By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
The tit-for-tat continues between Ukraine and Hungary, amplifying old problems and creating new ones which EU would ignore at its peril.
Since early October, Ukraine and Hungary have been undiplomatically accusing each other of lies, hate campaigns, cultural oppression, discrimination, and other niceties. Kiev expelled the Hungarian consul from the border city of Berehove and Hungary expelled a Ukrainian consul. The foreign minister of Hungary, Peter Szijjarto, summoned Ukraine’s ambassador to Budapest to protest at the existence of what Hungary calls a “death list” of Transcarpathian Hungarians.
All this is linked to the distribution of Hungarian passports to members of the Hungarian minorities of Transcarpathia. The distribution is now new; what is new is the violence of the exchanges between Kiev and Budapest and the context in which they erupted. First, a video was posted online allegedly showing the Hungarian consul (who was subsequently expelled for “acting unlawfully”) issuing Hungarian passports and asking the recipients not to report this to the Ukrainian authorities. Second, the ultra-nationalist Ukrainian website Myrotvorets published a list of 313 local government officials in Transcarpathia with dual citizenship. According to the site, one cannot pledge loyalty to a foreign state while working in Ukraine’s public service.
The Ukrainian government tried to distance itself from all this, claiming to have nothing to do with the website, whereas Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto accuses it of lying, as “the personal date that has been added to the site is not accessible from public sources, but exclusively from the Ukrainian secret service and government sources.” The Hungarian minister wants Kiev to ensure equal protection for the Hungarian minority.
This is not the first time that Myrotvorets website has published personal details of people. But it was mostly limited to people with perceived pro-Russian views or linked to Russian interests. Now it affects another minority and its protectors from outside. In late September, Peter Szijjarto’s name appeared in the website’s Purgatory section for “infringing on the Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity and making direct threats of armed invasion in Ukraine”. That is the moment when Hungary spoke of the existence of a death list “because many people whose names appeared in similar lists of Ukraine’s enemies had become victims of murder”.
Never a great diplomat, President Poroshenko put oil on the fire by announcing that Kiev will install a new military base in Transcarpathia, fueling rumours about repression and expulsion, or Kiev’s intention to restore order by force. Of course, Poroshenko points a finger towards Moscow, a better argument than simply recognising that for years Transcarpathia’s inhabitants have felt abandoned by the Kiev authorities, not recognised as true Ukrainians, living in very poor conditions. In those conditions, they turned to Hungary for trade and cross-border activities rather than to the rest of Ukraine.
More aware of geopolitical realities, foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin categorically condemned the publication on the Myrotvorets website during a meeting in Uzhhorod with the head of the Association of Hungarians of Ukraine. He noted that indeed the law directly forbids individuals with dual citizenship from working in state structures but added “I am categorically against pointing at Hungarians as traitors, or harassing Hungarians, or accusing them of separatism… It disturbs me that Hungarians who obtained other passports are compared to criminals who fight against Ukraine. We should state clearly that these are not the same thing”.
It is worth to remember that the distrust towards all who are not “Ukrainian patriots” played an important role in the rebellion of the Donbass, where people were feeling Ukrainian citizens who simply were speaking Russian. Today attention is turned towards another region, which does not speak Ukrainian but the language of a neighbour. Inhabitants see successive legislation (on language and education, media and cultural events, the Ukrainisation of historic sites and geographical names) as a threat to their identity.
In fact, they were targeting Russian speakers and Russian interests, hence the quiet reaction of the Western “friends of Ukraine”. However, history shows that rules targeting a minority can easily affect other minorities.
This is not the first problem linked with enlargement that EU did not anticipate. The distribution of passports to “brothers” left outside EU started almost immediately after the latter’s enlargement. Belarussians received Polish passports, Moldovans Romanian, Ukrainians Hungarian. As too often, Brussels looked in the other direction, pretending it was a bilateral issue when in fact it was enlarging European citizenry by millions. In the case of Belarus, the distribution was even celebrated as a way to help Belarussians to enter in contact with democracy away from the ‘last dictator of Europe’, president Lukashenko.
Today, there are few sympathies in EU for the regime of Viktor Orban, and Poroshenko can gamble on that. But Hungary is a member of the EU and Ukraine is not. Hence the delicate situation facing European circles in Brussels.
Even NATO is affected. Hungary calls on its EU and NATO allies to end their silence on the Hungarian human rights situation in Transcarpathia and to look closely on what is happening in Ukraine. In an interview with Narodnaya Armyia, the head of the mission of Ukraine to Nato Vadym Prystayko condemned Hungary’s decision to block Ukraine’s participation in the early October Nato summit amid the crisis over bilateral relations. He deplored that the ban prevented the Ukrainian defence minister from sharing valuable information and experience of the war in the Donbass. For him, the non-admission of Ukrainian defence minister to the Nato meeting is a manifestation of the destructive behaviour that Hungary allows itself, “practically taking the Alliance hostage”.
He was also questioned about the attention of NATO towards the electoral campaign and, obviously, seems convinced that it will be followed with attention. Even most supporters of Ukraine in NATO – and in EU- cannot swallow forever the simplistic explanation of all the wrong in Ukraine by the hand of Moscow. The true lesson is that president Poroshenko is ready to use anything to win next year’s presidential election, as his support is at a single digit. No big words can suffice to qualify the “geopolitical dimension” of possible events, including, for instance, the access of autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox church, which he described in July as a victorious for “cutting of all the tentacles of the aggressor country”. He also saluted the growing militarisation of the Black Sea, and now the Azov Sea, to prevent hostile Russian gestures.