Hungary blocks NATO statement on Ukraine over minority rights row

Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto speaks during the 1st Eurasia Forum in Hotel Hilton Budapest in Budapest, Hungary, 30 October 2019. [EPA-EFE/ZSOLT SZIGETVARY]

Hours before a Russian state visit to Budapest on Wednesday (30 October), Hungary vetoed a joint NATO statement about Ukraine because it did not mention the “deprivation of rights” of the Hungarian minority in the neighbouring country’s Transcarpathia region.

“Hungary won’t surrender the Transcarpathian Hungarian community to geopolitics,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó announced after Budapest refused to approve the NATO Ambassadors statement.

Szijjártó said Hungary had submitted several amendment proposals to the declaration stating that Ukraine must fulfil its duties towards minorities according to international law.

“We even made recommendations that refer to the Council of Europe and the United Nations in regards to minority issues,” said the foreign minister.

Since these proposals were rejected, “we had no other choice than to veto the declaration”, Szijjártó added.

According to Szijjártó, “it would be a sign of at least some minimal allied solidarity” for a joint statement to say something about infringements on the rights of an ethnic minority group related to one of the member states.

The recent incident is not the only occasion where Budapest, a NATO member since 1999, has obstructed Ukraine’s ambitions to tighten military and economic links with the EU and NATO.

Relations between Kyiv and Budapest have been strained ever since Ukraine’s Parliament adopted the law “On Ensuring the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as the State Language” in September 2017.

Budapest insists that changes to Ukrainian education and language laws curtail minority rights and Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government is also at odds with Ukraine because it does not allow ethnic Hungarians there to hold dual citizenship.

Due to the dispute, Hungary continues to block Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO and the holding of Ukraine-NATO Commission talks.

Hungary is “holding NATO’s relations with Ukraine hostage”, a European diplomat said after the veto on the declaration.

Although Ukraine’s embassy to Hungary told EURACTIV in May it expected talks between foreign ministers of Ukraine and Hungary to take place “in the nearest future”, hoping they would improve bilateral relations and help remove Budapest’s blockage of the talks, recent comments suggest the issue is here to stay.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Washington have been urging Hungary and Ukraine to resolve their differences over Ukraine’s minority language law.

“I hope Ukraine and Hungary will resolve the differences, which we all know are there. And I hope that through dialogue between Budapest and Kyiv, it’s possible to find solutions to the disagreements. We will continue to provide support to Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said when the dispute started.

Budapest, meanwhile, has said it would lift the veto on Ukraine-NATO talks and provide €50 million for border infrastructure development only after Hungarians living in the Transcarpathia are granted full rights.

Hungary is on course to be the first country in Central and Eastern Europe to host a NATO headquarters after Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia sent a joint letter to Stoltenberg about their plans to establish a regional military command centre.

During last week’s NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels, the four countries signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a ‘Multinational Division Command for Central and Eastern Europe’, which would be responsible for training the special operations troops of the four NATO countries, in the city of Szolnok, from early 2021.

Szijjarto’s comments came ahead of a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Budapest on Wednesday afternoon, where Orbán and Putin are expected to discuss the Paks II power plant expansion, built by the Russian state-owned Rosatom, as well as the possible construction of a new stretch of the TurkStream gas pipeline in Hungary.

Critics have repeatedly suggested that the Hungarian government might be undermining Ukraine’s western integration efforts due to Orbán’s relationship with Putin.

Earlier in 2018, Szijjárto spoke about a “campaign” targeted at Budapest,  where “they came up with the vile lie that Hungary defends the Transcarpathian Hungarians, when in reality it is acting in accordance with the expectations of a third party, namely Russia.”

Speaking at the Eurasia Forum in Budapest on Wednesday, Szijjárto rejected criticism that the Hungarian relationship with Russia is too cosy or that Hungary advocates for “pragmatic relations with Russia because we are Russian spies.”

Szijjárto said such comments represented “laughable insults on the part of our Western friends.”

Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, however, stated just ahead of the visit in Budapest that both leaders may touch upon the situation of national minorities in Ukraine at their meeting.

“It is not about discussing the old [Ukrainian] government or the new one because it is the country’s internal affair,” Peskov noted according to Russian news agency Tass.

“At the same time, there definitely are some issues that cause concern both to us and the Hungarians,” Peskov said, pointing to “the issue of minorities living in border areas.”

“Hungary has repeatedly said that the processes going on there were unacceptable,” he added.

There are “definitely some issues that cause concern both to us and the Hungarians,” Peskov said.

**Vlagyiszlav Makszimov contributed to this report.

[Edited by Samuel Stolton]

Hungary and Ukraine exchange warnings over Transcarpathia

Tensions have worsened between Budapest and Kyiv over a Ukrainian language law, which Hungary considers hostile to its minority population in the Transcarpathia region

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