April 13, 2022

Zakarpattia, Ukraine

Far from the war, in Ukraine’s sleepy, western city of Uzhhorod, whose crumbling pastel-coloured Habsburg-era buildings straddle the river Uzh, government officials are concerned about the growing tension with Hungary. Despite Hungary’s voting in favour of EU sanctions against Russia, its supply of major humanitarian support to western Ukraine, and its hosting of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, the country’s refusal to supply weapons or use its territory as a transit point for them has won the enmity of the Zelenskyy administration, which has singled it out for allegedly “helping Putin”.

At his recent Budapest victory speech, the re-elected Viktor Orbán drew one of the biggest laughs from the jubilant crowd when, along with Brussels, George Soros and the international NGO lobby, he listed Zelenskyy as one of his defeated foes. But that wasn’t his only reference to Ukraine: Orbán also had a message for the country’s ethnic Hungarian minority. He offered “a special greeting to the Hungarians of Transcarpathia: I tell them not to grieve, to hold on — the Mother country is with them”.

The timing, while the world was watching the uncovering of Russian war crimes in Bucha, was not opportune. But the delicate situation of the roughly 150,000 ethnic Hungarians of Ukraine’s western Zakarpattia province — Transcarpathia, to Hungarians — has long been a source of tension between the two countries. Now the current war has heightened Ukrainian anxieties of potential Hungarian irredentism, to the delight of Russian propagandists.

In a controversial Facebook post on 24 March, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereschuk accused Orbán of being reluctant to deepen sanctions because Putin had secretly promised him to “hand back Transcarpathia” in the event of a Ukrainian defeat, a claim immediately denounced by Hungary’s official spokesman Zoltan Kovacs as “not only groundless but also insane”.

In his office in Budapest’s Matthias Corvinus Collegium, surrounded by plaques and photographs gifted by Ukrainian military units he had met on research trips, Attila Demko, former head of planning for Hungary’s Ministry of Defence, gave me his opinion on Vereschuk’s comments.  “I think it’s very unwise,” he said, “I think she believes Russian propaganda. Russian propaganda wants to split Nato. They want to have the Ukrainians and Hungarians debating… so maybe she made a huge mistake with repeating Russian propaganda.”

Russian propaganda networks in both Ukraine and Hungary have long stressed the purported desire of Ukraine’s ethnic Hungarians to be reunited with their kin over the western border, and Russian intelligence networks have tried to use the Hungarian question to destabilise Ukraine. A recent campaign of sending threatening SMS messages to ethnic Hungarians was undoubtedly a Russian intelligence effort, Demko assured me, just as the much-publicised 2018 petrol bomb attack on a Hungarian cultural centre in Uzhhorod (Ungvár to Hungarians) turned out to be the work of Polish ultranationalists in the employ of a Russian agent, who died “of a heart attack, aged 45” shortly after his escape to Moscow.

But in reality, there’s no desire “beyond some very narrow nationalist circles” for territorial reconquest, Demko told me, “and anyway, it’s impossible in today’s Europe”. The Hungarian portion of Zakarpattia’s population has dwindled over the decades so that they now make up only 12% of the region’s population. That said, the region’s Hungarian minority are an “important historic community”, he added, reminding me that “this land, part of Ukraine, was part of Hungary until 1945 for 1000 years,” when it was annexed by first Czechoslovakia and then the Soviet Union after a brief wartime interlude of Hungarian rule, “against the will of the local population”.

“There was no vote,” he emphasised, “There was no self-determination. It was war, and it was taken in war, so the local Hungarians still watch Hungarian TV, still use the Hungarian timezone, still speak much better Hungarian than Ukrainian, still feel themselves Hungarian. Ukrainians cannot change it without forcing them.”

Whether or not Ukrainian-Hungarians are being forced to change their sense of national identity is one of the main issues of contention between the two countries: in the eyes of many Hungarians, including the current government, the rise of Ukrainian nation-building efforts since the war with Russia began in 2014 has had the unfortunate effect of placing undue pressure on them to speak Ukrainian in place of their native Hungarian.

Was this an unintended consequence of attempting to reinforce a sense of Ukrainian-ness under Russian threat, I asked Balász Orbán, Viktor Orbán’s strategic advisor? “Probably unintended,” he replied, “I understand that their intention wasn’t to violate the rights of the Hungarians. Rather, they wanted to focus on Russia.” But Ukraine’s adoption under Zelenskyy’s predecessor, the Right-wing populist former president Petro Poroshenko, of new educational and language laws promoting the use of Ukrainian in daily life affected the right of ethnic Hungarians “to be educated in their mother language and to use their mother language in public life,” he told me. “That’s a serious violation.”

