Hungarian Conservative

The Transfer of 11 Transcarpathian Men to Hungary — Charity Versus Politics

Ukrainian soldiers near Bahmut on 5 June 2023.
Irina Ribakova/AP/MTI
A lot remains unknown about the release by Russia of the Hungarian Ukrainian soldiers, including the role that Metropolitan Hilarion played or what the exact status of the freed men is. One things is certain: human lives have been saved amidst the tragic conflict.

As Hungarian Conservative has recently reported, with the mediation of the Russian Orthodox Church several Transcarpathian soldiers who were held as prisoners of war in Russia were transferred to Hungary last week with the mediation of the Russian Orthodox Church. The short press release of the Russian Orthodox Church stated the following about the handing over of the prisoners of war: ‘On 8 June, 2023, with a blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia and through the mediation of the Russian Orthodox Church as part of inter-church cooperation, at the request of the Hungarian side, a group of Ukrainian war prisoners of Transcarpathian background, who had participated in active service, was transferred to Hungary. Participating in this action conditioned by Christian humanity were Metropolitan Anthony of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, and Archpriest Nikolay Balashov, an adviser to the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.’

The Role of Metropolitan Hilarion

Two observations follow from the above statement. First, the act was apparently entirely driven by the Christian commitment to serving the wellbeing of humans and saving the lives of innocents. The second observation is related to church politics—

the name of the Metropolitan of Budapest and Hungary, Hilarion is not included in the press release.

Hilarion’s name also did not appear to be mentioned by the numerous close-to-Kremlin newspapers that reported about the issue.

Despite the absence of recognition, Metropolitan Hilarion definitely must have participated in negotiating the terms of the transfer. A couple of months ago, during Pope Francis’ Apostolic Visit to Hungary, the two churchmen spent about 20 minutes conversing with each other—as we reported. Given the fact that Pope Francis has expressed his willingness multiple times to mediate between the Russians and the Ukrainians to release prisoners of war, and in November the Pope was already engaged in helping the release of several hundred captured soldiers, in light of the recent transfer of prisoners of war to Budapest, it seems to be quite clear what the topic the pontifex and the metropolitan discussed was. And if Hilarion was engaged to this extent in the preparation of the transfer, it begs the question: why was he not included in the Moscow Patriarchate’s press release or in any other Russian language coverage of the events?

Hilarion is a decorated theologian and until about a year ago was a core member of the Russian Orthodox Church. Until most recently he was known as the ‘foreign minister of the Russian Orthodox Church’ as well as its crown prince. He was even rumoured to have high chances of becoming the leader of the Moscow Patriarchate at some point. His knowledge of theology, Oxford education and international connections certainly gave him a strong basis to appeal for this position.

On 7 June 2022 his position rapidly changed when he was dismissed as the metropolitan of Volokolamsk (and as a result he was also released from the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church) and he was also relieved from his position as chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate. Incidentally, a short while earlier, he had called for praying for the ‘cessation of every military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine’. Albeit it was not an open criticism of the war, if his appointment to Budapest is an exile, some certainly understood his words as disobedience. The fact that he is not featured in the above-mentioned press release, despite the fact that the transfer is undoubtedly partially his achievement, seems to support this interpretation of the recent events.

Exemplary Inter-church Cooperation

As the Russian Orthodox Church’s press release has also stated, the transfer was an act of inter-church cooperation. The Hungarian Sovereign Order of Malta, a Roman Catholic charity organisation, also confirmed that it had been asked to participate in a mission of saving people’s lives. In accordance with its mission, the charity service answered a humanitarian call and fulfilled its task of assisting those in need.

Else than the Catholic church’s charity,

Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, who is also minister without portfolio for National Politics, Church Politics and Church Diplomacy, was also engaged in coordinating the transfer.

Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén (C-R) looks on as Pope Francis is greeted by children wearing traditional Hungarian costumes at the Liszt Ferenc airport in Budapest on 28 Aprilfor his second visit to Hungary in less than two years. PHOTO: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

What he highlighted that the transfer was a ‘gesture’ of the Russian Church towards Hungary and that he had personally coordinated the transportation of the 11 Transcarpathian men to Hungary, fulfilling a humanitarian and patriotic duty. The freed prisoners of war are ethnically Hungarian, but they are also citizens of Ukraine. No information has been shared about whether they hold a dual citizenship.

Since the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war there have been others instances of POWs being released by Russia to another country. Some captured soldiers have been released in Turkey, for example. The transfer to Hungary is different, however, as it seems that the Ukrainian side had not been officially informed about it.

POWs or Free Men?

Albeit it is certainly true that the failure to notify Ukraine of the transfer is unusual in diplomatic relations, it is possible that, formally, the transferred soldiers

did not arrive in Hungary as prisoners of war.

The Hungarian government did not use the word ‘prisoners of war’ in its communication, and may be the case that the Russian side released these men from captivity as participants in an armed conflict. Had the men been handed over to Hungary as prisoners of war, that would have obliged Hungary to continue to keep them in detention. Zsolt Semjén also seemed to confirm this version of what happened when he said that the 11 men are not ‘prisoners of war’ anymore in Hungary but ‘free men’.

As of now, most details about the transfer and the fate of the Transcarpathian men remains unknown. Zsolt Semjén, for instance, declined to give out more information about the issue in the defence and interest of those concerned.

Ukrainian Reactions

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko welcomed the transfer of these Transcarpathian men saying that the release of Ukrainian prisoners of war is always good news. However, he highlighted that the Ukrainian side had not been notified about the transfer and requested Hungary’s representatives in Kyiv to share information with Ukraine’s representative in Budapest about the identity of the released prisoners as well as their health condition.

Later, however, some Ukrainian language news media started to accuse Hungary of keeping the soldiers in question in custody. There were also rumours that Budapest would force them to participate in a press conference where they would make demeaning comments about Kyiv and highlight their forced mobilisation. In essence, the Ukrainian language press accused Hungary of using the transfer as an opportunity to defame Kyiv and praise Russia.

The Hungarian government was also alleged—without providing any tangible evidence—to have agreed to the transfer with the Moscow Patriarchate on the condition that later the 11 men would make positive remarks about the Russian Orthodox church. Of course no such press conference ever happened, as

Budapest had no intention of using the freed men for political purposes or to denigrate Ukraine.

The only aim of the transfer, as both Hungary and the Order of Malta highlighted, was to save human lives amidst this tragic conflict.

A lot remains unknown about the release by Russia of the Hungarian Ukrainian soldiers, including the role that Metropolitan Hilarion played or what the exact status of the freed men is. One things is certain: human lives have been saved amidst the tragic conflict.