Tag Archives: Hungarian-Ukrainian relations

Hungary is on the warpath against Ukraine’s education law

Budapest is witnessing a new diplomatic upheaval because, at the urging of an outraged journalist of right-of-center political persuasion, the whole democratic opposition stood as one person to protest the newly enacted Ukrainian law on education. The Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs and trade didn’t seem to be that concerned with the law until it became evident that the democratic opposition was making hay out of it since it places restrictions on the use of minority languages in Ukraine.

The importance of the language issue in Ukraine shouldn’t be underestimated, given the size of the Russian minority. According to the World Population Review, only 77.8% of the total population of 45 million are Ukrainian, while 17% are Russian. In addition, there are some Hungarians, Poles, and Romanians, each with 0.3% of the population. The Hungarian population lives in the Zakarpattia Oblast, where there were 150,000 Hungarians in 2001. Since then, their number has most likely been reduced by emigration to Western Europe and, to some extent, to Hungary.

In 2012, during the administration of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, a new law on education was adopted which allowed minority groups to use their languages in schools in regions where they represented more than 10 percent of the population. While some people might have considered that law a liberal move that followed European principles by protecting the rights of minorities, others saw it as an appeasement policy toward Moscow. Protectors of the Ukrainian language called the new law a “time bomb against the Ukrainian language.”

The Hungarian regions of Ukraine can certainly attest to the truth of this prediction. During Soviet times, Russian was a compulsory language, and all Hungarians learned it more or less well. Nowadays, according to the vice president of Kárpátaljai Magyar Pedagógus Szövetség/KMPSZ (Hungarian Teachers’ Association of Sub-Carpathia), 90% of 20- to 30-year-olds don’t know Ukrainian, including the teachers. Last year Átlátszó Oktatás conducted an interview with the principal of a Hungarian high school, according to whom out of the graduating class of 49 maybe two can carry on a conversation in Ukrainian. So, when Ukrainian politicians talk about the handicap Hungarian students face when trying to make a career in a country whose official language is Ukrainian, they are stating the obvious.

Given the Orbán government’s keen interest in keeping the Hungarian communities in neighboring countries intact, it would be in Hungary’s interest to make sure that Hungarians learn Ukrainian and make their mark in their country of birth. But the Hungarian government, prompted by the opposition’s united attack on the Ukrainian education law, began its own diplomatic crusade, Szijjártó style. Although Russia also lambasted Kiev over the new education law, the angriest comments came from Budapest. According to the Hungarian foreign minister, Ukraine “stabbed Hungary in the back.” He promised to turn to the much maligned European Union and the United Nations to complain. Hungary considers the law “shameful and outrageous … which drastically restricts the access of minorities … to native language teaching in a manner that makes it practically impossible from the age of 10 and is incompatible with European values and regulations.” He also claimed that the law is unlawful even by the constitution of Ukraine.

In the Hungarian media the law is portrayed as forbidding educational institutions whose students are over the age of ten from using any language in the classroom other than Ukrainian. The law is somewhat vague, so, as Hungarian educators in Sub-Carpathia stress, a lot will depend on the implementation. The law as it reads now states that the language of instruction in the first four grades may be in a minority language. But starting in grade five, only two or more subjects can be taught in any of the languages of the European Union. This distinction excludes Russian but includes Hungarian, Polish, and Romanian. At the moment there are two colleges in Ukraine in which the language of instruction is either completely Hungarian or partially so. One is the Ferenc Rákóczi II Sub-Carpathian Hungarian College in Berehove/Beregszász and the other is the Hungarian section of the Uzhhorod National University. The former is entirely financed by the Hungarian government; the latter, partially so. Their fate is not at all clear.

Ferenc Rákóczi II Subcarpathian Hungarian College in Berehove/Beregszász

While the language issue is controversial, many aspects of the new education law are forward looking and, if properly implemented, would be better than the current Hungarian one. The U.S. Embassy in Kiev welcomed the new law, which sets funding for education at a minimum of 7 percent of the GDP. It also introduces 12-year compulsory education. Schools and teachers will have a great deal of autonomy as far as the curriculum is concerned. According to Ildikó Orosz, president of KMPSZ, it is too early to pass judgment on the law, which is still not known in its entirety. Since the law is primarily an answer to the Russian annexation of Crimea and Russian military interference in the Donbas region, there is a good possibility that in the Sub-Carpathian region implementation of the law will be a great deal less stringent than in the Russian-speaking eastern regions. This is especially likely because of Ukraine’s desire to eventually join the European Union.

