Hungary's former ambassador to Kyiv shares his thoughts on possibility of Orban-Zelensky meeting

Istvan Ijgyarto was appointed to lead Hungary's embassy in Kyiv amidst a tense situation in 2018, when the war was raging in the east of the country, and bilateral relations were burdened by laws that violated the rights of the Hungarian minority. The diplomat, who is of Transcarpathian descent, was well aware of both challenges, as he had already served as Hungary's ambassador to Moscow. However, tensions have further escalated when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. What were his feelings when the war broke out? Did he consider to flee? What is Ukraine's problem with the Hungarian minority? Will there be a meeting between Hungarian PM Viktor Orban and Ukrainian President Zelensky? We interviewed Hungary's recently departed former ambassador to Kyiv.

2023. 05. 22. 22:26
20230516 Budapest Íjgyártó István diplomata Fotó: Mirkó István MI Magyar Nemzet Fotó: Mirkó István
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− Do you remember the day of 24 February, 2022? How did you learn about the outbreak of the war?

− It was not completely unexpected. Various intelligence agencies had been issuing warnings about a possible attack for weeks. However, I can't say that we expected it as even the Ukrainian leadership was trying to calm the public mood. We simply went to work that day, as always. Later, we heard the sirens and the explosions, but in the first hours, it seemed completely unbelievable that war had actually broken out.

− Is there a protocol for such cases?

− Of course, we are always prepared for every eventuality. First, I instructed my colleagues to stock up on food and fuel. This became necessary as we moved into the embassy building. We had to do this because there was no way of knowing how the events would unfold. We could have been in for much heavier bombardments and even street fighting. Secondly, the first consequence of any act of war is that people panic and began to flee. So, we also had to make sure that the embassy was a centre where anyone could receive help and find shelter. 

− Some countries' embassies, such as the US, had already moved their diplomatic representation from Kiev. Why did you hold out?

We evacuated in three waves. First came the families, so by the end we had very few people left in the embassy. In the meantime, we helped other nations, as several embassies approached us to get their people out of the country. The task was made more difficult by the fact that there was no way of knowing whether the Russians would encircle Kiev. We were pressed for time, as we had to move while there were still clear routes. But there was doubt about what would happen to those, because in war, infrastructure is unfortunately a prime target for attackers and defenders alike. We had to consider whether it was safer to move or to stay. In the end, it turned out that the Russians were not attacking the trains, so safe escape corridors to Western Ukraine could be established.

The moment has finally come when I thought that the risk of encircling the capital was so great that I suggested that we temporarily move the embassy to Lviv.

I understand that some of the Ukrainian government officials had also left Kiev by this time. We evacuated the embassy building, secured the sensitive data, and in March and April we resumed our operation from Lviv with a minimum number of staff. In addition to liaising and monitoring the situation, this soon meant that we mainly had to organise humanitarian aid.

− Did it occur to you that the embassy should leave Ukraine altogether?

− No, I discussed it with the foreign minister and we fully agreed that we couldn’t leave, even on a temporary basis. Many missions fled all the way to Poland, but we determined that there was no threat of war in Lviv despite the sporadic air strikes. And when it became clear that Russian troops had left the Kiev area, we immediately returned to the capital. 

This was also a gesture to the Ukrainian leadership.

Nevertheless, the missile attacks, air raids and power cuts continued. How could you work in such an environment? These had mainly a psychological effect. The sirens could go off at any time of the day, which was nerve-wracking, of course. Otherwise, especially in the first phase, the Russians tended to shell the outskirts. That said, I myself witnessed an air strike in the centre of Kiev, a terrible sight and a shocking experience. The loss of electricity and water was more of an inconvenience, but we tried to get through the period using our reserve water supplies and generators.

− The war has further exacerbated the already troubled relationship between Ukraine and Hungary. Have you counted how many times you have been summoned to the Foreign Ministry?

− No, but it happened many times. I had been in Kiev for barely a week before I was summoned for the first time. Summoning an ambassador is a strong diplomatic gesture by the receiving state to express displeasure over a certain action of the sending state in person. 

In Ukraine, this has been done perhaps more often than usual, partly due to the fact that Ukrainian diplomacy also shifted gears.

However, it is essentially a dialogue, where one side expresses its objections and the other tries to respond to them. I must say that the tone of the discussions was often much more peaceful than the way they were presented in the press. Sometimes, a statement had been published on the matter before I even left the building, and the tone was stronger than the one used in the discussion. But that is the peculiarity of the Ukrainian situation.

