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Singing Off-Key? Kyiv, Budapest Clash Over Rights Of Ethnic Hungarians In Ukraine

Siurte is just 11 kilometers from the Hungarian border.
Siurte is just 11 kilometers from the Hungarian border.

The inaugural council session in a sleepy village on the western fringes of Ukraine was winding down in late November when members broke out in song, including the national anthem of Hungary.

Such an act might normally escape attention outside of Transcarpathia, home to much of Ukraine's ethnic Hungarian community. But given the tinderbox that are relations between Kyiv and Budapest, it has added to an ongoing diplomatic spat stemming from alleged Hungarian interference in the region.

After the event in Siurte was caught on camera and circulated on social media, Kyiv ordered the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) to investigate the incident. Budapest, meanwhile, has accused Ukrainian media of whipping up a scandal, noting that the incriminating video did not include footage of the council members first singing the Ukrainian national anthem.

Claims Of 'Intimidation,' 'Disrespect,' As Ukraine And Hungary Clash Over Ethnic Minority
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The incident came weeks after Ukraine accused Hungary of meddling in local elections and ahead of an SBU raid on the offices of ethnic Hungarians in Transcarpathia on suspicions of "activities aimed at violating the state sovereignty of Ukraine," triggering a sharp rebuke from Budapest. In October, Ukraine barred entry to two Hungarian government officials over what it called meddling in local elections, an accusation Hungary denied.

Hungarians are the largest ethnic minority in Transcarpathia -- a region that was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Hungary and Ukraine have for years sparred over what Budapest says are curbs on the rights of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine. Tensions spiked in 2017 when Ukraine passed a law limiting the use of minority languages in state-run public schools. Budapest has angered Kyiv by handing out passports to ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine, plus repeatedly hinting it would block Ukraine's possible membership of NATO.

The members of the council -- officially the Siurte United Territorial Community -- had convened to be inaugurated on November 21, a poignant date in Ukraine. Celebrated as the Day of Dignity and Freedom, it marks the start of Ukraine's Euromaidan protests in 2013 that led to the February 2014 ouster of Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych.

The video was uploaded on November 30 on the Facebook page of a group called Transcarpathia TOP, which is not connected to any personal account.

Overblown, Or Not Soon Enough?

The chairman of the local Siurte council, Arpad Pushkar, suggested in comments to Ukrainian media that local election commission officials could have leaked the video, which he said distorted what actually occurred that day.

"At first we were singing the anthem of Ukraine.... After that, the deputies began to sing our prayer -- the Hungarian anthem," Pushkar said.

That take of events was shared by the Hungarian Embassy in Kyiv in a December 2 Facebook post in which it noted that the national prayer was hundreds of years old and later became part of Hungary's national anthem. The embassy also argued that Ukrainian law enshrines the right of minorities to use national symbols.

Iryna Vereshchuk, a lawmaker of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's Servant of the People party, posed the question of what the reaction would have been in Hungary if something similar happened there. "How would they react if the Ukrainian anthem were performed at a council meeting in their country? [To] an act of disrespect, an unfriendly act?" she told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on December 2.

Iryna Vereshchuk (file photo)
Iryna Vereshchuk (file photo)

Nestor Shufrych, a member of the pro-Russian Opposition Platform -- For Life faction, said the SBU's actions, especially recent raids on an ethnic Hungarian office, will needlessly further complicate relations between Kyiv and Budapest. "I assume that efforts to find compromises [with Hungary] will be much more difficult now," Shufrych, told RFE/RL.

Solomia Bobrovska, a member of the anti-corruption party Holos, said the authorities -- and the SBU in particular -- had acted properly. "Moreover, I think such action should have been taken sooner," Bobrovska told RFE/RL, alleging Hungarian interference in the local election campaign in October. "Hungarian officials openly campaigned and in fact violated Ukrainian law by interfering in Ukraine's internal affairs."

War Of Words

Ukraine has accused Hungary of interfering in those October local elections, with the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry alleging Hungarian officials had called on Ukrainians living in the region bordering Hungary to vote for the Party of Hungarians, actions that violated Ukrainian law.

"The ministry at once called on the Hungarian side to respect the law of Ukraine and not take steps that indicate direct interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine and do not correspond to the good-neighborly character of Ukrainian-Hungarian relations," the ministry said in a statement handed to the Hungarian ambassador on October 26.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also announced on October 26 that Ukraine had banned entry to two Hungarian officials because of the incident.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto hold a joint press conference after their meeting in Budapest in May.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto hold a joint press conference after their meeting in Budapest in May.

Tensions escalated a month later, on November 30, when Hungary summoned the Ukrainian ambassador after the SBU raided the offices of ethnic Hungarians.

The Hungarian Cultural Association in Transcarpathia said in a statement that SBU officers had raided its headquarters and the home of its chairman, Laszlo Brenzovics, searching for evidence of "activities aimed at violently changing the borders." The association called on Ukrainian authorities to end what it called a "witch-hunt."

The SBU confirmed the raid and others in a statement on its website. It said it conducted searches at local charitable foundations in the Zakarpattya region, checking "information about the involvement of the foreign funds in activities aimed at violating the state sovereignty of Ukraine."

Without mentioning names, the SBU said it had seized computers and other unspecified items, and the investigation would continue.

In a video posted on his Facebook page on November 30, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said that Hungary had formally protested the raids. He also called it "unacceptable" that a country that wants to be part of the transatlantic community "continuously intimidates and puts pressure on a minority belonging to a NATO member."

Language Law

The tug-of-war between Budapest and Kyiv has been going on since at least 2017, when Ukraine introduced new legislation that would make Ukrainian mandatory in state-funded public schools.

Minority languages and education is a divisive issue in Ukraine.
Minority languages and education is a divisive issue in Ukraine.

Language has long been a hot-button issue across Ukraine, but especially in the country's majority-Russian-speaking eastern regions. Russian-backed separatists gained de facto control over areas of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions following the country's 2014 Euromaidan revolution, and violence still flares up there between the separatists and Ukrainian forces.

The language law was widely interpreted as aimed at limiting the use of the Russian language in education across the country, but unintentionally also curtailed the rights of ethnic Hungarians living in the country.

That move was seized on by Hungarian nationalists, including Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has retaliated by threatening to block Ukraine's progress in NATO and the EU.

His government has dished out generous aid to the ethnic Hungarian community in western Ukraine and granted them passports, despite Kyiv's ban on dual citizenship.

In a 2018 video that went viral, the Hungarian consul gave a champagne toast to a group of new Hungarian passport holders, saying, "Don't tell the Ukrainian authorities."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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