***

In the Zakarpattia Oblast administration building, bored soldiers standing behind sandbag gun emplacements guard the cavernous marble staircases. Seated at a wide table, Igor Shynkriuk, Deputy Chief of the Zakarpattia administration greeted me. A former Lieutenant-colonel of Special Forces fighting Russian-backed separatists in Donbass, the muscular, buzzcutted Shynkriuk is a commanding presence in his black jacket, a holstered pistol at his waist. As of two years ago, he corrected me, Ukraine no longer refers to a Hungarian minority, only Ukrainian-Hungarians, to prevent Russian attempts at destabilisation, “because firstly, they are Ukrainian, secondly Hungarian”.

“For Ukrainians, they’re Ukrainian citizens, our friends. But for the Russian Federation, [they’re] the main thing of destabilisation here,” he told me. Groups of Russian saboteurs aiming to destabilise the ethnically mixed region had already been rounded up by local counterintelligence agents, he told me, as well as the Russian botnets in Odessa who sent the intimidating SMS messages to ethnic Hungarians. Furthermore, cooperation with Hungary on humanitarian aid was good: “perfect for now: that’s why we are actually very thankful.”

When I asked Shynkriuk about the 2017 language law, he replied “Shit”, before leaning back in his chair and exhaling slowly. The issue, he emphasised, was that ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine were going through the school system in Hungarian and coming out at the end entirely unable to speak Ukrainian. “I’m the person responsible for education in the region,” he told me, and in the end of year-ranking tables, “Transcarpathia is always in the last place, and I’ll tell you why: it’s the language… If they don’t understand the exams, how can they can pass them?”

What about the laws promoting the use of Ukrainian in public spaces, which Hungarian officials claimed caused ethnic Hungarians to feel wary of using their native language in everyday life? “No, that’s absolutely not true. That’s ridiculous,” he laughed. We were speaking in English now, he observed, “Do you see someone just running through the door and just kicking me out? That’s bullshit. Those claims about the language are the same useful [propaganda] for the Russians. Ukrainian-Hungarians know very well what exactly is happening, but I think it’s for after we win this war, when we’ve killed all those Russian orcs.”

The war beyond the mountains is yet to directly touch Zakarpattia — the nighttime air raid sirens are invariably false alarms, and it is the only region of Ukraine where volunteer checkpoints have not been set up along the roads. But a sense of emergency still lingers. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from deeper inside Ukraine have passed through on the way to Hungary and Slovakia, and thousands more have swelled Uzhhorod’s population, dependent on aid from local volunteers working from a converted wine cellar in the city centre.

Asking local ethnic Hungarian officials for their opinion was not an easy task. In the impoverished ethnic Hungarian village of Velyka Dobron, or Nagydobrony in Hungarian, the village mayor, seated in front of the Hungarian and Ukrainian flags inside a town hall, refused an interview, telling me that “that there’s a war on, I don’t want to cause problems”. Another village official, who had caused local controversy by playing both national anthems at official events, also turned down an interview, citing orders not to speak — he did not elaborate from whom. Local Hungarian teachers, cultural officials and political figures all declined, as did the Hungarian consulate in Uzhhorod, whose “security attaché” brushed away my questions with firmly polite refusals.

Talking to ordinary ethnic Hungarians — in Russian, because none could speak Ukrainian — in Velyka Dobron’s muddy marketplace, where a trader’s horse and cart was tethered near the statue of a peasant woman braiding paprika, their complaint was not that they were forced to learn Ukrainian, but rather that it was taught as a native rather than a foreign language, making it harder to grasp. “Education was better in Soviet times,” Diana, a middle-aged market trader complained. “The Ministry of Education doesn’t care about our problems.” In broken Russian, a young waiter in a hotel decked out in folksy Magyar kitsch told me that young ethnic Hungarian males with dual nationality weren’t permitted to leave the country, but neither did they want to join the army because they couldn’t understand orders in Ukrainian.

Certainly, local expressions of Hungarian identity were not being suppressed in Zakarpattia: in Velyka Dobron, a war memorial to the Hungarian Honvéd army of the First World War was bedecked in red-white-and-green wreaths to the glorious dead. In the largely Hungarian town of Berehove — Beregszász in Hungarian — where Hungarian was an official language, the public spaces seemed more intensely Hungarian than anywhere in Hungary, with bronze statues to national saints, kings and poets on every corner, and the Magyar tricolour flying from every official building, even as electronic billboards blasted out patriotic Ukrainian techno music over footage from the front.

