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Are Non-Russian Ethnic Minorities Facing Persecution In Ukraine?


Laszlo Brenzovics deputy president of the Hungarian Cultural Assiciation in Transcarpathia, points on a map during a meeting with the press at the Hungarian Institute in Berehove, Ukraine.

Laszlo Brenzovics deputy president of the Hungarian Cultural Assiciation in Transcarpathia, points on a map during a meeting with the press at the Hungarian Institute in Berehove, Ukraine.

Since Ukraine's new government in Kyiv took shape in late February, the Russian Foreign Ministry has consistently decried alleged persecution of ethnic Russians in the country.

But on March 28, the Foreign Ministry expanded its accusations to include persecution of ethnic Germans, Czechs, and Hungarians.

"Because of this, a significant increase in the number of people wishing to temporarily or permanently leave their historic homeland has been recorded," says a statement. "More and more people are seeking asylum from Ukraine in Russia."

As we reported here last week, there has been very little evidence of refugees -- ethnic Russian or otherwise -- attempting to enter Russia. The claims appear to be part of a coordinated effort to discredit the Ukrainian government in Kyiv.

Still, we decided to take a look at each of the new groups Moscow claims "seriously fears for their lives" and determine if there was any merit to the statement. We found that although there is evidence of lingering tension -- particularly among ethnic Hungarians in Transcarpathia -- there is little evidence to back up Moscow's dramatic accusations.

Let's address each group separately:

Germans

Germany's embassy in Kyiv rejected the claim, saying that ethnic Germans were well-integrated into Ukrainian society and were now playing an "effective part in the construction of the new Ukrainian state."

RFE/RL did not find any reports of ethnic Germans claiming persecution in Ukraine.

Czechs

Ukraine's Volyn region has a small community of ethnic Czechs and in mid-March a representative from the Czech Foreign Ministry said that about 45 families from the region had asked in a letter for help with repatriation.

A man claiming to represent the Volyn Czechs in the Czech Republic, Antonin Holc, told Czech media that there had recently been an increase in crime and insecurity in Volyn. He also claimed that three years ago he was indirectly threatened by nationalists on a visit to Ukraine.

But there have been no other reported claims of ethnic-rooted intimidation, and Johana Grohova, a spokeswoman for the Czech Foreign Ministry, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that she was unaware of any infringement of rights or persecution of ethnic Czechs in Ukraine. She said ethnic Czechs were likely experiencing the same concerns that other Ukrainians now face.

"Without a doubt, like most Ukrainian citizens, these people are concerned about the situation in and around the country, but we have no factual basis for discussion of persecution of ethnic Czechs in Ukraine," she said.

Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek on March 26 ascribed economic motivations to the requests for repatriation.

Several thousand Volyn Czechs repatriated after the Czechoslovak transition from communism in 1989. There are no longer official figures for their population in Ukraine, though Czech media say they number at least 20,000.

Hungarians

There are 162,000 ethnic Hungarians, largely located in the Transcarpathian region along Ukraine's western border with Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and Hungary.

Since Ukraine's independence there have been intermittent tensions between ethnic Ukrainians and Hungarians, who make up 12 percent of the Transcarpathian population and largely backed former President Viktor Yanukovych in the 2010 elections.

There were reports in late February and early March that the ethnic Hungarian community had faced intimidation by far-right groups, including the storming of the town hall of Berehove, a majority Hungarian community, by members of the ultranationalist Right Sector group.

The Hungarian Foreign Ministry released a statement shortly after Kyiv's new government took charge, condemning "intimidating action carried out by extremists." And in a meeting with a Transcarpathian community leader on March 26, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban called the safety of ethnic Hungarians his top priority in Ukraine. He did not publicly address charges of ethnic intimidation, however. The ministry did not reply to an RFE/RL request for comment.

While there is clearly tension, RFE/RL could not confirm any further reports of conflict between Ukrainian nationalists and ethnic Hungarians. And a correspondent for RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service in Transcarpathia said there had been no recent reports of specific incidents between ethnic Hungarians and Ukrainians.

-- Glenn Kates, with RFE/RL's Russian and Ukrainian services

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