Moderate voices suggest a different approach: negotiations to make sure that the law will satisfy both the Ukrainians and the Hungarian minority.  Szijjártó didn’t waste time. The Ukrainians noted that Hungary had already sent letters “to the OSCE secretary-general, the OSCE high commissioner on national minorities and the OSCE chairman-in-office as well as to the UN high commissioner for human rights and the EU commissioner for enlargement and European neighborhood policy.” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin stressed that members of national minorities should learn Ukrainian, but this argument “didn’t satisfy the Hungarian side.” Szijjártó “considered these explanations to be cynical and unjust.” The Hungarian government’s frantic rush for redress to these much despised international organizations and the European Union is especially amusing. Their reaction might not be as sympathetic as Péter Szijjártó hopes, especially if the law is not as onerous as it is being characterized.

September 12, 2017

Hungary and the Russian-Ukrainian crisis

A couple of days ago I wrote about the Hungarian far right and Russia and mentioned the Russian accusation that Hungary has been supplying T-72 tanks to Ukraine. At that time the Hungarian government categorically denied the charge, but the case of the “missing” Russian-made tanks is still a subject of debate. First of all, the stories out of the Ministry of Defense were confused. The spokesman for the ministry first claimed that the tanks never left the country: they were just moved from one storage area to another. Then the story took a different turn. The ministry informed the media that T-72 tanks (70 in all) were actually sold to a company called Excalibur Defense Kft. of Székesfehérvár, which received permission from the Czech Ministry of Industry and Trade to transport the tanks to Czech territory.

That deal and the transportation of the tanks to the Czech Republic is most likely for real:  Magyar Nemzet published a facsimile of the “International Import Certificate” attesting to the arrangement. On August 25 the government informed the media that the tanks had begun their j0urney to the Czech Republic. Yet the documents published by Magyar Nemzet did not convince anyone about the final destination of the tanks. Vice Magazine published an article which took it for granted that the T-72 tanks did or will end up in Ukraine. The deal with Excalibur is only a decoy. And this belief is shared by the Russians. Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Russian political scientist and adviser to Vladimir Putin who also happens to be the grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov, in an interview on CNN accused Hungary of illegally selling military supplies to Ukraine.

Today several  newspapers reported that Csaba Hende, minister of defense, may leave his post sometime after the municipal elections. The exact reasons for his sudden departure are not known, but perhaps the clumsy handling of the T-72 tanks might be one of them. Given Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s excellent relations with Vladimir Putin and his outright antagonism of any sanctions against Russia, providing Ukraine with illegal shipments of weaponry is more than strange. If true, Orbán’s relations with Putin might be greatly damaged and his tarnished reputation in the West is unlikely to improve.

This is not the only strange turn in Hungarian foreign policy. There is also the government’s sudden change of heart about its support for NATO’s anti-Russian moves. Already in his last radio talk Orbán hinted that there might be more willingness on his government’s part to spend 2% of the Hungarian GDP on defense. This figure is the minimum NATO members, including Hungary, agreed to. Since 2010 the government has spent less and less on the armed forces, with the current expenditure a mere 0.88% of the GDP. In that talk he admitted that the country is in noncompliance.

Indeed, two days ago Magyar Nemzet reported that Hungary will arrive in Newport, Wales for the NATO summit with several proposals concerning the Hungarian contribution to the common effort to contain Russian encroachment into Ukraine. The semi-official newspaper is usually very well informed, and therefore we can be pretty certain that the news is correct. Hungary will send a contingent of 100 men to the Baltics to join an international NATO force there. In addition, Hungary will develop the air force base near Pápa. Moreover, Hungary will spend more money to improve the Hungarian military.

Aerial photo of the Pápa Airbase

Aerial photo of the Pápa Airbase

Yesterday HVG reported that several NATO member countries would like to see additional NATO troops in all countries that define the eastern borders of the organization. That would naturally also involve Hungary. According to an unnamed diplomatic source, if such a request is addressed to Hungary it will be almost impossible to refuse it.