Driving into the wooded foothills of the Carpathians, I left behind the main roads studded with billboards of the Virgin Mary protecting Ukraine and exhortations to join the Territorial Defence Forces and entered a tucked-away region of single-storey cottages protected by honking geese, where road signs announce ethnic Hungarian villages in ancient Magyar runes. Interrupting his lunch, I spoke to the 74-year-old farmer and winemaker Sándor Nagy, who gave me homemade cheese and samples of his latest vintage while unfurling a map of Greater Hungary. “Look at this map. It is Greater Hungary, former Hungary, and now it’s like this. It is our land, it is not just my own idea,” he told me. “We were born here, we want to speak Hungarian, say hello to each other, those who don’t want it can go to Hell, I don’t care!”

Like other ethnic Hungarians, Nagy was not impressed with the recent educational reforms, telling me: “They want everybody to speak Ukrainian, but they are so stupid they cannot teach Ukrainian in a proper way. They give literature to the first three years, but not phrases like “Give me, please, bread”, “give me, please, a glass of wine” — but instead texts from writers from 300 years ago. It’s not education, it’s stupidity.” As for the mood in the village: “We don’t care. Leave us alone. Even if Tartars come, French or even Putin, we don’t care. Let us live our peaceful life, here where we were born.”

***

In so far as a conflict between the Ukrainian and Hungarian states exists in Transcarpathia, the dividing line seems to be more age and class than solely ethnicity, with older, Hungarian-speaking rural populations looking towards Hungary and middle-class urbanites content with their dual identity. In a hipster bar in a converted Soviet bomb shelter in Uzhhorod, the local ethnic Hungarian writer Bandy Sholtes unzipped his rollneck cardigan to show me his “Russian Warship: Go Fuck Yourself” t-shirt, ignoring the air raid siren going off around us in favour of his beer — it was just another false alarm.

A bohemian, cosmopolitan figure, faintly scented with the fruit moonshine he was transporting to friends in Odessa, Sholtes told me such ethnic questions were an irrelevance in this preserved corner of Habsburg Mitteleuropa: “My grandmother’s grandfathers were born in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Then they were citizens of Czechoslovakia and then Hungary and they died Ukrainian citizens. And, you know, this region was like this, changing citizenships and never moving anywhere and never emigrating anywhere. It’s quite unique in Europe.” A fierce Ukrainian patriot, who had taken part in the Maidan revolution, Sholtes was not happy to see his dwindling community utilised in heated interstate rhetoric: “I think the situation is very hard because after our victory, I think we will have much to talk about with Hungary.”

If, as it seems, the issue is more the question of how Ukrainian is taught to Zakarpattia’s Hungarian minority, rather than it being taught at all, the dispute ought to be easily resolved. Yet in the current circumstances, with Ukraine struggling against an existential threat and wary of what it sees as an unduly close relationship between Hungary and Russia, small problems can easily spiral into a broader crisis. On the diplomatic level, relations are already deteriorating: last Wednesday, Hungary summoned the Ukrainian ambassador to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a dressing down over what Fidesz viewed as Ukrainian interference in Hungary’s election, telling him “it is time for the Ukrainian leaders to stop insulting Hungary and to take note of the will of the Hungarian people”. The risk is that in such a tense climate, minor disagreements between the two capitals which could otherwise be easily resolved may be inflated out of all proportion.

“I can’t say that this legislation is perfect,” the Ukrainian political analyst Dmytro Tuzhanskyi, director of the Institute for Central European Strategy told me at a cafe underneath Budapest’s towering Basilica. “So many gaps and shortcomings are in this legislation, especially regarding national minorities, where it’s always a sensitive question.” But the Hungarian rhetoric was overblown, he assured me: “they are talking about this law like it means closing of Hungarian schools, being forbidden to speak in Hungarian, forbidden to pray in Hungarian? And this is, you know, insane.”

“The problem is,” he added, “I think that both sides, Kyiv and Budapest, have no real capacity or expertise to manage this tension. Moreover, many from both sides are interested in maintaining this tension.” For Orbán, it was a useful card to use while conferring with Trump on applying pressure on Ukraine, he told me, and for Zelenskyy’s predecessor Poroshenko, Right-wing populism on the language question was also a useful political tool. “This is very irresponsible because when you use ethnicity, in the sense of political manipulation, it is like Pandora’s box. It can be very, very dangerous.”

At a time of existential threat for Ukraine, both capitals will need to work carefully together to defuse such points of tension. The Russian propaganda about secessionist sentiment in Zakarpattia may have little basis in reality — but for both Hungary and Ukraine, the escalating rhetoric may have very real consequences.

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