Even Viktor Orbán’s scarf is now controversial



European leaders this week expressed their dissatisfaction with the Hungarian’s knitting

by means of William Natrass

Credit: Getty.

You’ve got to hand it to him: Viktor Orbán knows how to make headlines. The world media is concerned about the significance of a scarf worn by the Hungarian Prime Minister after a football match between his country and Greece. The garment contained a map of the former Kingdom of Hungary before the loss of large parts of its territory after World War I.

Greater Hungary included parts of what is now Ukraine, Romania, Slovakia, Austria, Croatia and Serbia, and governments in those countries reacted with outrage to Orbán’s shawl. Kiev is extremely upsetsummoning the Hungarian ambassador “who will be informed of the unacceptability of Viktor Orbán’s act.”

Ukraine’s sensitivity to perceived territorial claims is understandable, but representatives of those other countries should take a deep breath. The Slovak foreign minister compared the shawl’s supposed feelings to Nazism, saying that “irredentism and revisionism have no place in our relationship. We saw where such feelings led in 1939, and we see it today in Russia’s aggression.”tasteless and dirty.” A more measured response came from Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, who simply said he “doesn’t want to deal with other people’s scarves.”

Orbán is probably thrilled that even his clothing choices are considered to be of global significance. But there is a gap between international interpretations and what the scarf actually represents. In a Facebook message, Orbán said that “football is not politics. Don’t read things that aren’t there. The Hungarian national team belongs to Hungarians wherever they live.”

Ownership attitudes to the lost territories of Greater Hungary are not a major feature of Orbán’s politics, either on the domestic or international stage. After all, many of those surrounding countries are Hungarian NATO allies; until October this year, a Hungarian general led the Kosovo Force (KFOR) mission to keep the peace in the Western Balkans.

Yet Hungary still has a strong interest in the two million ethnic Hungarians living in those areas, who have retained their linguistic and cultural identity since their secession more than a century ago.

This sense of identification has been reinforced in recent years by crackdowns by those now so outraged by Orbán’s shawl. In Slovakia, the decrees allowing state confiscation of lands of Germans and Hungarians after World War II, Bratislava remains a pretext for claiming property of ethnic Hungarians whose wartime ancestors are long dead.

Relations between ethnic Hungarians and the central government have been particularly charged in Ukraine. Restrictions on minority communities, imposed to counter Russian influence, have eroded Hungarian goodwill. Anger at the perceived rough treatment of ethnic Hungarians has been a factor in Budapest’s lingering skepticism about the portrayal of Ukraine’s war with Russia as a moral battle between good and evil.

On the other hand, Orbán has hardly been whiter than white when it comes to the Hungarian community abroad. In 2018, a diplomatic row broke out with Ukraine over claims that Hungarian diplomats are illegally issuing passports to ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine. Hungary was later accused of attempting to influence elections in the region. And in recent months, Hungary’s ambivalent attitude towards Russia has cast doubt on the country’s broader commitment to the rules-based international order.

Still, Orbán’s shawl was an expression of cultural unity among Hungarians, rather than territorial ambition. This cultural unity includes supporting the Hungarian national football team, although notions of unity across borders are understandably controversial in the current international context.


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