Two Divided Countries in the Divided Supercontinent: Hungary and Ukraine in Eurasia
This is part of our special feature, Thinking Eurasia Now.
Generations of global historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists have used the name Eurasia to describe the planet’s largest landmass (“from Lisbon to Vladivostok”). They have viewed it as a single “supercontinent,” home over millennia to highly diverse civilizations. From this perspective, those who separate Europe from Asia remain in parochial thrall to the Ancient Greeks, who invented a great divide that has no foundation in geography or history. In fact, Europe is better understood as a Eurasian macro-region—the equivalent of China or South Asia (Hann 2016). For those who insist on classifying Europe as a separate continent, Eurasia has come to mean a fuzzy interface covering more or less any expanse eastwards of the territories where Western Christianity has spread. For people in the political West, such a Eurasia has strongly negative connotations: it is authoritarian, and its prevailing values are incompatible with liberal freedoms. In the contemporary Anglophone media, as well as the social sciences and area studies, this approach has dominated.
In this essay, I discuss two countries at the interface of Europe and Asia, Hungary and Ukraine—two former socialist states that have figured prominently in global news in the last couple of decades, albeit for different reasons. Since Viktor Orbán returned to power in 2010, Hungary has been widely accused of “democratic backsliding.” Although a member of the European Union since 2004, liberal norms of governance—including the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the press—have been undermined. In Ukraine, decades of oscillating instability led to the Maidan revolution of 2014, which catapulted the country towards the West. National unity has been enhanced and integration into Western institutions such as NATO and the EU accelerated by the Russian invasion of 2022. Western politicians are frequently heard saying that Ukraine is fighting on behalf of all those who cherish European values. Closer inspection reveals political cronyism and oligarchic power structures to be as endemic in Kyiv and Budapest as in Russia. Are Hungary and Ukraine European countries? Or are they Eurasian? Or are they both at the same time, each divided by internal fault lines? I discuss the respective positions of Ukraine and Hungary to analyze whether they should be classified as part of “Eurasia” and turn to the ongoing violence in Ukraine to identify some causes of the conflict that are deeper than those most commonly advanced. I highlight why, while the great civilizations of Asia—China, India, and Turkey—have urged negotiations, the US, Britain, and the EU (within the EU, above all Poland) have opted for tanks rather than talks.
Hungary: a very Eurasian country?
Hungarians have long drawn with pride on two very different historical streams in their national self-representations. The Magyars who arrived and settled in the Carpathian basin at the end of the ninth century (even earlier, according to some theories) had Asian nomadic origins. Their language and many elements of their economy and mythology distinguished them from their new neighbors in Central Europe. But these Magyars soon converted to Roman Catholic Christianity and adapted their feudal institutions according to Western models. Monarchs and aristocrats practiced the statecraft of their Western European contemporaries, while the majority of the population became sedentary peasant farmers. Later, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, half the country was occupied by the Ottoman Turks. Thereafter, Habsburg rule and national revival in the romantic era confirmed the country’s westward-oriented, European credentials. However, these were complemented by the imaginative possibilities offered by Asia. Patriotic Hungarians looked for inspiration not to the northern European and Siberian regions, where their closest linguistic relatives lived, but rather to the vast expanses of the Eurasian steppe and the Turkic-speaking peoples, who had also left their imprint on the Magyar language and culture. Multiple imaginaries persisted in the region during the twentieth century, both under the authoritarian conservatism that culminated during WWII and in the shadows of the socialist ideology that prevailed during the following four decades. With the demise of socialism, accession to the EU (in 2004) and the forging of ever-closer economic links to the West were accompanied by a burgeoning interest in national heritage that was grounded in the east, including romantic evocations of pastoral nomadism and shamanic religion (Kürti 2015).
