Between East and West: The Hungarian Minority in Ukraine

By Inga Chelyadina | 2 October 2016

To quote this document: Inga Chelyadina, “Between East and West: The Hungarian Minority in Ukraine”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Sunday 2 October 2016, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1951, displayed on 22 August 2017

Though the Hungarian minority in the West of Ukraine is not the largest one in the country, it could still play a crucial role during the current crisis in Ukraine. The minority’s quests could become an asset for Russia. The far-right Jobbik (the third largest party in Hungary financed by Russia) has already shown its will to get Ukrainian Transcarpathia back. This ambition is highly unrealistic; nevertheless, it could, in theory, lead to more separatist discourses, which would weaken the country even more.

Lately, Hungarian far-right politicians such as the MEPs Bela Kovacs and Csanad Szegedi as well as MP Márton Gyöngyösi have been talking about “protection” of the minority in Ukraine, calling for more autonomy and decentralized self-governance. The current government has expressed itself: “Of the cross-border Hungarian communities, the Hungarians of Transcarpathia are struggling the most tenaciously for survival and the Hungarian Government is supporting this struggle via economic means”, declared Levente Magyar, Trade’s Minister of State for Economic Diplomacy of Hungary from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and on the 16th of July 2016.

The issue of the “struggling” Hungarian minority in the West of Ukraine has been actively discussed not only by Hungary, but by Russia as well. The possibility of making a second “separatist front” would be beneficial for Putin as he is using all possible means inside and outside Ukraine to weaken it, such as by targeting Crimea, Donbas, but also Belarus, Transnistria and minorities. The Hungarian sociologist Pal Tamas, an expert on Russian-Hungarian relations, stressed in 2015: "According to Russian state philosophy, Orbán is like the Biblical Jonas who was swallowed by the whale - in this case, by the EU - and who is giving signs from within the whale's belly .... And since there are other small ones inside the whale, Orbán's signs could encourage them, too. This would be to Putin's liking."

At the same time with the current crisis Ukrainian authorities do not seem to pay enough attention to the issue. As there is no active decentralization going on, communities demand more rights and especially the right of self-determination. At the beginning of 2016, the Legislative Assembly of Transcarpathia has demanded autonomy from Ukraine, but was ignored by the central government. At the same time, the members of Jobbik, the “Movement for a Better Hungary”, which won 20% of the votes in parliamentary elections, even brought in the idea of getting back the territory as before the Treaty of Trianon. “What happened in the Trianon Palace in Versailles after the First World War was that the enemies of Hungary dictated the fate of our country on the basis of lies, manipulated figures, and false reports” stated the third largest party. Nevertheless, Hungarians of Ukraine do not rush for separatist moves.

A Little Bit of History

It is important to note that Transcarpathia was the last territorial acquisition of the Soviet Union (and, thus, the Soviet Ukraine) at the end of the Second World War in 1945. The region has never been a part of the Kyivan Rus’. However, from the early XIIth century until World War I Transcarpathia belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary. Between the two wars of the XXth century, it was part of the new Czechoslovakia. Afterwards, at the beginning of World War II, the region was forcibly returned to Hungary under the First Vienna Treaty. Even though Transcarpathia has been a part of different countries — the Hungarian Kingdom, Habsburg Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia – the region almost always had a special, autonomous status.

From 1944 the region was “liberated” by the Soviet army, called the Zakarpattia Oblast and underwent the process of “sovietization”. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 the region became a part of an independent Ukraine. The region was key for the USSR because from Transcarpathia and the former Czechoslovakian territories, Moscow had a territorial connection with all countries of Central Europe and means of military intervention. In December 1991, a general regional referendum was held in Transcarpathia in which the inhabitants of the region were asked whether to “grant Transcarpathian region the status of an autonomous province within Ukraine". 78% of the citizens of the region answered “yes”.  Nevertheless, the results of the referendum were never fulfilled by the central government.

The Minority Today

Today the Hungarian minority in Ukraine is 156,600 people strong. They constitute 12.1% of the population (12.7% when the native language is concerned) of the Transcarpathia region. In some cities such as Berehovo and Chop ethnic Hungarians make up for almost a half of the population. As they mostly live in villages and are involved in agriculture, the percentage of ethnic Hungarians in Berehovo countryside goes up to 80%.

