Hungarian language blackmail: Will Budapest bury European future of Ukraine?

Author : Yuriy Panchenko Serhiy Sydorenko

Source :

The reason for the unprecedented aggravation of relations between Kyiv and Budapest was the adoption (and now also the signing by the president) of the law "On Education."
22:47, 27 September 2017

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112 Agency

On his birthday Petro Poroshenko received a "gift" from Hungary.

"Ukraine can forget about integration into Europe," "Hungary will block any initiatives that are beneficial to Ukraine, in international organizations, especially in the EU" – these are obviously not the phrases that the president as well as the official Kyiv as a whole would like to hear.

But it happened.

Ukraine has entered into a tough confrontation with several countries of the European Union. It's not just about the Hungarians - last week the Romanian president canceled a visit to Ukraine and did not let the Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada go to Bucharest, stressing that there is no need to talk about friendly relations before the "educational problem".

But Hungary's actions were the most acute. The government's intention to block any European integration steps of Ukraine is a problem which importance cannot be overestimated.

At the same time, such a statement is not a reason to be frightened. It is worthwhile to understand how Kyiv should act, what mistakes we made and whether concessions are possible in our dispute with our neighbors.

"Maybe we’ll resolve it"

The reason for the unprecedented aggravation of relations between Kyiv and Budapest was the adoption (and now also the signing by the president) of the law "On Education." The law is huge, complex. And criticism from the neighboring states sounds only to one of its articles: the language.

Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Poland (the latter, to a lesser extent) stated that the Ukrainian law narrows the rights of ethnic minorities; they were joined by two non-EU countries: Moldova and Russia.

In recent weeks, many experts have written about the "conflict" article of the law, and the shortcomings in the statements of Europeans. But now the conflict has moved to a fundamentally new level.

It is worth acknowledging: this problem did not arise yesterday, it was still in Kuchma's time.

You cannot call normal the situation in some areas of Transcarpathia and Bukovyna, where graduates of Romanian and Hungarian speaking schools sometimes do not speak Ukrainian at all, that is, the state language!

But for the authorities it was easier not to quarrel with Hungary and leave it as it is. "Maybe it will be resolved in the future." Although in fact every year the gulf deepened.

The language enclave that existed in Transcarpathia, took the future from local youth.

The current situation made it impossible to fully integrate many Ukrainian Hungarians into Ukrainian society outside their region.

However, this situation suited Hungary completely. And this is the key problem.

This situation was complicated by the approach of parliamentary elections in our neighbor countries.

Myths and lies

"Hungary, being in the European Union, will block and prohibit any steps that could mean further progress in the process of European integration of Ukraine in the spirit of the Eastern Partnership program," says the official materials published on Tuesday by the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In another report on Tuesday, the Hungarian government claims that Ukraine has violated "many international conventions" (although it does not specify which ones).

The fault of Ukraine for the Hungarian authorities is an axiom, it does not require proof.

But the documents testify: the Hungarian authorities are guided either by myths, or deliberately spread lies.

A week ago, the Hungarian Parliament adopted a resolution in response to the adoption of the language law by their Ukrainian counterparts.

Incredible situation for European parliamentarism: the document was supported unanimously. None of those present voted against, no one abstained or "forgot" to click on the button.

But the claims to the Ukrainian deputies, approved by their Hungarian counterparts, were far from reality.

The decision of the Hungarian parliament states that the law on education requires "closing" of all schools, universities and vocational schools with Hungarian language of instruction. Although this is certainly a mistake, we are not talking about the closure of educational institutions in the law.

The Hungarian parliament is sure that the educational process in minority languages becomes impossible, although the law on education refers to the possibility of teaching several subjects in EU languages (including Hungarian and Romanian).

According to the journalists, the Hungarians thought that Ukraine is ready to hear their wishes, even if it is a question of the fact that in Hungarian schools most or half of the subjects will be taught in Hungarian.

But there was no readiness for dialogue. There was a readiness for conflict.

Someone is inclined to explain this by the pre-election period. In spring, parliamentary elections will be held in Hungary. Prime Minister Viktor Orban put before his party such a goal: to preserve the constitutional majority. And this is not an easy task.

One of the strategies of the pro-government Hungarian Fidesz party is the creation of enemies. Therefore, Ukrainian history came in handy.