Given all these developments one can only marvel at László Kövér’s performance yesterday. The occasion was a meeting of four prominent participants in the change of regime in Hungary–Sándor Lezsák, László Kövér, Mátyás Szűrös, and Péter Tölgyessy–with 20 young historians, journalists, and artists who travel through European countries following the footsteps of 1989. The project, called Freedom Express, was organized by the European Network of Remembrance and Solidarity. The group arrived in Budapest yesterday from Gdańsk and Warsaw. Well, the young visitors were treated to quite a tirade from the third highest dignitary of the country. It was an extraordinary performance that revealed Kövér’s antagonism toward Ukraine and her aspirations.

First, Kövér got upset about some of the questions that had more to do with Hungary’s pro-Russian views than the fine points of regime change in Hungary twenty-five years ago. Then a Romanian participant in Freedom Express asked Kövér a question that included a reference to the Romanian occupation of Budapest in 1919. He indicated that the Romanian army came to Hungary to liberate it from the communists. That really set Kövér off. He began by saying that “there is no reason to bring up topics with which we only irritate each other.”  So, he was in a bad mood even before all the questions poured in about the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and Hungary’s role in it.

Kövér gave his own version of the conflict. “What is going on in Ukraine is a manipulated affair in which the Ukrainians have the smallest role,” he claimed. “The goal of this circus is that it should forever separate Europe from Russia.” Although Kövér expressed his satisfaction with the NATO umbrella over Hungary and although he understands the Poles and the Baltic people who are worried about Russian expansion, Russia has its legitimate security needs. “Who was the American or European politician who asked what the Ukrainians want?” As far as Western media coverage of the conflict is concerned, “the western press lies just as much as Pravda did in the olden days.”

Kövér is also convinced that no democratic developments can be expected from Ukraine because one of the first moves of the Ukrainian government was the suspension of minority rights. (Kövér failed to add that a day later that move was reversed.) As far as he is concerned, there can be no question about the outcome of a military encounter involving “the nonexistent army of the nonexistent Ukrainian state.” Instead, the real solution would be “normal cooperation between Europe and Russia,” but “the chance of that has been lost for the foreseeable future.”

If there is a circus anywhere, I’m afraid it is what Hungarian government politicians have managed to create in the field of diplomacy. And the clowns in this circus are not at all funny.

Ukrainian-Hungarian relations during the Orbán years

Today I’m going to survey Hungarian-Ukrainian relations over the course of the last four years, since Viktor Orbán won the election. You may recall that the new prime minister began his diplomatic rounds with a trip to Poland, which was supposed to signal a foreign policy that would put the emphasis not so much on relations with western Europe as on relations with other central and eastern European nations. Of course, he also made several official visits to Brussels, but they were quick trips related to Hungary’s membership in the Union. There is a handy list, compiled by MTI, on Orbán’s foreign visits, showing that Ukraine was one of the first countries he visited. It was on November 12, 2010 that he traveled to Kiev. Shortly thereafter, on November 30, he went to Moscow.

Ukrainian-Hungarian flagsSo, let’s see what Orbán had to say about Hungarian-Ukrainian relations at the time. He claimed that former Hungarian governments hadn’t paid enough attention to Ukraine, but from here on everything would change because “the current Ukrainian leadership stabilized Ukraine” even as he is “working on stabilizing Hungary.” He was looking forward to cooperation between two stable countries, and he expressed his appreciation that Viktor Yanukovych’s government had withdrawn some legislation that was injurious to the Hungarian minority in Subcarpathia. A few months earlier, during one of his visits to Brussels, Orbán had a meeting with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary-general of NATO, during which he commented favorably on the new Ukrainian government (Yanukovych became president of Ukraine on February 25, 2010), which he considered to be a “reliable” partner.

Since 2010 Ukrainian-Hungarian relations have been friendly. In fact, behind the scenes they were quite close. Here I will give just one example of how close: the story of Oleksandr Shepelev, former member of the Ukrainian parliament. Shepelev belonged to Yulia Tymoshenko’s party from 2006 until December 2012. The Ukrainian government charged him with three contract killings and one attempted murder. In addition, he was alleged to have embezzled one billion dollars of government funds which, they contended, he pumped into Rodovid, an ailing bank with which he was associated. He fled Ukraine, fearing for his safety. The Ukrainian government went to Interpol asking for his arrest. He and his family were found in Budapest in July 2013 where he was seeking political asylum. The Ukrainian online newspaper Kyiv Post triumphantly announced on September 30 that “the Hungarian authorities have denied refugee status to former Ukrainian member of parliament Oleksandr Shepelev, a diplomatic source told Interfax-Ukraine.” The Hungarian judicial system ordered the Shepelev couple to be incarcerated until the immigration authorities decided their fate. Half a year went by and there was still no decision about the Shepelevs.

