Orban speaking at EPP

The Identity Divide That Defines Central Europe’s Stance on Ukraine

As the more hesitant members of Europe’s pro-Ukraine coalition, Hungary, Austria, and Slovakia wield disproportionate sway over the EU’s consensus-driven decisions on Ukraine. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister, persistently hinders the approval of nearly every EU aid package for Kyiv. Left-leaning populist Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico pledged to likewise oppose these measures during the next EU summit. The centrist Austrian government, meanwhile, has been one of the staunchest opponents of EU sanctions on Russian hydrocarbons.

Seeming ideological differences between these governments belie what they share in common – each seeks national autonomy and denies that their countries are full members of the Western community. Conversely, their liberal domestic opposition parties, such as the Hungarian Momentum Movement, Austrian NEOS, and Slovak Progressive Slovakia, all support Ukraine and view their countries as a full part of the integrated Western world. The political cleavage on Ukraine aid runs deep along an identity divide – do governing parties perceive their countries as full members of the Western world?

While a country can generally be Western and espouse similar values and historical traditions, it might seek to distance itself from the rest of the Western community. This national identity can change over time, with new governments redefining the relationship.

Western-oriented governments demonstrate solidarity with other Western nations and, in a team-like fashion, adhere to a common consensus. Autonomy-oriented parties, in contrast, defy the collective when they do not agree with it. Hungary’s Viktor Orban, for instance, characterizes the European pro-Ukraine consensus as a “whistle” from Brussels. Meanwhile, his Western-oriented political opponent, Peter Marki-Zay, labels Orban’s stance on Ukraine as a “betrayal” of Hungary’s EU and NATO allies and warns against the international exile of Hungary.

Western-oriented parties also support deeper integration within Western institutions like the EU and NATO. Autonomy-seeking forces strive to limit this integration. Austrian establishment parties, such as ÖVP and SPÖ, support neutrality and reject membership in the key Western institution of NATO, while the liberal opposition party NEOS expresss openness to joining the Euro-Atlantic alliance. Orban opposes European integration in the political sphere, rejecting the rule of law conditionality on EU funds’ disbursement. Hungary’s united opposition, in contrast, seeks deeper European integration by pledging to join the European Public Prosecutor Office and potentially even introduce the euro.

Last, those who imagine themselves as a full part of the Western world express a stronger commitment to Western values, such as liberal democracy and rules-based international order. Orban’s realism, however, rejects that the liberal international order exists and states that the West’s support for liberal values abroad is a farce veiling pursuit of power. “Central Europe,” he says, “is simply a chessboard for the world’s great powers.” Slovakia’s Fico, in turn, presided over the erosion of press freedom in his previous term as the Prime Minister, failing to respond to the murder of a Slovak investigative journalist by his own entourage in 2018. Western-oriented liberal Progressive Slovakia, the main opposition party, has hence built its entire image calling for the rule of law in defiance of Fico’s corruption.

United in solidarity and international institutions around liberal democratic values, Western-oriented parties tend to support Ukraine because it is a fellow, integral member of the Western “team.” Slovak liberal opposition party Progressive Slovakia states that “no country has sacrificed as much for European ideals in recent decades as our eastern neighbor [Ukraine].”

Read the rest at RealClear Defense.

Oleksii Antoniuk is a research assistant at Yorktown Institute and an undergraduate at Yale University.


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