June 06, 2014
Donetsk? Luhansk? Not quite.
This is happening along Ukraine’s westernmost tip, in the Zakarpattia region. And the foreign leader stirring the ethnic pot isn’t Russia’s Vladimir Putin, but Viktor Orban, the prime minister of European Union-member Hungary.
“Ukraine can be neither stable nor democratic if it does not give its minorities, including Hungarians, their due,” Orban said recently.
Zakarpattia, a southwestern Ukrainian region bordering Slovakia, Romania, and Hungary, is no Donbas, where armed insurgents have attempted to create separatist Russian-backed republics. And Orban, despite what critics describe as harboring nationalistic and authoritarian tendencies, is no Putin — and is unlikely to provoke similar unrest. He insists he supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
But Hungarian calls for self-rule in the region show that simmering discontent among ethnic minorities is not just a problem in Ukraine’s restive east. And it illustrates that Russia may not be the only neighboring country seeking to capitalize on Ukraine’s fragile state following the Euromaidan uprising.
In places like Berehove, a city of 24,000, 5 kilometers from the Hungarian border, it’s clear that Budapest has done more than pay lip service to its desire to create a “national reunification” beyond its borders. Children can go to Budapest-funded Hungarian schools and adults can make pilgrimages to monuments dedicated to Hungarian heroes. Ethnic Hungarians can enter Hungary on Hungarian passports and they can vote in Hungarian elections.
And for the first time, Orban’s ruling Fidesz party is sending a Zakarpattia resident to Brussels to represent Hungary in the European Parliament.
“Orban wants to claim that he has symbolically united the nation,” says Szabolcs Pogonyi, a professor of nationalism studies at Central European University in Budapest.
After World War I and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungary lost more than two-thirds of its former territory. Much of this is now part of Slovakia, Romania, and Croatia.
Zakarpattia, known to Hungarians as Transcarpathia, became part of the newly formed Czechoslovakia after World War I. In 1945, after World War II, it became part of the Soviet Union’s Ukrainian republic.
A Hungarian extreme-right party, Jobbik, which received 20 percent of the vote in the April parliamentary elections, has called for those lands to rejoin Hungary proper.
Orban, for his part, has stuck to promoting a form of “cultural autonomy” also supported by local ethnic Hungarian leaders.
A declaration signed in late March by 37 NGOs asks that the community be recognized as “a state-forming, native nation” within Ukraine. It also indirectly references isolated threats by Ukrainian nationalists, including the desecration of a Hungarian monument.
A monument in Uzhhorod to Sandor Petofi, a Hungarian poet and revolutionary, is one of many tributes to Hungarian figures in Zakarpattia.
Speaking to RFE/RL In the Zakarpattia state administration building in Uzhhorod, a city whose cobblestone roads wind down to the Uzh River from a centuries-old Hungarian castle, Laszlo Brenzovics says, “It’s the right of our people to decide questions on our own.”
“Right now we have this system — it’s really, really centralized. And all questions are decided by Kyiv and only by Kyiv,” says Brenzovics, who is the official head of the ethnic Hungarian community and a regional parliament deputy. “This isn’t democracy or self-rule.”
A law passed in 2012 allowed administrative districts in Ukraine where an ethnic minority comprises more than 10 percent of the population to establish official regional languages that could be used in public institutions, including schools.
Brenzovics and other leaders who spoke to RFE/RL complain that while Hungarian was given regional-language status in some Zakarpattia districts, Hungarian-language institutions are still administered by people appointed centrally by Kyiv. And in Hungarian schools, teaching of Ukrainian as a second language is ineffective.
In cities like Uzhhorod, where Hungarian speakers make up less than 10 percent of the population and many identify as mixed, there is little sense of a dividing language line.
The staff at a Hungarian cafe say they like living in Berehove, but wish wages were closer to EU standards, like in Hungary.
But back in Berehove, where ethnic Hungarians make up half the population overall and over 90 percent in some neighborhoods, the disconnect appears more stark. “My daughters go down the street and speak only Hungarian,” says Jozsef Tarpai, who runs a Hungary tour office. “They will not hear Ukrainian.”
At the Berehove Hungarian Institute, a group of seven teenagers gnawing on buffet food all claim they are unable to speak Ukrainian. And according to 2001 census data, 60 percent of people who identified as being native Hungarian speakers said they were unable to speak another language.
It’s The Economy!
But if language will hinder Hungarian integration into Ukraine for future generations, there is a more pressing concern for many here — the economy.
At a Hungarian cafeteria off of Berehove’s main street, Shando Ferenc says that talk of autonomy is “for the politicians.” “For now, we don’t have problems. We have Hungarian theaters, Hungarian universities, Hungarian schools — all the culture that we need.”
His colleague, Katalin Czege, quickly cuts him off. “But we also need Hungarian wages and pensions,” she says.
The group of restaurant workers say they make the equivalent of $110 a month — far less than a similar job might pay in Hungary.
Of the major countries with significant Hungarian minorities, Ukraine is the only one that is not currently in the EU or on an EU path.
And that reality gives locals a practical, economic reason to establish closer ties to Budapest.
And when Ferenc and his colleagues talk about Hungary, they say they speak not from rumors, but from frequent — and easy — trips across the border to visit friends and relatives who they say live at “EU-level” standards.
Officially, dual citizenship is illegal in Ukraine, but it is a misdemeanor and is rarely — if ever — prosecuted. Close to 100,000 Ukrainians are estimated to have at least two passports.
Ferenc, who also holds a Hungarian passport, says his mother and sister have chosen to live in Hungary because of the opportunities for a higher standard of living.
This is natural and logical, says Peter Balazs, who served as Hungarian foreign minister in 2009-10 and agrees with Orban in his support of self-determination as “a fundamental human right.”
Nonetheless, he says that given the situation in Ukraine’s east the prime minister’s statements are “not very wise.” “It attaches the relatively easy question of minority Hungarians within Ukraine to the extremely difficult and complex problem of the very big Russian minority in the east of the country,” he says.
In early June, Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Natalya Halibarenko used this logic to dismiss pleas for autonomy, telling a Hungarian newspaper that Orban’s comments played into Russia’s hands.
Locals though, reject the comparisons, and there is little evident support of separatist sentiment. “We know that we are not Crimea, we are not eastern Ukrainian. We lived here, we want to live here but we want to change the situation,” says Tarpai, the tour operator who also runs a Ukrainian-Hungarian NGO.
But will they?
Near the bus depot on the outskirts of town, “friendship” is printed on each of two fading arches welcoming visitors to the pitch of a local soccer club — the first using the Ukrainian “druzhba” and the second with the Hungarian “baratsag.”
Inside, the grass is unkempt and the stadium is empty. The closest town in Hungary is a 10-minute drive away.