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Mar 31, 2018 - Zoltán Kovács

No apologies for standing up for the rights of Hungarians in Ukraine

Hungary, this critic claims, is “helping Russia’s geopolitical aims”. How? Because the Orbán Government – wait for it – is standing up for the rights of ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine.

A slanted article published recently in Emerging Europe wonders at “How Hungary Became a Tool of Kremlin Foreign Policy.” The author, director of a think tank that blossomed under the previous Social-Liberal governments, claims Hungary is “helping Russia’s geopolitical aims”. How? Because the Orbán Government – wait for it – is standing up for the rights of ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine.

The Orbán Governments have made it clear from day one that issues related to ethnic Hungarians living outside of Hungary would have high priority. That’s in our national interest and that’s what’s at stake here. As is often the case with articles like this one, the real story is in what they leave out, so let’s recap the basic facts missing from this so-called analysis.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has said many time that it’s in Hungary’s interest to have stability in Ukraine. In recent years, when the country struggled to re-stabilize, Hungary stood as one of Ukraine’s staunchest advocates in the EU and NATO, sometimes raising eyebrows among other members.

We did what we could. We were among the first supporters of granting Ukrainians visa-free travel to the European Union. Over the last two years, Hungary received more than 1,500 Ukrainian children (whose families have been affected by the war in Eastern Ukraine) to spend holidays at Lake Balaton and Lake Velence. Though, as we said, it contradicts our own economic interest, the Hungarian government always voted for the EU’s sanctions on Russia. Hungary sent more than 200 tons of aid, medicine and equipment to Ukraine’s war-torn regions. The list goes on.

Today, we feel betrayed.

Last year, the parliament of Ukraine, a country comprising many national groups, accepted an education law that would limit the rights of minority children for education in their native language. Countries surrounding Ukraine, members of the European Union, friends of the country and advocates of its fast track into the European Union stood puzzled.

“It is natural for us that we should also extend a helping hand to Ukrainian families, as far as we are able to,” said Prime Minister Orbán responding to the move from Kiev. “This is why we are so distressed by the decision of Ukrainian politicians to deprive Hungarian children of education in their mother tongue in the later years of elementary school.”

“The questions we ask,” the prime minister continued, “What did these Hungarian children do to deserve this? What did their parents do to deserve this?”

Governments of the mother countries of ethnic minorities in Ukraine protested together the shameful legislation. Thirty-seven members of the European Parliament, representing Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland and Slovakia sent an open letter to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asking him not to sign the law. He signed it anyway.

In another joint letter, the foreign ministers of Romania, Greece, Bulgaria and Hungary voiced their concerns to their Ukrainian counterpart, the Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland, and OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities Lamberto Zannier.

Specifically, as we pointed out, Ukraine’s new Education Act goes against Article 8 of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and Article 13 and 14 of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

Our governments were not alone. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) also agreed with the criticism of Ukraine’s education act.

The author of the article, Péter Krekó, takes issue with the way we have been so outspoken in our condemnation of the law – a law that clearly violates specific European charters – with the assertive way in which we have made it clear that we would block Ukraine’s western integration unless it is changed. Other countries like Romania and Poland “are only interested in solving the problem bilaterally,” and that, he claims, shows that Hungary serves as a tool for the Kremlin in these criticisms.

Never mind that others were just as vocal in their criticism. The above, by the way, is an admission that the law is a problem, but more importantly, does Krekó suggest that PACE as well as the MEPs of Bulgaria, Poland and Slovakia have also “become a tool for Kremlin foreign policy”?

This has become a favorite, and now tired, trope of the author: the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán does Moscow’s bidding in the European Union. It’s a glittery, sensational argument, popular with certain editors in Brussels and Washington, certainly. But it’s the stuff of a political pamphlet and, for anyone bothered with facts, just doesn’t hold water.

Here’s the bottom line:

The education law is a problem. Prior to this backwards law, Hungary stood as one of Ukraine’s biggest advocates in the EU and NATO. But the well-being of ethnic Hungarians living outside of Hungary will always be a priority for us. For all that we have done – from extending the possibility of citizenship and voting rights to ethnic Hungarians abroad to calling out Ukraine for an education law that treads on ethnic minority rights – we will not apologize. Get used to it.

And should the government of Ukraine do the right thing on this law and return to policies that respect the rights of minorities in Ukraine, then Hungary will again become one of Ukraine’s advocates in the EU and NATO. A stable Ukraine, as the prime minister has said, is in Hungary’s interest.