Helping Ukraine remain on the path toward Europe

In his blog post entitled, “Hungarian Leader Should Stop Meddling in Ukrainian Politics,” a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, Mike Gonzalez, misunderstands why Hungary has become an outspoken critic of the new Ukrainian education law that limits minority rights

He’s correct in saying that Hungary is concerned about the ethnic Hungarians in the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine. That’s what motivated our criticism of the new Ukrainian law that abolishes the rights of minority children to conduct their studies in their mother tongue. Hungary, by the way, is not alone in criticizing the new law – lawmakers and ministers from Bulgaria, Greece, Poland, Romania and Slovakia have also spoken out.

But Gonzalez is gravely mistaken when he pins our criticism to chauvinism or irrendentism. I would be remiss if I didn’t push back, so here are a few essential facts to consider.

Hungary has been an outspoken proponent in promoting Ukraine’s path to membership in the European Union and its western integration

Ukraine’s Accession Agreement to the European Union took three years, from 2014 to 2017, to win the co-signature of all members of the EU. Hungary was among the first to ratify the agreement, despite the fact that we had parliamentary elections in 2014 and that obviously delayed the work of the National Assembly. In the 2014 elections, PM Orbán’s party, Fidesz, won a supermajority, so its support was essential.

Prime Minister Orbán, as early as in 2015, also demanded that Ukrainian citizens be granted visa-free travel to the European Union. He received President Poroshenko and stated clearly on several occasions that Hungary’s interest desires a strong and stable Ukraine between Hungary and Russia. Hungary provided humanitarian and financial aid to Ukraine during and following the war and received Ukrainian children to spend summer holidays in Hungary sponsored by the state.

The new law puts Ukraine at odds with the standards of the European Union and its path toward the West

Ethnic minority rights figure prominently in the Accession Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union. 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. The new Ukrainian education law, would abolish the rights of ten year-old children to study in their mother tongue, endangering the operation of hundreds of schools (71 of those are for Hungarian children).

“What did these Hungarian children do to deserve this? What did their parents do to deserve this?” asked Prime Minister Orbán responding to news of the acceptance of the new education law . The troubled history of Europe has created borders that leave ethnic groups living as minorities in other countries. Taking away their ethnic minority rights has become a red flag, assuming we have all learned our lessons from 20th century history. This is especially important in multi-ethnic countries, like Ukraine. And it’s simply not the way we do things in the European Union.

Hungary is not alone

Hungary is not the only country ringing the alarm bell. Thirty-seven members of the European Parliament from Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia signed an open letter to President Poroshenko, calling on him not to sign the discriminatory law. The foreign ministers of Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary and Romania sent a joint letter to their Ukrainian counterpart and the relevant international bodies expressing “concern” and “deep regret” over the new law.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe says the Ukrainian education law “fails to strike a balance” between their official language and those of minorities and “entails a heavy reduction in the rights previously recognized to ‘national minorities’ concerning their own language of education.”

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) High Commissioner on National Minorities, shares the same concerns.

Clearly, we’re not the only ones who say there’s something seriously wrong with the Ukrainian Education Act.

Turning a blind eye to ethnic minority rights violations is not the way to stabilize Ukraine

The 20th century history of Europe also shows that aggressive nationalization never leads to a stable country in the long run. If Ukraine chooses to disregard these issues, it turns its back not just on Europe, but it also – as Mr. Gonzalez rightly points out – gives ammunition to those international players that are interested in seeing a de-stabilized Ukraine. Minority rights is not only an internal Ukrainian affair; it has the most significant international connotations.

I believe the United States is interested in a stabilized Ukraine, and rest assured, Hungary is too. We would like to see ethnic Hungarians in Subcarpathia thriving in their local communities, enjoying the rights of education in their mother tongue because that would, among other benefits, diffuse ethnic tensions in the country.

Hungary – along with our EU allies in Bulgaria, Greece, Poland, Romania and Slovakia – will not ignore this important issue. That’s why we have called for a review of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. We should all encourage Ukraine to remain on the path toward Europe.