Tensions have worsened between Budapest and Kyiv over a Ukrainian language law, which Hungary considers hostile to its minority population in the Transcarpathia region.
Relations between the two countries have been strained ever since the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine in September 2017 adopted the Law “On Ensuring the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as the State Language” in September 2017.
The law, which Budapest says is violating minority education and language rights of the sizeable ethnic Magyar community in Ukraine’s western-most districts, was approved by Ukraine’s parliament in April this year. The number of ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine, most of whom live in the Transcarpathia region, is estimated at 140,000.
“The aim of the law is not to prohibit the use of any language, but to support developing of the Ukrainian as a state language, but eliminating the aftermath of a discriminatory approach to the Ukrainian language, that remained from the era of the Russian Empire and the USSR,” the Embassy of Ukraine to Hungary told EURACTIV in May.
“The problem of eliminating the consequences of the violent Russification is familiar to the EU member states as well, in particular to the Baltic countries, who are also taking measures to protect and develop their state language,” it said.
By the end of this year, a special law will also be prepared to ensure the use and development of the languages of indigenous people and national minorities in accordance with the democratic standards, EURACTIV was then informed.
But while the provisions of the law were aimed at ensuring the position of the Ukrainian language as the country’s official language, it essentially bans the use of ethnic languages in the public sphere, including education.
“After the spring presidential election, we trusted that rapid change will occur,” Fidesz MEP Andrea Bocskor, an ethnic Hungarian from Ukraine who was re-elected into the European Parliament, having a Hungarian passport, told the Parliament’s plenary session in Strasbourg on Monday (15 July).
She, however, stated that “the Central Election Commission has again refused to set up a Hungarian majority constituency” and that there are further concerns about “numerous serious abuses” Transcarpathian Hungarians are facing during the campaign period leading up to the 21 July parliamentary elections in Ukraine.
“Above all, these abuses are manifested in vote purchases, or the launch of clones with a similar political experience, which have no political experience, to deceive voters, or to cast votes, and even more rude: secret services also harras those involved in the campaign of a particular representative,” the Transcarpathian politician said in her speech.
On Monday (15 July), during a gathering of EU foreign ministers, Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó according to Hungarian media criticised “the unprecedented, unacceptable and un-European violent house searches at the leaders of Transcarpathian Hungarian organisations”, which according to him took place on Monday morning.
Szijjártó, however, stated that Hungary considers the newly elected Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, to be “a new hope” as Zelensky had promised during his election campaign to review the law “to ensure the constitutional rights of minorities in Ukraine”.
Hungary will be happy to return to close cooperation with Ukraine if actions become words and Transcarpathia gets back its rights, Szijjártó told reporters in Brussels.
“For the benefit of the Transcarpathian Hungarians, Hungary also wants its future relations to be normalized with Ukraine,” Szijjártó added.
Ukraine condemns ‘election meddling’
In a statement issued by Ukraine’s foreign ministry, Kyiv warned Budapest “not to interfere in the internal affairs” of Ukraine after Szijjártó and several other Hungarian officials paid a visit to the border town of Berehove in Transcarpathia on Tuesday (16 July).
The visit was organised upon invitation of Ukrainian MP Vasyl Brenzovytch, who is currently campaigning for the Ukrainian parliamentary elections in the region, the Hungarian embassy in Ukraine said.
According to Ukrainian electoral law, however, “the participation in election campaigns is prohibited for foreign citizens, including in public events which are held in support of or with support of a political party or candidate for the Parliament”, the ministry’s statement said.
The Ukrainian foreign ministry had earlier expressed its surprise that despite a recommendation of the Ukrainian side, the head of the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office, Gergely Gulyás, paid an informal visit on Monday (15 July) and took part in a public event in the Uzhhorod district, using a diplomatic passport.
“We consider such actions of the Hungarian side as a violation of the diplomatic canons and the spirit of good-neighbourliness. The Ukrainian side reserves the right to take steps to prevent Hungary’s interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs,” the ministry statement said.
NATO talks remain on ice
Because of the dispute, Hungary continues to block Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO and the holding of Ukraine-NATO Commission talks.
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.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and the United States had been urging Hungary and Ukraine to resolve their differences over Ukraine’s minority language law.
“I hope that 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,” NATO Secretary-General, Jens 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 region are returned the full rights to their native language.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]