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18 June 2020updated 28 Jul 2021 12:13pm

Why fears of Hungarian separatism are stirring in western Ukraine

Critics of the Ukrainian government accuse it of capitulating to blackmail from neighbouring Hungary.

By Ido Vock

In a move that has drawn the ire of opposition politicians in Ukraine, a new administrative district will contain a majority of ethnic Hungarians for the first time in the nation’s history.

The Ministry of Territories announced this month that it plans to rejig the administrative boundaries of Berehove district – on the country’s western border –  in such a way that Hungarian speakers will make up the most part of the population.

But critics of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government accuse him of capitulating to blackmail from neighbouring Hungary. A widely-circulated opinion piece by Andriy Lyubka, an essayist, argued that the creation of such an ethnic enclave could lead to separatist ambitions from the area in the distant future.

Linguistic and ethnic minorities have long been a sore point for Ukrainian authorities. Russophone separatists in the east of the country, backed by Russia, have since 2014 waged a war to wrestle the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk away from Kyiv’s control. Russian-speaking Crimea, internationally recognised as Ukrainian territory, was seized by Russia six years ago.

Less well-understood are tensions with minorities in Ukraine’s western regions, which, in the melting pot of pre-Second World War central Europe, used to lie within the fluctuating borders of states as diverse as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland and Romania.

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In recent years, revanchist central European governments have begun eyeing their linguistic kin in Ukraine as sources of voters and national legitimacy, Anna Kaliuzhna, a parliamentary correspondent for the opposition-minded TV channel Kanal 24, told the New Statesman.

Hungary, in particular, has for decades pressured Kyiv to grant linguistic and political autonomy to the roughly 150,000 Hungarian speakers within Ukraine – demanding the creation of a so-called “Hungarian constituency” in parliament and exemptions from language laws requiring schools to teach primarily in Ukrainian.

“A considerable number of Hungarian speakers were left outside of the country’s borders after the First World War and Second World War,” said Patrik Szicherle, an analyst at Political Capital Institute, a Budapest think-tank. “Helping and supporting these minorities has been an important issue in Hungarian politics since the transition to democracy in the 1990s – though no mainstream political force argues for retaking these territories.”

Hungary and Ukraine were involved in a diplomatic spat two years ago, after Ukrainian authorities accused the Hungarian consul in Berehove – the largest city of the proposed new district – of illegally issuing Hungarian passports to Ukrainian citizens. Kyiv at the time viewed Hungary’s largess as a means of weakening Ukrainian statehood in Hungarian-speaking areas.

“The right-wing populist Fidesz government of Hungary, which considers itself the sole representative of Hungarian national interests, has intensified support for Hungarian speakers in surrounding countries, partly explained by the fact that it has been made easier for these Hungarian speakers to acquire citizenship and the vote,” said Szicherle.

“A relatively small proportion of Hungarians living in neighbouring countries constitutes an important electoral base for the Hungarian ruling party. Nevertheless, Budapest does not advocate changing borders in the slightest.”

Hungary enjoys significant economic and political leverage over its neighbour. According to World Bank data, at the fall of communism in 1991, Hungarians were roughly 20 per cent wealthier, adjusted for purchasing power, than Ukrainians. Today, boosted by EU grants and Western investment, Hungary is more than three times richer per capita than its former Eastern Bloc neighbour. Ethnic Hungarians from Berehove – the immigrants that Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban relishes – plug labour shortages in Hungary. One even serves as a MEP for Fidesz, the ruling party.

Kyiv’s move may end up legitimising several of its neighbours’ claims to chunks of its territory, including from Poland, Hungary and particularly Russia, says Kaliuzhna, the reporter. She says Ukraine, already dismembered in the east, must tread carefully in dealing with its western border regions.

Roman Lozynskyi, a Ukrainian MP, puts it succinctly: “We need effective local governance – but zero threat of separatism”.

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