On March 15, 2022, four European leaders made a long, hazardous journey by rail from Poland to Kyiv in a show of support as the city came under further Russian attack: the prime ministers of Poland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary met President Zelensky on that Tuesday evening as a curfew began in Kyiv. Afterwards, Poland’s PM Mateusz Morawiecki tweeted that Ukraine was reminding Europe what courage was: it was time for “sluggish and decayed” Europe to reawaken and “break through her wall of indifference and give Ukraine hope,: he said…1 Those who remember the news noticed a change of the facts that I introduced in this brief report: Viktor Orban of Hungary was not one of the four, the fourth place was occupied by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of Poland's ruling party and the de facto ruler of Poland.
This substitution (Kaczynski taking the place of the absent Orban) offers the key to the entire affair. It was not just a person sitting on two chairs, it was something much worse: one person replacing another on the same chair. Both Orban and Kaczynski embody at its purest the basic stance of some key members of what is commonly referred to as the Visegrád Group: post-Communist East European countries which are members of the EU but oppose the predominant EU stance of stronger European unity and cooperation, as well as the cultural values of feminism, multiculturalism, anti-racism and religious neutrality. Whichever way you turn it, a united Europe does stand for some kind of social democracy, which is why Viktor Orban in a recent interview went so far as to proclaim that the Western liberal hegemony “is gradually becoming Marxist”: “Sooner or later we’ll have to face up to the fact that, opposing the Christian democratic camp, we’re no longer dealing with a group espousing liberal ideology, but with a group that’s essentially Marxist with liberal remnants. This is what we have in America today. For the time being, the conservative side is at a disadvantage in relation to the Marxist, liberal camp.”2
So why did Orban not participate in the trip to Ukraine? Because of Hungary’s (not only) economic links with Putin’s Russia, which compelled him to proclaim neutrality in the ongoing Ukrainian war. In a recent public address, President Zelensky directly criticized Hungary for this neutrality: “You (Hungarians) must decide whom to side with.”3 So Poland and Hungary decided to play a double game. Two Polish anti-Russian hardliners went to Kyiv pretending to be there as special envoys of the EU—no wonder their “mission” caused embarrassment in Brussels since no EU body authorized them to do it. However, the actual aim of their mission was not to act in Kyiv on behalf of Europe but to signal a clear division in Europe: it was a mission directed AGAINST a united Europe. Their message to Ukraine was: we are your only true allies, only we truly and fully support your struggle against the Russian invasion, not the “sluggish and decayed” liberal Western Europe.
All the militant measures advocated by some members of the mission in Kyiv (imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, etc.) barely concealed their true aim: to woo Ukraine into their nationalist-illiberal Europe, to strengthen it against the (still hegemonic) social-democratic Europe. Their mind is on the big question: where will Ukraine be when the war comes to a close (and the progress in negotiations indicates that some kind of peace is on the horizon). In this sense, although Orban was not in Kyiv, his key message was delivered there. And this is why the Slovene PM Janez Jana, partisan of radical militancy against Russia, defended Orban against Ukrainian critique. The visitors knew well that their militant proposals will have no consequences: their battle was not against Putin’s Russia but against the social-democratic (“Marxist,” for Orban) Europe.
The focus on Ukraine—will it disappear as a sovereign state or not—should thus not divert our attention from the big issue: the liberal Europe we all knew and most of us loved is disappearing. What will replace it? A social-democratic union or a vague alliance of conservative Christian nationalists?