Hungary Tones Down Orban ‘Autonomy’ Bid After Ukraine Row

Hungary toned down its request for autonomy for its ethnic kin living in neighboring countries after Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s demand sparked concern that it may further inflame the crisis in Ukraine.

Orban’s speech to parliament was “misinterpreted,” Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi said today at a security conference in Bratislava, Slovakia. Orban invoked “self-governance” in Ukraine, not autonomy, he told reporters.

“The prime minister did not pronounce the word autonomy,” Martonyi said at the Globsec conference. “He was referring to dual citizenship, collective rights, and self-management or self-governance. Autonomy, or collective rights, exists in Hungarian legislation for all our nationalities. We call it cultural autonomy.”

Ukrainian troops are battling pro-Russian rebels who are trying to wrest control of the country’s easternmost provinces, in the worst conflict between Russia and the U.S. and its European allies since the end of the Cold War. Rebels yesterday killed seven Ukrainian soldiers and wounded eight others during an ambush in a breakaway eastern region.

Ukraine summoned Hungary’s ambassador in Kiev yesterday to get clarification on the comments. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, one of Orban’s strongest ally in the European Union, said the Hungarian leader’s words were “out of place and time” when “we’re witnessing attempts to tear Ukraine apart.”

‘New Ukraine’

Ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries should have “dual citizenship, community rights and autonomy,” Orban said in a May 10 speech to lawmakers in Budapest at his oath of office after winning re-election last month. He said this was also a “clear expectation of a new Ukraine that’s being formed right now.”

Hungary has a population of 10 million and about 2.5 million more Hungarians live beyond the country’s borders in neighboring states, mostly in Romania and Slovakia. They are descendants of Hungarians who forfeited their citizenship in 1920, when the country lost two-thirds of its territory under the Trianon peace treaty signed in France at the end of World War I.

Ethnic Hungarians are gaining political importance after Orban started extending Hungarian citizenship to them during the past four years. Ninety-five percent of these new voters voted for Orban’s ruling party on April 6.

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