According to Indexthe Hungarian government that was asked to extradite the Shepelevs to Ukraine was quite eager to oblige. Vitali Zakharchenko, the just recently dismissed minister of interior, came to Budapest several times to confer with his Hungarian colleague, Sándor Pintér, about the fate of Shepelev. Viktor Pshonka, the prosecutor-general of Ukraine whose garish house we admired online, who since was also dismissed by the Ukrainian parliament and is currently in hiding, also paid a visit to Budapest to confer with Hungary’s own chief prosecutor, Péter Polt. In fact, the Hungarian government was certain that Shepelev would be in Kiev soon enough, and they leaked the impending extradition to reporters. The Hungarian courts, however, intervened. In a December 9 hearing the judge ruled that the reasons given by the immigration office for a denial of political asylum were insufficient. Shepelev, who might have been thrown into jail for life in Ukraine, was temporarily saved by the Hungarian judiciary despite the best efforts of the Orbán government.

The immigration office had to make a decision by January 6 but nothing happened. At this point Galina Shepeleva threatened the prison authorities with a hunger strike. Shepelev’s lawyer, after looking at the documents submitted by the immigration office, came to the conclusion that the office was following the explicit orders of the Hungarian government. In brief, Viktor Orbán was effectively assisting Yanukovych’s thoroughly corrupt government go after a political opponent, possibly on trumped-up charges.

As long as Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yanukovych were both in power Viktor Orbán’s situation was easy. He could have excellent relations with both. But now Yanukovych, who according to Orbán brought “stability to Ukraine,” is gone and Putin has sent troops to the Crimea. Orbán, as prime minister of a country that is a member state of the European Union, is supposed to follow the lead of the European Union. The prime ministers or presidents of most European countries, including Hungary’s neighbors, have openly condemned the Russian military action. Viktor Orbán is silent.

The Russian military move is clearly illegal. The reference point is the so-called Budapest Memorandum of 1994 signed by Bill Clinton, John Major, Boris Yeltsin, and Leonid Kuchma, who was then the president of Ukraine. The complete text of the Budapest Memorandum is available on the Internet. The parties agreed, among other things, “to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of kind.” In this light, Putin’s economic pressure on Ukraine was already a violation of the agreement. Point 2 of the agreement states that “the United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.”

The ineffectual János Martonyi did go to Ukraine with the Czech and Slovak foreign ministers. Poland sent only an undersecretary. They went to Kiev and the Donetsk region where they held most likely absolutely useless talks with Ukrainian leaders. Martonyi subsequently visited the Subcarpathian region where he conferred with leaders of the Hungarians living there who hold conflicting political opinions. Ever since Orbán won the election in 2010 the Hungarian government has given financial help to one faction while it has ignored the other. It looks as if the main difference between the two groups is their attitude toward the Yanukovych government. The Yanukovych government, most likely as a sign of its appreciation for Viktor Orbán’s support, lifted some of the discriminatory pieces of legislation previously enacted. That made some of the Hungarians supporters of the Yanukovych regime. Others sided with the supporters of the European Union. Throughout his visit to the region Martonyi kept emphasizing the need for unity. However, under the present circumstances I’m not at all sure what this means. Supporting whom? The parliament in Kiev rather foolishly abrogated the language law enacted in 2012 but thanks to the intervention of the acting president it is still in force. Therefore it is also difficult to figure out what Martonyi’s silly motto, “Don’t hurt the Hungarians,” which he repeated on this occasion, means in this particular case.

For a good laugh, which we all need today, here is what the sophisticated deputy prime minister, Zsolt Semjén, said about the Ukrainian crisis last night in an interview on HírTV. “It is a good thing to have something between us and Russia.” Let’s hope that this statement, however primitive, means that Hungary stands behind the territorial integrity of Ukraine.