Putin’s and Orban’s roles were described by George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state, in closed-door testimony before House impeachment investigators last week, U.S. officials told The Post. Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine for information he could use against political rivals are at the center of the House impeachment inquiry. Officials said Putin and Orban did not encourage Trump to seek such information on Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
On Twitter, the Hungarian government’s international spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs, called the reported details of Orban’s interactions with Trump “typical of the fake news factory.”
But apart from Putin’s widely known animosity toward Ukraine, Orban would also have had a clear motive in helping to sour Trump on the country.
Zelensky has tried to position himself as a pro-Western reformer, whereas Orban likes to portray himself as a counterweight to Western liberalism. His critics view him as a right-wing populist who has pushed Hungarian democracy to its limits.
Still, experts cautioned that Orban’s remarks to Trump on Ukraine were unlikely to be predominantly rooted in ideological differences with Zelensky.
Orban’s efforts came shortly after Zelensky’s election victory and before he took office — at a time when Orban and his allies appeared to approve of Zelensky. They considered the new president a more pragmatic leader than his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, said Andras Racz, a researcher with the German Council on Foreign Relations who focuses on the region.
Kovacs appeared to confirm that view Tuesday. “The previous, Porosenko administration pursued expressly anti-Hungarian policies,” he wrote on Twitter. Kovacs added: “The new administration of President Zelensky offers new hope for better policies and more positive relations.”
Indeed, Orban’s criticism of Ukraine at the time was more likely rooted in a long-running historical dispute, Racz said.
Since the end of communism in Hungary in 1989, the foreign policy of successive Hungarian governments has consistently emphasized providing support to ethnic Hungarian minorities living abroad.
After the end of World War I, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire found itself on the losing side, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory. To this day, some Hungarians consider the territorial changes to have been unjust. The postwar changes meant that Hungary’s ethnic diaspora was spread out across what today constitutes Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine, among other countries.
Whereas previous Hungarian governments provided support to those communities, the intensity of such efforts massively gained momentum when Orban became prime minister in 2010 for a second time. Under his government, Hungary has handed out passports to hundreds of thousands of Hungarian minority members abroad.
The motivation to do so, Racz said, was predominantly domestic, as Hungarian passport holders can vote in national Hungarian elections. “Ethnic minorities are generally more nationalistic, more conservative,” he said, and have in effect strengthened Orban’s right-wing ruling party, Fidesz.
But in Ukraine, those efforts were met with a backlash from the government in Kyiv. Unlike in Romania and Serbia, where dual citizenship is legal, Ukraine does not allow its citizens to hold a second passport from another country.
From Kyiv’s perspective, Hungarian minority members’ efforts to circumvent that rule and vote in Hungarian elections have been perceived as a provocation.
From the perspective of the Hungarian government, however, the blame lies with Kyiv, which has allegedly failed to integrate its Hungarian-speaking minority for decades.
Few members of the community — concentrated at the edge of Ukraine’s west and accounting for less than 0.5 percent of Ukraine’s total population — speak Ukrainian. Many of them work in Hungary and reside in Ukraine only over the weekends. In an indication of how far removed many of those residents feel from the Ukrainian capital, some have set their clocks to Budapest time, which is one hour behind Kyiv’s.
Orban’s allies regularly accuse the Ukrainian government of neglecting the Hungarian-speaking minority, which has become a serious source of frustration and contention between the two countries.
Kovacs tweeted Tuesday: “A strong, stable and democratic Ukraine is in Hungary’s interest because it would not only have a positive impact on relations between the two countries but also on the ethnic Hungarian community in Transcarpathia.” Kovacs was referring to the part of western Ukraine where the Hungarian minority predominantly lives.
In a parallel development, Orban’s government has also intensified its relations with Putin, whose forces illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014. Putin has also backed a pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
It remains unclear whether Putin’s and Orban’s efforts to get Trump to adopt a hostile view of Ukraine were coordinated and how far they went. But both leaders’ shared animosity toward Ukraine has hardly come as a surprise to experts in the region.