Today I am returning to foreign policy issues, specifically to U.S.-Hungarian relations and the Ukrainian question. I have written several times about the Hungarian response to the Ukrainian education act, which was so radical and intransigent that it led to vetoing a planned meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Joint Commission. Moreover, Hungary was ready to block Ukraine’s integration into NATO unless Kiev withdraws Article 7 of the education act that affects the use of minority languages.
A month later I reported that Péter Szijjártó at last had an opportunity to meet Wess Mitchell, the new Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, in Washington, D.C. Their January 16 meeting seemed quite casual; it was held in the Hungarian Embassy, not in the State Department. An official photo was taken, but there was no press conference. Given that Szijjártó said absolutely nothing about their meeting, I concluded that “it was not a success” and that “the anticipated breakthrough [in U.S.-Hungarian relations] didn’t materialize.” But today I can offer a somewhat different take on what this meeting was most likely all about.
At the beginning of December, Rex Tillerson was on a European tour. First, he visited NATO headquarters in Brussels, where he emphasized that “Russia’s aggression in Ukraine remains the biggest threat to European security.” From Brussels he flew to Vienna to join a meeting of foreign ministers. He conducted talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, during which he reiterated that the Russian treatment of Ukraine is unacceptable to the United States. Tillerson also held discussions with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin about the possible deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission in eastern Ukraine.
It’s easy to extrapolate from Tillerson’s message during his meetings in Brussels and Vienna that Hungary’s threat to block Ukraine’s participation in negotiations with NATO officials would be unacceptable to the United States. Hungary’s hard-line position against Ukraine, which urgently needs assistance and support, came at a very bad time. By now I’m convinced that the Mitchell-Szijjártó talks were not so much about U.S.-Hungarian relations as about Hungary’s opposition to Ukraine’s association with NATO.
If I’m correct, Szijjártó’s silence after the meeting was understandable. During the meeting Wess Mitchell most likely offered his services as a mediator between the parties, trying to bring about a compromise solution to a relatively minor bilateral issue for the sake of important geopolitical considerations. It is not clear what Szijjártó wanted in exchange for an agreement with the Ukrainians. What we do know is that Pavlo Klimkin and Péter Szijjártó met Wess Mitchell in Paris on January 24, where Klimkin promised “real consultation with the Hungarian community in Subcarpathian Ukraine.” Szijjártó, for his part, demanded “legal guarantees” that would ensure an understanding between the Ukrainian government and the Hungarian community.
Magyar Idők summarized the Hungarian government’s position after the meeting in Paris. (1) The Ukrainian government should consult with the representatives of the Hungarian community. (2) The Hungarian minority cannot be deprived of its earlier acquired rights. (3) The solution should be advantageous to the Hungarians in Ukraine. (4) To find a resolution of the conflict is in the interest of the Americans. The Hungarian position, at least as far as Szijjártó’s statements after the meeting were concerned, was still rigid. “The consultation with the Hungarians can be productive only if the Ukrainian government abrogates parts of the law that deals with minorities.”
A week later, on February 1, the Ukrainian ministry of education and science announced that the Ukrainian government accepts the recommendations of the Venice Commission and is ready to postpone the implementation of the law until 2023. Oddly enough, Education Minister Liliya Hrynevych made this announcement during her meeting with the Romanian Ambassador to Ukraine. Romania and Ukraine have been having bilateral negotiations on the minority language issue for some time. The draft protocol is ready to be signed. It seems, however, that the Ukrainians are not yet ready to sit down with the Hungarians. As a point of interest, the Venice Commission’s recommendations don’t include a suggestion to postpone the education act until 2023.
Liliya Hrynevych’s statement was interpreted in Budapest as an answer to the Hungarian demands. Media reports suggested that now that the Ukrainian government has made the first move, “the ball is in the court” of the representatives of the Hungarian community in Subcarpathian Ukraine. The official organization of that community, the Kárpátaljai Magyar Kulturális Szövetség (KMKSZ), and László Brenzovics, the only Hungarian member of the Ukrainian parliament, are somewhat hopeful. They view the announcement as a first step toward a satisfactory solution. The optimism of Brenzovics, who, by the way, accompanied Szijjártó to Paris, is based on the fact that, although Ukraine denies it, their decision to retreat from their original stance is due to “international pressure.”
Brenzovics’s statement to Válasz, a Hungarian internet site, led me to believe that he is not an easy man to negotiate with. For example, instead of concentrating on the education act as it impacts the Hungarian community, he complained about the Ukrainian government’s discrimination against the Russian language as opposed to the official languages spoken within the European Union. He demands special treatment for Hungarian because it is “not related to Ukrainian, unlike Polish or Russian.” He conveniently forgot about Romanian.
In early December Hungary asked for permanent observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to be sent to Hungarian inhabited areas of Ukraine, which was certainly an overreach. But Lamberto Zannier, high commissioner of OSCE, did meet Brenzovics in Kiev. So far, no OSCE office has opened in Uzhhorod/Ungvár and I don’t think that one will any time soon. According to the latest information, however, OSCE is involved in the negotiations between the local Hungarian community and Kiev. So, perhaps as a result of pressure on both sides from the United States and OSCE’s presence at the negotiations between Kiev and KMKSZ, some common ground may be found. Whatever it is, it won’t bear any resemblance to the original Hungarian demand of a total abrogation of the article on minority languages.