According to the Constitution of Ukraine, Ukrainian is the only national language. However, citizens who belong to national minorities are guaranteed in accordance with the law the right to receive instruction in their native language, or to study their native language in state and communal educational establishments and through national cultural associations. According to the Cultural center of national minorities of Transcarpathia, there are 13 Hungarian cultural associations. In the region the are 63 schools where education is only in Hungarian, 29 with Hungarian and Ukrainian languages and 1 with Russian and Hungarian. It is also possible to get higher education in Hungarian at the University of Uzhhorod. However, schools are mostly funded from outside the country. According to the Ukrainian legislation “On the governmental language policy” approved in 2012, Hungarian got an official status of a regional language in Berehovo and Vynohrad regions.

Ethnic Hungarians are involved in the politics of Ukraine. For instance, there are two Hungarian parties: the Party of Hungarians of Ukraine and the Democratic Party of Hungarians of Ukraine. However, there representation in the national parliament is very limited. According to Laszlo Brenzovich, the head of the Party of Hungarians of Ukraine who is the only ethnic Hungarian MP, the system of voting should be changed. For example, in Romania every minority votes according to their own list and not depending on the amount of votes at least one representative of each minority has a sit in the Parliament. The same system is functioning in Croatia. However, in Ukraine there is no legislation on this issue. Laszlo Brenzovich got the sit in the Parliament, as he was in the list of Petro Poroshenko Party, currently the leading political party of Ukraine. Thus the president made a deal to represent ethnic Hungarians inside his party in the Rada, but did not give a place for a separate one. There was a lot of discussion in Hungarian parties about injustice of this issue. These parties are mostly advocating for a better representation of ethnic Hungarians in the Ukrainian government, granting more rights to the minority and do not raise separatist talks.

Thus, Hungarians living in Ukraine do not advocate for independence or for joining Hungary. On the contrary, they do support the region being a part of Ukraine, but with more autonomy. The community is quite strongly represented on the local and regional level. After the start of the crisis in Ukraine, deputies of the Legislative Assembly of Transcarpathia have demanded autonomy from the Ukrainian nationalist state. The statement was adopted at the plenary session of the local parliament: "We demand the recognition of Transcarpathia as a special self-governing administrative territory. The necessary amendments to the Constitution of the country must be made without delay". Till now this demand was ignored by Ukrainian authorities, but highly supported by Hungary. The far-right Ukrainian party “Praviy sector” has stated its disapproval of these kind of declarations and is very negative in regard of granting ethnic minorities more rights.

Of course, the ethnic Hungarians are not the majority in the region, but just in some parts next to the border. Thus, asking for autonomy is quite unrealistic.  However, the widening of the rights of the minority and bigger representation on the regional and, most importantly, national level is very realistic and highly needed at this moment.

Hungarian Politics Towards its Minority in Ukraine

Ukrainian law bans dual citizenship. Article 4 of the Constitution of Ukraine reads: “There is single citizenship in Ukraine. The grounds for the acquisition and termination of Ukrainian citizenship are determined by law.” This is in theory. In practice, ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine can obtain Hungarian passports in an extremely easy manner. The ethnic Hungarian who is a citizen of Ukraine is only required to confirm that he is a Hungarian by nationality or to submit proofs that his family previously lived in the territory that used to belong to the Austro–Hungarian Empire. The most common method is to fill out the official population census’ form such that one’s nationality is “Hungarian”; it is also obligatory to prove knowledge of the language, history, and culture, though in practice, these requirements are rather declarative. The corruption in this procedure is also quite high. This citizenship law has been discussed in Hungary for more than 10 years and finally came into effect on January 1 2011. The government of Ukraine has been shutting its eyes on these actions in order not to be involved in a conflict in the region.

That is indeed beneficial for the current Hungarian government. The new citizens have the right to vote, and they would probably want to support the government that gave this right to them. At the same time, given the history, it is understandable that during the time of crisis Hungary tries to protect its ethnic minorities and giving them passports is one of the ways to do so.

