolving the Ukrainian-Hungarian dispute.

There is no more toxic official in Hungarian-Ukrainian relations. The fact that Orbán has kept him in the role of "chief of Ukraine-related affairs" for years was proof that Hungary was intent on maintaining and intensifying the conflict with Kyiv.

So the news that the minister had been excluded from the Kyiv agreements this time gave rise to hope that Orbán had changed the paradigm and was truly seeking a compromise in the relationship with Ukraine.

What has been agreed?

The talks between Zelenskyy and Orbán, first one-on-one, then with Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and other officials, lasted more than two hours.

However, no final agreements were reached on Tuesday, and the outcome of the meeting can be best described as "We’ve agreed to agree." Considering that the bilateral relations had been in deep crisis and Hungary had refused to negotiate at all, this shift is actually very significant.

Orbán supported Zelenskyy’s idea of a large bilateral agreement that would address the issues in the countries’ bilateral relations.

The discussions cover both concessions from Ukraine and "compensations" from Hungary.

Firstly, the Hungarian leader is waiting for concessions from Kyiv regarding the status and special rights of the Hungarian-speaking minority in Transcarpathia. The area where an agreement is most likely is legislation on education. However, even here, Kyiv will have to make concessions to satisfy Hungary’s demands. Budapest is firmly insisting that Ukraine reintroduce provisions for Hungarian-language schools into law.

From the leaders' statements, it looks as if Zelenskyy proposed mutual concessions and Orbán agreed. Alongside this decision by Ukraine, Budapest is expected to open a Ukrainian school and continue funding Ukrainian-language education in Hungary, particularly for children of Ukrainian refugees. This would create parity and make changes to Ukraine's education legislation more realistic. "The Hungarian state will fund this school. We will open as many Ukrainian schools as it takes," Orbán promised.

The potential bilateral agreement is not only about minority rights: it also encompasses a broader spectrum of issues. Although the leaders did not enumerate them, it is no secret that there are some issues in bilateral relations that primarily benefit Ukraine. These include expanding border infrastructure, importing electricity, and export routes for Ukrainian products.

Orbán has also raised the issue of post-war recovery in Ukraine and the role of Hungarian companies in this. If Budapest is serious about this, it suggests that Orbán has become genuinely inclined towards constructive relations.

Moreover, to add a positive tone, Orbán even admitted that his approach to the pro-Russian plan for an "immediate ceasefire in Ukraine" had flaws, and "thanked" Zelenskyy for rejecting this plan behind closed doors.

However, that is where the "carrots" end and the "sticks" begin.

Orbán's Russian metastases

There is no agreement between Orbán and Zelenskyy yet, only negotiations.

It’s not just that the history of relations with Hungary gives reason to doubt the announced agreement until it is finalised. This is significant, but the positive signals from Orbán provide cautious hope that this time Hungary is genuinely inclined towards constructive dialogue, even if it is limited and temporary.

What is even more significant is that during his meetings in Ukraine, Viktor Orbán made it clear that he remains within the Russian orbit – and plans to stay there.

Peter Szijjártó was unexpectedly absent in Kyiv to create a positive tone for the leaders' first meeting. But shortly after the meeting, the Hungarian foreign minister called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov! We can only speculate about whether this call was made to report to Hungary's main partner on the results of the Ukrainian negotiations. But it is indisputable that this was a political signal about the maintenance of Hungary's pro-Russian foreign policy vector.

Szijjártó's call to Lavrov was definitely not an independent action, just as his previous toxic actions and statements were never his personal position. In the Hungarian power system, decisions are made by Orbán, and officials like Szijjártó implement them. The foreign minister has simply acted as a mouthpiece for Orbán's anti-Ukrainian and pro-Russian ideas.

Ultimately, Orbán himself confirmed in Kyiv that he would remain in the Kremlin's orbit.

The Hungarian delegation included not only officials, but also a very specific journalist.

That journalist is Roger Köppel, editor-in-chief, publisher and key author of the Swiss website and weekly Die Weltwoche. This is not a widely popular website, but Orbán has given interviews to it several times. Köppel said that Orbán personally invited him to come to Kyiv.

However, the main characteristic of this Swiss publicist is his openly pro-Russian views. Köppel had previously been a guest on the German-language edition of the Russian propaganda broadcaster RT until it was closed. In 2023, he travelled to Russia to interview the propagandist Vladimir Solovyov and Russian Children's Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, who, along with Putin, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. Köppel systematically defends Putin on his website. In February 2022, he urged the West to try to understand Putin's Russia instead of opposing it. He blames NATO for provoking Putin into launching the Russian invasion.

He is a top-level Russian propagandist in the German-speaking media. Given that Köppel, due to his political past and public visibility, actively spreads pro-Russian nonsense, many German media outlets have directly referred to him as an "eloquent Putinist".

Köppel claims that Orbán personally invited him to Kyiv, calling him last Friday. This seems quite plausible given the propagandist's role in the visit: after the bilateral meetings, Orbán gave an interview to the pro-Putin journalist and confirmed that Zelenskyy had turned down his proposal of an "immediate truce".

According to Orbán, the Ukrainian president doubted the logic of Orbán's plan and did not support it, as Ukraine has a history of unsuccessful attempts at truces with Russia. Such truces were "not good for Ukraine", Orbán quoted Zelenskyy as saying.

Why is Orbán doing this?

This is a very important question, as the answer determines how much sincerity there is in Orbán’s desire to reach an agreement with Ukraine. However, the only person who knows the real answer is the Hungarian prime minister himself.

Viktor Orbán is currently facing harsh criticism and pressure from Hungary’s European partners. The intense confrontation with Kyiv has left Hungary isolated on the European stage. In particular, it seems that despite his months-long efforts, he will not be able to join the conservative EPP bloc in the European Parliament.

Right now, as Hungary assumes the EU Council presidency and key positions in the European Parliament are distributed, it is to Orbán’s benefit to change his relations with Ukraine to more constructive ones. This could well be one of the key reasons for the Hungarian leader's policy shift.

However, if this is only about positions, any thaw could be short-lived.

So during the negotiations with Hungary, Ukraine should pay attention to any signs that Orbán is reverting to his previous anti-Ukrainian discourse.

Another reason for caution is that Orbán has previously made it clear that he is far less concerned with the rights of Hungarians in Ukraine than in retaining power and access to European financial instruments. Budapest traditionally uses pressure on Ukraine to leverage Brussels with the potential of using its veto on Ukrainian issues. So the odds are that regardless of how events unfold, Orbán will leave some issues in the relationship with Ukraine unresolved so that he can exploit them later.

A complete resolution of the issues in these relations is not in his interests. However, it is unwise to completely dismiss a positive scenario. After all, even a partial and temporary easing of the conflict with Hungary is in Ukraine's interests. Of course this opportunity must be seized if the concessions from Ukraine are acceptable to Ukrainian society.

Developments over the next six months will determine whether the leaders of Hungary have indeed changed their approach to relations with Ukraine.


Sergiy Sydorenko

Editor, European Pravda

Translated by Daria Meshcheriakova

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