− It was more like a dialogue of the deaf. Are they so ignorant of Hungarian arguments?

− I was appointed to head the embassy in Kiev in 2018, when the first waves of tension over the minority issue were already being felt. The infamous education law and the law on the state language created a „web” in which minorities in Ukraine were expected to get entangled. In my opinion, there are three outstanding issues in the life of a minority.

  1. The first is preserving identity and passing it on to the next generation. The most important means of this is education in the minority language.
  2. The second is closely linked to the first: the „use value” of the language. By this I mean whether the minority language has the same power as the majority language. Can they speak it, can they place their signs in it, can they use it for official communication?
  3. The third – and this is also a yardstick of a country's democracy – is how decisions about minorities are made.

Is the community involved in their adoption or are they born over their heads? 

I see the restrictive measures in Ukraine as a serious violation of these three fundamental rules. The intentions behind the adoption of these laws makes absolutely no difference, because they will determine the fate of the Transcarpathian Hungarians in the long term. And their consequence in the long term will be the disappearance of the minority. Hungary obviously cannot allow this to happen.

− Why is it good for Ukraine?

− The Ukrainian state's approach to the issue has been political from the outset. They are unable respond to our legal arguments. It is incomprehensible why Ukraine, which had a less than exemplary, but still forward-looking minority policy since the ‘90s, changed so drastically since 2014. I wonder why our Western partners do not take the matter seriously enough. After all, if such a serious step can be taken in the area of minority legislation, I have serious doubts about what can be expected in other areas that are important for democracy. I have had numerous discussions with Ukrainian partners on this matter, and I was struck by the paternalistic – and I dare say, Soviet-heritage-rooted – attitude prevailing in society. The Ukrainian state sees its citizens, including minorities. This has manifested itself in the ongoing argument that they only want minorities to integrate better. 

In fact, Ukraine has made no attempt to create multiculturalism, to make people aware that the Hungarian people have been living in Transcarpathia for more than a thousand years. In the meantime, however, it expected minorities to show special respect for the majority Ukrainians.

I consider this to be seriously disproportional. Their political goal is to eliminate minorities, not to preserve them.

− Are there still revisionist fears?

− These are completely artificially generated. They are obviously based on the logic that Crimea has been annexed by Russia, and from now on, areas inhabited by minorities are a potential source of danger. Moreover, the political elite in Kiev is completely unaware of the demographic situation in Transcarpathia. 

To accuse the Hungarians of Transcarpathia or Hungary of wanting to annex the territory is absurd.

In effect, they are questioning the loyalty of the majority society there. In the meantime, the accusation of separatism was also a good excuse to avoid talking about minority rights. A perfect distraction from dialogue and real debate.

− Have you personally ever experienced anti-Hungarianism in Ukraine?

− I have been to many places in Ukraine, but I have never experienced any anti-Hungarianism. Unfortunately, anti-Hungarian sentiment is fuelled by the propaganda media. 

In many cases, the tensions against Hungary and Hungarians are artificially generated, and I would not exclude the possibility that they are being stirred up to serve certain foreign interests.

Fortunately, however, this does not reach a wide section of society. This has been exacerbated by the tensions of war, so the support shown towards Ukraine has become much more important. And Ukrainian propaganda has often portrayed Hungary as working in alliance with Russia to destroy Ukraine. In the Ukrainian press, every move of Hungarian policy that might have caused displeasure was widely publicised, but the enormous help was hushed up. We made numerous attempts to change this, but we were generally made to feel that everything was done at the will of the political leadership. Nevertheless, I am convinced that Hungarian-Ukrainian relations are not as bad as they seem. Bilateral relations could be improved a lot with little effort. But for this to happen, there must be a will on both sides. Hungary has already made a number of gestures, and now we would expect something in return.

− Could a long-awaited meeting between Viktor Orban and Volodimir Zelensky improve the situation?

− Over the past thirty years, numerous channels of communication have been established between the two countries that could have helped to solve the problems that have arisen in recent years. For example, a Joint Minority Commission has existed since 1989, which could have been an excellent forum for clarifying contentious laws through dialogue. So far, we have not managed to convene this meeting, and I can say that it is not the fault of the Hungarian side. Similarly, the meeting of the Joint Economic Commission was cancelled by the Ukrainians at the last minute. So, there are many tools at our disposal that we have not exhausted, but they would prepare the ground for a top-level meeting. On the other hand, such a meeting could, of course, undoubtedly give a big boost to relations.

Cover Photo: Istvan Ijgyarto,  former Hungarian ambassador in Kiev (Photo: Istvan Mirko)

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