Nevertheless, even having dual citizenship, people are not hurrying up to leave. According to them, salaries across the border are higher, but so are the prices. The villages near the border do not look very different one from another. In fact, many Hungarian citizens are crossing the border to come to Ukraine to buy products that are much more expensive in their native land. The EU passports are also utilized in order to facilitate trans-border trade and movement between the countries. Unlike Moldovans who almost all have Romanian passport, Hungary is in Schengen, which is beneficial for dual citizens.

Ukrainian crisis and Russian-Hungarian links

Having lost Crimea and being in the constant state of war in the East of Ukraine for almost three years, the Ukrainian government is highly concerned about preserving the country’s territorial integrity. Feeling its weakness, far-right Jobbik in Hungary or Russia, or both, might be tempted to try and separate Transcarpathia from Ukraine. Analyzing Russia’s foreign politics, one can note that Putin could prefer to see a state emerge in Transcarpathia, just like in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in August 2008. This is highly unlikely, but this scenario would exacerbate Ukraine’s critical state.

Russia and Hungary have been cooperating closely in the economic sector. In 2014, according to Reuters, Moscow made a 10 billion euro ($10.8 billion) loan to Hungary. Officially the loan is to finance the expansion of the Paks nuclear power plant, Hungary's only atomic power station, which supplies about 40% of the country's electricity. However, critics note that Russia is using its commercial relationships in order to influence the country’s politics. Viktor Orbán has also clearly expressed himself against the sanctions, underlining that they hurt Hungary's economic interests as well as those of the EU and without showing the desired effect. Nevertheless, Hungary did not used its veto on sanctions.

Russia has been accused multiple times for financing extremist (almost all far-right) parties in Europe for a long time. Hungary is not an exception. According to the Economist, Jobbik is one of them. Thus, it is perceived to represent Russian interests in different political spheres such as foreign policy, Euroskepticism, etc. In 2013 its leader described Russia as the guardian of Europe’s heritage, contrasting it with the “treacherous” EU. Its most controversial figure, Bela Kovacs, a member of the European Parliament who was accused of being a KGB spy, has lobbied on behalf of Russian interests and supported the invasion of Crimea.

Thus, ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine are not currently in the process of declaring their independence or asking to join Hungary. However, in the regional referendum of 1991 inhabitants of Transcarpathia clearly expressed their preference for the autonomy of the region, which has never been given. 

With the current events in the East of Ukraine, the economical and political crisis, a change is essential. Now could be the right moment to officially recognize ethnic minorities in Ukraine, such as Romanians, Russians, Hungarians, Bulgarians as separate minorities and give them more freedom from Kiev. Ukraine should redefine itself along its multiethnic policies. If it fails to do so, it could provoke nationalist movements within the Hungarian minority. However, Ukrainian authorities seem to be scared of decentralization in order not to get to the point of separatism. (As in the East of Ukraine where giving more rights to regions fueled separatist sentiments).

Currently there are no active political movements in Transcarpathia. However, under the influence of Russia, constant declarations by Jobbik members will continue to advocate for pre-Trianon boundaries, which means reunification with Transcarpathia. If this becomes a real threat, this weakness would be beneficial for both rightist movements in Budapest and for Moscow’s foreign policy. It can also lead to interventions, which would be catastrophic during this very moment of instability.

Ethnic Hungarians are asking for wider cultural and political autonomy and ruling of their own local affairs. One can just hope that consensus on the status of Transcarpathia will be found soon between the regional and the national parliaments in order to secure peace and stability in the region.

Further readings

  • Magocsi , Paul Robert, European Ukraine or Eurasian Little Russia?, New Eastern Europe, 10 March 2015.
  • Slobodchuk, Sergey, Why do European neighbor-countries give passports to Ukraine’s citizens?, EurAsia Daily, 29 December 2015.
  • Kozloff, Nikolas, Ukraine Crisis: Hands Off Transcarpathia!, Huffington Post, 20 April 2014
  • Haines, John R., Kárpátalja: Europe’s Next Crimea?, Foreign Policy Research Institute, 4 April 2014

 

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