Ukraine and discrimination against Hungarians: When will we see real progress?

With the NATO summit taking place today and tomorrow in Brussels, it’s a good time to review what’s going on today in Ukraine and the very clear reasons why Hungary is saying no to Ukraine’s further NATO integration. This has been going on for several months now, but unfortunately – apart from minor changes in policy and tone – we haven’t seen any meaningful progress.

As many know and as the record clearly shows, Hungary has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest advocates in its quest for Euro-Atlantic integration. We were among the first to grant visa-free travel to Ukrainians to the European Union. We helped more than 1,500 families by offering free holiday opportunities for children from war-torn regions. We gave our clear backing to EU sanctions on Russia (even if it was against our own economic interest) and provided hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid to those affected by the war in East Ukraine. These are just a couple of examples; but the list is extensive.

Hungary did this out of solidarity. The stability and security of Ukraine, our eastern neighbor, remains important to us, and, yes, the safety and security of the 150,000 ethnic Hungarians living in the Transcarpathia region of Ukraine is a major concern for us. We felt betrayed when we learned that Ukraine planned to push through legislation that directly discriminates against the Hungarian minority by limiting the community’s right to education in its mother tongue.

As I explained in a previous blog post, “Hungary and Ukraine: Here are 5 facts you should know,” with that legislation Ukraine clearly violates international agreements. The act, as I wrote, “violates Article 34 of the Copenhagen Agreement, Article 4.3 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National Minorities, and the No. 1201 proposal of the European Council, to which Ukraine undertook to adhere. Furthermore, the legislation 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.”

Back in May, when Ukraine finally caved to pressure and withdrew a different, also discriminatory, bill that would have stripped dual citizens of their Hungarian citizenship, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó said this must be only “the first step” if the country is serious about its Euro-Atlantic aspirations. That was in May. Now it’s July, and we are still waiting for those further steps.

Meanwhile, the Hungarian Government has sent a memorandum to the prime ministers of all NATO member states and the secretary general of the alliance, proposing to initiate a new NATO policy on Ukraine for the protection of ethnic Hungarians in Transcarpathia. Acknowledging that Ukraine has adopted legislation contrary to its previous international and bilateral commitments, Minister Szijjártó suggested that in order for Ukraine’s NATO integration process to continue, the Ukrainian government must ensure that minority groups belonging to NATO member states are exempted from the implementation of laws restricting the rights of national minorities. 

As a response, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze announced that they would finally pursue negotiations with leaders of the Hungarian minority about the openly discriminative education bill. Unfortunately, same story here: more than a month has passed and there’s still no follow up. Instead of progress, the ethnic Hungarians of Ukraine are accused of separatism. 

“Hungary’s ambition is to guarantee that around 150,000 Hungarians can live in security in the Transcarpathia region and exercise their rights,” FM Szijjártó said recently, adding that the Hungarian government will continue to block Ukraine’s NATO integration process until Hungary sees legal guarantees that the Ukrainian government will consult with its Hungarian minority and reach an agreement before implementing any changes to its education law.