The second sense in which Hungary qualifies as a Eurasian country has to do more with outsiders’ negative evaluations than cultivated self-images. Due in large measure to the significant role played by doctrines of Eurasianism in Russian nationalism in the post-Soviet era, Eurasia has come to function as a stigma for any political system that falls short of liberal democratic standards as specified in the West. Today, from Ankara to Beijing, authoritarian politics blend with oligarchical economies to repress elementary human rights and free civil societies. From this perspective, Hungary is an outlier in the EU. The patterns of kleptocracy (family and friends of Orbán are among Hungary’s wealthiest citizens) are sustained in part by transfers from Brussels, the distribution of which is determined by administrative cliques in key ministries in Budapest. Moreover, the quality of health services, social security, and education in Hungary has fallen continuously, while social inequalities have increased.
The repugnant aspects of Orbán’s self-proclaimed “illiberalism” at home are well documented (see Scheiring 2020 for an innovative analysis). In foreign policy, he has nurtured ties with some of the most illiberal regimes in the world. For example, China has taken up the task of upgrading the railway line between Budapest and Belgrade in the framework of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. The main beneficiary of this project on the Hungarian side is Lőrinc Mészáros, a long-time friend of Orbán. Meanwhile, close ties to Moscow reflect the country’s dependence on Russia’s oil, gas, and nuclear expertise. Unlike neighboring Serbia, which has historically had much closer ties to Russia, as a member of the EU and NATO Hungary had no choice but to acquiesce in the sanctions imposed on Moscow in 2022. But it did so reluctantly, with caveats. Orbán’s refusal to countenance placing the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow on the list of sanctioned Russians was a symbolic gesture with diplomatic significance. Large sections of the Hungarian population are hugely embarrassed by the actions of their government.
Orbán has been a vocal critic of the nationalist policies of Kyiv towards the Hungarians of Transcarpathia. His justification is always the same: it is his responsibility as prime minister to promote and protect the interests of all Hungarians, from ensuring cheap energy at home to ensuring that the diaspora can hold on to the mother tongue. At the same time, Hungary is a member of NATO’s Ukraine Defense Group. Hence, the Hungarian delegates who have attended this group’s meetings—such as that convened by the US in January 2023 at its base in Ramstein, Germany—have heard country after country affirm the need to send more weapons to support the Ukrainian cause, whereas their own leader has opposed escalation and called instead for Washington to negotiate a peace settlement. Orbán launched his political career when still a student as a fierce critic of Soviet power in Hungary. More than 30 years on, what he lacks in charisma he makes up for in pugnacious energy, in the careful cultivation of his image on state television and in social media, and in the ability to strike a populist chord with the millions who are discontented with what EU membership and liberal democracy have brought them.
Ukraine: Eurasia on the cusp of Europe
Hungary is considered to be part of Western civilization but still finds room in its symbolic repertoire for the culture of the East. In contrast, Ukraine is a post-Soviet state currently seeking precipitously to re-orient itself and create its niche within the West. Although some four times the size of Hungary in terms of population and more than six times larger in terms of territory, Ukraine is a much younger nation-state. A Ukrainian polity was not consolidated until the twentieth century (thanks in particular to Lenin, though incorporation into the USSR was far from voluntary). Distinctive regional identities have persisted into the twenty-first century. Galicia, with its capital in L’viv, to this day bears the marks of the Habsburg Empire, when Austrian power holders found it convenient to tolerate and even encourage Ukrainian nationalism as a counterweight to the aspirations of the province’s dominant ethnic group, the Poles. At the other end of the country, the Donbas was a major industrial center within the Czarist Empire. Here, Russian remained the dominant language under socialism, and the manufacture of armaments for the USSR made up a large sector of the economy. Cossack regional identities also persisted strongly. Speakers of Russian did not necessarily identify ethnically with Russia. In contrast to the situation in former Galicia, the inhabitants of other regions were less wedded to an exclusivist Ukrainian nationalism. Instead they combined their Ukrainian citizenship with fluid, hybrid identities that allowed for close kinship with Russia.
