ZAHONY, Hungary – A smoky border town with a train station in northeastern Hungary, near the border of Slovakia and Ukraine, has become a transit point for people fleeing Russia’s war against Ukraine. It has also put a wrench into the political calculations of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary’s staunch anti-immigration, pro-Russia, illiberalist.
Nearly 80,000 people have traveled to Hungary, in Zahony and other towns along 84 miles border with Ukraine, since Russian President Putin ordered his forces into Ukraine last Thursday in the biggest military action to rock Europe since World War Two.
In other cases, Orban’s hardline asylum policy will prevent many people entering the country from receiving international protection.
But Russia’s growing isolation and outcry against its invasion of Ukraine have forced Orban to tighten his grip on politics. Just a few weeks before the Russian invasion, Mr. Orban visited Mr. Putin in Moscow for a cordial meeting, describes Russia’s security demands as reasonable and denounces Western sanctions as counterproductive.
Now, Orban is trying not to offend his friend Putin, anger Hungary’s NATO and European Union partners, or alienate voters just as the election draws near .
On Thursday, Orban said that Hungary and its allies condemned Russia’s “military action” but that Hungary would not provide military aid to Ukraine. Later that day, he ordered that those entering Hungary from Ukraine be given temporary protection.
After Friday’s NATO summit, he said Hungary would not let itself be drawn into the war. And on Saturday, against accusations that his government had opposed some steps taken by the European Union to sanction Russia, Mr Orban’s spokesman proudly announced the Prime Minister’s message to the world. : “Hungary will support all sanctions against Russia.”
In an interview on Sunday, the Prime Minister said it was Hungary’s policy to avoid urgency and haste. He calls it “strategic calm.”
However, political analysts say the war in Ukraine and the shift in voter preferences closer to Hungary’s national elections in early April, are problems for Orban, the prime minister said. since 2010.
“He knows this could be a danger to his re-election campaign,” said Balint Ruff, a Hungarian political strategist. Orban’s recent statements, Ruff said, represent “a 180-degree turn from everything he’s stood for in the past 12 years in our relationship with Russia and refugee policy.” “.
Polls show his party with a slight lead over the six-party opposition coalition.
“The Orban regime wants to address this situation by sending all possible messages to everyone, from hard-line Atlantic supporters to hard-line Russia supporters,” said Peter Kreko, Director Director of Political Capital, a research organization in Budapest, said. “Everybody can choose a story.”
Mr Kreko said the government had engaged in “two-way talk” by saying it supported Ukraine and condemned Russia, while “Kremlin-friendly conspiracy theories are being promoted in the media”. mainstream media affiliated with the government.”
While Mr Orban appears to have played down his anti-immigrant sentiments over the past few days, his government has not backed down to help evacuees from Ukraine flee to Hungary for protection. Much of their aid is organized by charities and non-governmental groups.
“The implementation is completely flawed,” said Andras Lederer, program officer at the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, a human rights advocacy group in Budapest.
While welcoming Mr Orban’s change, Mr Lederer said, “the fugitives were not provided with any information or assistance.” He criticized the prime minister for destroying Hungary’s asylum system after Europe’s 2015 refugee crisis.
In Zahony, workers with the Hungarian Reformed Church’s aid organization set up a shop inside the train station. An aid worker said about 80% of those arriving already knew their next destination and would be on their way within hours.
On Saturday morning, about 300 people gathered in small groups, struggling to figure out their next move. The tired adults rested on the couches as the children ran around and played games.
“We provide them with food, water and information,” said the aid worker. “I help people figure out routes and try to convince them to keep going.”
Emmanuel Nwulu, a 30-year-old Nigerian student at Kharkiv National University of Radio Electronics, had only been living in Ukraine for seven months when the bombings began.
He said his host was adamant that war would not come to Kharkiv, and that the Nigerian Embassy was not evacuating Nigerian students. He spent Wednesday night underground in Kharkiv metro station.
On Thursday, as the Kharkiv bombing was underway, Mr. Nwulu and his cousin returned to their apartment, just as a massive explosion broke out 50 feet away.
“That last bomb was too much,” he said. “I ran for my life.”
They snatched their phones, laptops and documents, he recalls, and entrenched themselves at Kharkiv train station as bombs fell all around them.
Understanding Russia’s Attack on Ukraine
What is the root cause of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine to be inside its natural sphere of influence, and it became irritated by Ukraine’s proximity to the West and the prospect of it joining NATO or the European Union. Although Ukraine is also not included in this category, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.
The station was chaotic with thousands of people, children crying and adults panicking. Mr. Nwulu and his cousin said officials had told them “Black people can’t get on board.”
“We said, ‘No, we have to! Nwulu recalls shouting, as they tried to make their way onto the train.
Two days later, a train crammed with exhausted passengers was towed to Uzhhorod, Ukraine, near the Slovak border, not far from Hungary.
On Saturday night, Mr. Nwulu and his companions tried to cross the border into Slovakia, but the stream was packed with women and children. After waiting seven hours, they returned. “They took children and white women,” Mr. Nwulu said.
He said a “good Samaritan” let them sleep in school. In total, about 20 Africans spent the night there. On Sunday morning, they reached Zahony.
Mr Nwulu said he was worried about his 75-year-old father in Nigeria, whom he called. “I didn’t want him to panic, so I told him I was fine. I’m fine,” said Mr. Nwulu. “He didn’t even know what was going on.”
However, Mr. Nwulu said he has no plans to do next.
Another evacuee, Katarena Farkas, 23 years old from a Ukrainian village about 30 miles east of Zahony, holding a newborn baby in his arms. She and her sister took their six children to Hungary on Friday.
Ms Farkas said: “We heard about the war, when the children sang children’s songs and chased each other. “We fear for the children.”
About 40 miles East of Zahony train station, at the border crossing in Beregsurany, Hungary, cars with European number plates are parked, as motorists wait for friends and relatives to flee Ukraine.
But one vehicle, a dusty blue Renault van with German number plates, broke down. Its occupants, three young Ukrainians who work as construction workers in Germany, drove across Europe to pick up their wives and children at the border.
The women took a taxi to the border from Chernivtsi, Ukraine, a city about 285 miles away far. They crossed the border with two babies, 9-month-old Solomia and 1-year-old Eva, in her husband’s arms.
“It was very moving,” said one of the women, Nadia Kerdei. “We miss them so much.”
The couple didn’t seem particularly worried that the van had broken down. Ms. Kerdei said her brother, who lives in Hamburg, was on the road to help.
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