The government of Hungary did a very strange thing on October 11. The Ministry of Foreign affairs of Hungary informed the Ukrainian Embassy in Budapest that there is going to be a rally held on October 13 under the slogan “Self-determination for Zakarpatia.”
Zakarpatia (Transcarpathia) is an oblast, or region, that is the westernmost in Ukraine. It borders Hungary. Zakarpatia is home to an ethnic Hungarian population that is 156,600 strong, according to the 2001 census of Ukraine. A rally to proclaim “Self-determination for Zakarpatia,” when it is sponsored by the government of Hungary, can only mean a push for autonomy or for separation or for annexation of “Hungarian” Ukraine to Hungary. It is gross interference in the internal affairs of a neighbouring country by the government of Viktor Orbán.
The government of Ukraine responded immediately. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine sent a diplomatic note of protest. Taking to Twitter, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pavlo Klimkin, said this: “We urgently sent a note of protest with a demand to ban this provocation! We are sure Hungary will continue to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
Ukraine has passed an education law that clarifies the position of the state language, Ukrainian, as the primary language of instruction for Ukrainian children in Ukrainian schools. The law is an internal matter for Ukraine. It follows the practice of other European countries to teach primarily in the state language in state schools (private schools are free to teach in whatever language they choose). Ukraine’s education law is a carefully considered foundation for young people: it will prepare young Ukrainians to take examinations in the state language for higher education and it will prepare them to participate fully as citizens in public affairs.
The government of Hungary has chosen to take extreme exception to Ukraine’s education law, claiming that it infringes on minority language rights. Some government officials in Hungary are practically in hysterics about it. The Hungarian Foreign Minister, Peter Szijjarto, accused Ukraine of “significantly violating the principles of Ukraine-EU Association Agreement” and he then threatened to initiate a revue of that Agreement: “We can’t let this happen. The government of Hungary will stand against these Ukrainian steps in the strongest possible terms.” Szijjart said that Hungary will be blocking all initiatives that could be favourable to Ukraine, in every possible forum and every international organization, especially the EU. Without waiting for an evaluation of the education law by European experts, Hungary has launched an all-out diplomatic assault on Ukraine.
What is behind the hysteria in Hungary about Ukraine? A Ukrainian official in President Poroshenko’s office, Konstantin Yeliseyev, had this to say: “All these hysterical statements from the Hungarian side are connected with the parliamentary elections in Hungary that will take place next year and the desire of Hungary to divert attention from existing problems with the EU, particularly in the context of the migration issues.” The party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance, is a right-wing populist party, and it is challenged on the far right by Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary. Jobbik is financed by Russia. One of the policies of Jobbik is to restore a “Greater Hungary” to encompass the territory it held before the Treaty of Trianon of 1920. This would mean annexation of Ukraine’s Zakarpatia oblast to Hungary.
Hungary has done this once before in modern history. The independent state of Carpatho-Ukraine was proclaimed on 15 March 1939 – with the state language declared to be Ukrainian. Hungary, which was an ally of Nazi Germany, invaded immediately, and crushed the nascent state in a day. Hungary annexed Carpatho-Ukraine. Although later the Ukrainian Insurgent Army fought battles against the Hungarian army, Hungary held this territory until the end of the Second World War. A sizeable chunk of the Hungarian population thinks either Zakarpatia “isn’t really Ukrainian” or Zakarpatia belongs to Hungary.
In the face of Hungarian hysteria, the Ukrainians are practicing patience and urging rational dialogue. Ukraine has invited the Vienna Commission to evaluate the education law. Ukrainian ministers have invited their Hungarian counterparts to visit schools in Zakarpatia. Hungary has no evidence and no arguments to back up its claim that Ukraine is going against European standards about respect for ethnic minorities and their language rights. Nevertheless, Hungary makes extreme statements and threats against Ukraine. This may be nasty identity politics being played out for a domestic audience in Hungary, as Mr. Yeliseyev postulates. But it could be much, much worse. Hungary is speaking and acting with respect to Zakarpatia in the same way Russia does with respect to Crimea and Donbas. Like Russia, Hungary is shouting “Protect our people!” to justify its interference in the sovereign affairs of another country.
Putin’s Russia sees Ukrainian citizens who speak Russian as “Russian citizens”; Orbán’s Hungary sees Ukrainian citizens who speak Hungarian as “Hungarian citizens.” The chauvinism of Putin and of Orbán cannot grasp the modern, European, and Western idea that nationality is a quality that transcends language and ethnicity. Regardless of tongue or blood, someone whose homeland is Ukraine is a Ukrainian. It is a simple, transcendent, and noble idea. Ukraine after the Revolution of Dignity more fully grasps this idea of nationality than does Putin’s Russia or Orbán’s Hungary. The people of Zakarpatia don’t need a rally in Hungary to give them what they already have: lucky to live in democratic Ukraine, they already enjoy self-determination.