Someone says that the issue is not only in the pre-election period. The issue of foreign (and not only Transcarpathian!) Hungarians is very sensitive, and the Hungarian authorities do not even want to talk about possible changes in the status quo. Even if these changes are for the better for the Hungarians themselves. That is why all the explanations, all proposals from Kyiv are simply ignored.

In one way or another, all the interlocutors agree: "The Budapest now is full of hysteria without any facts."

What should Ukraine do?

First, we must answer how we should not act. According to the authors - and this opinion is shared by all the diplomats with whom we communicated - we should not sacrifice the national interests of Ukraine in response to blackmail of neighbors. Forgive our non-diplomatic terms, but what happens is difficult to call otherwise - it's just about blackmail.

"The language norm" appeared in the law on education not in order to quarrel with the Hungarians, it has other motives. It is quite possible to start even an internal Ukrainian discussion about the advisability of changing this law, but the decision should not be made in Budapest, Bucharest, Athens or Moscow.

Ukraine already has experience of how the neighboring state sought to determine our agenda. It must remain in the past.

Of course, Hungarian Ukrainians are our fellow citizens, and the final decision must be in their interests. We will talk about this, but for now let us return to the possible response of Ukraine to the Hungarian ultimatum.

In Kyiv, there are already suggestions to respond in the same way. "What Hungary is doing is blackmail, so in this case we will act in a mirror manner," head of the Ukrainian delegation to PACE Volodymyr Ariev said on Tuesday.

Ukraine does have opportunities for a "hard" answer, there are many options.

This is also the opposition in the bodies of the Council of Europe, which was mentioned by Ariev. Alternatively, Kyiv can also mention the facts of undemocratic actions of the Hungarian authorities and go with them to international institutions (as the Hungarian authorities promise to do).

In the end, we can recall the approach of the Hungarian elections and the fact that the ruling Hungarian party is counting on the voices of compatriots living in other countries, therefore Ukraine, theoretically, could play on this. For example, to prohibit agitation of foreign politicians in Ukraine – in the same way as Germany banned agitation on the eve of the Turkish referendum.

But will such a strategy be reasonable?

Should we fuel enmity? Is it worth excluding the fact that after the Hungarian elections the aggressive mood will settle down and there will be an opportunity for a calm dialogue?

In our opinion, burning bridges with a neighbor is definitely not the best strategy.

Related: Hungary's position on education law won't affect Council of Europe assessment

Of course, this does not mean that in the next six months, that is, before the elections, Kyiv should sit idly. Those who know how to "read between the lines" have already drawn attention to the fact that Budapest, despite all the bellicose rhetoric, leaves the path to reconciliation.

Last week, Kyiv and Budapest agreed on a meeting between the Minister of Education of Ukraine Liliya Grynevych and her colleague, the Minister of Human Resources of Hungary Zoltan Balog, during  which Ukraine should explain how Kyiv will ensure the rights of local Hungarians in the framework of the adopted educational law.

And on Tuesday, in a formidable statement by the Hungarian minister, appeared some information that Budapest was ready to follow these agreements and was waiting for negotiations with Ukraine.

And this is exactly the way that Ukraine should choose.

Of course, without forgoing our national interests. Of course, realizing that before the end of the elections, the Hungarian government is unlikely to admit its mistake and will not take steps back. Yes, the dialogue will not be easy. But destroying bridges is not in our interests.

The mistakes of Kyiv

In order not to make a false impression, we emphasize: the Ukrainian side in this situation made some mistakes too. The development of the conflict once again proved: when it comes to strategic steps, international communication and joint actions of several authorities, Kyiv seems to lose its mind and makes a mistake after the mistake.

It was hard not to understand that the "language norm" of the law on education would turn into a red rag for neighboring countries, but Kyiv managed to do it.

The nervous reaction of neighboring capitals immediately after the vote was a "surprise" for all involved agencies, especially for the Ministry of Education.

It took seven days (!!!) to arrange a meeting of Minister Grynevych with the ambassadors of the indignant states. And the work of the minister is not a sufficient justification, she has deputies or heads of departments. It was enough only to understand what major problems Ukraine would face if it simply remained silent.

An interesting detail: in Presidential Administration, too, this issue was not considered a priority.

Criticism in Facebook from one of the authors of these lines caused a genuine outrage in the Administration - a few people wrote in public and in private messages, they say, the Hungarians gave written explanations, what else do they lack?

And the visit of Liliya Grynevych to Budapest - it will take place only a month after adoption of the law.

