KYIV – This week members of the Party of Hungarians walked out of the inaugural session of the newly elected Zakarpattia regional council in Uzhhorod over what they called political persecution.
By doing so, they abstained from voting for a council head in the westernmost Ukrainian oblast where some 80 percent of the 150,000 ethnic Hungarians live in the country.
It was the latest flare up of tension between Ukraine and Hungary, the latter of which took issue with a raid on a Hungarian charity in the region late last month by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU).
The counterintelligence agency said on its website that the raid on the Hungarian Cultural Association in Transcarpathia was part of several investigations in the region related to “information about the involvement of foreign funding in activities aimed at violating the state sovereignty of Ukraine.”
The charity in turn called on authorities to end what it alleged was a “witch-hunt.”
Budapest subsequently summoned the Ukrainian ambassador on December 1 to protest the raid and Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó raised the investigations the same day during a videoconference with NATO foreign affairs ministers.
In response to the dramatic measures, Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba called for Hungary to avoid steps and statements that “don’t reflect reality and create destructive emotional tensions in Ukrainian-Hungarian relations.”
Prompting the investigations was a video that went viral showing elected councillors of the Siurte United Territorial Community in the region singing the Hungarian national anthem as their oath swearing-in session convened.
National lawmakers from both the pro-presidential Servant of the People party and the opposition party Holos suggested the act was disrespectful and infringed on Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Local council members in Siurte said the video did not accurately depict what happened on November 21, which is known in Ukraine as the Day of Dignity and Freedom. On this day, Ukrainians commemorate the beginning of the Euro-Maidan protests, which erupted in late 2013 and led to then-President Viktor Yanukovych abandoning office and fleeing to Russia the following year.
In a Facebook post earlier this month, the Hungarian Embassy said the local councillors first sang the Ukrainian anthem and then sung “the national prayer” of Hungary, which has been sung for centuries and only later became the country’s national anthem.
Still, Kyiv has accused Budapest of meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs, including in the October nationwide local elections for mayoral council seats in villages, communities, cities, towns and regional capitals.
Two Hungarian government officials were barred from entering the country the same month based on the Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Ministry allegations that they had encouraged Ukrainians living in Zakarpattia to vote for the Party of Hungarians. In 2018, another video went viral in which a Hungarian consular in Berehove – a town that borders Hungary and whose population is 76 percent ethnically Hungarian, according to the Eurasia Daily Monitor – is seen presiding over a swearing-in ceremony for Ukrainians to receive Hungarian passports.
“Don’t tell the Ukrainian authorities,” the Hungarian consul can be heard saying while giving a champagne toast to the new passport holders.
Dual citizenship is illegal in Ukraine and Hungary also has consulates in Zakarpattia’s regional capital of Uzhhorod, the western regional capitals of Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv, as well as in Kyiv, where its embassy is located.
The ongoing diplomatic spat between Kyiv and Budapest intensified in 2017 when Ukraine enacted an upgraded education law that elevated the status of the Ukrainian language and which Russia, Romania and Hungary said restricted the right of ethnic minorities to receive instruction in their native language.
It stipulated that Ukrainian-language instruction would start in the fifth grade while allowing for the study of other languages, including Hungarian, in separate classes. The row further escalated last year with the passing of a separate law on the cementing of the Ukrainian language in society. It solidified Ukrainian as the principal language of instruction yet allowed flexibility in its application, which likewise sparked the ire of Budapest.
Before the education law was adapted, there were 71 educational institutions that offered Hungarian-language instruction in the 2016-2017 academic year, Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science said. Proponents of the new law have said it will help minorities assimilate with the mainstream culture and become eligible for public-sector jobs.
Since ascending to power in 2010, nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has supported ethnic Hungarians living abroad through a network of charities, schools, media and libraries.
In particular, he has charged senior official István Grezsa with the task of promoting cultural and social programs in Ukraine since 2018. They include funding the Ferenc Rákóczy II Institute and College, the Carpathian Hungarian Cultural Association, local Hungarian-language television broadcasting and the Egán Ede business development fund for local, Hungarian-owned businesses, the Eurasian Daily Monitor reported in June.
After Ukraine enacted the education law, Budapest blocked Ukraine’s integration efforts with the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) through the NATO-Ukraine Commission and threatened to impede Kyiv’s further integration with the European Union.
About 79 percent of residents in Zakarpattia believe that Ukrainian should be the sole language of instruction either starting from the first grade or from the mid-range of classes, a regional public opinion survey found in September that was jointly conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation and Center for Political Sociology.
Nearly 54 percent of ethnic minority respondents said that the overall situation in Zakarpattia is either “happy” or “calm.” Only 3 percent of residents and 5 percent of ethnic minorities in the region support federalization while 1 percent and 2 percent, respectively, are for separatism, the poll found.