Ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine’s Zakarpattya — NV interview

4 September, 10:15 PM
The Hungarian flag at the entrance to the city council building in Berehove (Photo:Genya Savilov / AFP via EastNews)

The Hungarian flag at the entrance to the city council building in Berehove (Photo:Genya Savilov / AFP via EastNews)

Stellas Aslanov, political science professor at Uzhhorod National University, spoke to NV about the mood of ethnic Hungarians in Zakarpattya Oblast and Russia’s infamous tendency to play the "Hungarian card" in Ukraine.

Even before the outbreak of the full-scale war, Hungarians of Zakarpattya, who make up about 12% of the oblast’s population, were the focus of special attention from Budapest. The illegal issuance of Hungarian passports, spread of anti-Ukrainian propaganda, and in particular the attitudes of Hungarian Ukrainians against the Law on Education of 2017 (which gave families the right to have their children educated in a local minority language, but required study of the state language sufficient for integration into Ukrainian society) could not but affect the mood in the area.

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And even after the start of the war, Zakarpattyan Hungarians remained to a certain extent in Hungary’s information orbit. According to a survey conducted by the sociological agency Smartpol and the Department of Sociology at Uzhhorod University, only 71% of Hungarians living in Zakarpattya believe that it is Russia that is responsible for the aggression in Ukraine (compared to practically 100% in other regions), and about 67% agree that Russia is a threat to peace in Europe.

NV spoke with Dr. Aslanov about how the Zakarpattyan Hungarians live now and whether pro-Russian Budapest has an influence on them.

NV: Before the big war with Russia, Hungary and Ukraine already had a conflict regarding the Law on Education. In particular, messages were heard from Budapest about the oppression of Hungarians in Zakarpattya Oblast and the Hungarian language in the region. With the start of a full-scale invasion, has this discussion disappeared?

Aslanov: Unfortunately, both before the war and after it began, Zakarpattyan Hungarians continue to feel this way. And this is despite the fact that the Verkhovna Rada [Ukrainian parliament] recently delayed implementation of the law in terms of teaching subjects in Ukrainian [the transition period was extended until Sept. 1, 2024]. However, this did not relieve tensions in the region. Today, the Hungarian government is very keenly using this topic to create a tense situation in matters of Ukraine's observance of the rights of the Hungarian national minority.

NV: Viktor Orban's policy towards Russia is quite unambiguous. He has emphasized that he does not consider Putin a war criminal and also said that Ukraine is no longer a sovereign state due to the Western support it receives. What is the attitude of Zakarpattyan Hungarians towards Orban today, as well as towards Hungary's policy towards Russia and Ukraine in general? How big is Budapest’s influence on this part of the population?

Aslanov: The influence is quite significant, first of all because Zakarpattyan Hungarians consume electronic and print media from Hungary. And a significant amount of leading Hungarian press is under the direct influence of Orban’s government.

There are two socio-political organizations representing Hungarian interests in Zakarpattya today: the Society of Hungarian Culture of Zakarpattya with a large number of members and supporters, and the smaller Democratic Union of Hungarians of Ukraine. Both organizations have the same goal – to protect the linguistic, cultural, religious and other rights of the Hungarians – but their political positions are different.

Thus, the Society of Hungarian Culture of Zakarpattya supports the Hungarian government, which generously pays them for it.  On the other hand, the Democratic Union is aligned closer to Ukrainian state policy, as members of the organization believe that it is necessary to study the Ukrainian language in general educational institutions and advocate the integration of Hungarians into Ukrainian society. They clearly understand there is a war between Russia and Ukraine, and this is not some "internal conflict." This differs significantly from the position of the Society of Hungarian Culture in Zakarpattya.

It is important to understand that Hungary's policy towards its citizens abroad is not being formed today, but has been built over the entire 30 years of Ukraine's independence, and now we are seeing the results.

NV: After the beginning of the war, has the number of people in Zakarpattya who support Orban changed?

Aslanov: Research on this issue has not been conducted, so it is difficult to say whether the percentage has changed, but my subjective opinion is that it has not decreased. I think that the proportion of those who support Orban is quite significant. But at the same time, there are also Zakarpattyan Hungarians who are defending our country at the front lines, in various branches of the military. According to data from my faculty colleague – future Ukrainian Ambassador to Hungary Professor Fyodor Shandor – the number of ethnic Hungarians (those who were born in purely Hungarian families) and citizens of Hungarian origin (born in mixed families) fighting for Ukraine now totals around 400.

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NV: Early last year, Russia tried to play the "Hungarian card" to destabilize the situation in Ukraine, sending fake nationalist messages to Berehove. Did it affect the Hungarians in the region?

Aslanov: This all happened as part of Russia’s hybrid war. Before that, there were incidents of arson at the office of the Society of Hungarian Culture of Zakarpattya. Of course, those who organized this aimed at psychologically and morally influencing local Hungarians. But to say that the locals were scared would be an exaggeration. Perhaps there was a category of people who took it to heart, but I'm still convinced that the vast majority reacted calmly.

Zakarpattya has also historically been a multinational region, so no local residents would deliberately aggravate the interethnic situation. These were all provocations carried out by various organizations, in particular Russian ones.

NV: Was there an outflow of Hungarian Ukrainians with Hungarian passports abroad?

Aslanov: Anyone who wanted to leave Ukraine for permanent residence in Hungary did so back in the 90s or 2000s. But many Zakarpattyan Hungarians work abroad. After martial law was declared, they did not return to Ukraine and remained in Hungary. As soon as the war ends, they will come home, not everyone of course, but they do not have such political and ideological convictions to fight and give their lives for the state.

NV: Were there cases when men liable for military service left using their Hungarian passports because of fear of mobilization?

Aslanov: At the beginning [of the invasion], they left, but now it is no longer possible. The State Border Guard Service has information [on who has both a Ukrainian and a Hungarian passport].

NV: Zakarpattya is one of the regions where migrants have arrived en masse. How has this affected the local community? How are internal migrants treated?

Aslanov: There are very hospitable people in Zakarpattya. All Zakarpattyans were happy to help, especially in the first very difficult months of the war. There were no attitudes of "we’re being flooded with people.” Of course, there may have been isolated conflict situations for various reasons, but in general the attitude was very positive.

NV: How can ethnic conflicts in Zakarpattya be avoided during war? What should Kyiv do, or how should it adjust its rhetoric in order to avoid irritants in the region and gain more support from the local population?

Aslanov: In general, the ethno-national sphere is very sensitive. The policy of the state must be correct and balanced, since interethnic conflicts can flare up even from the smallest problems. Unfortunately, for almost all its 30 years of independence, Ukraine did not pay due attention to this issue and did not introduce an ethno-national policy at the proper level. Indeed, the UN recognized the law on national minorities, adopted in 1992, as one of the best and most liberal in the world, but life is moving forward and the demands of national minorities have changed during this time.

A new law was recently passed which received [critical] comments from the Venice Commission. Let's hope that the policy of our state will be flexible, consistent, and respect the linguistic, educational, spiritual, religious and other rights of all citizens of Ukraine.

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