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Kyiv and Budapest approaching a dangerous crossroad

Author : Jamestown Foundation

On September 26, Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin stated that if Hungary refuses to revoke its consul from Berehove (Zakarpattia Oblast), Ukraine would expel the diplomat unilaterally
18:46, 8 October 2018

Jamestown Foundation

An intense dispute between Hungary and Ukraine sparked by the notorious “language question” and fate of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine (see EDM, July 17) has now received powerful new impetus, threatening to seriously degrade diplomatic relations between the two countries (Eurointegration.com.ua, July 2). The current bilateral crisis goes beyond Budapest and Kyiv, however. It vividly highlights the problems faced by the European Union both internally and in relations with its immediate neighbors.

On September 26, Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin stated that if Hungary refuses to revoke its consul from Berehove (Zakarpattia Oblast), Ukraine would expel the diplomat unilaterally (Hromadske.ua, September 26). Earlier, Klimkin defined Zakarpattia “as a region of high explosive potential in terms of hybrid risks,” suggesting that some external actors might be willing to exploit this situation to their advantage. Namely, he stated, “we are perfectly aware of how Russia is working with Romanian and Bulgarian minorities. Russia is capable of and will continue using hybrid methods” (Eurointegration.com.ua, September 21). Klimkin’s series of remarks were motivated by an international scandal that had erupted between Hungary and Ukraine several days prior.

In the western Ukrainian town of Berehove, a recognized cultural center of ethnic Hungarians residing in Ukraine, a series of videos came to light, on September 17, showing locals receiving Hungarian passports (at the local Hungarian consulate), with strict instructions “not to inform Ukrainian authorities” (Pravda.com.ua, September 19). It must be pointed out that the Ukrainian constitution does not allow dual citizenship. When asked about this, the Hungarian embassy in Kyiv reluctantly and rather dismissively claimed not to have any pertinent information on the matter.

The scandal further escalated on September 23, when the names of five Transcarpathian Ukrainian officials, including the deputy mayor of Chop (a town located near the borders of Slovakia and Hungary), appeared on a list of “enemies of Ukraine” managed by the non-governmental organization Myrotvorets (“Peacemaker”) Center. The five individuals’ identities were revealed for allegedly concealing the fact that they possessed Hungarian passports (Pravda.com.ua, September 23). The details of this affair, coupled with Kyiv’s threats to deport Hungarian consular authorities, greatly infuriated Budapest. In his comments, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó threatened to undertake “even more efforts to slow down Ukrainian integration with the EU,” stating that “Hungary will stand for the rights of each and every member of the Hungarian community in the entire Zakarpattia Oblast.” He also added that “even though Hungary seeks to maintain good relations with Ukraine […] Budapest will not tolerate growing anti-Hungarian sentiments in Ukraine” as a part of President Petro Poroshenko’s presidential campaign. Finally, Szijjártó warned that should Ukrainian authorities decide to deport Hungarian consular officials, “Kyiv should expect symmetric steps taken by Budapest” (Radiosvoboda.org, September 23). On October 4, the Ukrainian foreign ministry declared the Hungarian consul in Berehove persona non grata, and Budapest declared it would soon be expelling a Ukrainian consul in response (UNIAN, October 4).

On the surface, the current crisis might appear to be an example of yet another dispute between Kyiv and Budapest—two proximate countries, whose border territories are closely bound by virtue of history and cultural ties. Nonetheless, a closer look at the issue reveals the problem to be much more serious and far reaching. Several reputable Ukrainian sources have estimated the total number of Ukrainians currently holding Hungarian passports (only in Zakarpattia Oblast, with a total population close to 1.3 million) to be no fewer than 100,000 people (Radiosvoboda.org, September 21). This number is the result of systematic measures undertaken by the government in Budapest to, since 2010, issue Hungarian passports to Ukrainians en mass. This policy has been rigorously supported Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who benefits from the high electoral support from expatriate communities beyond Hungary’s borders (Eurointegration.com.ua, September 20).

According to Ukraine’s representative to the EU, Nikolay Tochitskii, these Hungarian policies are based on two main pillars that, he asserted, “have absolutely nothing in common with the alleged oppression of ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine”: First, the Hungarian government seeks to demonstrate to the domestic public that Budapest “is striving to protect the rights of ethnic Hungarians abroad,” which serves an internal political purpose. Second, it aims to “shift the focus from their [Hungary’s] internal problems within the EU to the state of bilateral relations with Kyiv,” thereby escaping potential sanctions for “violating the main principles and values of the EU” (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, September 26).

Meanwhile, the Hungarian argument hinges on three interrelated points (Eurointegration.com.ua, March 29, 2017). First, dual citizenship is widespread across the European Union (although, regulations across the EU vary); and since Ukraine is aspiring to become a part thereof, it has to accept this reality. Second, Budapest argues, Ukraine needs to explicitly clarify all legal instances when its citizens can and cannot hold dual citizenship. Finally, the government in Budapest contends, given the fact that ethnic Hungarians (holders of both passports) use their Hungarian documents only outside Ukraine, they are not violating any legal code of the country.

Needless to say, Russia has viewed the ongoing confrontation between Hungary and Ukraine with noticeable glee. In his comments to the propagandist disinformation outlet Sputnik, political commentator Ivan Mesukho claimed that relations between these two neighbors will continue to plummet until “Kyiv learns its place that Hungary has indicated… Bereft of its sovereignty, Ukraine is unable to put up any sort of confrontation with Hungary… Europe will always side with Hungary,” Mesukho concluded (RIA Novosti, September 24, 2018).

Strained relations with Ukraine are by no means the only example of controversial actions Hungary has been undertaking in recent months that could also benefit the Kremlin. In addition to accusing the EU of “hypocritical behavior” in early September (Pravda.com.ua, September 5), the Hungarian government has been arguing against automatically prolonging Europe’s anti-Russian sanctions, claiming that “their effectiveness should be discussed first” (Eurointegration.com.ua, September 22).

The conflict between Kyiv and Budapest is shaped (and politicized) by issues related to ethnicity. But importantly, it is not purely localized, given the potential for “hybrid”-style efforts by outside actors (most notably Moscow) to exploit this situation. As such, it represents a much more complicated challenge for both Europe and the two countries involved than a more conventional military/security dispute.

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