Orban Will Sacrifice Kosovo to Keep Serbian Ally Sweet

Hungary will always prioritise its shared goals with Serbia over any interest it has in maintaining relations with Kosovo.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s realist and pragmatic approach to international politics and trade was on display last week as Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Hungary to sign off on 18 cooperation agreements, adding to the billions already invested in the country.

Orban’s approach has increasingly drawn him towards the East, where he fraternises not only with Xi’s China, but also Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the United Arab Emirates and the autocracies of Central Asia.

In his relentless pursuit of his self-termed governance ideal, the “illiberal state”, Orban likewise showcases versatility in his relations with the countries of the Western Balkans, whose EU accession prospects he has systematically supported.

Among the six EU hopefuls, however, Serbia stands out as Budapest’s preferred partner, which, perhaps not coincidentally, was Xi’s stop before arriving in Hungary last week.

Hungary’s close relations with Belgrade, cemented upon strong political, economic and social ties, frame a major share of its approach to EU enlargement.

In light of this privileged partnership, several concerns emerge with respect to Hungary’s relations with other countries in the region – the most critical case being Kosovo.

Hungary finds itself at a crucial juncture between Serbia and Kosovo, where it benefits from carefully nurtured ties with the former and holds cordial diplomatic relations with (and recognises) the latter. However, the balance is set to tilt in favour of Belgrade, as Hungary will follow a policy supportive of Serbia’s domestic and international goals, even if this jeopardises Kosovo’s national interests and calls Hungary’s recognition of it into question.

Three dimensions to Hungary’s Balkan stakes
Orban’s vision of an enlarged EU has been primarily oriented towards the Western Balkans, as Hungary seeks to keep its southern flank stable and prosperous, not least as an external EU border. Budapest’s vested interests in the Western Balkans span trade and investment, the protection of national minority rights, and energy security.

However, three main dimensions arguably articulate its favourable position towards the region’s EU accession: the economic, the security and the ideological. In this equation, though, not all countries hold the same significance, partly explaining why Hungary’s relations with Serbia and with Kosovo have not been cultivated with the same carefulness.

Hungary’s three dimensions of interest find their most powerful expression vis-a-vis Serbia, the economic field being particularly important. Hungary is Serbia’s fifth-largest trade partner globally while Serbia is Hungary’s seventeenth, their trade exchange amounting to 3.6 billion euros, five times higher than a decade ago.

Strong cooperation prevails also in the energy realm, enhanced by Russia’s war in Ukraine and by the decision of most EU member states to shift away from Moscow’s energy supplies. Both Serbia and Hungary reject such boycotts on pragmatic grounds. “Serbia and, I believe, Hungary have no special affection for the origin of gas and oil. It is only important for us to have them. Our citizens cannot live and heat on promises,” said Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic.

Regarding Kosovo, the economic dimension appears significantly weaker for Hungary; even though bilateral trade has almost tripled since 2015 and is expected to reach an all-time high this year, Kosovo remains a relatively marginal partner in Hungary’s trade relations.

In the security dimension, Budapest and Belgrade showcase a sizeable degree of convergence. Both capitals interpret the struggle against illegal migration and asylum seekers as a very fight for existence, a narrative that Orban has traditionally exploited. He sees the ongoing migration flows into Europe as a common threat and even “a matter of survival”, in which Serbia plays a crucial role and shares Hungary’s fate.

Budapest’s decision in 2015 to erect a fence along its border with Serbia to stop migrants was met with bitterness from Belgrade, but the Serbian government never enacted any retaliation against Hungary, indicating that Serbia was determined to keep reaping the benefit of Orban’s friendship in their joint crusade.

Regarding Kosovo, the security convergence reached its peak during the 2015 refugee crisis, with Kosovo’s location as a transit country along the “Balkan route” reinforcing its role in Budapest’s anti-migrant fight. However, Kosovo, unlike Serbia, was seen as a less relevant transit country, which limited Pristina’s leverage towards Hungary. Furthermore, Kosovo’s status as a country of origin itself for thousands of asylum seekers has tempered Budapest’s enthusiasm for Pristina.

