How Viktor Orban Weighs On Ethnic Hungarians In Ukraine
A visit to the Ukrainian region of Transcarpathia, which borders Hungary and is home to about 150,000 Hungarian-Ukrainians, where the pro-Russian stance of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is wreaking havoc.
TRANSCARPATHIA — Across the border in Hungary, the government-controlled mass media repeats Russian propaganda about the war in Ukraine and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's excuses for voting against Ukrainian initiatives at the European Union and NATO.
But here in the Ukrainian region of Transcarpathia — which borders Hungary and is home to about 150,000 Hungarian-Ukrainians — Budapest’s policy also has a direct effect. The tenacity with which Budapest fights for the rights of Hungarians in Transcarpathia is reminiscent of the Kremlin’s efforts to ‘protect’ Russian-speaking Ukrainians. The one key difference is that Budapest has not gone to war.
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Ukrainian media site Ukrainska Pravda traveled to Transcarpathia in search of answers to a number of essential questions. Is the Hungarian language and culture really suppressed in Ukraine? How large is Budapest’s influence there? And how does the region rid itself of imperialistic markers (both Soviet and Hungarian)?
Anna is waiting for her grandson Timur, who attends the Lajos Kossuth secondary school in Berehove. The school, like many others, is considered “Hungarian” by the locals. Like most educational institutions in the Transcarpathian Berehove region, the language of instruction is Hungarian. Out of 37 schools, not a single class is taught in Ukrainian.
Anna’s grandmother, husband and mother-in-law are from Hungary. When asked how she identifies, she smiles: “You think I know? Everything is so mixed up here.”
Russia has only attacked the region once since the invasion began, and Timur, Anna’s grandson, has continued to go to school in person.
Asked if she thought Orban had told Vladimir Putin not to bomb Transcarpathia, Anna said “No. It’s just that there is a limit to everything. I watch a lot of television and listen to what the Hungarians actually say. Our [Ukrainian] media lies a lot," she says. "The Hungarians sent us so much help; I can’t explain it. They opened the borders, said we could leave."
Patriotic drawings on the wall of a bomb shelter in Transcarpathia
A deputy against expansion
Berehove deputy Vitaly Antipov angered officials in Budapest when he proposed a scheme to pay parents of elementary school children 30,000 hryvnias (around $800) annually if their children are sent to classes where the language of instruction is Ukrainian. Parents who send their children to Hungarian schools are given 10,000 hryvnias (around $270) per year.
The Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Peter Szijjártó, called the proposal “a rude step towards the liquidation of the Hungarian minority."
“If nothing is done,” Antipov says, “Berehove will lose most of its youth. They find it difficult to fit into Ukrainian society and often go abroad... We have to fight for people. My personal opinion is that the state of Hungary is subtly conducting a process of expansion through a monopoly on language learning.”
“Why do most graduates (of schools in Berehove), who receive a diploma with the Ukrainian seal and coat of arms, not know Ukrainian?”, Antipov asks. “It’s as though we are preparing kids for another state. I don’t know where else in the world a person is given a diploma from a country whose language they do not know.”
Swapping symbols of national minorities during a war is no way to victory.
The question of language learning came up again in fall 2022, when a bronze turul, a mythical bird which stands as Hungary’s national symbol, was removed from an obelisk in the Ukrainian city of Mukachevo, and replaced with a trident, the national symbol of Ukraine. The move caused outrage in Budapest.
“This is a big mistake,” the mayor of Berehove, Zoltan Babiak says. “Swapping symbols of national minorities during a war is no way to victory.”
Babiak, who won the 2020 mayoral election with 72% of the vote, called the program for stimulating the study of Ukrainian “crude, with elements of discrimination."
“Knowing Ukrainian is a must, but it is a slow process. Berehove Hungarians are not tourists. They were born here. They are not against Ukraine. But they want the same thing that all Ukrainians want: to use their native language," he says.
Vadim Pozdnyakov, a native of Kharkiv who moved to Transcarpathia in 2021, believes Transcarpathia is one of the leading regions in the process of decolonization. Over a year, up to 80 monuments, memorial plaques and symbols, primarily relating to the USSR, were removed.
We need competent work from the state education system.
“About 900 streets have received new names,” he says. “But there are regional particularities. For example, in Hungarian ethnic villages, Gagarin and Pushkin streets become the streets of Istvan I and Sandor Petefi.”
Vadim does not equate the influence of Hungary on Transcarpathia to Russia’s colonial designs. “The Hungarian question is tricky, because the Hungarian community is so different,” Vadim says. “There are those who fight, volunteer and support Ukraine. And there are characters who see Transcarpathia as part of Hungary.”
“It is really difficult for Hungarians to learn Ukrainian. We need competent work from the state education system. Orban and his friends cannot be allowed to have their way here,” he says, referring to the KMKS (Party of Hungarians of Ukraine), a branch of Orban’s ruling Fidesz party, which seeks to unite Transcarpathia with Hungary.
“I still cannot understand why there are Hungarian flags next to Ukrainian flags. How can that happen? There is a Russian ethnic minority in the Sumy region, in the Putivl district, but there are no Russian flags there. Or Belarusian ones somewhere in Chernihiv Oblast. That would be ridiculous," he says.
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary Peter Szijjarto
Hungarians at the front
After Russia's full-scale invasion began, Maysm Adamenko, from the Transcarpathian town of Mukachevo, joined the volunteers. He helps to make periscopes from plastic pipes.
“Our Transcarpathian Hungarians, who are fighting at the front, have a very negative attitude towards the position of the Hungarian government,” he says. “Their statements, blocking sanctions, vetoing decisions to join the EU and NATO — it’s outrageous. They don't care about the state of our war. I think it would be better for them if we lose. They would then take the territories they consider their own. But we won’t lose.”
Janos Gaja, a 74-year-old local, agrees: “Putin is a war criminal,” he says. “I am Hungarian, but I want Ukraine to be here. Hungary gave me nothing. Ukraine gives me opportunities, a job, a pension," he says.
“I want Ukraine to be whole and undamaged. That’s why our Hungarians are at the front. Ukraine is our home. And Kyiv is our capital.”
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