Essays On War

Oleksandr Havrosh. Disappointment of the Year

Disappointment of the Year

Neighbors can vary significantly in their behavior and character. Some can be friendly, while others may be hostile. Some may be loud and disruptive, while others may be quiet and peaceful. It’s also possible for neighbors to put on a facade of friendliness but not genuinely be interested in building a relationship.

Ukraine shares borders with four EU countries through the Transcarpathian region. While the smallest portion of the border is with Poland, the largest part stretches along Romania. Despite this, Ukraine’s strongest connections have traditionally been with Hungary and Slovakia, which serve as key pathways for Transcarpathians to pursue work, education, and leisure. These countries have been Ukraine’s ancient gateway to the world. However, the war has revealed a contrasting attitude towards Ukraine in these two Central European countries, despite the lack of noticeable differences up until 2022.

Budapest’s recent displays of open pro-Russian sentiment have come as a surprise to many. Before February 24, 2022, such leanings were not believed to be so deep. Hungary’s leadership has hesitantly joined the anti-Russian sanctions and has made a point to reject certain significant proposals. Although Hungary has provided some humanitarian aid, it is not as substantial as that of other neighboring countries.

It is quite astonishing to see Hungary maintain a level of indifference in the face of such clear aggression, war crimes, and the resultant humanitarian disaster. What’s particularly striking is the utter lack of compassion, empathy, or sympathy, especially when one considers the dozens of Hungarian monuments, commemorative plaques, and tricolor flags prominently displayed throughout institutions in Transcarpathia. Simply reading the Hungarian mass media is enough to reveal that the country seems to view this war in a much more complex and nuanced manner.

I recall a bus driver in Berehovo who, even after 2014, was still hopeful for Putin’s arrival. The idea that borders can be redrawn has poisoned the minds of multiple generations of Hungarians. Some still cling to the interwar slogan of   „No, no, never!“ refusing to accept the existence of a „circumscribed“ Hungary. Just recently, a Slovak diplomat claimed that, in the event of Russia’s victory over Ukraine, Hungary would also make territorial claims against Slovakia.

In this war, Hungary may ultimately lose Transcarpathia. One of the acquaintances of the director from a private museum removed a Hungarian ribbon, which had been hanging on the pedestal for years as a tourist souvenir: „I don’t want it to be a reminder of Hungary.“ The 200th anniversary of Sándor Petőfi, celebrated on January 1, went unnoticed in Transcarpathia, despite a monument dedicated to him in the heart of Uzhhorod.

Transcarpathians feel deeply let down by their neighbor, with the offense so severe that even the ‚turul‘, a mythical Hungarian bird that had been voluntarily placed on the bastion of Mukachevo Castle during a time when the two nations enjoyed amicable relations, has been removed.

It seems illogical to me or anyone with common sense to align with Russia except through the lens of revanchist thinking. And any potential economic gains are far outweighed by the reputational losses. As evidence of this, the EU has already imposed funding restrictions on Hungary.

Meanwhile, a significant Hungarian diaspora resides in Ukraine, directly experiencing the toll of the war. Regardless of their language or passport status, they are subject to mobilization, air raids, and blackouts.

The Berehovo Hungarian Theater stopped playing evening performances, because there was no audience for them: local Hungarians left en masse, and the immigrants who filled the town did not understand Hungarian. The war will change the demographic picture of Transcarpathia – and clearly not in favor of the Hungarians. It was difficult to inflict a greater blow on the Hungarian minority than this senseless war.

Rather than capitalizing on the opportunity to enhance its standing in the eyes of Ukraine and the international community, Budapest appears to be intent on doing the opposite. The war has stripped away the grand façade that the neighboring „greatest friend of Transcarpathia“ had constructed to conceal its true intentions and ambitions. While ostensibly bemoaning the plight of the local Hungarian minority, which has, in fact, enjoyed the greatest opportunities for growth and prosperity during Ukraine’s independence, Budapest seems to be playing a double game.

Slovakia’s response was quite different from that of Hungary, which has traditionally had a more favorable view of Russia and has tended to avoid conflicts with Moscow. However, when it was faced with a clear choice between the aggressor and the victim, Slovakia ultimately chose to side with the latter. This decision was based on a clear sense of logic, as the prospect of having an insatiable „Russian world“ on their doorstep would undoubtedly lead to perpetual unrest. Why, then, does Hungary not share this concern? Has everything already been agreed upon there?

Unfortunately, instead of engaging in discussions with Hungarians about fostering long-term cultural exchanges, such as translating a novel by Vilmos Kovács, a Hungarian writer who was friends with Ukrainian poet Petro Skunts, we’re once again embroiled in messy political disputes. Both Kovács and Skunts experienced the hardships of Soviet totalitarianism and had a mutual understanding of it, despite writing in different languages. Kovács‘ novel And Tomorrow is Life (1965), which depicts Hungarian intellectuals in post-war times, had a one-thousand-copy print run and has not been translated since. Autobiographical works by another Hungarian writer, Balla László, about life in Uzhhorod also remain untranslated into Ukrainian. Hungarian fund managers seem to lack both the time and the funds for such endeavors that venture beyond the views of their state-backed propaganda machine.

On the other hand, it’s worth noting that my son’s father-in-law, who is Hungarian and originally from Uzhhorod, has volunteered to fight for Ukraine despite never speaking a word of Ukrainian before. He has spent the past ten months in the trenches rather than on construction sites in Prague (as Budapest has lost its economic appeal for some time now).

It’s clear that the world is in disarray, but one thing is for sure: when you have an erratic neighbor to the east, the last thing you want is to have a similar one to the west.

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan