Ethnic minorities living in Ukraine being stripped of their rights is an issue that draws a great deal of attention internationally. How clearly did the participants attending the conference in Krakow see the situation?
The objective of the event was to discuss the framework for minority rights in Ukraine in light of Ukraine's intention to join the European Union. Now that the deadline is approaching, and an assessment will be made in the autumn regarding how the recommendations by the Venice Commission (the Council of Europe's independent constitutional expert body - ed.) have been implemented, Ukraine is trying to speed things up a little. On September 21, a so-called amending law was adopted, which representatives of the Ukrainian government cited to prove that the country has implemented 90 percent of the recommendations made by the Venice Commission in its opinion on Ukraine's new law on national minorities adopted in December 2022. The conference gathered attendees who are obviously aware of the situation of national minorities residing in Ukraine, probably also of the Hungarian community in Transcarpathia, but different organizations, government actors, leaders of European institutions have different goals and aspects, and different opinions were formulated accordingly.
Several speakers on the part of the Ukrainian government attended, and they obviously wanted to demonstrate that the country was ready to join the European Union, because they did everything and took good care of minorities by making so many concessions, just take the new amending law for instance.
So the role of Ukrainian government officials was to present the country in the best possible light in front of the European institutions, so that the European Union and the Council of Europe would say that 'yes, well done, Ukraine'.
What exactly is contained in the amendment to the minority law passed in September, which, as said, was adopted by Ukraine in order to show that the recommendations from the Venice Commission were fulfilled?
According to the new amending law, certain settlements, where different national minorities live in blocks, are allowed to display announcements in the minority language, or if someone needs emergency medical care, they can use the service in their native language – provided that the given municipality has adopted relevant provisions. This is perceived as a concession despite the fact that they are merely returning rights that they themselves took away not so long ago, and they are not restoring them fully either, just giving back small bits. In addition, it was also presented as a positive development and gesture that the Ukrainian state will provide textbooks for schools teaching in national minority languages, which has been the case anyway if textbooks prepared by publishers specializing in minority-language publications were available.
Did participants look at the situation of the Rakoczi Ferenc II secondary school in Munkachevo (Munkacs), where the newly appointed Ukrainian management made clear that their goal is the Ukranization of the educational institution teaching in the Hungarian language? Besides requiring the school to teach subjects in Ukrainian as soon as possible, the management prohibited the use of Hungarian national symbols and the playing of the Hungarian national anthem at the opening of the current academic year.
Yes, both Ildiko Orosz and I took part in the conference, where the president of the Rakoczi Ferenc II Transcarpathian Hungarian College of Higher Education and of the Transcarpathian Hungarian Pedagogical Association, brought up this topic on behalf of the indigenous Hungarian minority in the region. She said,
if we are receiving extra rights - as the Ukrainian government claims, then how can a case such as the one in Mukachevo occur, in which the use of Hungarian national symbols and the playing of the national anthem are not allowed?
When no law forbids it in principle, and even the new national minority law does not regulate this issue either. Of course, they immediately went on the defensive, emphatically saying that the current legal framework regarding minorities does not pertain to symbols, and that, as the representatives of the Ukrainian government argued, it is only natural that only Ukrainian national symbols are used in Ukraine, and why should they allow the symbols of another country to appear in any school in Ukraine. Quite a heated debate also ensued over why we use the term "Hungarian school" or "Romanian school", they argued that all schools in Ukraine are Ukrainian and that at most, Hungarian or Romanian only applies to certain classes and the language of teaching for certain subjects.
How do other national minorities in Ukraine, whose representatives also spoke in Krakow, relate to the restrictions on rights?
The list of invitees was very selective, and most representatives of minorities praised the situation in Ukraine, or argued that it is only natural that all efforts are being channeled into the management of the war and defence, even if something is not quite in order, it must be taken with understanding acceptance, as now there is no money to support minority issues and minority organizations. So we heard speeches with a very acquiescent tone from representatives of several national minorities.
The other critical voice came from the Romanians, who, like the Hungarians, are also a minority with an established school system there, and are also adversely affected by the deprivation of minority rights.
It is clear that national minorities, such as the Slovaks, that do not have a school network or have at most one bilingual school, will not complain, because they have less to lose than the Romanians and Hungarians. Along with us, Hungarians, only the Romanians called for the restoration of the former status of the national minority schools. They were the ones who suggested the reason why the Ukrainian state objects to classifying Romanians and Hungarians as indigenous minorities: we have lived in territories of the country for several centuries, and it would be a minimal solution if these two larger minority groups could also be included in the category of natives, since in this case mother tongue education would be guaranteed until the end of the secondary school cycle.
What is the attitude of the European Union on the issue, can it facilitate the settlement of the controversial case?
The representatives of the Council of Europe and the European Union were very diplomatic in expressing themselves in all areas. They weren't critical, but there were moments when one could sense that they were expecting us to speak the truth about the situation realistically, maybe that's why they don't believe everything. Of course, we laid out all the arguments in favor of requesting the restoration of the pre-2017 language and education rights.
We stated that especially in this difficult, war situation, when minorities are also suffering from the war in the same way, when they, too, are fighting on the front lines regardless of their ethnicity, and are also sacrificing their lives, then why do they want to relegate us to a second-rate role?
Why do they accusingly keep telling us that maintaining a Hungarian school is a favor, when it is just as much a duty of the state as the maintaining of a Ukrainian school? And why is it that they want to provide an ethnic Hungarian child with fewer rights than a Ukrainian, a Crimean Tatar, or the child of another ethnicity?