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Oct 07, 2018 - Zoltán Kovács

Here’s the fundamental problem: Ukraine hasn’t done what it promised it would do

Hungary-Ukraine relations have seen better days and Ukraine’s recent decision to expel a Hungarian consul is merely the latest in an unfortunate downward trend. There is, however, one fundamental point that is often overlooked and ignored in the media crossfire.

Lately, I have come across a good number of opinion pieces arguing for and against Hungary’s policy towards Ukraine. While all avenues of foreign policy can and should be subject to objective dialogue, there is one fundamental, uncontestable fact often overlooked by commentators. 

That is, the current tensions began when Ukraine included in its “education reform” restrictions that seriously impinge upon the right to education in one’s mother tongue, draconian rules violating the rights of ethnic minorities, ignoring the objections of – among many others – the Polish and Hungarian governments and flaunting Ukraine’s own international commitments. Here are the details.

Hungary has many reasons to work for a positive, productive relationship with Ukraine, a neighbor on our eastern border with a population of 45 million people, including some 150,000 ethnic Hungarians. The security and well-being of ethnic Hungarians living outside the borders of Hungary have always been a priority for the governments of Prime Minister Orbán. Until last October, Hungary stood as one of the staunchest supporters of Ukraine’s NATO and EU integration project. But then something changed: Ukraine began to behave differently with its ethnic minorities.

Following the initial news about a new education bill that would strip ethnic minorities of their language rights in education – rights guaranteed by international conventions, charters and bilateral agreements – Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó voiced concern. We tried to be constructive, proposing alternatives that would not be unreasonable or impossible to meet. That is, calling on Ukraine to fully implement the recommendations of the Venice Commission to which, by the way, they had agreed during the EU-Ukraine summit last July. Here’s the relevant part of the agreement:

“6. ... With regard to the Ukrainian law on education, we agreed on the need to ensure the respect for rights already exercised of persons belonging to national minorities as enshrined in UN and Council of Europe Conventions and related protocols, non-discrimination of persons belonging to minorities and respect for diversity and to fully implement the recommendations included in the opinion of the Venice Commission no. 902/2017, on the basis of a substantive dialogue with the representatives of persons belonging to national minorities, including legislation which extends the transition period until 2023 and which regulates exemption for private schools.”

Sadly, we haven’t seen any action from Ukraine on this point, despite the fact that Hungary-Ukraine relations have reached a juncture where nice words and promises are no longer enough. There’s only one way back to normal relations, and it begins with Ukraine making good on its international commitments.