Poland-Hungary: The Dirty Divorce

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Poland and Hungary moved particularly closely together under their right-wing leaders Kaczynski and Orban. But the Hungarian government's loyalty to Putin has ended what was believed to be an unbreakable friendship.

En picture from the days of friendship: Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the leader of the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS), Jaroslaw Kaczynski on September 22, 2017 in Warsaw

In the spring of 2022, the Hungarian embassy in Warsaw received unusual mail: a package that smelled extremely bad. Upon opening it turned out to contain excrement. Whether animal or human remained unclear.

The Budapest investigative portal Direkt36 recently reported on the previously non-public incident in a long article on relations between Poland and Hungary. The package was not the only such message to arrive at the Hungarian Embassy in Warsaw during this period, a few weeks after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Because of the pro-Russian stance of the Hungarian government, red paint bags were thrown at the embassy building in March 2022. Weeks later, angry demonstrators hung protest banners on the embassy fence showing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin toasting glasses filled with petroleum.

The Hungarian Embassy in Warsaw

And to this day on the Facebook page of the Hungarian Embassy in Warsaw, you can read negative Polish comments among many posts. The tenor: anger because of Orban's pro-Putin attitude.

Does Orban have to see an ophthalmologist?

After the start of the war, Polish government circles also addressed Hungary with comments that had previously seemed unthinkable. For example, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) and Poland's strongman, said in an interview in spring 2022 that if Orban didn't want to see Russian war crimes in Ukraine, he would have to see an ophthalmologist.

On February 1, 2022, shortly before the start of Russian aggression against Ukraine, Hungary's Prime Minister Orban paid his respects to Russian President Putin

In fact, Poland and Hungary are historically deeply connected. The common history ranges from dynastic connections in the Middle Ages to the freedom struggles in the 19th century to the anti-communist uprisings in 1956 in Budapest and Poznań. But now there is an ice age between the two countries. What's more, the Polish-Hungarian friendship that was previously thought to be unbreakable has come to an end. It's not a good divorce – and it appears to be final. Because the Hungarian flirtation with Putin will probably remain a thorn in the Polish side for a long time.

Hair-raising interview

The straw that broke the camel's back for Poland were statements by the Hungarian chief of staff, Gabor Böröndi, in a TV interview at the beginning of May. In connection with statements about Russia's war against Ukraine, Böröndi described Hitler's invasion of Poland as a “German-Polish war that began as a local war”. The “escalation”, according to Böröndi, “could not be contained in time by a peace process”, which then led to the Second World War.

The hair-raising statements drew sharp diplomatic reactions from Warsaw. The Hungarian government had to apologize. But it was only the most serious diplomatic scandal between the two countries to date, and by no means the only one.

Separate ways

“Poland and Hungary have gone their separate ways,” announced Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki at the end of July 2022. He was reacting to a statement by Orban, who had said: “Hungarians see the war as a conflict between two Slavic nations, while the Poles see themselves as one side of the conflict.” Since then, most forms of collaboration have been shelved.

Poland's Prime Minister Morawiecki maintains close relations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

The Hungarian government signed new contracts for gas supplies from Russia, while Poland stopped importing from Russia altogether. Warsaw was annoyed by Budapest's reluctance to take EU decisions on sanctions against Russia and Sweden's admission to NATO, which has still not been ratified by the Hungarian parliament. The attitude of the Hungarian government that the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court against Vladimir Putin will not be executed if he comes to Hungary met with complete incomprehension in Poland.

Orban was once a role model

Poland's right-wingers have long regarded Viktor Orban as their role model. Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his political companions viewed the electoral successes of Orban's Fidesz party, which has won four elections since 2010 with a two-thirds majority, with envy and admiration. “I am deeply convinced that one day we will have Budapest in Warsaw,” Kaczynski consoled himself in 2011 after the election defeat by his liberal challenger Donald Tusk.

After Kaczynski's PiS took power in Poland in autumn 2015, the Budapest-Warsaw axis seemed perfect. Both governments supported each other to prevent the punitive measures of the European Union. Both successfully opposed the acceptance of refugees, especially from Islamic states, and blocked a European solution to the migration crisis.

Limits of loyalty

The PiS diligently copied the Hungarian measures that put Orban in political control of the country. As in Hungary, the constitutional court in Poland was occupied with its own people and later the entire judicial system was turned inside out. Kaczynski transformed the public service media into his party's mouthpiece. The right-wing conservative elites of both countries saw themselves as pioneers of an illiberal counter-revolution – a Christian-national alternative to the liberal and “rotten” West.

In 2018, Poland's Kaczynski and Hungary's Orban were still portrayed as spiritual brothers and right-wing dictators at the Düsseldorf carnival. That friendship is now a thing of the past

But in Warsaw one also had to recognize that Orban's loyalty has political power limits. In 2017, Poland wanted to prevent the current opposition leader in the country, Donald Tusk, from being re-elected President of the European Council. In the vote in Brussels, the Polish government suffered a crushing defeat: 27 heads of government, including Orban, voted for Tusk – with one – the Polish – voting against.

Friendship probably only after Orban

Pro-Russian sympathies, which Orban has made no secret of since the annexation of Crimea, have long been downplayed by the PiS. In December 2021, when the American secret services were already warning of the Russian attack, Kaczynski organized a summit meeting of right-wing conservative parties in Warsaw. Among the participants were proven Putin friends – in addition to Orban, Marine Le Pen from the French Rassemblement National and Santiago Abascal, head of the Spanish right-wing party VOX.

It was probably the greatest concession Kaczynski made to friendship with Orban's sake. Only two months later, with the beginning of the Russian war against the Ukraine, the rift between Poland and Hungary that seemed inevitable from today's perspective began. It remains to be seen to what extent both countries in the EU will support each other when it comes to the rule of law proceedings that Brussels has initiated against Warsaw and Budapest. However, one thing is certain: the relationship between the two countries will only become really friendly again when Viktor Orban and his regime are history.