Whereas Hungary is predominantly Roman Catholic (with substantial Protestant minorities since the Reformation), Ukraine falls within the sphere of Eastern Christianity. Historians and social scientists have traditionally viewed the Orthodox world as a distinct civilization, large parts of which were caught up in a Soviet model of modernity that eventually failed (Arnason 2020). In the wake of the Cold War, political scientist Samuel Huntington (1996) predicted that civilizational difference would be the basis of future geopolitical conflicts. He paid much attention to Ukraine, which in his view was divided by a west-east “fault line.” This separation corresponded to the division between Greek Catholicism in the west (primarily Galicia) and rival Orthodox Churches in the rest of the country. The Greek Catholics (sometimes known as Uniates) had maintained the practical religion of the Orthodox. But, for political reasons stemming back to the Counter-Reformation, they recognized the authority of the Pope in Rome. For Huntington, this recognition introduced an element of power-sharing and pluralism that was sufficient to qualify the western regions of the country for membership in the liberal Euro-American civilization, in opposition to the traditions of the Byzantine-totalitarian East. The Huntingtonian model that envisages civilizations as closed cultural worlds may seem simplistic; but, in light of the way Ukraine swung between West and East in parliamentary elections before the decisive lurch to the West in 2014, the American political scientist’s analysis of a bifurcated society was prescient. Recent events have seemingly put an end to this cleavage. In the accounts disseminated by the government in Kyiv and taken up by western governments and media, the entire Ukrainian population is fighting for the entire free world. The Euro-American civilization is locked in a combat with the repressive tyrannies of Eurasia.
However, this narrative does not stand up to scrutiny. Far from promoting freedoms, since 2014 successive governments in Kyiv have curtailed civic rights, including the rights of ethnic minorities. Even before the war, welfare spending was being cut back by the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky, whose economic orientation had always been neoliberal. Little or nothing was done to tackle corruption. The organization of the economy was still strikingly similar to that of Putin’s Russia. Zelensky himself was embedded in oligarchical networks throughout his career. There is no reason to suppose that emergency nationalization measures dictated by the war will change these structures in the long term. These and other problems have been well documented by Western officials and NGOs. Civic rights and labor protection have weakened dramatically since the war began. No one doubts the existence of idealistic Ukrainians for whom breaking away from Russia was a precondition for more transparency, tolerance, and pluralism in their country. But extreme nationalists and ambitious economic elites frustrated by oligarchic hierarchies had their own reasons for propelling Ukraine westwards. Accession to the EU was a dreadful scenario for everyone in Brussels familiar with delinquent populist regimes in Budapest and Warsaw. But war in 2022 transformed the situation overnight. Suddenly, the risk of admitting a new member state with an even more dubious Eurasian profile than that of Hungary was a risk that had to be taken; after all, Ukraine was fighting for the West, for European values.
Zelensky was not elected with a mandate to join either the EU or NATO. His main commitments in his campaigning were to curb corruption and bring peace to the Donbas. Things turned out very differently. The support he has been able to draw from the West cannot be attributed solely to his charisma and stagecraft (he surely had intimate knowledge of how to deploy TV crews). His success is due to the fact that this war has been convenient for the US, which has been ready to fight a proxy war for its own geopolitical reasons, “to the last Ukrainian.” This war has undoubtedly forged an unprecedented degree of unity in the Ukrainian population, including among many whose first language is Russian. But this unity is based on a detestation of Putin’s regime rather than on a complete rejection of kinship with Russia. Irrespective of where the political boundaries are drawn at the end of the war, old cleavages will persist and new ones of a neoliberal nature will emerge in the post-war settlement.
Talks or tanks?
Alongside that of the USA, the British role in the war has been significant. In the weeks following the beginning of the Russian “special military operation” on February 22, 2022, intensive efforts were made to bring the warring parties to the table to negotiate a peace settlement. According to retired German General Harald Kujat, citing “reliable sources,” it was an intervention by Boris Johnson, British prime minister at the time, that sabotaged the results of these talks in Istanbul. Johnson let it be known in Kyiv on April 9, 2022 that “the West was not ready for an end to the war.” While the major powers of Eurasia were unanimous in supporting Turkey’s initiative to secure a peace settlement acceptable to both sides, Britain and the United States had other objectives. Boris Johnson’s self-consciously Churchillian intervention was apparently decisive. In the end, his good relationship with Volodymyr Zelensky was not enough to distract attention from his domestic shortcomings and save his premiership. But Johnson’s noisy agency had consequences for East Slavs, whose blood is still tragically flowing more than a year later.
