In September 2017 the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, passed a law that makes the Ukrainian language the only language allowed to be used in the classroom. Ukraine has different minority languages such as Russian, Hungarian, Romanian and Polish. However, Hungary immediately declared that the law discriminates against the ethnic Hungarian minority. This was the start of an on-going conflict between Hungary and Ukraine which has reached its climax over a passport issue in Ukraine’s border region, Zakarpattya, which hosts a large Hungarian community. The problems resulted in Ukraine and Hungary both expelling diplomats from each other.
Passports for ethnic Hungarians
Since 2010, when Viktor Orban came to power, the Hungarian government started handing out identity cards to ethnic Hungarians who live in the Zakarpattya region, in Western Ukraine. The only demand from the Hungarian government is that the people who request a Hungarian identity card are fluent in the Hungarian language. In Zakarpattya, which became part of Ukraine in 1945 and before that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 150.000 ethnic Hungarians live up to this condition.
Already in 2015, the Hungarian government announced that they have given about 100,000 ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine citizenship, but it became a problem when a video was leaked on 19 September this year. In the video ethnic Hungarians are given the Hungarian citizenship followed by an oath, after they swear to keep their passport a secret for the Ukrainian authorities.
A reaction by the Ukrainian government followed. The Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin stated that the handing out of Hungarian passports is a means to intervene in Ukrainian politics and they consider it as a violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Klimkin demanded action from the Hungarian government, which he left unspecified.
Klimkin’s concerns are not baseless, it is true that the influence of Hungary is growing in the region. Besides offering citizenship, financial investments are being made, mostly to support the Hungarian education, but also influence in the local media is being bought. On the 19th of September, 50% of the local TV channel ‘21 Uzhhorod’ in Zakarpattya was bought with support of the Hungarian government. After the purchase the channel was renamed to ‘Ungvar 21’ which was considered better for the Hungarian audience.
A meeting was set In New York to de-escalate the tension between the countries on the 26th of September. But the meeting between the Foreign Ministers did not resolve the on-going problems. Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s Foreign Minister, stated that problems will not be solved as long as President Poroshenko is in power in Ukraine. Further, he declared that Hungary was not doing anything illegal and that it is in line with international law. The problems further escalated when Ukraine expelled the Hungarian consul in Transcarpathia and when a list of 300 state or Zakarpattia's local government officials who are allegedly dual nationals was published by Ukraine’s Myrotvorets (Peacekeeper) Center database. Szijjarto himself is also included in the list. Szijjarto considers the list as part of a hate campaign by President Poroshenko and as reaction Ukraine’s ambassador was summoned .
Hungary and Russia bonding
As a result of this conflict, Hungary is blocking the NATO-Ukraine Commission, including blocking its latest meeting in Brussels on October 3 and 4. Meanwhile, Hungary is bonding with Russia. In contrast to the tense relationship between Russia and the EU, Hungary seems on a rapprochement towards Russia, also opposing EU’s sanctions on the latter. Hungary stresses that it is striving for a better cooperation between the West and Russia and emphasizes, that when tension between East and West grow, Hungary always ends up suffering and they would like to prevent that.
Ukraine is concerned about the relationship between Russia and Hungary and is worried about the Russian influence on Hungary in relation to Ukraine’s integration process with the EU and NATO. According to Ukrainian authorities Russia is taking advantage of the tensions between Ukraine and Hungary and is even actively exacerbating them. In that context, for instance, Ukraine is blaming Russia for the attack on a Hungarian cultural center in Zakarpattya last February. With a draining war with its Eastern neighbor, Ukraine cannot afford a row, even just a diplomatic one, on its Western border.