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Harri Tiido: On Ukraine's Hungarian minority

Harri Tiido.
Harri Tiido. Source: ERR

Hungary and what it is to be Hungarian were under the spotlight in the latest installment of Vikerraadio show "Harri Tiido taustajutud," which follows, in the light of claims from some quarters that were Russia to obtain some sort of victory over Ukraine, a region of the latter will be Viktor Orban's reward for maintaining a contrary line on the war in comparison with the rest of the European Union.

Harri Tiido is a former Estonian ambassador to Finland.

The matter of Ukraine was once again an apparent source of controversy at the EU summit held at the end of last year which, generally speaking, ranged 26 member states against Hungary. Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, made a single concession, allowing the approval of the start of EU accession talks in regard to Ukraine.

When one takes into consideration that, in all probably, Orban in many aspects represents the Kremlin's interests, this was but a small concession in strategic terms.

Ultimately, Moscow's goal is to prevent Ukraine from moving towards the remainder of Europe. Meanwhile, Hungary still has opportunities to torpedo this further down the line, across 70 to 75 votes or decisions, depending on the calculation.

It might be that the price of this concession was the recent decision to release ten billion frozen Brussels euros to Budapest.

Orban did not relent on the allocation of funds to Ukraine – a tactical matter for Moscow, for whom it is important that aid from the West does not reach Kyiv.

This would result in Ukraine being forced to give up, solely for economic reasons, after which the EU question will be dropped.

This money issue was declared to be solvable without Hungary if necessary, but that's it.

It is also the case that the funding issue is, it was declared, resolvable without Hungary's involvement.

Some time ago, Orban justified his outburst by saying that the Hungarian minority in the far West of Ukraine was being discriminated against by Kyiv.

However, the Ukrainian Rada passed, and the president approved, a new minority rights law, one which fulfills the prescriptions of the Council of Europe and, more specifically, its Venice Commission.

Previously, education in the Hungarian language, in Ukraine, could run up to fifth grade, whereas now it is possible to study in the Hungarian language right up to the end of high school.

The only exceptions to this are subjects such as Ukrainian language and literature and history, which remain in Ukrainian. An exception has also been applied Russian-language schools, in that minority language rights do not apply here. That said, the changes in the law also meant that a whole series of legal acts concerning the rights of minorities had to be amended.

Subsequently Viktor Orban altered his rhetoric and announced that no funds could be provided to Ukraine on the grounds that it is the most corrupt country in the world.

In other words, the issue of the suppression of minorities had evaporated, as its basis had evaporated. The change in rhetoric demonstrated that this was just a pretext.

Ukraine is indeed, according to Transparency International 2022, ranked in 116th place out of 180 countries, but its trend is to move in an upwards direction. Incidentally, Hungary itself is in 77th place, at the bottom of the list so far as EU countries go, and moving in the opposite direction too.

It's certainly good the Hungarians will not disappear from Ukraine. If we talk numbers, in 1910 there were 183,000 Hungarians, or 30 percent of the population of Transcarpathia, an area now part of Ukraine.

According to the 2001 census, the total was 151,000 of them, or about 12 percent of the population of that region, while 2017, a study showed that the number was now 131,000. Add to that the current war and the likelihood of the movement people, this number could have dwindled to 80,000, although some estimates put the figure higher than that.

It needs to be borne in mind also that, for years, Hungary has generously extended its citizenship to its compatriots there, even as dual citizenship is not provided for under Ukrainian law.

In any case, a large proportion of Hungarians in Ukraine had, and still have the opportunity to move freely within the EU on a Hungarian, ie. EU member state, passport.

Looking from an historical perspective we can see that this region was part of [The Kingdom of] Hungary until 1918. With the disintegration of the dual monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, much of Transcarpathia was merged with the newly-created Czechoslovakia. The decision was confirmed in 1920, with the Treaty of Trianon (the punitive treaty which dealt with the former Austria-Hungary, just as the treaty of Brest-Litovsk dealt with the former Russian Empire, the Versailles Treaty, with German – ed.).

At the start of World War Two Hungary, allied with Hitler, took over these regions again. At the end of the war, Soviet units arrived as conquerors, and opted not to neither leave the region to Hungary, not to return it to Czechoslovakia either. It kept Transcarpathia for itself, and this was then incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR,

When the Soviet Union broke up and Ukraine became independent, Transcarpathia remained a part of Ukraine (as the Zakarpattia Oblast – ed.).

Journalists who have been there have expressed conflicting opinions on the mood of the locals. In all likelihood, much depends on who you end up speaking to.

Some ethnic Hungarians say that the war is not their business, and they prefer to support Hungary's line that a peace must be concluded.

Other ethnic Hungarians, however, state that Orban carries no authority with them, adding they have lived in this area for a thousand years and are now citizens of Ukraine; and Russia is the enemy In addition, they want the Hungarian prime minister to not take it upon himself to represent their interests, as they do not require his protection. In actual fact, hundreds of ethnic Hungarians have been, or are currently, fighting for Ukraine.

Hungary does, according to some observers at least, still have phantom pains of empire. Let us recall when Viktor Orban made media appearances wearing both a T-shirt and a scarf with the irredentist image of the former Greater Hungary (an area far larger than present-day Hungary and which includes swathes of territory in Slovakia, Romania and the Vojvodina region of Serbia, in addition to that in Ukraine – ed.).

Malicious gossip would have it that Orban hopes to get Transcarpathia back, as part of his country, in return for favors in the event of a Russian victory over Ukraine.

Recently, while talking to a Hungarian diplomat, he was adamant that they had no interest in this area, that Hungarians only constitute 10 percent of the population, so why take on the remained as part of Hungary... However, a diplomat's role is to protect the interests of his government.

In itself, this area has been and is quite diverse in population. In addition to Hungarians, Romanians and Ruthenians also live there, and historically there have also been German-speaking people, Jewish people, and perhaps representatives of some other ethnicities, living there too. When it comes to paying attention to compatriots, however, only Hungary stands out.

One journalistic study found that Hungary allocated €115 million euros to Transcarpathia between 2011 and 2020, one-and-a-half times larger than the region's annual [Ukrainian] budget. However, especially after the start of the full-scale Russian aggression, a large number of Hungarians in the region have come to distance themselves from Orban's vision of the war.

According to a poll last year, two-thirds of respondents in Transcarpathia were of the view that Hungary should provide military support to Ukraine in its war against Russia.

So, Orban still has plenty of explaining to do in that arena, if he doesn't limit himself entirely to relying on any Russian military successes.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

Source: Vikerraadio

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