It’s an old saying but not too clichéd – politics remains much like the weather. Thus, when there are blue skies, harmony prevails, and then after various political storms, blue skies return again. This is much the case with today’s relations between neighbors Ukraine and Hungary.
It was an assumingly sunny and steady-going day of garden politics with a touch of autumn chill at a recent tree-planting event in the Budapest botanical gardens. Ambassador of Ukraine to Hungary Liubov Nepop led the way and gave a hand with planting a symbolic friendship tree, a present from Kyiv to touch on 30 years of Hungarian and Ukrainian diplomatic relations. (See Neighbours Hungary and Ukraine celebrate relationship – The Budapest Times )
This occasion attended by a gathering of well-wishers heard Ambassador Nepop’s informative speech that centered on three decades of Ukraine independence, unneighborly relations and life in her homeland today. She rounded off with the apt observation that just like general relations, and just like the ceremonial tree, these things are sometimes affected by bad weather. “But despite the occasional grey clouds and heavy rain, relations between Budapest and Kyiv remain aimed at development, partnership and progress,” the ambassador said. Yes, maintenance is required, for the tree as well as for neighbors from both our sides, in order for things to flourish.
At the same time, she reminded all those there, the very apparent Russian aggression against Ukraine, which is still ongoing since 2014 and brings only death and destruction.
The ambassador said that December 3rd is a special time to remember for Hungarians and Ukrainians alike to come together as friends. Hungary was the third country to recognize Ukraine’s independence in 1991 and the first to deliver diplomatic relations.
Also, Hungary is a partner that supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity, an especially important consideration during the growing threat of further escalation of Russian warfare.
Ambassador Nepop said there is much to be said about the long history of Ukrainian-Hungarian relations. There was the Diplomatic Mission of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in Hungary 1919-1924, and of course the dynastic marriage of King András I to Princess Anastasia of Kyiv. This was represented in a monument in Tihány, while today the Hungarian and Ukrainian peoples kept their long, outstanding cultural ties and kinship.
The ambassador spoke to Alexander Stemp of The Budapest Times and Kharkiv Observer about this special day and event, which is now, forever December 3rd.
Welcome, Ambassador Nepop. Perhaps it goes without further saying but nonetheless could be worth repeating, it has been a remarkable 30 years for your country, as it has for Hungary. What have been your greatest and most memorable achievements and challenges in your professional time in office dealing with relations between Ukraine and Hungary?
When I came to Hungary in 2016, I felt really honored as I had been given the possibility to serve in a country that is very important for Ukraine as a neighbor, member of the EU and NATO. This is a country that I personally like and appreciate very much. You probably know that when ambassadors present their credentials to the Hungarian President, each ambassador signs a special book to express their feelings. I wrote: “I came as a friend to a friendly country.” Despite all difficulties we have had during recent times, my approach that I expressed then has never changed. What was the most memorable and important? I could mention, of course, some political contacts, business contracts and forums, agreements, etc. But I won’t, because I think what was and still is more important was to open Ukraine to Hungarians. It is well known that the Hungarian state was established more than 1000 years ago, but many Hungarians look to Ukraine as a new state and to Ukrainians as a new nation. So, when we organized concerts of Ukrainian folk collectives, we tried to show the 1000-year-old traditional roots of Ukrainian culture. Likewise, when we speak about 100 years of the establishment of the diplomatic mission of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in Budapest. Similarly, when we organized the photo exhibition about the dynastic diplomacy of Kyiv’s Prince Yaroslav the Wise of the XI century, whose daughter Anastasia was a wife of Hungarian king András I, and daughter Anna became a queen of France and daughter Elisabeth a queen of Norway. Or when we remind that the Ukrainian capital Kyiv was founded in 482, though there are also theories that this was much earlier. In re-opening for Hungarians not only hidden Ukraine but also old and not always well-known pages of our history, we try to show how much in common we have. And with this in mind, I’m sure that it is easier to find solutions for all issues waiting to be solved and to build our common European future.
Please tell me something more about the highly significant December 3rd?
In 1991, on December 3rd, Ukraine and Hungary established diplomatic relations. These were our first diplomatic relations established after Ukraine restored its independence in 1991. Hungary was also first to open an embassy in Kyiv and the first Ukrainian embassy was opened in Budapest.
One interesting fact: the diplomatic mission of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in Budapest, which I mentioned before, was the last to close among diplomatic missions of the Ukrainian People’s Republic.
I think there are plenty of symbolic things to remember.
What is expected next with your nation’s relations with NATO and the West in general?
A direct course of action is required for Ukraine to obtain EU and NATO membership, which is enshrined in our Constitution. This year in August we adopted the Strategy of Foreign Policy, which also has a separate part dedicated to the implementation of our course to the European and Euro-Atlantic integration. We are implementing necessary reforms in the framework of the Annual National Programs with NATO and Association Agreement with the EU. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova created the Associated Trio in the framework of the Eastern Partnership, and we hope that the Summit of the EaP on December 15 will bring more different initiation, taking into account the European aspirations of these three countries.
We will move forward with reforms as it is our own interest. But as Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba recently stated, the main obstacle on our way to the EU and NATO is the fact that some members of these organizations are still considering our aspirations through their relations with Russia. It is time to understand that Ukraine has its right and will decide about its future without asking Russia or any other states. And we are waiting for our partners that they will discuss with us relations with our country without connecting or referring them with Russia.
