oDR: Feature

We fled Ukraine for Hungary. Now Viktor Orban must decide where he stands

Refugees are finding a warm welcome in Budapest. But Hungary’s government may not be able to keep its distance from the conflict for long

Olesya Dovgalyuk
8 March 2022, 1.41pm
A sign in Budapest welcoming Ukrainian refugees to Hungary
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Olesya Dovgalyuk

On the afternoon of 27 February, Budapest was bustling with the normal Sunday life of a big European capital. It seemed surreal that less than three days before, I had been hastily packing essentials in Lviv, western Ukraine, as municipal authorities announced city-wide blackouts.

I had left Lviv with two friends early on the morning of 25 February, catching a 3.28am train (delayed by two hours) south-west to Uzhhorod. We arrived there seven hours later, and continued by taxi to Chop, a small city on the Ukrainian side of the Hungarian border. Another nine hours and 358km later, we were in Budapest, the Hungarian capital.

Still stupefied by our experience after a day of rest, we were walking by the sunlit Danube and did not immediately register a hesitant “Slava Ukraini!” (“glory to Ukraine”) uttered in our direction. In front of us stood a family of three: a woman, Alla Kulikova, her husband Konstantyn, and their daughter, Polina. Originally from Kharkiv, north-eastern Ukraine, Alla and her family had fled to Hungary two days earlier.

“We need to mobilise the local public and tell them what is happening in Ukraine,” Alla said, waving several blue-and-yellow placards with slogans like “Please Stop War!” and “We Want to Live!”, hand-drawn by her eight-year-old daughter. She seemed determined to act but, the more we talked, the clearer I heard the desperation in the voice of a woman who had been forced to abandon her home and seek refuge abroad.

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Despair at the border

As those affected by war escape Ukraine, the country’s western border checkpoints have become the first bottlenecks on the way to safety. Olga Kolesnikova, who spent 60 hours travelling to the Chop-Záhony crossing from Berdyansk in south-eastern Ukraine, recalls the despair at the border.

“Many women just take children into their arms, leave their cars and walk because it is quicker to cross on foot,” she tells me. Another Alla, from Kyiv – who entered Hungary on 28 February through a checkpoint near Koson’, 30km south of Chop – echoes Olga’s words. “The situation at the border is overwhelming,” she says. “The queue was around 2.5km long. We were let in because we have three children.”

By 7 March, passenger traffic across checkpoints was challenging, but steady, according to Ukraine's State Border Guard Service. As queues at some crossings like Tysa, Luzhanka and Vylok reach 100 cars, others remain relatively free.

Meanwhile, Budapest’s main train stations have quickly become mini-humanitarian hubs, where a web of NGOs operates alongside individual volunteers distributing essentials, matching families with accommodation and arranging transport.

Refugees from Ukraine queue outside a Budapest train station


Refugees from Ukraine queue outside a Budapest train station

More than 180,000 displaced people had arrived in Hungary by 6 March, making Hungary the second largest recipient of Ukrainian refugees after Poland. This number is expected to top 250,000, according to UN estimates.

Budapest’s local government and non-profit sector actively extend welcomes to those fleeing Ukraine. Decentralised support networks appear on- and offline to provide help for the capital’s involuntary guests. Anti-war demonstrations gather ever larger crowds.

At the same time, Viktor Orban’s governing Fidesz party is trying to balance humanitarian assistance with distancing itself politically from the war. On 24 February, the prime minister condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine, but reiterated the country’s position of non-involvement in the military conflict. On 7 March Orban allowed more NATO troops into Hungary, but forbade the flow of lethal weapons to Ukraine.

Hungary's leader is trying to avoid being dragged into a neighbour's war, but his policy of “strategic calmness” is failing to strike a chord with some. Standing among demonstrators at the Russian embassy, Marina – an Uzhhorod-born Ukrainian who lives and works in Budapest – told me: “If [Orban] does not want the war to reach Hungary, he should help Ukraine now.”

