Ukraine-Hungary: Beyond passports and languages

Ukraine-Hungary: Beyond passports and languages

Relations between Hungary and Ukraine are at a low point. Diplomats have been expelled from both countries following arguments of Ukraine’s language law and Hungary’s issuance of passports in Ukraine. The dispute has implications that go far beyond the two countries’ bilateral relations.

Ongoing disagreements on Ukraine’s language law

Hungary has opposed recent changes Ukraine’s language law that make Ukrainian the only official language for secondary education. The Hungarian government says that this impinges on the right of Ukraine’s Hungarian minority to access education in their mother tongue. Hungary’s negative view of the law was supported last year by an opinion issued by the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional law. The commission noted that the law fell short of the rights usually granted to minorities in Europe.

The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, expressed great displeasure when a video was released showing a Hungarian consul granting Hungarian citizenship to members of the Hungarian minority in Berehove, a town in the Zakarpattia district, which borders Hungary. In the video the consul specifically tells the participants not to reveal the procedure to the Ukrainian authorities. Ukraine expelled the consul responsible and Hungary quickly followed suit, expelling the Ukrainian consul in Budapest. Ukraine’s Security Service has reported that they are investigating whether the incident classes as high treason.

The real objective of the language law

Ukraine’s proposed language law is not primarily aimed at the Hungarians in Ukraine, but Russians. Russian is still the native language of almost 30% of the population. This is also the section of the population most likely to want close political ties to Russia, and many of them consume Russian media. The proposed language law is an attempt to bolster the position of the Ukrainian language across the whole of the country, including the Russian-speaking east. The government has argued that the law is needed to ensure that Ukrainian citizens of all nationalities have sufficient knowledge of the Ukrainian language to gain employment. The anti-Russian bent of the law was commented on by the Venice Commission, citing the provision for some subjects to be taught in official EU languages, which includes Hungarian, but excludes Russian. The rights of the Hungarian minority have been swept up in a process that is aimed at Russian speakers.

The issuance of Hungarian passports may be connected to the language law, but it also reflects one of Hungary’s long-term foreign policies. Hungary has been facilitating and encouraging Hungarian minorities in neighbouring countries to acquire Hungarian citizenship for years. Slovakia banned dual citizenship in response to an increase in Hungarian passport holders amongst its large Hungarian minority. The passports can help to cement a feeling of national belonging and preserve the language and traditions of the Hungarian minorities. It also increases the Hungarian electorate, and many Hungarians abroad vote for the ruling Fidesz party, which granted them citizenship. In the 2018 elections, over 90% of the Hungarian minority voters supported Fidesz. So Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has a strong incentive to further expand this voting bloc.

Consequences of the language policy

First and foremost, the row between Ukraine and Hungary has damaged bilateral relations between the two countries. The expulsion of diplomats demonstrated how serious the argument has become, and rapprochement will be difficult after such extreme moves have been taken.

The dispute also has broader geopolitical implications. Most notably, Hungary has started to block Ukraine’s moves towards NATO, mainly through vetoing the holding of meetings between NATO and the Ukrainian authorities. Hungary’s Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó has threatened to do the same regarding EU membership. The reason given for these vetoes is the language law. The current Ukrainian government is keen to gain membership as a guard against Russian aggression and influence. Many of the largest NATO members are also in favour of close ties to Ukraine, and have tried to pressure Hungary over its use of a veto. This split in the NATO alliance will continue to hamper its expansion until Hungary changes its position.

It is possible that the language law is a pretext to influence wider political events. Orbán has close ties to Putin and has been a consistent opponent of the EU’s economic sanctions on Russia. He has been accused in recent years of being a Russian stooge, in this case utilising the language law to achieve a key Russian foreign policy objective: preventing Ukraine’s integration into the EU and NATO.

Regardless of whether the dispute is primarily motivated by local or international considerations, there is no sign that it will be resolved soon. The Ukrainian government’s desire to assert a Ukrainian identity across its whole territory, especially Russian-speaking areas, makes it difficult to find a compromise on the language law. The Hungarian government, on the other hand, has little incentive to stop its practice of issuing passports to Hungarian minorities abroad. Given that the dispute is being influenced by ongoing, long-term international developments, it could run for years to come.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Luke Bacigalupo

Luke Bacigalupo is a political analyst currently based in Belgrade, Serbia. He holds degrees in South Eastern European Studies and Modern History from the University of Belgrade and the University of Oxford, respectively. He has previously worked as a political reporter at the Office of the EU Special Representative in Kosovo and at UNDP in Serbia.