We are completely sure that Ukraine being historically and geographically part of Europe will become a member of the EU and NATO any time soon. It’s a question of time.
Then there is the concern with Russia’s military build-up and manoeuvres. Plus, their use of energy as a weapon, which relates to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and is a serious threat, not only for security of Ukraine but also to the entire Europe. There is also the new migrant crisis on Poland’s and Lithuania’s borders, due to Belarus, and a massive Russian disinformation pact which also adds to the complexity of events. Therefore, Ukraine and the West must show strong unity.
Ukraine is fighting to defend itself but we need stronger and more political and military support, additional weapons and new, updated equipment. Plus, the enhancement of more sanctions to stop Russian aggression, before there is any chance for this to come to an end.
It’s a gamble, as well as anyone’s guess, how do you think Russia would react if Ukraine joined NATO tomorrow?
Look, Russia opposed three Baltic states to join NATO. Russia was against when Hungary and other states of Central and Southern Europe became members of this organization. But as we all witnessed, NATO enlargement only enhanced security of all those states, and to the region, as well as to the potential of the alliance.
Ukraine has been fighting against Russian aggression since 2014 and with this defends not only itself but the whole Euro-Atlantic world, and we already acting as a part of this world and a reliable ally.
Currently, we see deterioration of the situation on the ground, increasing Russian military build-ups across Ukrainian borders and at the occupied Ukrainian territories. The overall ground grouping of the Russian Armed Forces in the Ukrainian direction currently amounts to around 92,000 troops. Russia brought this large military force to our borders already in spring 2021 and has never withdrawn it since. This December 1 they started again military exercises along our borders. Together with the Russian line to undermine the Minsk agreement’s implementation and to de-facto block work in the Normandy format, it shows that every option, including the military one, is on the table for the Russian leadership.
Russia’s military manoeuvres, use of energy as a weapon, migrant crisis on Poland’s and Lithuania’s borders with Belarus and a massive Russian disinformation pact have to be seen as one complexity of events. And the answer should also be complex and must show our unity. Ukraine is fighting to defend itself but we need further strong political support, enhancement of sanctions to stop Russian aggression that is very likely to aggravate considering the above-mentioned factors, and we need military support: additional weapons and equipment to be able to defend ourselves,
The best way to prevent escalation is to make Ukraine stronger. The best way to prevent further Russian attacks is to make Ukraine part of NATO and the EU.
To move away from politics, what are your personal highlights and memories from your time in Hungary?
I would say that Hungary is a country you can discover every day independently, regardless of how long you are staying here. There is always something you didn’t see yet. Even if we speak only about Budapest, you can always find new architectural details on the already well-known beautiful historical buildings, and discover new interesting places. And there are many things to be seen outside Budapest as well. I also think that Ukrainians and Hungarians have a lot in common in their characters. One thing I personally appreciate very much in both nations is that we never give up. We both have had painful times in our history. And we also know how important it is to have good allies and be together to make our region stronger, prosperous and safe.
When it comes to tourism, there have been many recent developments to promote the Transcarpathia region, which strongly links Ukraine and Hungary. Can you tell me something more about this?
The Transcarpathian region links Ukraine with Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. This year our embassy developed a Facebook campaign called My Transcarpathia. During the year we published interesting stories, pictures and important information about the development of this Ukrainian region. Hungarians know that the Hungarian minority of Ukraine lives in Transcarpathia. But our aim was to show the wider picture of Transcarpathia with the hope that Hungarian tourists will visit more places there and after will also go to other destinations in Ukraine. The Ukrainian leadership made one of its priorities the construction of roads and reconstruction of historical building, and this not only makes the lives of Ukrainians better but also makes it possible for foreigners to see the best of Ukraine. Believe me, Ukraine has a lot to show and to give to the world. So, I would like to invite Hungarians and tourists from other countries to discover Ukraine. I assure you, you will enjoy it.
Now Christmas is fast approaching, how do Ukrainians celebrate it?
Christmas is one of the favorite holidays of Ukrainians. Traditionally it is accompanied by so-called Koliadky (Christmas songs) when groups of young people go to houses with songs, wishing in such a way health and prosperity to the hosts. Did you know that the most popular Christmas song in the world, “Carol of the Bells”, is in reality a Ukrainian Christmas song called “Shchedryk”, by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych?
It is also traditional to prepare Vertep, which are scenes with dolls showing some episodes connected with the birth of Jesus.
Christmas dinner should be composed of 12 dishes, the main one being called Kutyá. I know that for Hungarians it sounds like their word “dog” but it is completely another thing. Kutyá is made from wheat or rice with poppy, raisin and honey.
We also make Diduh. This is a sheaf of wheat or oats of a special shape, with four legs and a large number of knots. This is a symbol of prosperity for the next year.
But the most important thing in this holiday is a Christmas mood and the belief that the next year will bring you only good things.
And using this opportunity I would like to wish to all Hungarians and all our partners from other countries peace and prosperity. And to my country to restore its territorial integrity and peace, and become a member of the EU and NATO. I hope that together we can make all these wishes and dreams become reality.
Ambassador Nepop, have you been to Kharkiv?
No, not yet, but I would love to, anytime in the near future.
Ambassador Nepop, thank you.
Text: Alexander Stemp