Ukrainians in Budapest demonstrate against Russia's invasion


Ukrainians in Budapest demonstrate against Russia's invasion

Orban’s attempt to distance himself from Ukraine’s internal matters has an exception. Western Ukraine’s Zakarpattia (Transcarpathia) oblast, which also borders Poland, Slovakia and Romania, has long been on the Hungarian government’s nationalist agenda. Some 12% of Zakarpattia’s population identified as Hungarian in Ukraine’s 2001 census. The figure rises above 30% in smaller villages by the border. Dual Hungarian and Ukrainian citizenship is commonplace among this minority, with families straddling the border.

Hungary’s public officials and private investors have taken an interest in this demographic. Since 2011, the Hungarian state has spent around €115m on cultural heritage restoration and maintenance, local business development, and initiatives to promote the Hungarian language in the region. Despite Ukraine not legally recognising dual citizenship, Andrea Bocskor, a dual citizen of Ukraine and Hungary from Berehove in the Zakarpattia oblast, was elected to the European Parliament as a member of Hungary’s Fidesz in 2014. She has been representing the interests of the Carpathian Hungarians there ever since. At the same time, religious organisations like the Sub-Carpathian Reformed Church serve Transcarpathian protestant communities on both sides of the border. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Hungarian national government established a mechanism to provide immediate privately-sourced funding to the region, christening it a ‘Transcarpathian Bridge’.

A 2018 poll by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation found that, while 81% of Zakarpattia residents supported maintaining the oblast as part of a unitary Ukraine, 14% also expressed suspicion that the Orban government’s financial assistance signalled his ambition for the territories to be part of Hungary. These sentiments are now resurfacing among the expat community in Budapest.

“I had my theories that [Putin and Orban] reached an agreement, something like ‘you don’t support Ukraine, and I’ll give you Transcarpathia’,” says Marina at the protest, as her friends nod in agreement. But as military action draws closer to Ukraine’s western borders, she believes it will be increasingly hard for Orban to justify amicable relations with Putin.

More support needed

As people move across borders, space for opportunism grows. The experiences of Yunona – who was travelling from Odesa in southern Ukraine, through Moldova, Romania and Hungary, to Croatia – show how some are feeding on human despair.

“On the bus [from Romania to Hungary] I was told to throw in an additional 50 euros, because they ask for bribes at the customs,” she said. “But I don't know exactly who got the money in the end.”

Some who could afford to leave early, like Yunona, will only transit through Hungary on their way elsewhere in Europe, where family and friends – or better conditions and opportunities – await. But as the war continues and drags westward, more people will flee into Ukraine’s neighbouring countries without the financial means or support networks for further relocation.

Alongside its EU partners, Hungary has adopted the Temporary Protection Directive, granting Ukraine’s citizens and long-term residents a year’s permit to stay, work and access welfare services. But some say more state involvement is required.

“It is very welcome that the Hungarian government is providing temporary protection for those arriving from Ukraine who request it,” said Andras Lederer, head of advocacy at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which offers legal support for migrants and refugees.

“The problem is that this is an option that people are not aware of. […] Regularising their stay in Hungary is also important to ensure that children can access education, people have access to healthcare, and that – if needed – shelter and food are provided. We have been working 24/7 since the Russian invasion began, to inform those fleeing of these options, but this is the role of the state and an NGO cannot be expected to do it on its own.”

A placard bearing the Ukrainian flag rests on the ground next to Budapest's Holocaust memorial by the Danube


A placard rests at Budapest's Holocaust memorial

The asylum directorate of Hungary’s National Directorate-General for Aliens Policing told us the authority was working hard to help all those coming from Ukraine, but refused to comment further.

Its website does offer some information for those seeking temporary protection in Hungary, but does not mention access to the job market or welfare services for those granted legal stay.

On 3 April, Hungary’s citizens will vote in parliamentary elections, choosing between Orban’s Fidesz party and the unified opposition, whose candidate for prime minister is Peter Marki-Zay. While both sides have strongly focused on domestic matters in their campaigns, when it comes to foreign policy, the result – now also watched by the system’s outsiders, like Alla, Olga and others newly arrived from Ukraine – will essentially determine whether Hungary continues ‘strategic calmness’ about Russia’s aggression in the neighbourhood, or reconciles with Brussels.

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