The Future for Transcarpathia Hungarians, Tied to Ukraine's Predicament

Ukraine has recently outlined a series of planned measures to restore the rights of Transcarpathia's Hungarian community. The EU treats Kyiv’s minority policy as a priority issue when it comes to Ukraine’s accession process, Isvan Ijgyarto, the former ambassador to Ukraine, told Magyar Nemzet. The newspaper also asked Gyorgy Dunda, the director KISZó, a Hungarian newspaper in Transcarpathia, to shared his thoughts on everyday life in Transcarpathia.

2024. 02. 27. 16:44
20230208 Ukrajna Ungvár Kárpátalja riport Fotó: Mirkó István (MI) Magyar Nemzet Fotó: Mirkó István
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"Practically since Euromaidan in 2014, and especially since 2017, the ethnic Hungarian population has suffered from repressive, anti-minority measures and the survival of the local Hungarian community has been endangered at an elementary level, due to threats of restricting our educational sphere, our minority institutions and the free use of our mother tongue," Gyorgy Duda, director of the Transcarpathian newspaper Karpati Igaz Szo (KISZo), told Magyar Nemzet.

Photo: Istvan Mirko

He stressed that since 2015 the laws on language, media, secondary and higher education, and indigenous national minorities, as well as the new law on national communities adopted in December 2022 have brought changes over the past nine years, continuously curbing the rights of Hungarians living in Ukraine. Experts have pointed out that these changes violated rights, went against the constitution, and failed to fall in line with the standards of European democratic minority and human rights. However, we can see that Kyiv is trying to settle the rights of Hungarians in Transcarpathia in an effort to restore Hungarian-Ukrainian relations.

Hungary wants Ukraine to restore minority rights

Back in December, the Ukrainian parliament adopted a new framework law on the rights of national minorities, which would restore some of the rights previously enjoyed by minorities. Almost two months later, at the end of January, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto traveled to Uzhhorod to meet with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmitry Kuleba and Andriy Yermak, head of the Ukrainian President's Office. After the visit, the Hungarian minister said that the negative spiral seen since 2015 appears to have come to a halt and expressed hope that Kyiv would deliver on its promises, Gyorgy Dunda said, recalling the results of the meeting in Transcarpathia. 

Dunda György
Gyorgy Dunda, director of the Hungarian-language newspaper Karpati Igaz Szo (KISZo) published in Transcarpathia, described the situation of Transcarpathian Hungarians to Magyar Nemzet. Photo: MTI/Janos Nemes

Although the minority framework law does not fully restore the rights enjoyed before 2015, a positive shift can be seen, the director of KISZo said. He stressed that the changes affecting Hungarians living in Transcarpathia should be implemented by June 2024, and that at the meeting in Uzhhorod, the Ukrainian government promised to work out an 11-point proposal within 10 days, although no news of this has appeared in the media since Szijjarto's visit. At the same time, Gyorgy Dunda believes that talks between the two governments will continue and that Ukraine will appreciate the fact that Hungary did not block Ukraine's EU accession bid and approved the €50 billion aid package.

The point is that it should be easier for Transcarpathian Hungarians to enjoy the opportunity and rights - which existed until 2015 - of preserving their nation, culture, and Hungarian identity,

the newspaper director said.

Is Ukraine's EU membership at stake?

Magyar Nemzet asked Istvan Ijgyarto, former ambassador to Kiev and senior advisor at the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs (MKI), whether there is a link between the rights of Hungarians in Transcarpathia and Ukraine's aspiring for EU membership. The post-Soviet country applied for EU membership in February 2022 and was granted candidate status in record time, in June 2022. The leaders of the member states agreed to start accession negotiations in December 2023. Under articles 2 and és 49 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), contracting states must respect the values of the Community, including freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights.

When the possibility of starting accession negotiations with Ukraine came up, the European Commission adopted a seven-point recommendation, with point seven stipulating that Ukraine must "put things in order" in  terms of ensuring minority rights, Istvan Ijgyarto recalled.

"In the European Union there is no legislation on minority protection, so the EU generally draws on legal sources that exist internationally, primarily within the Council of Europe (CoE)," the expert added. At the same time, the senior advisor at MKI pointed out that the Venice Commission, an advisory body of independent constitutional lawyers working alongside the CoE, has formulated several reservations about Ukraine's legislation on minority rights. For example, in a paper published on June 12, 2023, they underlined that all individuals belonging to a national minority have the right to the free use of their mother tongue.

Istvan Ijgyarto, senior advisor and researcher at the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs Photo: Hungarian Institute of International Affairs

Kyiv needs support, including from the Hungarian government, Gyorgy Dunda noted. "Forward-looking, positive changes seem to be made out of necessity, as part of political deals, because Ukraine could have taken such steps at any time since 2015, but it made concrete promises when it needed Budapest's support," he added.

Anti-Hungarian flares in Transcarpathia

The removal of the statue of the Turul bird, a national symbol of Hungarians, from the castle of Munkachevo (Munkacs), the ordeal suffered by Istvan Schink, the director of the Hungarian-language Rakoczi Ferenc II secondary school, the defacing of the memorial of the Hungarian conquest (of the Carpathian Basin in 895) at the Veretskyi Pass (Vereckei-hago), the blast at the office of the Cultural Alliance of Hungarians in Transcarpathia (KMKSZ), the vandalizing of Hungarian signs and statues - all these are just a few examples of anti-Hungarian incidents that took place in Transcarpathia.

Gyorgy Dunda, however, highlights that in Kyiv's position, the removal of the statue of the Turul bird in Munkachevo and the case of Istvan Schink are issues related to Munkachevo's municipal administration and not to Ukraine as a state.

We hope that this is indeed the case, that it is a local matter, small-minded, anti-Hungarian reprisals. However, many will argue that without tacit consent from the Ukrainian authorities, the Baloha clan could not have dealt a very painful blow, not only to the local Hungarian community in Munkachevo, but to the entire Hungarian community in Transcarpathia,

he added.

How many Transcarpathian Hungarians are there in Ukraine?

The last census in Ukraine was conducted in 2001, when Hungarians were the sixth largest ethnic minority in the country, with more than 156 thousand Hungarians, accounting for around 12 percent of the total population in Transcarpathia. Since then, however, only estimates as to the number of Hungarians in Transcarpathia have been published. Last year, some estimates forecast that there are no more than 100 thousand ethnic Hungarians living in the region. Istvan Ijgyarto pointed out that, although no mass emigration started yet, many Hungarians have left Transcarpathia because of living conditions and recent restrictions on rights. He highlighted that in the case of men, the risk of being conscripted and taken to the front is also a factor.

Two trends can be perceived in Transcarpathia now. On the one hand, a very large number of refugees have arrived in the region from areas that have been heavily affected by the war or from places where there is a risk that the war would reach them. As a result, the non-Hungarian population has increased significantly, although the number of internally displaced persons is uncertain as people come and go. On the other hand, Ukraine's population has declined steeply, as millions have left the country and the latest birth figures are disastrous,

the senior advisor at MKI explained.

Ukrainian flags on the graves in the cemetery in Uzhhorod Photo: Istvan Mirko

UN figures published in mid-February reveal that the number of refugees from Ukraine is now approaching 6.5 million, with around six million remaining within Europe. The number of Hungarians has decreased in parallel with the Ukrainian population, but the numbers are not critically low, the expert said.  "Those who wanted to leave have left, but the vast majority of Transcarpathian Hungarians want to stay in their homeland," Istvan Ijgyarto stressed.

Cover photo: War posters on the wall of a building in Uzhhorod, Transcarpathia (Photo: Istvan Mirko)

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