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.
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.