Adapting Huntington’s metaphor, should we recognize an alternative civilizational fault line in the English Channel? This would again be simplistic, as it would be unfair to attribute sole responsibility to the Anglosphere: many others have joined the chorus. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the EU Commission, has been shrill in expressing her admiration for the European values she detects in Ukraine. Given their history, it is unsurprising that the Baltic states, formerly union republics of the USSR but nowadays members of NATO, should offer unconditional support to westward-inclined leaders in Kyiv. It was also predictable that Polish leaders should resort to the most inflammatory language to demonize Russia, since their hatred of Moscow trumps their traditional disdain toward Ukrainians.
Perhaps, ultimately, the fault line is not geographical. At their best, the civilizations of the supercontinent of Eurasia, the religions underpinning them, and their offshoots in North America, have all promoted peaceful societies, responsible governments, and the expansion of freedoms. These goals have been threatened by a military-industrial complex that has grown to bloated proportions in the so-called liberal democracies of the North-Atlantic West, where the rhetoric of European values and human rights has been deployed to undermine all that has been most humane in Eurasian civilizations since the Axial Age.
Chris Hann is a social anthropologist who has carried out field research in East-Central Europe since the 1970s. Between 1999 and 2021, he was a Director at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle (Saale). He is author of Repatriating Polanyi. Market Society in the Visegrád States (Central European University Press, 2019).
Afinogenov, Gregory. 2023. “Peace in Ukraine Isn’t Coming Soon.” Jacobin, 24th February, https://jacobin.com/2023/02/peace-ukraine-war-invasion-one-year-putin-zelensky
Arnason, Johann P. 2020 The Labyrinth of Modernity. Horizons, Pathways and Mutations. Lanham, MD.: Rowman and Littlefield.
Hann, Chris. 2016. “A concept of Eurasia.” Current Anthropology 57 (1): 1-27.
Huntington, Samuel P. 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Kürti, László. 2015. “Neoshamanism, national identity and the Holy Crown of Hungary.” Journal of Religion in Europe 8 (2): 235-60.
Scheiring, Gábor. 2020. The Retreat of Liberal Democracy: Authoritarian Capitalism and the Accumulative State in Hungary. Cham: Palgrave.
 The Ottomans occupied swathes of Hungarian territory in the south and east, including the Great Plain that figures in the national imagination as an extension of the Eurasian steppe. A west-east bifurcation has a much longer history: Transdanubia once belonged to the Roman province of Pannonia, but the Great Plain did not.
 Even Freedom House, while sympathizing strongly with post-2014 efforts to promote “transparency” and Western norms, acknowledges persistent shortcomings and the negative consequences of the war. In its 2023 report it classifies Ukraine as “partly free” and awards the country 50 points out of a possible 100:
 The explanation for Zelensky’s volte-face (and thus the rapid descent into war) remains a black box. The most plausible diagnosis is a “combination of internal pressure from nationalists and external pressure from the United States” (Afinogenov 2023).
 This phrase has been widely taken up by critics of US policy since the start of the war, among others by Noam Chomsky, who attributes it to US Ambassador Chas Freeman. See Chomsky’s nuclear war fear: Fight to last Ukrainian or choose Macron’s dialogue path:
 Interview with General Harald Kujat, Zeitgeschehen im Fokus, No. 1, 18th January 2023. It is extraordinary that a few retired Bundeswehr personnel have done more than elected politicians to further this analysis and to speak publicly about views widely held in the German population. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has walked a tightrope between segments of his own party sympathetic to Russia and bellicose coalition partners convinced that Russia can and must be defeated. Despite its economic and military prowess, Germany seems powerless to modify the overwhelming pressure from Washington and London to continue the fighting.
Published on September 12, 2023.