On the situation this Tuesday. We recall, the conflict has long been in full swing. It is easy to assume that the signing of the law will cause a new outrage. Budapest, by the way, was waiting for Poroshenko's decision - as soon as morning came, simultaneous statements of the Hungarian ministers appeared. But Kyiv, as always, was not ready - the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was silent all day (although it was necessary to have a prepared text of the statement!).

Although there is a positive thing. It is important. Despite the slowness, Kyiv's actions proved to be correct and adequate to the situation.

In particular, the comment of the authorities was exactly what it was supposed to sound. Ukraine remains ready for dialogue; does not perceive threats, but at the same time - does not go to the conscious aggravation of the conflict.

Yes, we react slowly and do not know how to communicate with the world. But, fortunately, in this case there is a unified position of the Ukrainian government.

And the president, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Education, and the parliamentary majority agree that the truth is on our side. There is unity in the opinion that this blackmail should not work. And this is really important.

However, there is always a risk that in two years, closer to the Ukrainian elections, among Ukrainian political forces there will be those wishing to use the "Hungarian card" and again raise the language issue in order to attract the voices of Ukrainian Hungarians.

The role of Europe

After the Hungarian ultimatum, the conflict is no longer a matter of bilateral relations. Now we are talking about Ukraine's relations with the entire European Union.

We need a decision of the arbitrator, and its role will be played by the Council of Europe. Kyiv has already agreed to submit the educational law for examination to the Council of Europe.

Here in our favor is the mediocre reputation of Hungary itself as a country that is too often criticized for violating democratic standards (let us recall at least the joke of the president of the EC, Jean-Claude Juncker, who greeted Orban at the summit with the phrase "Hello, dictator!").

Moreover, in the language issue, the reputation of Budapest is especially problematic. The Hungarians have claims to all their neighbors - both to Romania and to Serbia. Moreover, in Serbia, Budapest openly plays political games - in the last elections the official Budapest, in exchange for the expansion of rights of the Hungarian minority, urged the local Hungarians to support the ruling party.

But all these arguments are not enough to win in Strasbourg.

Kyiv must prove Ukraine's readiness to really defend the rights of our compatriots of other nationalities.

We must explain that there is no closure of schools, and representatives of the Hungarian, Romanian and other minorities will have broader horizons and career opportunities if they know not only Hungarian or Romanian, but also Ukrainian.

It's really so! And the last comments of the Education Ministry, even if they sound somewhat belatedly, confirm that Kyiv is able to present these arguments.

And here it is worth emphasizing an important detail: when we finally get the conclusions of the Council of Europe, Kyiv must implement its recommendations and observations.

Related: Ukraine working to ensure that citizens of Hungarian origin feel comfortable, - Klimkin

Findings for the future

And finally - about long-term conclusions for Ukraine.

The Hungarian demarche is already the second bell for Ukraine, indicating the need to change relations with the EU countries. The first, we recall, was last year's decision of the Senate and the Sejm of Poland on the Volyn tragedy.

The desire to persuade Kyiv to make concessions, using the status of "Ukrainian advocate in the EU", significantly worsened relations between Kyiv and Warsaw.

An even deeper crisis in relations with Budapest shows: the new East European trend is the exchange of their support for our actions.

But do not wait for the rapid change of this trend.

After all, there is no reason to expect a change of power in the coming years, either in Hungary or in Poland. Moreover, strengthening of problems in relations with Slovakia and the Czech Republic, where the popularity of Eurosceptics is growing, is not ruled out.

Ukraine should take these trends into account. Simply put - to think about "changing advocates."

Now Lithuania and Sweden remain the most consistent friends of Ukraine. Denmark is increasingly helping us, and France, which used to create obstacles on the European way of Kyiv, is gradually changing its position.

But the European future of Ukraine primarily depends on the position of Germany.

The fundamental difference between their support (especially when it comes to Sweden, Germany and other Western European states) and the neighbors' habitual support for us is that for these countries the European ambitions of Ukraine are confirmed not by our geographical position and the general history, but primarily by real reforms.

That is why Kyiv will have to work hard to prove to Berlin and other capitals the realism of our European aspirations.

However, as the Hungarian demarche shows, we have no other easier ways.

Related: Ukrainian Education Minister announces meeting with Hungarian colleague

Related: Hungary to block any rapprochement of Ukraine with EU due to education law

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