Only months after Kiev and Budapest were locked in a bitter dispute over minority education and language rights after Ukraine ruled that its sizeable ethnic Magyar community in the country’s western-most districts would be barred from receiving an education in Hungarian, a new has erupted over Kiev’s plans to station a combat battalion in Beregovo, a border city that is overwhelmingly inhabited by Hungarian speakers.
Hungary’s Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Szijjarto has called on the EU to put pressure on Kiev to drop its plan to station a battle group only 10km from the two countries’ borders and within close proximity to Budapest’s own military bases. Szijjarto said Hungary is ready to block Ukraine’s attempts to further integrate with the European Union and NATO until Kiev takes into consideration Hungary’s security concerns.
“Ukraine’s explanation that the deployment is necessary to counter a threat to its territorial integrity means that they (members of the Ukrainian national government) consider Hungarians – the ethnic majority in this particular area (of Ukraine) – as a threat,” said Szijjarto during his recent trip to Brussels.
The city council of Beregovo, which has officially been known by its historic Hungarian name Beregszász since a local referendum in 2010, has yet to approve the defence ministry’s move. A final decision may not necessarily be a foregone conclusion as 12 of its 26 members are from the ethnic Hungarian community.
Ukraine has shown no sign of backing down, with the country’s President Petro Poroshenko saying, “it is not Hungary’s business to discuss where Ukraine should station its troops”. Poroshenko added that he fully intends to visit Brussels as well as the NATO Summit in Bucharest that is scheduled for July, despite Hungary’s objections.
The latest row between Kiev and Budapest comes on the heels of a bitter dispute over a decision by Ukraine’s parliament – the Verkhovna Rada – to pass a legislative package on education that bars primary education to all students in any language but Ukrainian. The move has been widely condemned by the international community as needlessly provocative as it forces the historically bilingual population of 45 million people who use Russian and Ukrainian interchangeably as mother tongues to become monolingual. Furthermore, the large minorities of Hungarians, Jews, Poles, Tatars, Gypsies, Romanians, Caucasians, and Gagauz generally speak and receive some formal or informal education in their own national languages, all of which will be adversely affected by the new draconian language statutes.
Prior to the Rada’s passing of the new law, Hungary had been actively aiding Kiev as it became one of the first EU Member States to ratify the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement in 2016 and steadfastly backed Ukraine’s landmark visa-free travel to the EU last year.
Western Ukraine is a vast assortment of cross-cultural ethnic groups, all with a mixed history. Beregovo and most of the surrounding Zakarpattia Region was for centuries a part of the Hapsburg’s Austro-Hungarian Empire until its collapse following the end of World War I. It then passed between independent Hungary, the Kingdom of Czechoslovakia, and again back to Budapest before being forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union and incorporated into the then-Ukrainian SSR in 1945, With it, came a sizable community of Hungarian-speaking Magyars, Gypsies, Carpathian highlanders, and Jews, who mixed with the Ukrainian population.
In his letter to the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and Minister of Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Minister Pavlo Klimkin, Szijjarto said Ukraine must meet Budapest’s strict conditions before Hungary ends the current boycott of Kiev’s integration process.
Budapest wants a legally-binding guarantee from the Ukrainian government that it will cancel the controversial education law and table any similar future initiatives until at least 2023, and only then under the recommendations of the Venice Commission and in close consultation with Ukraine’s Hungarian minority.
Szijjarto also said in his note that Kiev needs to take into consideration that Hungary is one of only three EU Member States, alongside Poland and Slovakia, who have supplied Ukraine with natural gas while latter is locked in a contentious conflict with Russia’s state-owned energy giant, Gazprom, over the price for gas transit.
Ukraine will have to consider whether exacerbating an already tense relationship with a neighbouring country that has largely supported its efforts, despite being dominated by the pro-Russian leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, is worth the diplomatic fallout from an unprovoked move that does little to boost the country’s image to its erstwhile European partners.