Ukrainian-Hungarian War on Language

22.11.2018 | By Eugeniusz Chimiczuk

Ukrainian media revealed a recording on which Hungarian consul hands over passports to representatives of the Hungarian minority living in Ukraine, warning them at the same time to hide the passports from authorities. Advice has reasonable grounds, as Ukrainian law prohibits to poses more than one citizenship. As an aftermath, the Ukrainian government proclaimed the diplomat persona non-grata and declared the Hungarian policy as striking into Ukrainian sovereignty. In response, Budapest stated that the Ukrainian educational reform hits Hungarian minorities’, and blocked Kyiv’s’ contacts with NATO. The conflict has its’ roots at the beginning of the 1990s, the moment when the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine gained its’ independence.

Everything started in Trianon

Hungarian minorities are a challenge for most neighbouring countries, except Austria. As a consequence of the Treaty of Trianon (1920), a large part of ethnic Hungarians found themselves outside the newly created Hungarian state. Since 1920, Hungary made numerous attempts to revise unsatisfying decisions of the Entente, which causes neighbours to persistently watch with distrust all political actions tied to Hungarian minorities on their territory. An unfortunate Soviet decision to include part of pre-war Hungary, Carpathian Ruthenia, into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic is crucial for current Ukrainian-Hungarian relations.

After geopolitical changes of 1989, numerous American analysts saw Hungarian minorities issue as potentially destabilising the region, analogously to what happened in the Balkans. Finally, the worst-case scenario did not materialise. However, already in 1990s Budapest started to support the Hungarian minority outside the homeland in a multitude of ways. The increasing economic and political power of the Hungarian state led to a proportional increase in cultural, educational, political, and later financial support for the minorities. Neighbouring countries, economically and politically unstable Romania and Ukraine, haven’t paid proper attention to the silently executed policy of Budapest. Later, Hungarian ethnic policy started to be a root of distrust between the neighbours or even led to diplomatic conflicts.

The Ukrainian-Hungarian Language Struggle

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, young Ukrainian state had much more critical issues than 150-thousand Hungarian minority living to the west of Carpathian Mountains. It doesn’t mean, however, that culture and language were not a social issue. Especially language was considered crucial. Ukrainians were subject of the forceful Russification throughout centuries.

As a consequence, the majority of urban population speaks either Russian or surzhyk (a mixture of Ukrainian grammar and Russian vocabulary). In the meantime, the government in Kyiv was much more concerned with nuclear weapons than linguistic policy. Language Act of 2012, passed by the Party of Regions, allowed to set the language of teaching in local schools and kindergartens, legalising linguistic ‘decentralisation’, a policy de-facto present for years. As a result, the Hungarian and Romanian minorities started to loose ties with the rest of society. Therefore, minorities searched for affiliation with countries of their origin.

Ukrainian government turned its’ interest towards the issue back in 2014, when the linguistic minority became a pretext for the annexation of the Crimea. The central government had realised that culturally and linguistically united minorities can bring destabilisation. Media started to alarm about a potential issue with the Hungarian minority in the Carpatho-Ukrainian region, which slowly began to disintegrate from Ukrainian society. It appeared that the Hungarian state conducted long-run cultural, educational and social policies without formal consultation with Kyiv. Those policies were effective. Ukrainian journalists found regions in the Carpathian Ruthenia where locals don’t speak or even understand the Ukrainian language even on the elementary level. All of this was revealed during the Ukrainian-Hungarian diplomatic dispute over Ukrainian education reform, which required teaching of the Ukrainian language. This indirectly insulted interests of the Hungarian minority, which in the meantime managed to build a de-facto cultural and linguistic autonomy.

The scandal reached its’ pinnacle due to public disclosure of the fact, which was widely rumoured before – most of Hungarians in Ukraine possess Hungarian passports.

Kjellen’s’ Trap?

Swedish geopolitician Rudolf Kjellen claimed, that state roots in its’ territory and people, which form the living space of the state (later received its’ ill-famous context, translated into German as lebensraum). Kjellen claims that any state will not resign from its’ former territories. Moreover, the state does not leave its’ ethnic people without support on the lost territory. ‘The Phantom Pain’, coming from the territory and people lost, motivates the state to regain lost influence.

The essence of the Kjellen’s’ Trap is that borders never correlate ideally with all ethnic borders. What means, that sooner or later there will be either interstate conflict or violence against the minority by ruling majority. It is difficult to say if we can expect the return of the Kjellen’s’ Trap in Eastern Europe, but we cannot fully eliminate such probability. Especially, if today’s geopolitical order will decay, activating barely visible but present ethnic conflicts. In the case of Hungary and Ukraine, we may also expect Russian attempts to play on the conflict. In combination with the rigid position of Kyiv and Budapest, the future seems to be vague.

Translation from Polish: Eugeniusz Chimiczuk


This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.