The ideological dimension is well engraved in Hungary-Serbia relations through the political identity of their leaders. Orban and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic cemented their leaderships almost in parallel, both regaining power in the early 2010s, barely two years apart. They share a right-wing populist, Eurosceptic, nativist approach to politics, and have mirrored each other’s illiberal policies in the realms of media freedom, human rights and the rule of law.

Vis-a-vis Kosovo, the ideological convergence is less clear, reflected not only in the open support that most of Kosovo’s political parties manifest towards the EU, but also in the country’s relatively volatile political system, which has reduced the potential for concentration of authority in the hands of a single party or leader. ​​The consistent crushing majorities that Orban’s Fidesz party has won over the last almost 15 years have granted the premier carte blanche in domestic and foreign policy at the expense of the rule of law and the liberal-democratic architecture.

Diplomatic imbalance
Hungary’s well-established diplomatic ties with both Serbia and Kosovo have not been an obstacle to weaving a visibly triangular, though uneven relationship. While Serbia occupies a fully convergent position on Hungary’s priority list in the economic, security and ideological axes that grants short- and long-term benefits to both allies, Kosovo fails at this exercise. In the current geopolitical context, one might wonder how Hungary’s strategic axis between Belgrade and Pristina will play out in the future. However, the several instances of diplomatic revelations over the last 15 months have revealed omens that, in order for Serbia to rise, Orban might have to let Kosovo fall.

One of these instances is Hungary’s approach towards the turbulent events that framed the development of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue in 2023. The local elections in the four Serb-majority municipalities in the north of Kosovo, the ensuing episodes of violence against KFOR troops, among which over 20 Hungarian soldiers were injured, and the abduction by Serbian forces of three Kosovo police officers were topped off by the armed attack by Serb gunmen on the Kosovo village of Banjska on September 24. Budapest performed subtle games of leverage and obstruction in favour of Belgrade during these events: from Orban’s request to release the three police officers, which allowed Hungary to come off as an instrumental mediator, to shielding Serbia from EU sanctions following the Banjska episode.

However, the most explicit instance can be found in Kosovo’s ongoing application to the Council of Europe (CoE), the continent’s leading human rights organisation. The Hungarian government pledged to Serbia in early 2023 that it would reject any attempts by Kosovo to join European bodies, a move that was enacted in April 2023 as Hungary voted against Kosovo’s membership once in the Committee of Ministers, and again a year later in the CoE Parliamentary Assembly. As Kosovo comes gradually closer to obtaining full membership in the body, it has become clear that Hungary is willing to endure Kosovo’s diplomatic fury so as not to let Belgrade down. It is a vivid reminder that recognising Kosovo does not necessarily mean supporting it at all costs.

Ahead of Kosovo’s future steps towards the CoE and towards the EU, for which an application was submitted in late 2022, Budapest maintains that the country will need to set its relations with Serbia straight before it can integrate into European bodies.

Illiberal futures: from Budapest with love
As Hungary’s defining EU role comes to realisation – a spot in the hall of fame of political obstructionism at the heart of the EU’s decision-making and political machinery – today’s shifting international sands is rendering the whims of rogue member states increasingly critical in a 27-member Union that usually fails to react in time. Unless the EU democracies step up their ambitions, the Serbia-Kosovo ordeal is set to consolidate as a battlefield of entrenched illiberalism.

The EU and its member states currently lack the initiative to enact sanctions against Belgrade, from which Hungary clearly benefits. Budapest’s opposition to sanctioning Serbia is, at the same time, what the EU uses to excuse its own inability or unwillingness to hold Belgrade accountable. As time goes by, Hungary is further cementing its friendship with Serbia within the context of mutual protection where both Orban and Vucic are sure of their impunity thanks to one another, while Hungary’s pledge not to compromise its ties with Serbia serves as its leverage reinforcement over other member states. The greatest victor from the EU’s overall incapacity is none other than Orban himself.

The triangular relationship between Serbia and Kosovo, with Hungary strategically placed at its juncture, is one of asymmetry and mistrust. While the Hungary-Serbia connection – the strongest end – will blossom in an international realm of rising authoritarianism, Kosovo – the weakest link – is bound to struggle without more and better support from the EU’s democracies.

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